Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds (2014)

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Thank heaven for BBC4.

Last week I was channel surfing and came across a handsome young guy in a nifty suit talking about be-bop in New York in 1951.   There are worse things to stumble upon.  The young guy was Dr James Fox (who I’d never seen or heard of) and the programme in question was the last episode in a three-part series called Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds which tells the stories of three cities in three pivotal years.  Through the wonders of catch up TV, I got to see the series in its entirety and, it has to be said, it’s a great reminder of the wonderful programmes that the BBC can make when it puts its mind to it.

I confess that I had not seen Dr Fox’s previous series, although no doubt I will watch should they get repeated – and, in the days of mult-channel TV, that’s highly likely, I’m sure.  Ironically, the whole premise of this series is a little dubious.  Vienna was discussed with regards to 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.  It’s likely that those same cities could be focussed on in different years and a similarly worthwhile programme could have been made, but that’s hardly the point.  If you’re happy to put that small problem to one side and go along for the ride, there is much to enjoy and learn here.

I saw the series out of order, but that doesn’t seem to make too much difference, although perhaps the first programme was the best of the three.  With great skill, the viewer is taken on a joyride through Viennese culture in the early 1900s, from art to music to science to politics and back again – and cleverly underpinned with the reminder that Adolf Hitler was also persuing an artistic career in the city at that time.  Each segment based on a key figure cleverly manages to encapsulate the key elements of their work, but manages to do so without sounding like a list of “key points.”

Fox’s presenting style is energetic and enthusiastic without being gushing.  Perhaps most importantly, in all 180 minutes of the series, he educates without becoming either condescending or too intellectual, and certainly never becomes dull.  He seems slightly less confident during the section on the music of Arnold Schoenberg – a novice to the notion of atonal music is probably none the wiser by the end of it – but if that’s the biggest complaint about the series, then it’s fair to say it’s pretty damned good. And it is pretty damned good.   It’s clear Dr Fox has learned from the best.  There are moments when he’s discussing a painting by Klimt or Jackson Pollock in the same hushed tones and barely concealed enthusiasm as David Attenborough explaining the mating habits of a lizard found in the Amazonian rainforest. In a good way.

The Paris episode is probably the weakest of the three, but the one on New York more than makes up for it as it stunningly pulls together a number of disparate elements from advertising to baseball to Thelonious Monk and somehow makes them into a coherent whole which results in a rather mesmerising sixty minutes of TV.

In a sense, it’s a shame that the series was shown on BBC4 rather than BBC2, where it probably would have garnered a bigger audience.  What it does show is just how good the BBC still is at this kind of stuff.  The range of material we get from the BBC is still remarkable, and the quality is still better than any other channel.  Channel 4 used to give the Beeb a run for its money when it came to making documentaries but, while they’re now delighting viewers with semi-offensive crap like Benefits Street and documentaries about One Direction fans, the BBC are providing fine documentaries on the arts and remarkable seasons of programmes such as the BBC3 It’s a Mad World season from last year, probably the first season of programmes in the world aimed at young people about mental health conditions.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds is still available on the BBC iPlayer at the time of writing – and here’s hoping that a second series appears in the future.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): A Treatise on Grief in the Most Unlikely Place

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On Sunday August 24th (today, if you’re reading this on the day I post it), I shall be heading to the stage in a village hall for what has become a yearly concert.  They were twice-yearly once, but that’s not possible these days.  It’s been a weird year since the last one.  There have been the highs of passing my PhD and the lows of a really shit time with bipolar.  When I hit the stage (“hit” makes it sound a little more dynamic than it actually is) this time I shall be singing some old favourites for the first time since my Dad passed away two and a half years ago.  It’s odd singing songs I know he loved, and strange knowing that he won’t hear or see them – not even on videotape.

The day before the show is always a case of “killing time” and not being able to settle to anything constuctive.  So, I sat down in front of the TV and watched the blu-ray of Spiderman 2 from 2004.  The excitement of my Saturday nights hold no bounds.  It’s not exactly a great film, it has to be said, lacking the pace of the first one in the series, just plodding on from one set-piece to another.  However, I did find it interesting given the fact I had been thinking about my Dad, for the film, rather surprisingly, seems to be more honest than most about grief.

