Magpie Murders is Masterful Entertainment

Magpie Murders

I spend much time writing bad reviews and not enough writing positive blogs about the shows I watch. Today is a joy because I get to discuss the magnificent Magpie Murders. Don’t call it The Magpie Murders. It’s important, so get it right.

Magpie Murders is a television mystery series on PBS Masterpiece and based on a novel of the same name by Anthony Horowitz. The mysteries are finding out who murdered the man writing the Magpie Murders murder mystery and how the book itself ends. A mystery of a mystery. Let’s get on with the review.

A Complex Story

The story of Magpie Murders is relatively simple but incredibly complex from a writing perspective. There are really two mysteries going on at the same time with two completely different sets of characters. First is the death of murder mystery writer Alan Conway and second is the missing last chapter of his latest book, Magpie Murders.

The two mysteries run side by side with fictional Atticus Pund attempting to solve the fictional case while very real literary editor Susan Ryeland tries to solve the former. I can only begin to express my admiration for this dual storytelling and the aplomb with which it is achieved. Telling one story is difficult enough but switching back and forth between two mysteries, one a fictional account from the victim of the second, is a recipe for complete confusion and disaster.

It all comes together thanks to the wonderful acting, directing, writing, set-design, camera work, and everything else involved in a production of this nature.

Who Dunnit?

The essence of a mystery is trying to figure out who committed the crime, or crimes in this case. One of the most important things in a mystery, from my perspective, is making sure the author doesn’t cheat us. The clues must be available and, although we don’t usually solve it, when revealed we should nod our heads and say, yep, that makes sense.

In both cases the solution fits the crime and clues were available to us. There is a little montage during great reveals showing us various flashbacks, which is a nice touch considering the two different stories did tend to blend together in my mind. Normally I don’t need quite as much prompting from a show but I think this story merited the review.

There’s even some anagram wordplay, which I find to be badly overused these days, but it’s important to the story and works in this case.

The Acting

Excellent acting all the way around. From the main character to the bit players. I believed everyone in the story from beginning to end and special mention to Tim McMullin as Atticus Pund who traverses both realities, the fictional mystery and the real-world crime, with amazing compassion and serenity.

Many of the actors played dual roles, being one character in the scenes depicting events from the novel and a second in the world of Susan Ryeland and Alan Conway. Despite being the same actor they all manage to differentiate their characters easily and understandably to the audience. Outstanding work.

The Sets

The sets, as is often the case in English drama, are fantastic. I’m going to make one comparison here because the second season of Miss Scarlet runs right before Magpie Murders on PBS. If you read my review of Miss Scarlet, you’ll know my thoughts on that subject so I’m not going too in depth.

Signage. The signs on the establishments in the world of Magpie Murders look real, believable, you barely even notice them. From modern signs in the world of Susan Ryeland to mid twentieth century signs in the fictional realm. The signs in Miss Scarlet look slap-dash and out of place. It’s little things like this that make a difference. The people in charge of Magpie Murders care and it shows.

Cinematography

We see lavish, modern mansion, squalid groundskeeper’s shacks, wide vistas, modern London, and more. The camera moves from disparate scenes with ease and this is no easy task. Shooting indoors and outdoors, so many sets, it’s not easy to make all that work but it does and it does so beautifully.

Conclusion

If you like a good mystery, I can’t recommend Magpie Murders enough. There’s hardly a wrong note in the entire six episodes. Bravo.

Tom Liberman

Miss Scarlet almost Proper Wokeness

Wokeness

I’m not a big fan of Miss Scarlet and the Duke but the second episode of the new season almost got it right. It was tantalizingly close to Wokeness done properly but failed in the end. Such a shame.

The show is clearly a vehicle to display a strong woman as the lead character. Miss Eliza Scarlet, played by Kate Phillips, is the titular character and the self-proclaimed only female private detective in London.

Just because a show wants to display a bit of Wokeness doesn’t mean it’s going to be bad. I’ve written several times I consider myself a member of the Wokeness clan. Several of my novels involve female leads. There’s nothing wrong with wanting equality in society but I’m also a fan of good entertainment and Miss Scarlet doesn’t quite make it there.

The Wokeness Plot was Good

This episode of Miss Scarlet involved Eliza investigating the theft of a Charles Darwin sketch from a museum. The museum in question being owned and operated by a woman. Things get strange when it turns out someone placed an advertisement in the local paper offering an enormous reward for the sketch before it was even stolen and requesting applications be put to Miss Scarlet.

