The small screen

Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen stay out in the midday sun

What happens when four old school friends leave their families (and their morals) behind and renunite for a holiday in Mallorca? Absolute carnage!

Coping with the fallout from a tragic accident, stupid mistake, or even just the morning after the night before is a popular topic in the scripts of many Hollywood movies — and as it’s been such a formula for success for movies like Very Bad Things, and The Hangover, it makes sense to see how it will translate onto the small screen.

And Mad Dogs does just that. It follows four men, played by the magnetic John Simm, Philip Glenister, Marc Warren, and Max Beesley, as they try and cope when things take a sudden and very sinister turn for the absolute worst on their boys holiday to Mallorca.

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What started off as an excuse for the four actors, who clearly have an unrivalled chemistry on screen, to work with eachother quickly turned into an explosive and unmissable drama — and four episodes soon became four series, as audiences across the country could not get enough.

Without a doubt, one of the most electric and explosive shows on British TV in a long, long time. The writing is original, and becomes more terrifying and depraved with each episode, and the acting is authentic and exciting — but, don’t worry, there are a few moments of genuine humour to give some much-needed relief from watching through the gaps in your fingers.

Apart from anything, it’s just a fascinating insight into how human beings cope when things go wrong, on a massive scale. And when we’re catapulted into a situation where we have to react immediatly, without little time to plan and no one to turn to for help things get tough. Seriously tough.

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The character dynamics are my favourite thing about this show. As the series unfolds, you begin to feel like you know these people — the one two punch of brilliant writing and acting makes these characters feel real, which only emphasises the stress and tension you feel as they get themselves into increasingly ridiculous situations. The way the different personalites, and morals, of each character clashes with the next one is what gives this show a believable spark and sets it apart from everything else.

From the moment the show begins, there is a sense of something dark lurking beneath the surface — like it’s highly unstable at its core, so when shit really does hit the fan it sticks big time and doesn’t let up. But the backdrop for all this carnage and catastrophe is the beautiful and serene sky and sea of Mallorca, making it a refreshing change from the usual grim, gloomy settings in other dark TV dramas. Pathetic Fallacy it is not.

The acting, and evolution of the storyline makes for really intense viewing, and it definitely gets under your skin as you can’t help but imagine yourself in their situation. It’s not your typical tried-and-tested TV drama, but something with a bite to match its bark.

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But, despite its intensity it is very watchable — so watchable, in fact, that you’ll want to watch it over and over again to soak up the laugh-out-loud moments, and even the jump-behind-the-sofa moments.

 

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Coen Brothers’ Fargo, episode one

Well heck, Fargo’s only gone and been made into a darn TV series. But, you already knew that didn’t you?!

Going into this I had no idea what to expect… And given my track record of loathing anything even resembling a ‘remake’, I was pretty sceptical. Fargo, the 1996 movie, achieved that rare feat of interlacing comedy with crime with bloody gore with interesting characters. So, how were they going to do that stretched out across a number of episodes?

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Well, the good news is it ain’t a remake. It shares the same name, the same backdrop, and the same executive producers (see Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan) but that’s where it stops. We’ve got new characters, a new story, and new weirdness to sink our teeth into.

It all started with an oh-so-familar panorama of bleak, snow soaked landscapes of small town Minnesota, and dark, brooding lighting. And the first episode continued to be loaded with beautiful scenery offsetting the bloody violence. So far, so good.

The beauty of a TV, versus film, is time — and having much, much more of it. And they’ve really put it to good use so far, with the screenplay spilling over with amusing, quirky exchanges — and all in THAT accent.

But the most impressive thing so far is not the photography, the writing, or the characters, it’s whoever made the decision to cast Martin Freeman as the downtrodden salesman Lester Nygaard. His portrayal of a man on the edge is both magnetic and as subtle and understated as ever as he proves once again you don’t need to be wide-eyed and maniacal to play troubled and borderline psychotic.