The film is set two years after the first, but Peter Parker and his aunt are seen still mourning the loss of his uncle.  It’s an oddly moving element of an otherwise rather vacuous film, not least because of the genuine and touching way in which these scenes are portrayed.  All too often, grief and mourning is dismissed in a film or a book or a play as something very temporary.  Someone dies, people cry, the funeral takes place, everything returns to normal. In a space of two weeks life is back on track.  That, of course, is bullshit.   It’s not the way it works.  Things never really go back to how they were.  We get back into a routine, for sure.  But it’s not the same routine, because there’s always someone missing from it.

Film, at least popular, commercial film, very rarely acknowledges this.  And neither does popular TV or fiction.  When was the last time you watched Midsomer Murders and saw someone really grieving?  It’s hard to tell why such basic human emotions are missing.  After all, most of us like to be able to “identify” ourselves with the character on the screen.  Of course there are arthouse films that are all about grief and mourning and loss.  But there are certain subjects that are avoided in more commercial ventures, it seems, simply because the makers don’t really know how to deal with them.

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been much discussion about mental health issues on TV and the social media.  These are issues that, again, we rarely see portrayed in TV or film dramas.  Like mental health issues, it appears that death and grief is still a taboo – something that people feel remarkably uncomfortable discussing.  And with both of these issues, it’ s  a highly individual experience.  No two people grieve in the same way.  But, if we were to go by Hollywood filmmaking, people just don’t grieve at all.  They wake up one morning, about a fortnight after the event, and everything’s fine again.  It’s not. I miss my Dad now more than I did in the weeks after he died over two years ago.  Is that normal?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  It’s my normal.

Is it wrong that these emotions are absent on our cinema and TV screens?  I’m not sure about that, but it certainly seems to be an easy option – and something we don’t necessarily notice until we’re suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronted with these scenes in the most unlikely film.  And Spiderman 2 is, certainly, the most unlikely film to deal honestly with the fact that we miss those no longer with us for the rest of our lives and not just until the funeral is over.

Mental Health: Don’t Forget It

depressionA man died this week and suddenly a discussion of mental health issues has started.  There is an outpouring from twitter users, as they retweet messages about depression.  Statuses of support for sufferers of depression are being shared over and over on facebook.  There’s even a multitude of new videos on YouTube on the subject.  The problem is that, last week, most of these people didn’t give a fuck about depession.  And, after the funeral of a well-loved celebrity, the furore over how sufferers are let down by the system and by society will die down to a quiet murmur once again. 

Depression, bipolar and other mental health conditions DO need to be talked about, not least because the lack of understanding about these issues is so severely lacking amongst many members of the public – and it is that stigma that prevents many from seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem.  There is something of a backlash about comments made on TalkSport radio by Alan Brazil (I have no idea who he is) in which he said he had “no sympathy” for Robin Williams.  Shep Smith, a newscaster on Fox News in America, referred to Williams as a coward.  Both men, bizarrely, still have their jobs.  The truth of the matter, though, is that many members of the public have the same lack of understanding of depression as these two men – and twitter and facebook have shown that too in the last few days. 

Suicide is thought to be the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us at some point in our lives.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, around 30% of sufferers will attempt suicide, and it is thought that around 10-15% of sufferers die as a consequence of the condition. 

A 10-15% fatality rate.

So, what are we doing about it?  Well, we’ll talk about if for a few weeks and then forget it.  Public figures and politicians will tell us that support has to be given to sufferers.  However, mental health budgets in the UK are being slashed.  For example, six weeks ago the BBC reported that the budget for child and adolescent mental health services at Birmingham City Council were cut “from just above £2.3m in 2010-11 to £125,000 in 2014-15, a drop of 94%.”  Mental health trusts have had their budgets slashed by 20% this year.  NHS England has cut budgets for mental health by 2%. 

