Recently, I’ve Mostly Been Watching TV

It’s been a while, so I’m going to do a couple of quick posts that sum up some things I’ve seen – this is the first one and it’s about TV series.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency season 1

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The series is based on the novel of the same name by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. I’ve read the novel and its sequel some decades ago, but don’t remember much anything about them.

The plot of the series is delightfully Adamsian, that is, completely nonsensical. There is logic there and with great care one can pull together everything that is happening everywhere and figure out, if it forms a coherent whole. To quickly recap, it is about Dirk Gently getting involved in a time traveling, soul swapping romp, and being Dirk Gently, that is, completely nonsensical and utterly delightful, through all of it.

For the early part of the season, it is very much unclear, what is happening, but the weird humor and explosively surprising in gory violence keep things entertaining. Towards the end of the season the episodes tend to concentrate more on carefully pulling through the various twists of the plot. This and the occasional serious brooding leave less room for delightful humor, which in turn makes the series slightly tedious to watch at times.

Luckily the season is only 8 episodes, so the more free flowing early bits of the season weigh more heavily on the scale and the whole thing ends up being a positive experience. Haven’t seen the 2nd season yet, but I have a feeling it will not be as good, since with the now familiar characters, there’s less room for quirks and surprises and more need to get plot heavy things going early. Nevertheless, if the occasional bits of heavy gore don’t bother you and if you enjoy weird humor, this gets a recommendation.

  • Finished on: 15th Aug 2017
  • 3/5

The Expanse season 2

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This is another series based on novels of the same name, this time by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the shared pen name of James S. A. Corey. My thoughts on the previous season are found here.

At the end of season 1, I was pretty apprehensive that the protomolecule was going to take center stage for season 2. Unfortunately, that is the case. We spend half the season chasing after clues with the crew of the Rocinante and the other half in a stand of between Mars and Earth, while only a few key players understand, that the tensions have been staged by a rogue group that has been developing the protomolecule.

The series keeps the ruthless power hungry politics in the picture and the sci-fi setting keeps me interested in general, but the protomolecule is just boring, the rogue crew perpetrating the quickly heating political conflict is much less interesting than two groups clashing naturally over self interests, and this single ship crew being in on all the key events and surviving time after time is… well, most series still don’t kill their darlings regardless of what George R. R. Martin has been doing…

Altogether, the 2nd season is much weaker, but still very much a good experience.

  • Finished on: 3rd Oct 2017
  • 3.5/5

Orphan Black season 1

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An original series for a change. Orphan Black is a story about Sarah Manning and her fellow clones. They are the result of illegal cloning experiments and mostly unaware of each other, when the series starts. The plot involves Neolution / Dyad Institute, who are technology believers and intentionally push the boundaries with their experiments regardless of the law, and Proletheans, who are religious activists, who think badly of many recent technological innovations including the clones.

Sarah and all the other clones are played by Tatiana Maslany. For the most part she does an excellent job jumping between roles and making each individual clone recognizable and interesting, but someone somewhere didn’t trust in her completely, so they’ve added irritating gimmicks to each character in order to make them even more individual. Nevertheless, kudos for Tatiana.

This series suffers from pretty much the same things as the ones reviewed above – the setup is interesting, the characters are interesting, getting to know all of it is interesting, but the moment the characters and the viewers know enough about what’s going on to actually be active with the situation, the thing falls slightly flat. The mystery isn’t good enough and can be revealed only once, and the endless chasing after clues and power reversals soon become tedious. Oh well, at least the first season was worth it.

  • Finished on: 28th Jan 2018
  • 3/5

Game of Thrones season 7

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Well, this series should require no introductions. By now the series is past the novel series. As far as I know, George R. R. Martin has been giving the script writers pointers as to how the novels are going to progress, and the plot attempts to follow the rough picture that the forthcoming novels are going to follow, but mostly the script writers are on their own… And it shows. While George R. R. Martin has never been a great novelist, he does have an idea or two about plotting and revealing said plots slowly and patiently. The season 7 lacks far behind on that regard – the previously convoluted plots are now downright hamfisted and easily guessed, and the series has to rely on cheating the viewers to get some surprises across.

As mentioned above, George has his deficiencies as a writer and the series is actually able to improve on a few of the flaws. Most notably, the series has dropped multiple plot threads and scenes, some of them even quite prominent in the novels, in order to fit things into the less expressive TV format. And this is what George mostly needs – an editor, who would say to him that you don’t actually have to follow every god damn side plot to its conclusion.

Oh well, this is still some of the best fantasy imagery ever seen in TV and rivals most things on the silver screen as well. Unfortunately that does speak more to the qualities of the genre in these media. Despite the many problems, the series has its merits as well. Most prominent obviously being that I still enjoy watching it.

