Inside Number 9 (BBC)

TITLE: Inside No. 9

GENRE: ‘Darkly comic’

STARRING: Nikki Amuka-Bird, Fiona Shaw, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC Two

YEAR: 2017

RATING: 5 missing loafers

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Series 1 is available in the U.S. on iTunes; Series 2 and 3 on DVD in the U.S.

Inside No. 9, much like Black Mirror, is the type of show you’ll remember for the first episode you ever saw. You’ll also ask yourself, “Who made this show…and who let them get away with it?” The answer is BBC Two, which is often referred to as the Beeb’s highbrow channel, and has edgier and darker comedy than BBC One. And more power to them for doing it because Inside No. 9 is hugely freaky and unnerving. (I like my TV like I like my men: freaky and unnerving. J/k, weirdos!)

I’m just coming into Inside No. 9 on series three and am glad I entered not knowing much about it. So on that count, I’ll try not to spoil too much of it for you.

On the surface level, think of Inside No. 9 as a contemporary update of The Twilight Zone. The original conceit was a set of stories, each taking place at the address “No. 9” and you never know what you’re going to get when you go behind the door. That idea seems to have dropped away by the most recent series.

With each episode, the show’s creators, who are also often featured actors, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, suck you in with richly drawn, quirky characters most of whom you probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with. And yet, as weirdly depicted as they are, some of the characters are also endearing and you want them to escape whatever macabre scenario Shearsmith and Pemberton have dreamed up.

The first episode I saw was from series three and is called “Diddle Diddle Dumpling” (here’s the English nursery rhyme the title alludes to). David, either unemployed or just a lot of time on his hands, finds a black men’s shoe in his front yard one day on his way home.  He embarks on a drawn out mission to reunite the show with its owner. Posting signs, placing ads, even setting traps to see that, as his wife Louise describes it, “a single…tramp’s shoe that you’ve found in the street,” makes it back onto the foot of whomever lost it. Because surely one can’t function with just one shoe? The acting is so good that you empathize both with Louise’ frustration at David’s insistence on harboring a lost shoe and David’s insistence that this mission is giving his life some sort of meaning that doesn’t become apparent until the end of the episode. And even then, you’re dubious if there will be a reveal. Is David simply mental? Or is he right that it’s not just a shoe?

Each episode is standalone, though, there’s a lot of overlap in actors across them. But this repetition of faces, using different wigs, styling and costume only adds to Inside No. 9’s top shelf performances. The episodes definitely feel like small stage plays, but not in the stilted way some theatrical performances can feel when they move from stage to TV.

A warning, though, some episodes can be pretty violent and are best avoided if you’re squeamish, like this one called, “The Bill.”

But, overall, there are some great setups. One can imagine sitting in a waiting room, being a volunteer for a support line, or attending an art exhibition opening and wondering, “Huh. What kind of story could happen here?”

Shearsmith and Pemberton take those musing and craft clever and spooky stories about our mundane interactions to great effect.

Get Inside No. 9 (Series 1 & 2) – 2-DVD Box Set from Amazon [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2.4 Import – United Kingdom ]

Catastrophe (E4, Amazon)

TITLE: Catastrophe (season 3)

GENRE: RomCom

STARRING: Sharon Horgan

COUNTRY: UK

YEAR: 2015 – 2017

RATING: 3 out of 5 overpriced baby prams/strollers

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? E4 (now) and Amazon on Demand (4/28)

I’m a huge Sharon Horgan fan. Her best work —both acting and writing — is in the BBC Three sitcom Pulling. You can, and should, watch Pulling if you like the type of debauched, dark humor that the British do so well. Horgan carries that humor over to Catastrophe.

Series one starts with Sharon (Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney — they didn’t reach too far for names) who meet and, after a one night stand, find out Sharon’s pregnant. Rob’s an American and Sharon’s Irish so there’s not only that pregnancy issue to figure out but also their cultural differences. Luckily, they’re both crass as hell, which is both entertaining and endearing in season one.


Check out all of Catastrophe, Episode 1 on Amazon Prime

Series two is mostly dedicated to the grind that is new parenthood — a topic I find wholly uninteresting since people have been parenting for thousands of years without a) calling it “parenting” and b) without a lot of the accessories and lifestyle expectations that comes with.

