Current: American Gods, Big Little Lies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Catastrophe, Clique, Decline and Fall, Girls, Imposters, iZombie, Jane the Virgin, Making History, Powerless, Review with Forrest MacNeill, Riverdale, Snatch, Taskmaster, The 100, The Americans, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Graham Norton Show
Non-current: Black Mirror, The Almighty Johnsons
Pilots tried: Superior Donuts
The Almighty Johnsons
What is it:
The premise of this show is ridiculous, but let’s just jump right into it–the reincarnated Norse gods have been hiding out in New Zealand since, I guess, some wave of Scandinavian emigration in the 19th century; their powers wane with each generation, which means that the gods we meet have some supernatural powers but not enough to quit their day jobs. (There are also apparently reincarnations of Maori gods hanging around, and we get an all too brief glimpse of them in the second season.) We meet Axl Johnson as he turns 21 and learns that he’s the reincarnation of Odin–his older brothers Mike, Anders, and Ty are Ullr, Bragi, and Höðr, respectively. And because we need some sort of overarching plot, apparently, there’s a Prophecy stating that Odin needs to find the reincarnation of Frigg in order to restore the gods to their full powers and also prevent some vaguely specified catastrophic disaster.
So yeah: that premise. Could either be really great (like vampires sharing a flat in Wellington) or super dumb, right? Well…
How did we feel about it:
Unfortunately, despite the interesting premise, neither the comedy nor the drama mined from it is exactly the freshest. A lot of things in the series–well, mostly the fashion, hair/makeup, and gender roles–feel quite dated; it’s hard to believe this ran from 2011 to 2013 and not, say, 2005-2007. To some extent maybe that’s just because of New Zealand TV production values–similar to the Canadian TV effect? That off-feeling would be easier to overlook if the writing were sharper, but alas.
It also started to feel like a lot of the story was being driven by Tim Balme having a midlife crisis and needing to prove that he was still as macho and sexually viable as all of the cast members in their 20s and 30s. That’s basically the only reasonable explanation to some of the plot points after the first season–the out-of-nowhere romance with Michelle, the gross age-inappropriate romance with the Frigg, all of the ridiculous on/off with gambling, etc. It made it harder and harder to reconcile the character with the reliable Good Guy Mike we were introduced to, especially when the other characters still talk about him and treat him as if he’s that same guy. It’s weird, because in some ways the show was pretty good at remembering plot points and relationship dynamics from past seasons, but some things were, I guess, deemed not important enough to be consistent about1.
Dean O’Gorman–also one of the Hot Dwarves in The Hobbit, which mean Anders conveniently spends most of the second season in Scandinavia, occasionally popping in via webcam–is super watchable, even though the sort of heartless playboy character type he’s playing feels somewhat–wait for it–dated at this point2.
The series finale was really a missed opportunity for a big romantic resolution with Gaia, and I think that would have pre-dated Keisha Castle-Hughes’s involvement with Game of Thrones, so I don’t know if it was a writing choice or a availability issue or what? Since that whole arc–the god Thing has been keeping Gaia and Axl apart, for various changing reasons, over the entire course of the series, so the upside to (spoiler) everyone losing their god powers in the finale should be that the barriers to Gaia and Axl’s romance are finally removed and the audience gets to see a satisfactory reunion. Instead, it’s kind of a weirdly tragic ending, with Zeb–Axl’s best friend/flatmate–greeting Axl as a stranger, having lost all memory of him (it…sort of makes sense in the show’s mythology), even with the implication that they’re about to rebuild that relationship through a few beers and pizza.
Still, it was compelling and comforting enough viewing to watch all three seasons over a relatively short period of time. The accents, of course, are delightful. And I love that our relative unfamiliarity with New Zealand’s cultural output means that Norse gods are going to be way overrepresented, between this and the upcoming Taika Waititi-directed Thor: Ragnarok.3
Decline and Fall
What is it: Three-part BBC miniseries adapting the Evelyn Waugh novel satirizing various aspects of 1920s society (including the Bullingdon Club4, public schools, and prison reform) and starring Jack Whitehall. All of which is, to me at least, insanely appealing.
How did we feel about it:
Well, it seems like a waste to cast Jack Whitehall as the straight man–Pennyfeather is such a passive observer character, it’s not like you can even do that much with reaction shots. Whitehall is, like, fine in the role, but one would really rather see him as one of Waugh’s awful posh characters instead. Maybe Tony in A Handful of Dust?
I read the book after watching the show, and so can confirm that the miniseries does a pretty good job of capturing the book’s humor. The deviations from the text all seem to come off well, too; for example, the scene at the restaurant as Paul is getting arrested isn’t really in the book, but it is hilarious and definitely seems to fit into the general spirit.
It’s maybe not super “substantial” in this day and age, because of the whole thing with good satire being rooted in specificity and the audience’s implicit familiarity with the period and setting, which doesn’t always age super well5; some of the targets are still relevant, though.
But yessss a BBC miniseries that’s not a super bleak murder investigation story, you know? I’d like to see them tackle Vile Bodies6 and A Handful of Dust next and thus establish the BBC Cinematic Waugh-niverse.
1. It’s a struggle to figure out how the 21 year age gap between Tim Balme and Emmett Skilton–the actors playing Mike and Axl–can work with the timeline we can construct from the few details provided about the Johnson family history. ^
2. And blah blah blah is this show obligated to explore the consent issues of a character with supernatural powers of persuasion using those powers to seduce women? It sort of does and sort of doesn’t; Anders is mostly painted as Not a Good Guy, though, so maybe the Moral Obligation is fulfilled. If there’s any Moral Obligation, it’s probably more to the history of colonialism? Again, sort of touched on and sort of not, but I don’t know enough about NZ history to speak to that. ^
3. The Almighty Johnsons and the Marvel movies went in very…different directions for the casting of Thor and Loki. I wonder if this series a big enough deal in NZ that Waititi would put in cameos by some of the characters? I guess we’ll see in November. ^
4. That is, the David Cameron Pig-Fucking Society, to save you that trip to Wikipedia.^
5. I mean, there’s a character parodying Le Corbusier, for fuck’s sake. And I only recognized that because I had semi-recently read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House; had this come out anytime prior to January, I absolutely would not have gotten the whole modernist architecture portion. So am I super architecturally ignorant or is that actually a pretty deep cut for the expected 2017 audience?^
6. Bright Young Things was good, but not so good that it needs to be the definitive adaptation of Vile Bodies for all time. ^