The Estranged Husband

Miss Scarlet investigates the estranged husband of the museum owner who is played as an over-the-top jerk. This is one of the big problems with portraying Wokeness improperly. The unwoke, for lack of a better term, are overly one-dimensional, caricatures. They are so dumb, so angry, so ridiculous that it becomes impossible to take them seriously.

Instead of making the man so simple; why not give him some nuance? He is jealous of both his mother and his wife’s successes. That’s an interesting idea. His mother was apparently an Egyptologist who didn’t get credit for her work. The problem is we don’t find out about all this until the very end of the episode.

Eliza following the moth into the hidden chamber was a ludicrous way for the audience to learn about this critical information. Why can’t mom simply mention her past in conversation during the investigation? Why not have the husband gently chide his mother, “Nobody wants to hear about that old news” or something like that. That’s an organic method of displaying the subtle way in which women and minorities are treated unfairly, to genuinely show why Wokeness is important.

Waste of Time Red Herrings

A huge amount of time was spent tracking down art thieves and forgers. Several scenes involved Miss Scarlet, standing out like a sore-thumb, under-cover and following a master forger only to be saved at the last moment by the Duke. Why? It just wasted time. The real Red Herring was the husband stealing the sketch because of feelings of inadequacy compared to his wife and mother. That’s the story! That’s the Wokeness we needed.

More Time Wasted

The young detective, son of the commissioner, took up a huge amount of time and energy. When you’ve got forty-five minutes to tell a story, you absolutely can’t waste time like this. Every scene is important. The story was the husband’s jealousy. That’s the Wokeness angle and it’s a good one. We just didn’t explore it properly. We didn’t get nuance, we didn’t get interesting characters, we didn’t learn anything useful about why he felt this way.

The Ending

I found the conclusion wholly disappointing. The mother’s plan didn’t really make a lot of sense but with a few tweaks it might have done so. The entire anagram business seemed contrived and how did the sketch get into the bust?

That being said, the basic concept of mom wanting publicity for her daughter-in-law’s museum and Miss Scarlet is a great idea. A woman who went out and challenged the world but didn’t get the credit she deserves. Now she’s trying to help other women. It’s fantastic, it’s real, it’s visceral Wokeness.

Conclusion

This episode had so much potential but in the end, it largely failed, for me at least. That’s a shame because it feeds the anti-wokeness mob. Why not focus on the husband’s jealousy? Have him come to some realization at the end about his mother, his wife. That’s an arc, that’s a story, that’s good entertainment.

So close, yet so far.

Tom Liberman

Van der Valk too Clever by Far

Van der Valk

I watched the first episode of Series Two of Van der Valk last night and came away unimpressed. I didn’t really like the first season of Van der Valk all that much either but, I said to myself, why not give it a chance?

The show follows a team of detectives in Amsterdam led by Peter Van der Valk. They are an eclectic group to say the least. The show is actually a reboot from an earlier series which I have not seen so I can’t really make any comparisons. The new show is flashy, stylish, filled with dramatic music, tense scenes, and intense characters.

My Review of Van der Valk

My review of the episode can be summed up in a single line: too clever. That’s simplifying all my problems with the show but it does express my general frustration with crime dramas and mysteries that make the solution so convoluted I have no chance of figuring anything out. Of course, I actually figured out the actual killer from the beginning but the clues that led us there were beyond baffling.

Basically, our killer left notes on the corpses with cryptic clues as to the next victim. Then one member of the team eventually had some sort of epiphany of understanding that led to the next scene. The word ethics must mean Spinoza! The word fire must mean Prometheus. The word God must mean Inventor but then, also be an acronym. Each revelation made less sense than the previous.

It seemed to me someone came up with the clever idea of having the murderer use Spinoza as an inspiration but then just went about it in the laziest way possible. I get using a local philosopher as a plot point but the story had nothing to do with Spinoza and the three great disasters of Amsterdam except in the most convoluted way possible. I lost track of it and just kept shaking my head and sighing in bewilderment.

While the effort to be overly clever certainly made my experience watching the first episode of Van der Valk unpleasant, it was not my only issue. Spoilers coming.

The Fish Tank

The fish tank in which the young woman drowned was way too high for the scene to happen. The murderer could not push the victim into the tank. The elevated tank came up to the chest of the detectives. You can’t bend over that way, it needed to be at waist height.

The First Victim in the Windfarm

Our murderer is not a large man. How he managed to get his victim up on the cross in the middle of the wind farm is beyond my understand. I’m willing to give a little leeway here. Maybe he rented a truck with a crane or something.