By series three, there are shades of the “difficult” or unlikeable people in Rob and Sharon’s personalities taking over the foreground. This jibes with the idea that these two people really don’t know one another at all and neither do we. This season is also less about parenting and, to some degree, about being parented or patronized, whether by one’s own parents or at work.

I tend to gravitate toward side characters and in the case of Catastrophe season three, characters that were supposed to be odious in the beginning are actually quite funny. One example is Sharon and Rob’s friend Chris (Mark Bonnar) who starts off being the unhinged, vulgar Scottsman, but evolves into one of the people with the most consistent worldview.

Why, given this lukewarm review, have I binge watched all three series? I miss London. I’ve also wondered about American expats I met there who fell in love, had kids and made their home abroad. Do they ever get used to the particularities of British culture? Watching Rob faff about the capitol offers some insight to this, while embedding the story in both relationship and workplace situations specific to the British context.

Of note:

This was quite possibly one of Carrie Fisher’s final roles! She plays Rob’s very American mom and lucky for us, she drops a bomb in season three that’s probably going to be integral to explaining a lot of Rob’s personality and the ensuing upset.

I don’t understand the interstitial banjo, bluegrass music. Is it, like, a West-meets-West joke? Rob’s discordant American presence in sophisticated former Europe allusion?

In the unlikeable people vein, the show relies too heavily on talking about “pussies” and masturbating for it to even be delightfully shocking. I mean, most Americans can’t even talk about sex in a randy way without uproar, so the blue language is probably more present to shock Americans than tell us anything about the characters’ approach to life.

There’s also some really antiquated humor that lies in off-hand racism via jokes about Chinese people and ablism. The Disability Rights movement has a long way to go in the UK. The jokes at the expense of disabled people who are never shown serves the function, for me at least, of still not liking Rob and Sharon, but not moving any closer to caring what happens to them.

Completely peripheral, but still captivating: Sharon’s wardrobe and the trappings of a comfortable life in London. Clothes, nice houses and cool furniture entertain the eye when Rob and Sharon’s struggle to remember why they’re together. I am not alone.

 

Taboo (BBC One and FX)

TITLE: Taboo
GENRE: Drama
STARRING: White Idris (aka Tom Hardy), Lucian Msamati, Oona Chaplin, David Hayman
PRODUCTION COMPANY/COUNTRY: BBC One- UK; FX – USA
YEAR: 2017
RATING: Five out of five wet wipes (you’re gonna need wipes if you watch this. Regency London, even the rich places, looks filthy.)
WHERE CAN I SEE IT?: BBC One and FX

Every week when watching Taboo, after emerging from my White Idris-induced daze, I’d think, “I really have to recommend this show to people because it is craaaaaazy.”

But it’s also also overly complicated and obtuse. That’s why I waited until it was over to review it. Now, if you’re a  completists, you can binge-watch it. But Taboo is “sick with pneumonia” binge-watch material. Or “stuck inside during a hurricane or blizzard” binge-watch worthy. Taboo’s convoluted plot makes one easily distracted by the staging, the deliberate filth…or Twitter. And, yet, at the end, I actually stood up and cheered, which I’ve not done since Craster got merc’d in Game of Thrones. 

The setting is 1814 London. This is the Regency period. The only thing I knew about this time period was that London was a nasty sewer, but that it’s also a period for some era-defining style and shit. Taboo’s settings relishes this aspect of its buildings and costumes. But the series is mostly set by the Thames River, which looks like a stew of incurable diseases. Which makes sense since the Regency era is also known for its inattention to poverty.

This is why, when James Delaney (White Idris/Tom Hardy) returns to London to claim his birthright, there’s an odd equivalency between how dirty everyone appears and their duplicitous natures. As Judge Judy would say about most of the people who come into her courtoom: no one has clean hands. Or anything else for that matter in Taboo. That’s especially the case for one of Delaney’s biggest adervsary’s, The Crown, as represented by the Prince Regent who, despite his lux surroundings and clear debauchery, looks like a sweaty, walking barrel of STIs.

AND IT’S SO FUN TO WATCH.

James Delaney: I have a use for you.

Me: Yes, please.