There has to be a link here between the lack of education on the subject (and thus its perceived seriousness) and the cutting of budgets.  It’s still thought people can “snap out of it” or that it isn’t a “real” illness.  If the condition had the word “cancer” or “disease” at the end of it, we would all be looking at in a very different way.  It is as real as diabetes or heart disease.  The fact it doesn’t show up in a blood test robs it of that reality. 

What I’m trying to say here is that, for a few days or weeks, mental health issues will matter to more people than ever before because someone they liked on the telly has died as a result of it.  But those deaths (and attempted deaths) are happening all the time.  It’s a reality that people and governments need to wake up to.  More than ever it is time to educate, talk, support and treat. 

In the four minutes it took you to read this article, six people will have attempted suicide in the USA alone.  Five of them will have had a known mental health issue at the time. 

Axe-murderers and psycho-killers: Mental Health Conditions and the Horror Film

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I sat at home the other night watching Roger Corman’s 1961 film version of the Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum. I confess that it is my favourite of the Corman Poe films and one that I return to more than the others. When I finished the film, came upstairs and started browsing the internet, I was reminded that this week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it got me thinking.

Last year Thorpe Park was under attack for its “asylum” Halloween attraction, and yet we seem to have no problem with mental health issues being used for entertainment purposes in horror films. From the “mad doctor films” of the 1920s and 1930s through to the “psycho killers” of today’s horror films, mental health issues have been used in order to instil fear into audiences, and one has to wonder whether this has had an impact on society’s view of those suffering from mental health conditions.

While most of us are not going to view the “mad doctor” films of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and others as somehow a form of education on “madness,” can the same be said for other representations on film? I would argue that the “mad doctor” films (or any films referring to “madness”) are somehow less “real” because the specific health condition of the protagonist is not spelled out but simply given the general term “madness” – a term that is not really in use these days.

It is when the exact nature of the mental health condition is spelled out in more detail and given a name that things become more complicated. After all, if the word “schizophrenic” or “schizophrenia” is searched for within the Internet Movie Database, the list of films that is provided is quite telling: The Mad Ghoul, Bug, Cutting Class, The Boston Strangler and the “wonderfully” titled Schizopheniac: The Whore Mangler (I must hunt that one down). I don’t pretend to have watched all of the films on the list, but what is clear is that, even when the mentally ill character turns out not to be the murderer, the association between mental illness and violence and murder has been made and reinforced.

This isn’t just the case for schizophrenia, of course. The same is true for any number of mental health conditions. For example, a new indie (and low budget) horror film is due out in 2014 entitled Bipolar, which IMDB tells us has the following plot: “When Harry Poole tries out a new medication for Bipolar Disorder, he is reborn as “Edward Grey”, a seductive but dangerous alter ego who dramatically takes over his life, changing the young man and those around him forever.” Similarly the otherwise-splendid drama series Rookie Blue last year had a narrative arc that involved a bipolar policewoman acting irrationally, obsessively and dangerously – leading to other members of her force being shot and wounded (and possibly killed).

There have been relatively few studies on these issues, although Peter Byrne writes in The Psychiatric Bulletin that it has been discovered that these films are “sources of misinformation about mental illness, causing distress of relatives of the mentally ill. The images reinforce the spurious association between all mental illness and violence.”[1] In other words, many of the prejudices about mental illness and those that suffer from mental health conditions may well originate from how film and other forms of fiction have “educated” us over the years.

The big question, of course, is what to do about it. After all, even as a bipolar sufferer, I am not going to give up my regular dose of watching Karloff, Lugosi or Price descending into madness and bumping a few people off. However, it seems to me that, at some point, filmmakers have to become somewhat more responsible. Attitudes change. Nobody is suggesting the films that have been with us for decades should suddenly be banned, but is it responsible to make a film like Bipolar in 2014? Is it about time that killers in films had another reason to kill other than the fact that they are mentally ill? If the “asylum” Halloween attraction at a theme park is now viewed with disdain, then perhaps it is finally time for filmmakers to look again at their representations of mental illness and start taking into account the damage they might be doing in helping to reinforce the prejudices and misconceptions of the past.