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But he’s not the only one delivering the goods, Billy Bob Thornton was enigmatic. I’ll admit, I was apprehensive going into it at the thought of there being a Steve Buscemi shaped hole burning its way through my screen, but my nerves soon settled as Billy Bob’s crazed intensity found its own fire, and kept on burning bright the whole way through.

Episode one did everything a first episode should: it introduced us to the characters, kicked off what is sure to be a weird and wild story, and left us thirsty for more next week. Can’t say fairer than that.

Bloody, brutal and beautiful: Martina Cole’s The Take

Good old Tom Hardy, he is that calibre of actor you can rely on to give a bone-chilling performance no matter what. I recently saw a magazine cover declaring him to be ‘the greatest actor of his generation’ and the first thing that sprung to mind was his portrayal of scumbag slash psychopath Freddie Jackson in The Take.

The Take, based on Martina Cole’s novel, is dark, sinister and explosive — it’s everything you could ever want from a crime thriller. But what really separates this from being just another ‘good old British crime drama’ is the acting. It’s been a while since I’ve been captivated by such dynamic, honest and exciting acting from every actor in a TV series. And leading the way is Hardy who picks up the ball and runs at an unrelenting full speed with it. The deeper the story twists and contorts into a black hole of corruption, greed, and depravity so does his performance.

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We meet him as he’s released after four years in prison, and itching to unleash hell on London’s East End. His psychotic and brutally violent behaviour grows more terrifying by the second. Like lighting a stick of dynamite, the closer it gets to the blasting cap, the more volatile and dangerous it becomes — and is at the same time frightening to watch but impossible to take your eyes off.

Freddie is a character that could so easily have been overdone and turned into a gurning caricature, but Tom plays it with enough depth and charisma — and he know exactly when to hold back to give some relief from the intensity of his unravelling demise.

The anithesis to Freddie’s intensity and ferociousness is his cousin Jimmy, played by the divine Shaun Evans, who offsets Hardy’s brute force with his own wrecking ball of unassuming subtlety. We watch his character start off as sweet, baby-faced Jimmy full of wide-eyed admiration for his newly-released cousin, who seems out-of-his-depth as he hangs on Freddie’s criminal coattails — but it’s not long until he starts transforming into a slick, smart criminal mastermind himself. Will he end up as depraved and unpredictable as his cousin?

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This is not all about the boys though, not by a long shot. You know what they say ‘behind every great man is a great woman, blah blah’ — well, Kierston Wareing and Charlotte Riley are flawless are the sisters behind the scenes of the Jackson family’s criminality. Kierston’s Jackie is frantic, desperate and deluded, and Charlotte’s Maggie is feisty, and interesting. A long with Brian Cox, Sara Stewart and other famous faces, The Take is full of reliably good actors whose performances layer up to create a dynamic and unpredictable story.

The masochist in me has a tendency towards anything that feels like an assault on my nervous system, and The Take is definitely that. At the end of it, I felt wiped out — I’d felt just about every emotion there is to feel from fear to anxiety to distress and excitement, not to mention a few genuinely shocking and gut-wrenching moments. We’re so spoiled for choice when it comes to good thrillers these days, and the downside of that is that we can become desensitised to otherwise exciting and thrilling things but The Take certainly provided a few blood curdling moments that took me by surprise — and still make me flinch just thinking about it.

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Call me biased, but British crime thrillers are the best in the world. They’re loaded with intelligent depravity, original writing, explosive performances, and gorgeously talented actors. But, The Take takes it up a few notches. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this before.

 

Breaking Bad all over again

Four episodes in and I’m thinking, why am I doing this to myself? I know what the final outcome is going to be, and I’m starting to feel like Devon Sawa in Final Destination if after he had the premonition of the plane bursting into flames and crashing he had decided to ignore it and stay on board instead of kicking and screaming his way off, only to watch it burst into flames from the comfort of the airport.