There’s a fine line between avoiding spoilers and giving enough background to convince you that Taboo is worth watching, but some basics and highlights:

  • Delaney is off his rocker. Sometimes he simply grunts in response to questions, but after a few episodes you get into the nuances of his grunting.

Some of variations are: “I’m going to kill you,” “You mean nothing to my plan” and “You’re of no use to me.” We know from the series start that he’s returned from Africa (broadly and whitely defined) with lots of body tattoos and practicing actual B/black magic. This recurring theme requires analysis along the lines of Toni Morrison’s Africanist presence theory: even when black people aren’t present, representations of blackness are there doing the heavy lifting of signifying Otherness. So Delaney’s back and not a great communicator, but clearly up to lots of no-good. To what end, and for what purpose, doesn’t become clear until the pentulimate episode.

  • There are two adversaries to Delaney in this story: the East India Trading Company and the Crown (aforementioned gross Prince Regent). They both want some land that Delaney might inherit off the coast of what will become North America. This means the American revolutionaries are also on the scene as a potential buyer, ally or enemy. INTRIGUE.
  • There’re interesting ladies who get shortshrift. They could be way more fascinating, if Taboo is renewed for a second series. This seems to be the way of contemporary television: set up the first series’ drama with lots of male protagonists and then realize, “Oh! Right! Women do shit besides have boobs. Give ’em some plot!”

Delaney’s half-sister, Zilpha Geary, who he’s already shagged and finds other ways to seduce even when he’s not physically present (which is gross…but kinda hot…but yeah gross…but hot (see video below).

Delaney’s stepmother, Lorna Bow, that he didn’t know he had, but who becomes an ally.

And an instrumental brothel-keeper/whore (this narrative wayyyy predates “sex worker” so chill), Helga Von Hinten, who Delaney underestimates at every turn.

 

You know you can’t resist any of that Hardyness so just gon’ ahead and buy the entire season from Amazon Instant Video
 
Again, now that the first series is over, check it out, but don’t expect it to be easy viewing. It’s nice to focus on a TV program and not be poorly multi-tasking all over the place. The twists and turns in Taboo aren’t implausible, if you’re used to high British drama. And it’s refreshing to see what real-ish people of the era across a few different class backgrounds.

And did I mention White Idris is fine?

Chewing Gum (E4, Netflix)

TITLE: Chewing Gum
GENRE: Comedy
STARRING: Michaela Coel (star/writer), Susie Wokoma, Kadiff Kirwan
NETWORK/COUNTRY: UK
YEAR: 2015
RATING: 5 out of 5 hairbrushes upside your head
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? E4 on demand in the U.K. and Netflix in the U.S.

When I moved to London in 2003 with a head full of stereotypes about the city and its people, I first tried to find a place to live in Brixton. Brixton is a neighborhood that, back then, was where a lot of Afro-Caribbeans lived. Migrating in the early 1950s as Commonwealth citizens to help rebuild Britain after Hitler bombed the shit out of it, Brixton became known as a hub of Black British life. And also riots. There were massive riots in the 1980s. So, of course, THAT IS WHERE I WANTED TO LIVE.

Alas, the rooms and small apartments I went to look at were, IMO, CRAY. The ones where I would be a “lodger” with older Afro-Caribbean women and men were dark, with lots of heavy drapery and too much white Jesus imagery for my taste. Granted, I looked at 3-4 places so I won’t generalize to the entire populace of Afro-Caribbean landlords. But studying  the evolution of Black British culture and getting to know young, Black British women made the places I looked at, and my introduction to Chewing Gum, all the more hilarious and comprehensible.


Chewing Gum is based on a stage play that Michaela Coel wrote and she brings her character Tracey to fidgety life for the TV show. She works in a corner shop part-time and most of the show takes place in her neighborhood for a fun look at Council Estate life without the hyperbole of what that life is like. Because regardless of the exterior, Tracey is fully obsessed with sex: having sex for the first time (at 24), enjoying sex and being sexy. Yet, she’s incredibly, but adorably awkward in her pursuit. She lives with her very religious mother and her sister (Susie Wokoma, star of Crazyheads and featured in Crashing), so Tracey’s randiness is constantly under surveillance and reprimand. This is especially the case with her boyfriend with whom she shares a chaste relationship, but she’s always trying to mount him like a pony.