[1] Peter Byrne, “Fall and rise of the movie ‘psycho-killer’,” The Psychiatric Bulletin, 1998, 22:176.

Eurovision – some thoughts

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The most shocking thing about the winning Eurovision entry this evening was the fact that the contest suddenly became relevant and, bizarrely, important. I doubt this will be a regular occurrence, so we shouldn’t get too excited.

Prior to tonight’s final there were calls from at least three countries for the Austrian entry to be withdrawn. Why? Well, because it was sung by a transvestite with a beard. The Russian politician behind the anti-gay propaganda law called her a “pervert” and said the performance showed that the competition was a “hotbed of sodomy.” A little odd, then, that he didn’t withdraw the Russian entry consisting of two 17 year old girls to protect them. Conchita Wurst, the singer in question, responded by saying that she was just “a singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair and a beard.” Well, her beard’s better than mine. I only get a five o’clock shadow after 7 days.

However, she was much more than that – and it’s clear that she was well aware of it. The song was clearly calculated to be a universal (well, European) “fuck you” to those behind the anti-gay laws in Russia and those supporting them. Entering such an artist was a risk, but a calculated one. Eurovision has a huge gay following to start with, so support was always going to be there. However, the risk turned into triumph thanks to the fact that the song was not only sending out a message, but because it was actually extremely good. Shirley Bassey must be seething that she didn’t get her hands on it first.

It’s interesting that many people tell us how things were much better when they were growing up. I don’t believe them. Equality and acceptance of race, gender, and sexuality is greater now than it ever was (at least in the Western world). Many reading this will wonder what the fuss is about, but it’s yet another important rung on the ladder. We’ve had LGBT winners of popularity contests in the UK for fifteen years or so (Pop Idol, Big Brother etc), so for Brits to vote for the Austrian entry was no big surprise. For the people of 37 countries in Europe to do the same and finally show solidarity to the LGBT people of Russia in a very public way is a huge step. The boos for Russia at the show were unfortunate – the Russians in the audience were probably rebelling against the State, not supporting them.

The thing that will get lost here is that, even if the song wasn’t sung by a transvestite, it still would have won in all probability – and maybe by a bigger margin – but, in the end it’s the voting (and the political voting at that) which was important.

And America has a lot to learn.

Twitter has been afire tonight over two stories. in America, gay NFL player Michael Sam was photographed kissing his boyfriend and was met on twitter with a barrage of abuse. In Europe, a bearded transvestite wins a contest watched by 125million people and the tweets are 95% positive. One that wasn’t came from the Sunday people tweeted this:

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Unsurprisingly, the tweet quickly got deleted. Ironically, the only other negative tweet I found asked “why vote for a freak?” And this from someone who is a campaigner against abuse of women and children!

In around 75% of the countries that voted, civil partnerships and same-sex weddings are still banned.   In others, well, we know the situation in some other countries.  Let’s hope that, finally, the message of the people kickstarts some change. But, in all likelihood, the hubbub will be forgotten in a matter of days, but just for tonight people spoke with their hearts.

THE BOBBY DARIN SHOW (1973)

hqdefault   Anyone who knows me or follows my blog will know that I am a huge fan of Bobby Darin.  His TV series from 1972 and 1973 have, in many ways, been regarded as the holy grail by fans for a many years.  Individual performances from the show have appeared on DVD, but we never dreamed of getting the whole series.  Now, that 1973 season has been released on DVD (kind of), and my feelings on it are somewhat mixed.

No-one can expect a variety series such as this to not age in forty years, but this one seems to be have worn less well than others.  The show seems to be all over the place both in respects to material and quality.  Musically, the show is sound but mostly unremarkable.  This is in part due to the house band, which was presumably put together in order to be adaptable to both big band and rock/country music.  It ends up sounding more than a little thin, and the rockier songs don’t rock enough, and the swing numbers don’t really swing.  Everything seems watered down.  There are moments when Darin rises above this, and makes us forget these issues.  His version of Don McLean’s Dreidel is superb, for example, as is his bluesy take on Come Rain or Come Shine.  Elsewhere, there are problems musically – the second episode features an awful version of Born Free.  Here, Darin’s health problems are most evident.  In this episode (and on a number of others), he looks ill and his singing suffers.  This is hardly surprising – less than a year later, Darin would be dead – but fans have rarely seen Darin looking ill, and so it comes as quite a shock to see him clearly suffering.

