What I watched in 2017, part 1
So I wrote up some recommendations of what I’d been watching, so figured I might like to log my viewing habits better through 2017. I’ve not included the day-to-day stuff Jen and I always watch, just the things I watch on my own.
Ascension (2014, TV mini-series)
Ascension, originally broadcast as a three-part miniseries but available on Netflix in six parts, is a beautiful piece of retro-futurism. The show follows the crew of a generation-ship launched by NASA in secret during Kennedy’s presidency to found a colony on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, to safeguard the future of humanity — presumably from the inevitable nuclear holocaust that was about to destroy humanity at home. A murder on-board, 50 years after launch, leads us to wonder if everything is as it seems.
Somehow I completely failed to notice that the queen bee of the ship, captain’s wife Viondra Denniger, was played by Tricia Helfer, who genre fans are more likely to recognise from 5–10 years earlier as Galactica’s Six.
The core concept was really good fun, and the 2010s-created vision of an alternative 1960s-derived contemporary future was lovely. There’s plenty more to the show that I could entice y’all with, but it’s difficult to do so without spoilers. That said, though, the last sixth was quite odd and could perhaps have been better written. Even so, I was very disappointed that the show wasn’t renewed. I would definitely have liked to have seen a second series.
Ascension is available on Netflix UK.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
Eye in the Sky is an interesting film.
On one side, it’s a powerful, moving film, with an impressive cast — including Aaron Paul and Helen Mirren — showing us the lengths a UK–US drone crew and their chain of command go to in order to take down their target and minimise the collateral damage. Much of the drama focusses on the moral decisions being made throughout the mission’s kill chain — indeed Kill Chain was the working title on the script before filming.
On the other hand, it’s another Hollywood work that seems to make modern warfare more palatable. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was criticised for its positive depiction of the efficacy of torture — including by Michael Morell, acting director of the CIA at the time of its release. Similarly, Gavin Hood’s film shows our military commanders being very concerned by the fate of a single child without any of the critical analysis Stephen Holden’s NYT review of this film ascribes to Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, for example. Cian Westmoreland’s review in HuffPo is similarly critical of the lack of political and moral critique.
In the real world, of course, much of how Obama brought US soldiers home was by massively expanding the use of drone-strike attacks in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Tribal Areas; if you ever want to be horrified by the difference Obama by switching from capture to kill as the mission for covert strikes in the region, see Out of Sight, Out of Mind by Pitch Interactive, where hovering over the chart in this screenshot will provide you with more detail on individual drone strikes, as well as more information elsewhere in the site:
Jennifer Gibson at Reprieve quite literally stunned the room into silence showing this dataviz at the start of a session at ORGcon 2014, which I unfortunately did not [yet] get fully written up with the other sessions.
Anyway, if you wanted to read political screeds you’d have picked another of my articles. Eye in the Sky is a gripping and moving film with great performances from Mirren and Paul along with wonderful scorn dripping from one of our most well-loved actors. This being his final live-action film, the credits include “in loving memory of Alan Rickman”.
True Love (2005)
True Love is described as “seven short stories about growing up and coming out gay in America.”
I’m not sure what possessed me to think that this might be anything other than miserably depressing. I turned it over after watching 2½ of the shorts, none of which I found particularly new, interesting or insightful.
True Love is available on Amazon Prime UK.
Le Bureau des légendes (2015– , TV series)
I really enjoyed season 1 of this last year; I started watching season 2 before Yule, but didn’t pick up the second half until February.
Season 1 follows Mathieu Kassovitz’s character, who has just returned from several years in Damascus; season 2 follows on from that plot some, but with a major plot-thread in Iran and another following Daesh in Syria.
As well as Kassovitz (who, for some reason writes his diary entries sans chemise), British actor Moe Bar‑El is a major character in the Iranian thread and Jonathan Zaccaï continues to feature a lot in season 2, so my shallow side is definitely kept happy as well.
TV blog The Medium is not Enough are spot on with their commentary, though:
Walter has been napping. Supposedly watching hours of foreign-language TV every week to find the best shows from around the world for Channel 4, somehow he managed to avoid watching any of Canal+’s 2015 output — despite Canal+ officially being France’s good TV channel. That means Amazon have had the chance to poach Canal+’s Le Bureau des Légendes from out of Walter’s hands. Oops.