What makes Coel’s depiction of Tracey both hilarious and forward-thinking is its opposition to stereotypes about black American women’s sexuality. To be fair, I watched the show with standard tropes of black women’s sexuality in mind (the hypersexual Jezebel, the aesexual Mammy, the tragic mulatto) and the more I watched Chewing Gum, the less certain I became about which stereotypes Black British women struggle against. I’m not saying that they don’t have this struggle, but I would say that, to my knowledge, Black British women’s sexuality is undertheorized in the context of Black British life, which includes religiosity. And that’s why Tracey’s rebellion is so great: Chewing Gum plays off the uptightness of Judeo-Christianity nicely with her relationship with her best friend, Candice, who consistently offers Tracey gender-advice straight from women’s magazines. The result is that Tracey always comes across as slightly ridiculous, but earnest in her quest to be a Sexy God.

“This ain’t CSI. I don’t know why you’re interrogating me.” – Tracey asking the chemist/pharmacist for the Morning After pill.

I’m writing about Chewing Gum now, though it’s been out for a while, because a new series is about to start on E4. I can’t wait to see what capers Tracey gets up to having had some sexual enounters that proved that you can’t really learn about who are you as a sexual being through pop culture. It’s only in the actual doing of the deed that Tracey comes into her own awkward, beautiful messiness. Not in that sad, tripping over herself Bridget Jones way, but in a high camp comedy way that resonates with women of color who don’t care about the stereotypes.

Michaela Coel’s speech, and this short interview, that she gave after winning a BAFTA award for Best Female Performance in Comedy hits all the high-notes: gracious, uplifting and emphatic that if we want to see genuine images of people of color in the media, we have to create them ourselves. AND she got her award from Idris Elba (swoon). And her dress is FLY.

If you’re feeling literary, or you can’t get enough of Michaela Coel, buy a copy of the stage play that showcased her talents, Chewing Gum Dreams over on Amazon. (Oberon Modern Plays)

TV Review: The Family (ABC), Thirteen (BBC One/BBC America) and The Missing (BBC One)

TITLE: The FamilyThirteenThe Missing

GENRE: Thriller, Family Drama

STARRING: The Family – Joan Allen, that one chick from The Newsroom with the weird face; Thirteen – Aneurin Barnard is someone you will want to know because he and his dark curls were dreamy; The Missing – David Morrissey’s Walking Dead pedigree tricked me into watching this and now I’m mad because it was boring af.

NETWORK / COUNTRY: The Family – ABC / USA), Thirteen – BBC One, BBC America / UK, The Missing – BBC One / UK

YEAR: 2016

RATING: The Family – a reserved 4 out of 5 missing kid flyers, Thirteen – five out of five, The Missing – 2 sleepy eyes trying to stay open to watch it.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? The Missing is still boring the knickers off folks on BBC iPlayer at this writing, Thirteen is on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and something called Vudu. The Family is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Playstation.


Okay, so this is a weird bit of televisual group-think for a TV show premise: what if a missing kid CAME BACK after several years? Three production companies sold this idea to networks, two in the U.K. and one in the states (so far).

Sometimes people with kids tell me they can’t watch stories in which kids are in danger and in peril. I totally get that. Sometimes I can’t either and I don’t have kids. But what if they kid comes back? Joy! Jubilation! Not.So.Fast say these three shows.

What’s fascinating about them is the social milieu in which the return is situated. In The Family, it can’t just be a kid, Adam, returning to his family as a teenager after being snatched. Since it’s American, it’s gotta have an overblown family dynamic embedded in the family’s political aspirations and living in a big-ass’d house. There’s a lot of pearl-clutching and ignoring of instinct: “Whatever will it mean for the family in the spotlight to have the son return?” I was excited to see Grant Show from Melrose Place (Jake!) in a smaller role. He still fine. And the class stuff is alternately infuriating and funny as it intersects with angst about what it means to be a Good Mother, Good Father and Good Sibling/Son/Daughter in this set up.

I cannot in good faith tell you to invest in The Family without telling you that it was cancelled and not picked up for renewal just as something amazeballs was revealed. I’m not going to tell you. I’m going to send you a mixed message: The Family is totally worth watching because it’s fun to see this truism come to fruition across the board: EVERYONE LIES. It’s a special kind of white dysfunction embedded in American stoicism and Protestantism that I enjoy immensely. The Duplicitous Lesbians subplotting is eye-rollingly dumb, but a nice case study for a women’s studies cinema class of “Homophobia and Heterosexist Tittilation Through Fictive Lesbian Sexy Times.”

