After my last post, I had a great conversation with my pal Stuart Barr (@maxrenn) about Bob Peck. I really love his performance in Slipstream and remember fondly his fantastic episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller but, aside from Jurassic Park, hadn’t seen this guy’s chops in much else. Stu was shocked that I hadn’t seen Edge of Darkness – a seminal BBC mini series from the mid-80’s. I’d been aware of it but had never really thought to bother. This led me to thinking how we’re kind of living in a box-set culture right now. We’re all addicted to the gluttonous consumption of great TV shows not, as once we would, in weekly instalments, but all saved up for a massive televisual binge. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I am surprised in the narrow scope of what we’re opting for. We all seem to be hooked on the same things. Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Wire, The Killing, Breaking Bad… all great shows and deserving of their success but I felt there was room for a blog about some of the box sets you might have missed, all of which highly worthy of an eye-binge.
EDGE OF DARKNESS (1985):
The word ‘riveting’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to Edge of Darkness. Its deftness is in how it effortlessly straddles the lines of several genres meaning you never get that awful burnout you tend to feel with shows like 24 which endlessly need to ramp up the adrenaline or Abram’s Lost or Alias where after a while the stories get so twisty and convoluted they become tiresome. Edge of Darkness jumps tracks episode to episode, leaving you constantly in a state of engagement with either the story dynamic, the emotional framework of its characters, high-tension action, mystery and intrigue or just the surprisingly poetic nature of the storytelling. It’s a drama, a thriller and a political parable but kind of not rolled into one. It’s like three states co-existing happily on their own levels with dignity and confidence. It’s a completely unique experience. Peck plays Ronnie Craven, a policeman whose daughter is brutally murdered in front of him on their doorstep. The assumption is that the gunman was out to kill him but it quickly becomes obvious that she had quite the secret life going on as an anti-Nuclear activist whose exploits were having an effect at the highest echelons of world politics and commerce. Craven launches on a mission to uncover the truth. It doesn’t sound so gripping, perhaps but the simpleness of the set-up allows the complexity to come in the fibre of the piece. Craven is a man suffering post-traumatic stress who stumbles into a world of manipulation. Hugely charismatic characters whose true agendas remain firmly hidden. The casting is exceptional, most notably Joe Don Baker as Falstaffian CIA agent Jedburgh. I wouldn’t dare venture into spoiler territory but the conclusion is unexpected and perfect. Peck’s is perhaps one of the greatest small-screen performances in the history of the format. A man of few words but great expression. We feel what he is feeling. We have total empathy for the man. Running alongside this political thriller story we get the tale of a grieving man who is either losing his mind or genuinely accompanied everywhere by the ghost of his murdered daughter, guiding him to avenge her. This show hasn’t aged a day, it is as fresh, smart and sophisticated as anything HBO are currently offering us. If you haven’t seen it, pick it up.
FREAKS AND GEEKS (1999)
Freaks and Geeks is one of those shows that you either know very well and love or you’ve never heard of. It’s certainly never made much of an impact in the UK. I think I’m right in saying it never aired here and you can only buy it on US import DVD. Strange considering how it was the germ of an entire cinematic movement – its executive producer Judd Apatow is now the writer/director behind most of the not-completely-shitty-but-still-not-very-good multiplex comedies of the current era. The cast also went on to big things – some with him, especially Jason Segal who has become an Apatow stalwart but it also launched the careers of Seth Rogan and James Franco. Put simply, Freaks & Geeks is an American high school show set in 1980 but where most such shows would focus on the average kids, this one resolutely sticks to the sidelines. The freaks and the geeks. The freaks being the stoner latchkey kids and the geeks being the nerdy suburbanites. Bridging the two worlds is Lindsay, a high-achieving girl with a talent for math(s) who is cautiously making the transition from ‘mathlete’ to burn-out. The beauty of this series is its genuine pathos. It really isn’t a show for everyone. Which, I guess, is why it remains marginalised and unknown. But for those of us who have been in either or both of the show’s factions it’s a gorgeous touchstone to the excitement and insecurity of teenage, before we learned how to fit in and deal with life. It’s a really nicely observed piece and whilst it’s very very funny, it’s also touching and can find poignancy in the most unexpected but perfect places. If you love John Hughes films, this is for you. Refreshingly for a period piece it resists ever falling into being kitsch and cheesy, which renders it quite a transporting thing back to the textures and atmospheres of that time. It’s not political or particularly moral, it doesn’t feel like it’s espousing any kind of message. It’s just a very well-considered and fond look at good kids who are kept on the fringes.
SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1990)
This one is, perhaps, the wild card of today’s selection and I’d struggle to recommend it per se. To some people it will just be utter crap but it has several merits that make me feel rather fond of it. Mainly, I find it interesting. There aren’t many shows like it and no fucker has ever heard of it and, conceptually, it was a bold move. This was a US/European co-production and the first series (of 2 – both are included in the box set) is entirely UK based. When the European money was pulled, the series retitled itself as ‘Love and Curses’ and scuttled back to LA for a far less worthy run. The basic premise is that an American mythology student, studying in the UK, is attacked on the moors by a werewolf and subsequently becomes one. Which gets in the way less than you might expect – she doesn’t even seem to become a werewolf in every episode. Mainly it’s a series about a student and her professor (played by Neil Dickson who played Biggles in the much-maligned-when-remembered 80s cinematic outing) traveling the UK and investigating local myths and paranormal goings on. Which, as you are no doubt thinking right now, is an ACE concept for a series. The 80s American TV-ness both gets in the way a bit and enhances the fun of it all. This show has a serious Garth Merenghi asthetic to it and you feel that without the slightly annoying American lead, this could have been Hammer Studios’d up into being a peculiarly British (pre-emptive) answer to The X-Files. The series was created by Mick Garris – who has a fine pedigree in genre TV having been a principal contributor to both Amazing Stories and Masters of Horror. If you like Buffy, Being Human or generally have a hankering for some 80s pop video stylings, this is worth picking up cheap and wasting a rainy weekend on. Oh, and top crazy fact – when the character is a werewolf, she’s portrayed by Jet from Gladiators. Oh yes.
It’s not that I wonder why Wonderfalls was cancelled after just one fantastic season, I’m just blown away that it ever got commissioned in the first place. It’s one of those concepts and scripts which you read and say ‘well, this is brilliant but there is nothing commercial about it and it’s so defiantly odd without being ‘cool’ that it doesn’t stand a chance.’ The premise is about a recent graduate who finds herself living a wasted life working in a gift shop at Niagara Falls and living in a trailer. She’s too smart for that life but too aloof to really do much about it. One day she starts hearing voices. Well, not really, inanimate animal objects start to talk to her. Wax lions, stuffed donkeys, that kind of thing. They try to guide her to being a better person, each episode finds another souvenir animal pushing her towards saving another lost soul – all of which she does with an understandable and endearing petulance. It’s a completely odd and off-kilter series which makes little sense in many ways but is never less than a great view. It’s quirky, kooky, spunky, all the good ‘ky’s and it deserved to be seen by more people.
ALIEN NATION (1989)
Like Wonderfalls, it was odd that this show ever got commissioned based, as it was, on a movie that really not many people saw and which remains basically unremembered. It was a solid film. James Caan playing a cop of the very near future (now the distant past, headfuck fans) in a downtown LA a year or so after an alien spaceship has landed. The aliens have been quarantined and, found to be friendly and basically humanoid, are now just the latest wave of immigrants to face stigmatization in the land of opportunity. Caan is paired up with an unrecognizable Mandy Patinkin as an alien cop to solve a series of murders. In a sense, this was always a better concept for a series rather than a one-off film as there is so much to explore in such an idea. The film itself was an enjoyable buddy-cop thriller. The series so much more. The series was spearheaded by a guy who I adore, a writer/director/producer called Kenneth Johnson who is the brain behind my two favourite TV shows of the 80s – The Incredible Hulk (in which he managed to pull a nuanced and emotionally resonant series out of painting a bodybuilder green and having him running about shouting, no mean feat!) and V which was a beautiful allegory for the holocaust to a new pop-culture generation of Americans.