Both seasons of Le bureau des légendes are available on Amazon Prime UK.
Homeland (2011– , TV series)
Season 6 of Homeland sees Carrie return to New York — but not the CIA — in the transition period before a woman enters the White House.
Elizabeth Marvel’s character is definitely not a cipher for Hillary, but it’s great to see her playing another powerful female politician after her turn as Heather Dunbar in Netflix’s wonderful re-imagining of House of Cards. It’s also rather novel to see someone who isn’t Carrie losing their shit, off their meds.
Interestingly, a show that for years has felt like another arm of the Hollywood propaganda machine — the Agency is mother, the Agency is father, trust in pax americana — it has become clear that the showrunners are no longer quite as sympathetic to the CIA’s role in the world, with the Agency director actively seeking to skew foreign policy against the desires of a new president-elect, abusing his authority and with a background many viewers may find morally repugnant.
Still very good fun, Homeland is airing on Channel 4, some of which is still available on All4.
The Walking Dead (2010– ,TV series)
A long-time favourite — because zombies, based on a comic book and Andrew Lincoln are a pretty good start — and season 7 came back to air in October 2016, but it wasn’t until February 2017 that I got to pick it back up.
Season 7 shows us several new communities: Negan and his Saviors; Ezekiel and his Kingdom; a return to Jesus, Gregory and the Hilltop Colony; and Oceanside. All along with some more amazing soundtrack pieces from Bear McCreary.
I’ve not yet seen the second half of season 7, but running to the mid-season finale has certainly been a lot of fun.
The Walking Dead is available on Fox UK.
The OA (2016– , TV series)
Several friends have told me I should watch The OA — and others have said they didn’t enjoy it. So I wasn’t sure what to think. Alice Krige and Scott Wilson featuring as the parents of the protagonist seemed like a good start; it took me until the end of the series to realise that the lead actor (and co-creator, with Zal Batmanglij) is Brit Marling, who I really enjoyed in Another Earth, which she also co-wrote and co-produced.
The story starts with the return of a young woman who’s spent the last 7 years as a missing person. Over the first 2 or 3 episodes, more and more of the story is revealed, with each episode almost seeming like a different genre to the last. A twist (inevitably) in the finale seems to have been a Marmite moment for many, but I really loved it; I found it an interesting and moving show. Disappointingly, there’s not much more I can say about it without spoilers, but I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a mystery drama where you’ll spend most of the time wonder what the fuck is going on and why the fuck it matters.
The OA is available on Netflix UK.
SS-GB (2017 miniseries)
Alternative history is always going to catch my eye; a nice, dark “Nazis do better than in real” all the more so.
SS-GB is a 5-part miniseries set in late 1941 where we’ve just lost the Battle of Britain and the Nazis are in the process of occupying the British mainland. Our protagonist is DSI Douglas Archer, with Sam Riley playing the senior murder detective at Scotland Yard, which also houses the titular occupying force; James Cosmo plays Archer’s partner Harry Woods.
Cinematographically dark and compelling, the story became less engaging as the miniseries progressed. By the last couple of episodes, I struggled to care about whether or not the characters would succeed. An ambiguous ending failed to make me wonder about the protagonists’ resolution.
SS-GB aired on the BBC; 3 episodes are still available on iPlayer and the boxset was released on DVD (RRP £14·99) and Blu-Ray (£19·99) shortly after the finale aired. A season-pass is available on Amazon Video UK for £7·99.
When We Rise (2017 miniseries)
Dustin Lance Black’s docudrama miniseries When We Rise is a big deal, telling the history of LGBT liberation in the USA from the 1970s onwards, predominantly through the actions of 3 activists: Cleve Jones, Roma Guy and Ken Jones.