The Publicist and the Car

It’s revealed the publicist, who drowned implausibly as described above, was murdered because she took a bribe in order to stop her campaign to help the local artists. The bribe being a fancy car. This seemed utterly improbably to me. Amsterdam is a city well-known for an excellent public transit system. I can see her taking a large sum of money, but a sports car that she needs to pay upkeep and taxes on? Made no sense to me.

The Husband

The first victim’s husband was impossibly bizarre. The story of his separation from his wife and his violent abuse didn’t tie into the story at all. It just seemed an excuse to have a dislikable character as a possible suspect. His transparent lies made it clear he couldn’t be the murderer.

The Date

I can’t even begin to tell you everything I found wrong in the date between the detective and the ink maker. First off, it’s a stretch just to imagine she agreed to go out with him. I found his bumbling stupidity beyond credibility and Van der Valk ridiculing the poor fellow incessantly as some sort attempt at comic relief came across as completely unrealistic.

The poor fellow, I can’t even remember his name, seems to be on the show simply so people can make fun of him.

The Final Scene

Wait, the other bombs were real? When did he plant them. How does he have explosive knowledge. His reasoning for the brutal murders makes almost no sense. His final dialog with our hero went on and on. And on. And on. And on.

While they were talking, you can clearly see the Ferris wheel revolving normally in the background although supposedly it is being evacuated.

The Acting

I think the actors do their best with the lines they’ve got. It’s a mess but at least they try.

Conclusion

Blah. Too clever. Trying too hard to be dramatic. The serial killer leaving cryptic clues is tired and boring writing at this point. A good crime drama doesn’t need to save the world. It can just be a good crime drama. Van der Valk isn’t that.

Tom Liberman

Who is the Most Annoying Vicar in Grantchester?

Grantchester

Eh gads, but I’m thoroughly fed up with this show they call Grantchester. If it wasn’t for Leonard and the fact there’s nothing else to watch on Sunday nights; Sidney and Will would have driven me off long ago.

So, I put it to you, my audience. Who do you hate more, Sidney or Will? There will be a poll at the end of this blog. I remind you, casting your vote for Sidney or Will is not saying you like the other one. How could anyone like either of them?

Sidney’s Many Failings

Who could possible imagine I might yearn for the days of an almost psychopathic vicar who promised his girlfriend he’d leave the priesthood and marry her and then, an hour later, left her, waiting without so much as a note, at the door for a ride that never came.

Oh, Sidney, you were a liar, that much is certainly true. Filled with self-pity so much that it shot out your anus and your ears like a barrage of cannons. Every moment you came on the screen with your whining and crying about God having abandoned you, of not having love, of being bored with the religious life made me want to punch you all the more.

I’m not a religious man but I like to think if I was so, I’d rather have an aloof cat tend to my spiritual needs. If running away from your problems was a virtue, Sidney might be a Saint.

Ah, Sidney, you are not missed in Grantchester, not by me at least.

When will Will sigh sadly Again?

Probably in the next scene. Will sighs a lot. Everything about the new, chronically sad Vicar of Grantchester is awful. Life is miserable unless he’s banging whichever skirt happens to cross his path while guzzling whiskey like lemonade and smoking a pack a day. What a fine example you are for Grantchester.

Oh, sigh. Something happened. Sigh. Isn’t it awful? Sigh. I’m going to go sit and feel sorry for myself for a while. Go on and solve the case yourself. Sigh. Poor Leonard, it’s not fair. Nothing is fair. I’ve lost the love of my life for the tenth time. Sigh.

Well, Will, I mean, if it’s the tenth time it’s happened, it’s probably not the love of your life.

Gee, Tom, you’re right. Woe is me.

Oh wait, another girl! I’m in love again! I’ll charm her pants off and then find a reason why it’s all really so miserable. Sigh.

Grantchester Poll

You tell me. Who is worse?

Who do you find more Annoying?

View Results

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Conclusion

Sigh.

Tom Liberman

Endeavour Series Eight Trying too Hard

Endeavour

I just finished watching the final episode of the eighth series of Endeavour and came away mightily disappointed. Not that the mystery was terrible or anything but it failed to meet its normally high standards.

I’m aware this relatively negative review will not be popular with fans of Endeavour and of Morse shows in general. That being said, I call them like I see them and this season failed for a number of important reasons.