Alien Nation really gets its teeth into the social construct of America’s ‘classless’ society. It looks at issues of immigration and racism. It does what sci-fi does best – it holds a mirror up to society and uses a fantastical story to reflect the truth about what is happening in reality. Neither Caan nor Patinkin return but their characters are taken over by Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint, both of whom ably bring a charm an gravitas to their roles. The series is a constant journey of Graham, a reluctantly decent beer-swiller of a guy – being endlessly confronted by his own prejudices and forced to learn or change. It has a lot to say about institutionalized racism in organizations such as the police force along with polemics on the nature of immigration and resultant poverty. Pierpoint’s George Francisco, the first alien to become a detective in the LAPD, is also endlessly faced with the need for reflection, as a high achieving alien, he is viewed by many as a sell-out. As he embraces America’s middle-class trappings – social integration, moving into a ‘good neighbourhood’ and the participation in human ritual, such choices have to be questioned and his good-natured family often have to pay the price. The relationship between George and his son, who finds himself disenfranchised and painfully drawn into alien gang culture, is particularly well observed.
Although the show only lasted one season, regular TV Movie follow-ups were made throughout the 90s. These are also available and worth seeing but felt slightly bloated in comparison to the tightness of the original episodes.
RESCUE ME (2004)
This isn’t an underdog of a series like the others – it lasted 7 seasons and bowed out when it was ready to. Yet I never heard of it. Completely under my radar until recently and I think it’s great. Denis Leary is a strange guy, back in the 90s we had a love-hate relationship with him. His No Cure For Cancer stand-up material was blistering and he had an energy like no other but when it transpired he’d ripped a lot of his material off from his estranged friend the true comedy genius Bill Hicks, he kind of became persona non grata. It didn’t get better, with Hicks dead and Leary scrambling for new material, he kind of became detestably un-PC. He wasn’t satirising the right or lampooning the left, he just came off as a grumpy, unreconstructed shit. He moved away from standup and made a bunch of crappy films (and some good ones – The Ref and Demolition Man, notably.) Maybe that’s why this passed me by, I wouldn’t have much interest in a TV show starring and written by him. I picked Season 1 up on a whim as it was reduced to £7 in the HMV death bonanza. I was expecting a mildly diverting, hopefully kinetic and angry thing that I could have on in the background of an evening. That wasn’t what I got. I was sucked in immediately and got through all 4 discs in just 3 nights. Yes, Leary plays what you would expect him to – an unapologetic blue collar alpha male firefighter. Smarter than the average wageslave, heavy drinking, ferociously opinionated and indulgently wankersome. The surprise was that he chooses to play all of these things resolutely as weaknesses. Had this series been set in the 70s or 80s, it would have been gloriously misogynistic, racist and fuck-you in attitude but this is a firehouse in the shadow of 9/11. These guys are all suffering from crippling post-traumatic stress and their lives are falling apart. Although the racism and misogyny is rampant, it is never showed as anything but pathetic. These guys are dinosaurs, they even find themselves vile but can barely function in the modern world with their mental well-beings in constant danger of collapse. Leary’s character Tommy Gavin is on the ultimate tightrope – he is the alpha male of the house, they look to him for guidance and as a role model but he can barely maintain the artifice of functionality. Everywhere he goes, he is tailed by an ever growing squadron of ghosts of the people he couldn’t save. His colleagues from 9/11, a little girl with a cat, a young black boy, all covered in horrific burns. He drinks to ignore them but they’re always there. Sometimes angry with him, sometimes questioning. He doesn’t know how to ask for help and he is becoming a liability in emergency situations where his men are slowly starting to be aware of him talking to the dead. But it’s not a paranormal show at all. That is just a nice creative flourish. It’s still a straightforward drama about a man trying to get through life. His ex-wife, his lover, his burgeoning relationship with his dead best friend’s wife (the ultimate fireman taboo) His co-workers all have their own problems too – illegitimate children, failing marriages, engagement with previously untapped sensitive sides. The show is funny, melancholy, thoughtful and lively and I adore the way it dissects notions of masculinity in the modern world.
So, those are my recommendations. Have you got any for me? Have you seen any of these? Let me know your thoughts!
If you enjoyed this blog, please use the buttons below to share it….