I finally joined the Breaking Bad fan club about two years ago after getting sick of my big brother nagging at me day and night to just please fucking watch it because you will love it. So, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and immediately, and somewhat appropriately considering the subject matter, became addicted. I flew through the first three series and then had to wait what felt like an agonising eternity for series four — and then ensure the excruciating wait for the final season, and of course THAT finale. Was it an incredible viewing experience? Absolutely. Was it a pleasurable viewing experience? Absolutely not!

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It was heartbreaking, stressful and overwhelming in equal measure. I felt sick and tortured for an hour each week, and longed to be put out of my misery — but most of all I was slung into a world of emotional trauma, and couldn’t believe how much my opinion on certain characters changed week by week. But, like all addicts, I kept coming back for more.

As much as it was a brutal assault on my nervous system, it was an experience I’ll never forget — and certainly became the drama I will measure everything else against forever more. From the acting to the writing to the cinematography, it was a delight. So, because of this I was dazzled into thinking I would want to watch it all over again — and so, naively, I bought the entire box set for my mom and dad for Xmas, because, like my brother, I was getting kinda sick of pleading with them to finally watch it.

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And, so here I am precariously teetering on the edge between the fourth and fifth seasons, wondering whether I can stomach it all over again. Mainly because the second time around I have been rooting for different characters from the start — and growing more deeply involved with their interests than before. I mean, I just want to reach through the screen and give Jesse a big hug and will him to get the fuck out of there before it’s, um, too late.

And mainly because, of course, I know what happens. I can pinpoint the moments it all went wrong and can only sit there watching through the gaps in my fingers, powerless to stop them spiralling towards their own demise. Nightmare.

It’s not all doom and gloom though — it actually seems funnier and this time round. Maybe because I’m not frantically stressing over ‘what ifs’ and can just grit my teeth and bear it (and try and remember it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real), or maybe it’s because I’m not trying to follow the plot so I can just sit back and (sort of) relax. I appreciate Hank even more this time around — his own brand of offensive, tongue-in-cheek humour is slicing through some of the tension.

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Also, I’m not sure how because I’m usually pretty neurotic about it, but the first time around I must have missed the music. There were certainly moments — like the ‘clean up’ scene in the season four finale — where I honed in on a song and loved it, but for the most part it kinda passed me by. But this time, again probably down to the knowing the story part, I’ve been soaking it up way more. I even downloaded it all to listen to while running but it was just conjuring up too many harrowing images of torture, betrayal and addiction while I was pounding the pavements. Ha.

So aside from watching episodes from behind a pillow, and dreading certain upcoming moments I am a huge champion of the re-watch. In fact, I think every thing from TV dramas to movies should be watched at least twice. You discover something new the second time around — and you can appreciate the narrative arc and watch it develop much more clearly, because you aren’t focusing all your attention on wrapping your head round the plot.

That said, I guess I’m gonna have to walk the walk, suck it up and actually watch season five again  — I think I owe it to Bryan Cranston’s stunning acting, and Vince Gilligan’s beautifully troubled writing at the very least. Wish me luck.

American Horror Story, something sinister this way comes

American. Horror. Story. Those three words have been the talk of social media sites, strewn across the front pages of magazines all over the world, and on the lips of you and your colleagues every monday morning (and tuesday, wednesday, thursday and friday mornings for that matter I’ll bet…). It’s managed the rare feat of snagging both mainstream success and cult status, and has proven, with genius writing and rare performances, that it has longevity. So, long live the horror stories!

Ever since I was a little whippersnapper I’ve been intrigued by the supernatural. Like most little girls, I woke up every morning hoping that would be the day I finally realised my magic potential a la Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or the more age-appropriate Matilda.

Then I moved on to Charmed and longed to be a Halliwell sister, became obsessed with The Craft as a teenager and finally found my favourite in Practical Magic where I decided once and for all I wouldn’t be truly fulfilled until I spent my days drinking Midnight Margaritas, and casting spells.