  • Finished on: 10th Feb 2018
  • 3/5

Russian Doll

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The series follows Nadia Vulvokov, a New Yorker of Russian origin, who is celebrating her 36th birthday in a big party organized by her friends, she leaves with a man to have a fling with him and after the thing, accidentally gets hit by a car… and wakes up back at the party. The plot twist was made famous by Groundhog Day and has been rehashed multiple times since then.

Regardless of the obvious comparison, this bears few similarities with that film. Nadia is a nihilistic woman living with a devil may care attitude drinking too much and using anything and everything she comes across. The dark tones of the protagonist carry over to the series overall tone. The supporting cast is full of dark characters, the lighting is almost always dark and reddish, there’s homelessness and drug use prominently on display, etc.

I love this short series format. Longer than a movie, shorter than an endless progression of season. You can play wonders in this format. And this does. Each iteration through the party (and sometimes) the following days follows slightly different patterns with Nadia trying to get to grips with her situation. This is again the most interesting part – when the viewers and the protagonist are still figuring things out. As the series progresses, it slowly shifts gears from people to the mystery. Unfortunately, the mystery falls a bit short of the setup – that seems to be common pattern (as witnessed above). At least this one keeps the last twist to the very final scenes of the show, and that was actually slightly surprising.

By far the most refreshing new thing I’ve seen on the TV series front in years.

  • Finished on: 18th Feb 2019
  • 4.5/5

The Umbrella Academy season 1

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This time a series based on a comic book and it shows. The series follows a dysfunctional group of adopted sibling superheroes, who reunite, when their father is found dead. Soon after it’s revealed that the world is about to end, due to their long lost brother returning from the future, where he’s been stuck for 30 years in a world that stopped existing 8 days from now.

The plot follows the efforts of the family to stave off the end of the world. Nobody seems to much care about how it’s going to happen – they just attempt to prevent it from happening. Besides the apocalypse, the plot is burdened by the family grudges. Although the series features a multitude of family meetings, it never actually features a calm discussion, where things could actually be explained – pouting and storming away is the name of the game.

I can’t really explain, what kept me entertained. The characters are quite inane, they act like teenagers all the time, the plot hangs on people not talking to each other, the amount of pouting makes teenage Instagram accounts look like nobody ever purses their lips… But I sat through this with a smile on my face. The one hour episodes give room to build atmosphere and change it multiple times and occasionally the series hits spot on.

Borderline watchable, but I hope they won’t make a second season, so I don’t have to watch a few episodes and figure out that it’s going nowhere fast.

  • Finished on: 28th Feb 2019
  • 2.5/5
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The Expanse season 1

The Expanse - Season 1

I was sick for the week, so had some extra time and very little energy on my hands (as can be seen from the number of updates into this blog this week). Some of it was spent watching the full season 1 of The Expanse. It’s a Syfy production, but for some reason is marked as a Netflix original series in at least the Finnish market. I wondered about this, since production quality and cost is obviously above the Netflix standards. Biggest ever Syfy production explains it.

The series is a space opera situated in the 23rd century. Humanity has colonized the inner planets (well Earth and Mars) and there’s a multitude of space stations in various asteroids, moons and orbits. Earth is governed by a single UN government. It is in a bad shape, but still the best place to live in the system. Mars is controlled by a military regime. It has advanced beyond Earth in military technology, but is still a dead planet and everyone lives under a dome. The government and populace are single minded in their focus on terraforming Mars. The asteroid belt is a UN protectorate mining water, minerals and gases mostly for Earth, but also for Mars. There’s a peace that has been stretching very thin. Earth fears that Mars is making a move to claim Ceres, which is the trade hub for everything mined in the asteroid belt and the most important space station there. OPA, a terrorist organization based in the asteroid belt, is working to free the belters from their de facto slavery to claim the riches of the belt for the belters. A rich kid goes missing, a weird ship with contraband technology destroys a water mining ship, conspiracies are suspected left and right and pieces are set into motion.

The series reminds me of the unfortunately short lived Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome series. It had a similar setup of politics, intrigue, class based society, scarce resources, terrorism, gritty realism. They differ in that there’s no kind of leap of faith technologies present here. Technology hasn’t evolved into anything mystical, there’s nothing post human anywhere and everything happens in our own solar system – no warp drives or the like. I like it. The way Battlestar Galactica presented the Cylons and their more advanced technological feats was quite far fetched. On those parts the series jumped strictly on the side of science fantasy. Then again, all science fiction is science fantasy, but there’s always grades.

I like the setup, I like the focus areas (some adventure, some weird things in space, some intrigue, some detective work, some politics…) and I like the way the pieces are set in motion during this first season, but the few final episodes take the plot into a weird direction. There seems to be a big leap into science fantasy side of things. The fuse of the powder keg in the setting could easily be lit without any leaps into fantasy. I don’t like. The whole first season aims towards the big move in the final episodes, so it’s in a big role now. I hope the show runner will turn around on the topic and swipe it under the rug in season 2.

Despite the misgivings about the direction of the show, this is some of the best TV series scifi that I’ve seen. Very much recommended.