The comedy sketches and the guest stars are problematic.  “The Neighborhood” sketch in each episode (see pic) is a delight, with Darin showing off his acting talent with aplomb.  However, some elements backfire – particularly the ridiculous “poet” section and the sequences involving “The Godmother,” which often leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth.  Tastes have changed, and this section has aged about as well as the one where he plays chess (I’m not kidding).

There are some lovely moments with the guests – Bobby and Flip Wilson are a delight together, his story about meeting Donald O’Connor is sweet and moving, and the duet with Elke Sommer is remarkably sultry.  However, many of the guests are unworthy of duetting with Darin, and Darin certainly deserved bigger names than the show often attracted.

The biggest problem with this DVD release, though, is that many of the shows are heavily edited – and it’s often the  musical numbers that have been excised.  One show runs barely 25 of its 47 minutes.  Key songs such as Something, Caravan, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sixteen Tons, Lonesome Road, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Once Upon a Time are not included here, and this means the set provides relatively few solo songs that are not available on Aces Back To Back, Mack Is Back and Seeing Is Believing.  This is a shame, and a missed opportunity – and, to be brutally honest, false advertising.  Nowhere on the packaging does it say any shows are edited.   Many buyers will therefore find themselves watching Bobby Darin playing chess, but not singing a number of the one-off performances of songs that the series has to offer. While this is nice to have, it is ultimately a disappointment.  It’s clear to anyone with a knowledge of Darin that the series was hardly a success, but to have it butchered like this is not showing Darin’s “final chapter” in the best way possible.  Bobby deserves better than this.

Warehouse 13

 

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One of the ways in which our viewing habits have changed in recent years is that we can sit down and watch an entire run of a TV series in just a few days thanks to DVD boxed sets and on demand services.  This is exactly what I did with Warehouse 13.  I wanted something light and fun, gave the pilot a whirl and then woke up three weeks later having consumed 58 episodes.

Warehouse 13  isn’t, and was never intended to be, groundbreaking TV – and it’s not even original. Elements of it are stolen from the likes of Moonlighting, Supernatural and The X-Files.  The basic premise is that a secret organization exists that retrieve supernatural artifacts from across the globe and stores them in a huge warehouse where they can’t do anyone any harm. 

The stand alone episodes follow a basic police procedural drama format – something weird is going on, the agents go out and find out what it is and retrieve the object.   These episodes are great fun – the programme doesn’t take itself seriously, the scripts are amusing, and the characters are appealing. 

Where it falls down is with the over-arching, long-running storylines which tend to take over the series in the final weeks of each season.  Here, a relatively anonymous cardboard cut-out baddy tries to bring down the warehouse and those who run it.  This is OK in season 1, and even season 2, but then it all gets a bit repetitive and, more importantly, the overarching narratives tend to start taking over and then viewers are lost as each and every episode becomes important.   

This reliance on multi-episode arcs has caused the downfall of series such as The X-Files and, more recently, Supernatural  – the latter is still being made, but I’m not sure even the writers understand what it’s about anymore, the mythology has become so convoluted.  It appears that Warehouse 13 suffered a similar fate – audience numbers dwindled during season 4, and season 5 is going to be the last and just 6 episodes.  This is a shame, as if the series had concentrated on the stand alone episodes instead, it would no doubt have survived another few seasons. 

The chemistry between the various agents at the centre of the story is actually quite remarkable, and even when new characters have been brought in as the series progressed the chemistry seems to have been important.  A surprise for me was the introduction of “Jinksy” in season three.  A gay character in an action role is still a very rare occurrence on TV and in film.  That Jinksy is that rarity and is a gay man who doesn’t jump into bed every five minutes and keeps his clothes on and doesn’t talk with a lisp shows just how far American TV has come in recent years. 