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A decade later, and while my magical powers still haven’t appeared (yet!) my love for all things spooky has only grown stronger — going from cauldrons, broomsticks and potions to something a little more spine-chilling thanks to a certain Michael Myers (not the Canadian funnyman but the knife-wielding masked maniac from Halloween). The horror genre, and in particular, slasher movies became my area of interest and expertise.

For me horror isn’t about how much (fake) blood your villain can spill, or how many (prosthetic) heads your baddie can send flying, but more about skilled writers conjuring up suspense and blood-curdling terror with well-thought out characters, clever direction and the all important don’t-want-to-look-but-can’t-look-away sequences.

American Horror Story is every horror junkie’s dream TV show but, unlike so many horror franchises, it doesn’t lazily rely on gratuitous gore for cheap thrills. But instead, crafted by skilful, intelligent writing by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck it tantalises the audience with ingenious plot twists and terrifying suspense.

The first season is set in the notorious Murder House in Los Angeles, where a new family move in and slowly begin to uncover the sinister history hidden behind closed doors.

The house’s blood curdling past is cleverly told through mouth-wateringly exciting new takes on world-famous crimes, such as The Black Dahlia murder, giving new life to the tried and tested ‘haunted house’ stories, until we soon uncover the full extent of the gruesome reality that awaits whoever calls it home.

Jessica Lange smoulders as the scheming bitch next door, Constance Langdon— her blade sharp one-liners are as flawless as her hair. She will stop at nothing to ensure the legacy of the house is kept hidden from prying eyes, and telling mouths. She schemes, lies, and murders her way through town without so much as a curl falling out of place.

Season 2, American Horror Story: Asylum, set (largely) in 1964 in the terrifying Briarcliff mental Asylum, saw the writers and directors step the horror stakes up big time. The decision to keep the same cast to play new characters in a chilling, new environment was inspired, but unsurprising considering the stunning performances from Zachary Quinto, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, and of course Jessica Lange.

Not only are the new surroundings unnerving, and graphic but the sub-plots of Alien abduction, terrorism, and religious cults ensure soaring pulse rates, chewed-down nails, and teeth-chattering terror at the end of each episode.

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The plot sees horrifying serial-killer Bloody Face, whose signature is skinning his victims before slaying them, admitted to Briarcliff after finally being caught… BUT as he protests his innocence, and with the skin-crawlingly creepy Dr Arthur Arden skulking around inflicting his brutal methods on the patients, the question is have they caught the right man?…

The latest season, American Horror Story: Coven, is set in modern day New Orleans, home to a coven of witches. Ferocious, powerful and dressed in black — and not a pointed hat in sight, just the way modern witches should be.

Coven certainly played up to its cult status, giving the audience catchphrases, and fashion icons we could adore even more than before, while maintaing its high standard of twists and turns you can’t see coming and characters to sink your teeth into, love or loathe. And yes, you know what I’m going to say… Jessica Lange, as Supreme Witch Fiona Goode was captivating and smouldering as only she can be.

Emma Roberts was spectacular as the selfish, self-absorbed bitchy witch Madison Montgomery. She was an inspired addition to the cast. Her temper was shorter than her hem lines, and her one-liners sharper than her winged eye liner.

The chemistry between the actors, especially Voodoo queen Marie Laveau (played by Angela Bassett) and Fione Goode, was explosive — like fireworks across a midnight sky.

With the endless possibilities for horror filled situations and villainous characters, there’s no reason why AHS can’t stick around for a long, long time.

So, long live the witches, the bitches, the warlocks, the ax men, the psychopaths, the serial killers, the delinquents, the voodoos, the wild child, the ghosts, the trouble makers, the ghouls, the boogeyman, the telekenetics, the demons, the crazies and, of course, the good guys. Because where would we be without the good guys, eh?

Oh, and before I forget, I shoulda been the next Supreme!

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