The Mystery

I’ve written in other places on the criteria I use when evaluating the objective quality of a show but a mystery show is slightly different. An important factor in a mystery is giving the audience a reasonable chance to solve the riddle before the conclusion. Too often in mysteries the writers make it so convoluted and confusing the audience never has a chance to figure it out.

In the three episodes of this series, only the first gives the audience even a semblance of chance to figure out the mystery. The second episode of Endeavour involved clock hands matching semaphore signals which spell the Welsh version of an important character’s name. Um, our chances of figuring that out? Zero percent seems high. The third was such a convoluted mess they spent twenty minutes explaining who did it and why and I’m still confused.

I found the mysteries too clever by far and this largely ruined the season for me. Particular the third episode, which tried to be Silence of the Lambs meets Halloween meets A Beautiful Mind, left me baffled, bored, and incredulous.

It’s my opinion the Endeavour audience doesn’t need all this nonsense. Give us a reasonable mystery and let the wonderful characters carry the story.

All the Rest

Everything else in Endeavour is up to par. The acting is excellent. The sets are great. The costumes are period and convincing. The cinematography is solid although I thought they got a little too fancy at times trying to be stylish.

Missing Son

The third episode included a lengthy side story involving Thursday’s missing son. I strongly suspect it is a lead-in to what will be the main storyline of series nine. It also allowed Thursday’s wife to have her meltdown which I guess was dramatic acting or something.

That being said, it was way, way too much. It took away from the episode and no investigation or even explanation occurred. It was just there. This really took time away from what was already a mind-boggler of an episode. Nothing forwarded the story.

I get what they are trying to do, or at least I think I get it. My problem is a much simpler way to handle the situation existed. Just a scene where the army calls looking for the son. Something simple, don’t get into details or even have it known that he’s missing. Just a quick setup.

Conclusion

The character of Morse, both older and younger, is well-established and interesting. He and his co-workers are good enough for an interesting episode. All I need is a reasonable mystery around them and I’m happy. This series of Endeavour just tried way too hard to be far more than it needed to be.

Hotel Portofino Two Episode Early Review

Hotel Portofino

I watched the second episode of Hotel Portofino on PBS and I’m ready to give my preliminary review of the six-episode series. When I write a review, I try to take into account a lot of the things that make it objectively better or worse. Absolute good or bad is difficult to assign because there are many parts to a show and Hotel Portofino definitely has a duality to it.

Hotel Portofino tells the story of an English woman running a hotel in Italy in the early 1920’s when Mussolini first comes to power. It focuses on Bella Ainsworth and her immediate family including a war-traumatized son, a daughter with a young child, and a wayward husband. We also get to meet a wide variety of guests.

So, is it good? To quote my favorite YouTube lawyer, it depends.

Acting in Hotel Portofino

The acting is generally solid and often excellent. Natascha McElhone is strong in the lead and is generally supported well by a large cast including her scheming husband Cecil played by Mark Umbers. I don’t have any problems with the acting in the show.

Sets and Costumes in Hotel Portofino

This is where the show is truly outstanding. Everything in the hotel, the scrumptious surrounding countryside, the fancy cars, and the wonderful costumes are spot on. Details in the scenes are excellent with every room of the hotel looking lived in and real.

The costumes also appear period to my eyes and wonderful. Everyone is dressed the part and I’m immersed in the world of Italy.

Writing and Dialog in Hotel Portofino

The writing and dialog are largely good although there is the never-ending problem of British actors portraying citizens of the United States. It’s a real problem but I’m not sure I can really blame that on anyone. If you’re a fan of period pieces on PBS you’ll have noted this yourself and I need not elaborate.

Story and Structure in Portofino

Here’s where all the good comes to a screeching halt. There are far too many characters, far too many story lines, and the structure of the episodes have no central support. We meet character after character in the first episode and it’s impossible to tell one from the other after a while. We meet even more guests in the second episode.

Scene after unrelated scenes spawns on the screen, often without any linear sense of story or structure. The nanny suddenly finds the son attractive out of nowhere. The food deliveries stop for no apparent reason. Is the American an art critic or a CIA agent? What’s up with his yoga practicing wife? The young waiter is an anti-fascist suddenly? I’m totally confused.

The writers don’t trust us with any information and its impossible to figure out what’s going on with all the plots. A good example of this is the local fascist blackmailing Bella over a letter. The contents of the letter? A complete mystery. The American’s real goal? A mystery. The nanny’s personal tragedy? A mystery.

The first two episode had no central support. Like the Gilded Age, we just got scene after scene, plot line after plot line but nothing to hold it all together.