Warehouse 13, therefore, is one of the programmes that slipped through the net.  Well-written and well-acted, it has fallen foul of being too formulaic and not coming up with a more original multi-episode arc in the later season.  Tucked away on the Syfy channel, it may never have got the audience it deserved, which is a shame for all concerned.

Robbie Williams: One Night at the London Palladium (BBC1) Review

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So, yesterday around this time I was sitting here glowing after passing my PhD.  Today, I sit here after having a tooth extracted, with my mouth as swollen as George Osborne’s bosom when he tells us with pride he is only four years behind his target for getting the country’s finances sorted.   What a difference a day makes.  Somebody on Facebook mentioned the Robbie Williams swing show on BBC1, which I had forgotten about, but with the wonders of modern technology I can rewind back to the beginning and watch while I treat myself to a meal of mashed potato and…mashed potato.  It’s an exciting day.

Robbie Williams in his swing mode is both wonderful and remarkably infuriating for those of us who really love our swing music.  Williams is a man who clearly adores this music.  And I really mean adores.  But then we have to wonder why the American accent – and whyc can’t he take it a bit more seriously at times.  After a cheesy, but entertaining, rendition of Puttin on the Ritz we had a performance of Mr Bojangles that is ruined with silly jokes and comments, and just thrown away like Elvis singing Teddy Bear in his 70s concerts.    Such moments are Williams at his most annoying, but also his most humble.  It’s almost as if he just hasn’t got the self-confidence to think he can pull such a great song off, and so makes light of it.  It’s a shame, as he can pull it off.

Such criticisms aside, this was a much better show (or half-show, the rest is on the DVD) than the one at the Albert Hall from a decade or so ago.  Love Williams or hate him, he is in the best voice of his career and seemed to be having an absolute ball on stage.  The same couldn’t be said for Lily Allen and Rufus Wainwright – neither of which have I ever seen the appeal in, and both looked wildly uncomfortable beside the man of the moment.  Minnie the Moocher  and I Wanna Be Like You were two highlights that suit Robbie Williams down to the ground – these are songs for people that can work a crowd and, despite them being given a tasteful but modern reworking, looked and sounded great and were delivered with panache.  Also given a reworking was Supreme, Robbie Williams’ hit from…a while back.  This was so good that one could wish that the new swing album was actually a big band reworking of a dozen of his hits of the past.  Now that would have been really interesting.

The highlight of the evening, though, was Williams at his most serious, sitting on a chair delivering a ballad rendition of If I Only Had Brain.  He has written that this version is based on the one found of Harry Connick Jr’s album 20, but it clearly means more to Williams.  That lack of self-confidence shone through once again, but this time in the best way possible. 

The performance of this song from The Wizard of Oz showed that he hasn’t changed that much since his first solo album Life Thru a Lens, the bonus track on which was a poem to a schoolteacher who had told him he’d make nothing of himself and never achieve his goals of being an entertainer.  The poem was bitter and ended with a metaphorical “up yours” (and who can blame him for that), but the naked, subdued version of If I Only Had a Brain showed clearly that the words of the teacher still resonate and still get dwelled upon by Williams, despite the fact they were spoken to him nearly 25 years ago.   

This Week’s TV: Supernatural & Glee

 

Supernatural1

Contains minor spoilers.

I’m not quite sure when it happened – at the end of season seven, I think – but Supernatural lost its way.  I remember looking forward to each new episode during the period when it was, first and foremost, a monster-of-the-week type of show, a Scooby-Doo for grown-ups.  Then it all got a bit convoluted with the introduction of angels, but we went with it.  Then there were angel wars and it all seemed to be getting a little bit silly.  Then there were leviathans and, despite the fact we never really understood what they were and never really found them such a menace, we went with that too. 

But season eight found Supernatural doing something I have yet to forgive:  it simply got a bit shit.  The scripts got weaker, the stars were at times looking visibly bored, and the whole thing was like watching Supernatural through a frosted window.  The first half of season eight wasn’t helped by the awful flashback structure or the introduction of Benny, a character it seems most fans didn’t warm to.  The second half was passable, but only because it was a TV series the fans loved and didn’t want to let go of. 