I saw the first 2 (of 8) parts on its own, to start with, as I couldn’t get hold of a working copy of part 3. Parts 1 and 2 mainly follows Cleve (played by Austin P. McKenzie) from before he moves from Arizona to San Francisco up to the start of Harvey Milk’s historic Board of Supervisors campaign, Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs) moving from Boston and the homophobia of NOM, questioning her sexuality, to standing up as a part of the Lilac Menace at their conference (albeit anachronistically) and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors)’s path from being a closeted sailor at Vietnam to coming to terms with his sexuality as a patron in what I think was an anachronistic Black Cat Bar. Even that much was enough to choke me up several times — I dread what it’ll be like to watch when we get to the AIDS Crisis or the 21st century, once things actually start beginning not to suck.
So then I bingewatched the rest of it in the course of a single afternoon. I was a mess. Obviously.
The next 2 parts run through the first few years of the 1980s — Roma helps establish The Women’s Building and starts a family, Cleve works to help Harvey Milk win office and, with Ken and Roma, defeat Briggs’ Prop 6 (think Section 28) …only to see Milk assassinated. And then a mysterious disease appears and we all know how that turns out.
Parts 5 and 6 jump forward a decade, skipping past the earliest fights for treatment activism and the sheer awfulness of (some of) the plague years. At the same time, we switch cast for the key characters, with Cleve, Roma and Ken being played by Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael K Williams.
Cleve is the creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, so we see him trying to persuade Bush senior to acknowledge the crisis that had killed over 200,000 Americans and working with ACT UP on treatment activism. Roma and Diane (Rachel Griffiths) continue the fights in city politics. Ken finds his life turned upside down when his lover dies and then relies on Cecilia Chung’s support as he struggles with addiction. Cleve then works with Richard Socarides — played by his younger brother and whose father was a psychiatrist who made his career on conversion therapy — lobbying for Bill Clinton to do better than DADT and DOMA.
A point worth calling out from Buzzfeed’s review:
For the four trans roles in When We Rise, Black told the casting directors that they needed to hire trans actors. They recommended Ivory Aquino for Cecilia Chung, a main character, and sent her tape along to Black. “I got a little angry with them,” Black said. “I said, ‘I want to cast trans — go work harder, go find a trans actress.’ They said, ‘Ivory’s going to be calling you.’ She came out to me on the phone as trans.” Casting trans performers in trans roles has been a seemingly impossible task for Hollywood, from The Danish Girl to Transparent to Dallas Buyers Club. But that was not the case for When We Rise, Black said. “The big surprise was: It’s easy.”
The last 2 parts see me start to weep because we’re finally beginning to win, instead of dying, though there’s still plenty of heartache to go around. As Obama is elected president, Prop 8 revokes California’s recently-acquired marriage equality, so Cleve picks his bullhorn — Harvey Milk’s bullhorn — back up and helps lead the way to the Supreme Court. Roma fights for healthcare reform and Ken finds solace — and conflict — in religion before finding a church he can truly feel at home in.
Dustin Lance Black deliberately went to ABC, the family network, to reach outside the liberal bubble. While it didn’t do as well in the ratings as we might have hoped, When We Rise is not only a great piece of TV but an important one. You’ll want to make sure you’re in the right emotional frame of mind to watch it, but it’s definitely worth watching.
Travelers (2016– , TV series)
Netflix has been plugging Travelers at me for a while, a time-travel show from Brad Wright, creator of the Stargate TV franchise. It was quite a risky play for them to take the whole of the pilot before providing any real amount of detail to the premise — that the protagonists are a team sent from the future to prevent an apocalypse.
Taking 50 minutes to show a bunch of intriguing action without quite selling the premise was a gamble, but I’m glad it paid off just enough for me to persevere. I’ve also really enjoyed how each of the 5 time-travelling characters are each presented with their own challenges and flaws based on the hosts they have seized.
Like any good genre show, they’ve taken their time over revealing details of the future they’re trying to prevent and the missions by which they’re doing so — a dramatic mid-season peak revealing a bit more of the future, to tempt us further.
Season 1 of Travelers is available on Netflix UK, with season 2 expected in autumn 2017.
Beyond (2017– , TV series)
Holden Matthews (Burkely Duffield) wakes from a 12-year coma and discovers new abilities that propel him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy.