Get the entire juicy, sole season of The Family from Amazon. Like, RIGHT NOW.

I watched The Family at the same time as Thirteen was on in the UK. The class contrast was great and made The Family look amateurish by comparison: a middle-class family in a decent-sized house welcome back their daughter, Ivy, who stumbles up the path to their house 13 years after being taken.

What makes Thirteen worth watching on its own is the acting, which was superlative. The protagonist, Ivy, is believably confused, angry and bewildered that her family and friends have both moved on and managed to stay the same. It’s also a visually pleasing mini-series set in someplace-other-than-London. It’s beautifully shot and heartwrenching to see what Ivy’s missed out on in her community and family.

Poor Ivy. You can watch what becomes of her by buying the entire season right here on Amazon.

The Missing is the most recent and least interesting entrant into the field of Returned Snatched Kid dramas. And TV producers could all just stop after this one. I watched both series one and two of The Missing. Season one featured James Nesbitt and, as I suspected, he’s just overused in British dramas.

You can check out Missing on STARZ or get the whole, creepy season from Amazon.

It’s hard to situate the protagonist in the second series, but mostly it’s a detective haunted by the abduction of not one, not two, but three girls. He’s very French and he has a brain tumor to give his obsession some urgency. But even with only eight episodes, I only kept watching because the twist in this thriller had me completely baffled. I even got out a piece of paper and pen to sketch out what I thought was happening and then realized there weren’t enough clues to help solve the mystery.

Can I tell you to watch all three for comparison’s sake? No. Do not. The Missing dragged out across European landscapes and tried to make the main detective’s torment at not solving these cases matter. It does not succeed. Skip it.

But do catch The Family and Thirteen and watch them at the same time, if at all possible. The demeanors of the families and what they think is important is a chin-scratching meditation on how we think families should be and how they really are.


And just for funnies: the theme music for The Missing reminded me of this Portlandia skit about TV theme music. It’s a good send up of how over-the-top, “we’re being moody” TV themes have gotten. As if the people producing it were like, “The opening sequence needs to be its own mini-movie. You know, like True Blood.” Thank you, True Blood, for unleashing this pretentious scourge on viewers everywhere.

 

Crazyhead (E4)

TITLE: Crazyhead

GENRE: comedy-horror

STARRING: Susie Wokoma, Cara Thebold, Rianne Steele, and Tony Curran

PRODUCTION COMPANY/COUNTRY: E4/UK

YEAR: 2016

RATING: 6 out of 10 blood-soaked stabby things

BEST QUOTE: I’m coming! I swear to God, sometimes I feel like just fucking off to the Seychelles and just forgetting this entire thing! Right, come on, you, twinkle toes. – Callum, head demon and also Raquel’s therapist…and Amy’s

WHERE CAN I SEE IT?: On demand on E4 in England; on Netflix in the US starting 16 December 2016.

Show creator Howard Overman did Misfits. I LOVED and highly recommend Misfits (on Hulu) so it was easy to fall into watching Crazyhead.

Our Crazyheads are Raquel and Amy. They are also misfits in that they, at different times, thought they were mentality ill. But it turns out they actually are seeing demons. And since they’re both seers, it’s up to them to sort out the baddies. Oh yeah: and save the world. Raquel is weird and she knows it: quick with the inappropriate but often too true sexual observation. Amy, on the other hand, seems well-uptight. But once she realizes she’s seeing reality for what it really is, she’s got depths of fight in her that she and Raquel will need to fight all and sundry evil-bringers.

If you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of the two new British shows trying to claim the Slayer’s crown, I’d say go with Crazyhead over BBC One’s Class. It’s refreshing to see at least one young woman, Raquel, who isn’t a bobblehead doll actually looking like she could kick a demon’s ass when pressed into service for humanity. About five episodes in I finally thought, “Dear god, how many flights of stairs has Raquel had to take at a flat out run?” A lot. But it’s worth every but of exertion.

And Crazyhead only had six episodes so you can totally fight your “get out and do something” demons in favor of this binge-watch.