Now we have season nine – four seasons more than the original intention.  The way forward might have been to go back to the monster-of-the-week format, but this week’s first episode doesn’t point towards that happening as  one of the Winchesters is again at death’s door (literally).  How many times can they die or nearly die before us not shouting at the screen “just die and be done with it?”  We know they’re not going to die.  Or, if they do, they won’t stay dead.  There’s no suspense in these scenarios anymore. 

To be fair, the first episode of season nine was better than the first episode of season eight, but that’s not saying much.  There’s no inspiration here anymore, and certainly no logic – just scatterbrained ideas with no rhyme or reason to them.  It’s almost as if the writers have got together in a panic having learned yet another season is on its way and they have no idea what they are going to fill twenty-two episodes with.   I’m not even sure they understand the storyline anymore and how we landed up at this point.  Even the re-cap at the beginning of the episode gave up on reminding us of the story so far, it was just 60 seconds of snippets that could have been thrown together by a kid at a computer. 

To be fair, there were some highlights of S09E01.  Ezekiel seemed like a nice chap, but it doesn’t look like he will be around on a regular basis.  Castiel is present and correct, but he’s gained and lost his powers more times that a recurring guest star has found themselves filming a death scene.  And it’s always nice to see Bobby (killing him off in season seven was hardly the programme’s most sensible decision), but his appearance seems to have been to delight fans rather than to serve any great purpose.  Finally, there was Castiel recreating a famous laundrette-set advert – the episode’s highpoint and one reminding us that the surreal humour that used to a be a trademark of the series has been sorely lacking of late.   Castiel with his kit off, though, actually makes us realise he now looks younger than Sam (who hasn’t had a haircut since the last season, in case you were wondering).  

I wanted to be drawn back into Supernatural, but I now sit here and wonder if I can really be bothered anymore. 

I talked about the return of Glee a couple of weeks back, and last night saw the broadcast of the anticipated episode dealing with the passing of Finn Hudson, following Cory Monteith’s death in the summer.  Reviews of the episode have ranged from luke-warm to very favourable.  Glee might miss the mark quite a bit these days but, unlike Supernaturalit does seem to be trying its best.  There have been comments that there was no explanation for Finn’s death, and that the series could have force-fed us a drugs-related issue-of-the-week episode.  But this probably wasn’t the time or place for a drugs-related episode (although the absence of such a storyline is a mysterious omission over the last four seasons).  Instead, Glee played a blinder dealing with an issue that effects more teenagers than drugs does:  grief.

The episode starts three weeks after Finn’s death, with both old and new members of New Directions coming together for a private memorial to Finn.   The supposed leap in time from the last episode makes one wonder why this wasn’t the first episode of the present season, as it would have made more sense given the summer break.  Even so, this was played to perfection…mostly.  The teen audience was told that there was no right time or right way to deal with grief when someone close to you passes away, and that is something of a valuable (and rarely mentioned) lesson.  

The sequence near the beginning of the episode where Kurt returns home and he and his Dad and step-Mum (Finn’s mother) start to go through Finn’s things, deciding what to keep and what to not keep, was superb.  Romy Rosemont gave a stunning, heartbreaking  performance, and the writing was spot-on as those of us who have been in similar situations will know all too well.   Amber Riley’s vocal performances reminded us of just what a fine singer she is.  Perhaps the big mistake was affording so much screen time to Puck – Mark Salling’s acting was never exactly stellar, but seems to have got worse since he has been away from the show, and his performance seemed to be the only weak link in the episode.   The show didn’t forget it was a comedy at heart either, and there were some unexpected but welcome comedic moments (most notably when Tina goes to grief counselling).   It’s hard to imagine how the episode could have been dealt with better, especially remembering this is, primarily, a show for teens.   It would have been all too easy to pull at the heartstrings every thirty seconds but, oddly, the whole episode seemed less manipulative than normal – and that was a welcome surprise.