It’s full of unrealistically attractive young people (obviously), but Beyond is an entertaining urban fantasy drama. It doesn’t involve too much mental energy to follow but the storyline is intriguing enough and the script is well-enough written with a few giggles. There’s a gorgeous cover of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” (by pplrs) over the closing montage, which is definitely worth catching. And they even managed to put together a convincing premise for a second season.
The first season of Beyond is available on Netflix UK; the show has been renewed for that second season.
Riverdale (2017– , TV series)
Based on a popular US comic franchise, Riverdale is like a teen-drama version of Twin Peaks, with as many secrets, but darker and shallower. And a lot less weird. And a lot more shirtless young men. Certainly Laurie Voss has voiced approval of the frequency with which we are shown KJ Apa’s washboard abs — and complained when we were given an episode (singular) where they were not on somewhat gratuitous display.
I will admit it’s a little bit depressing to realise that Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald (neither is quite a decade my senior), Skeet Ulrich and Mädchen Amick (apparently each as much as 5 years my senior) are now old enough to plausibly play characters who are the parents of 19–25-year-old actors pretending to be high-school students. But the mysteries of small-town America are certainly intriguing enough for me to want to keep watching as they unwrap further backstories throughout the first season.
It’s really good to see another mainstream drama comfortable with the idea that prominent characters don’t need to be straight — Jughead is asexual, with Cole Sprouse determined to portray his character as an honest and positive representation, and Casey Cott’s Kevin Keller is entirely comfortable with his homosexuality, with a passionate kiss with Rob Raco’s bad-boy Joaquin being shown as no more remarkable than any other character’s romances. If all that’s not enough to pique your interest, surely 2017 has taught you to trust Teen Vogue?
Riverdale episodes are released weekly on Netflix UK.
Oasis (2017– , TV pilot)
A science fiction show reminiscent of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, Oasis is a new arrival to Amazon Video’s pilot series.
Peter Leigh, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, is a priest who is unexpectedly asked to travel to a remote planet, where a mysterious company is building the first permanent off-world human colony, as environmental collapse shows Earth’s habitability for humans is coming to an end. On arrival at the colony, he discovers there a series of accidents are being blamed on hallucinations some colonists are experiencing.
It’s unclear how closely the series will cleave to Michel Faber’s 2014 novel The Book of Strange New Things, on which is is based, but it’s screenwritten by Matt Charman (Oscar-nominated for Bridge of Spies) and directed by Kevin Macdonald (State of Play and 11.22.63), which certainly bodes well. I’m very much looking forward to seeing more, should the show be picked up
Killjoys (2015– , TV series)
Canadian scifi show with Aaron Ashmore and Luke Macfarlane in the primary cast? And Morgan Kelly shirtless and suspended as some kind of monk, in the first episode? Clearly, I’m willing to give it a few episodes just on the basis of the eyecandy! British actor Hannah John-Kamen’s lead character is pretty awesome — and proper kick-arse — too.
Past the more shallow appeal, the 3 lead actors play “reclamation agents” working The Quad, a familiar-feeling four-body system of a dwarf-planet Qresh and its 3 moons Arkyn, Westerley and Leith, all run by a Blue Sun-alike owned by 9 patrician families. The Company hires the Reclamation Apprehension Coalition to act like arms-length Federal Marshals, delivering on warrants — to apprehend wrongdoers, play armoured guard to protect cargo, whatever. A mysterious conspiracy becomes apparent in as details of the 3 leads’ backgrounds are revealed across the first season. Entertaining and intriguing drama with attractive characters in flattering clothing (including John-Kamen and Mayko Nguyen, as well as Ashmore and Macfarlane). What more could you want?
Season 1 of Killjoys is available on Netflix UK; season 2 was broadcast in 2016 and season 3 is set to premiere later in 2017.
Designated Survivor (2016– , TV series)
As I mentioned in my “Highlights of Netflix UK in 2016” post, Designated Survivor is a truly ridiculous piece of television. It starts with Congress being blown up during the State of the Union address, leaving just-fired HUD secretary Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) dropped into the Oval Office and gets less and less plausible from there. It’s such a terrible show …and So. Much. Fun.
New episodes of Designated Survivor are released weekly on Netflix UK.
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