In the second episode the cutting off of food deliveries might have brought the story together. Perhaps the staff all heads out, fishing, scavenging, finding friends, and bringing the entire story together. Instead, we spent forever on a scene painting when we learn, out of nowhere, the nanny has talent as an artist.

Conclusion

If you like beautiful scenery, lovely costumes, good acting, and you don’t particularly care to try and follow a mind-numbing number of plots with little explanation; this show is for you.

It’s not a bad show by any stretch. I think a tighter structure, more scenes devoted to just a few plots, and fewer characters are required to make it excellent entertainment. In its current state, it’s ok.

Tom Liberman

Sanditon Lacked the Deft Touch of Jane Austen

Deft Touch

Season Two of Sanditon wrapped up with a final episode largely lacking a deft touch. The various plot lines largely smashed to the ground with all the force of turkeys dropped from a helicopter. This lack of deft touch runs counter to the general manner in which Jane Austen writes her novel and struck me greatly.

I’m certainly not saying the second season of Sanditon is a disaster. It proved largely watchable and mostly enjoyable. Still, the heavy-handed conclusion to several of the season-long story lines left me somewhat disappointed. Let’s talk about it.

Charlotte, Alexander, and Colonel Lennox

I never felt any real chemistry between Charlotte and Alexander. I found Rose Williams effective in her role of Charlotte but I couldn’t see why she fell in love with Alexander. Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Alexander never really engaged me. He seemed dull and lifeless, which, to be fair, is part of the character as written.

Likewise, Colonel Lennox didn’t strike me as the sort to win Charlotte’s heart. In addition, his portrayal as a scheming villain never resonated for me. Tom Weston-Jones just didn’t make me hate him, or like him much for that matter. He was just sort of there.

Because I never really got invested in the potential love triangle, the ending never tugged at my emotions at all.

The Kids

Honestly, I know one is Leonora but the other one I just can’t remember. Let me look it up, ah, yes, Augusta. Eloise Webb didn’t have a lot to work with and she rotated between hating and adoring Charlotte so often I lost track of it all. I just didn’t really care about either one of the children to be honest and therefore their plight didn’t mean much to me.

Tom Parker and the Money Problems

I did find the money issues involving Sanditon and Tom Parker compelling but the resolution left me completely dissatisfied. I hoped Arthur might come up with some brilliant plan. Instead, a single hand of cards in a game that wasn’t explained solved the issues. The dramatic music played during the game hoped to create tension and suspense but I felt nothing.

It’s a real problem when one of the biggest dramatic moments at the conclusion of a season is confusing and dull. The resolution here left me baffled. This is the best the writers could find?

Miss Lambe and Charles Lockhart

The ending here really turned me off. Alexander Vlahos did a superb job as the brilliant artist, dismissive of society, admiring Miss Lambe. Then, suddenly, with no explanation or foreshadowing, he’s the bad guy. Crystal Clarke as Georgiana also turned in a fine performance. First disdainful of the artist and then succumbing to his charm.

The conclusion largely betrayed everything that came before it. If we’d seen Lockhart revealing his nefarious scheme in any way before the denouement, it might have worked. We didn’t. The twist ending fell quite flat for me at least, the deft touch of Austen completely absent.

Alison, Carter, and Fraser: A Deft Touch at Last

This love story made more sense and the flavor of Austen came through. I believed the innocent and bright-eyed Alison falling for the apparently dashing Captain Carter. Frank Blake as Fraser did a great job portraying his admiration of Alison while displaying loyalty to his friend.

Rosie Graham as Alison and Maxim Ays as Carter also performed admirably in their roles. I found myself invested in this story and when Fraser emerged as the winner of Alison’s heart it made sense.

I was a little put off by Fraser resigning his commission and returning with Alison to a life of farming. A more appropriate ending, in my mind, is Alison joining Fraser in India, traveling the world as the wife of an officer destined for glory. That is a small quibble and this storyline proved more satisfying.

The Nefarious Edward

Absolute applause for Jack Fox in his role as Edward Denham. His performance made this story the most compelling in the series. This is a villain! He perfectly transitioned between scheming miscreant to charmer. I believed him, his plan made sense. He brought Edward Denham to life in a way lacking with Colonel Lennox and Charles Lockhart. A villain is vital to a story and Fox sold me completely.

Lily Sacofsky as Clara, Charlotte Spencer as Esther, and Anne Reid as Lady Denham ably supported and enhanced Fox’s performance. Each of them brought their own nuance to the plot and I believed every second of it. When Clara comes to the realization she’s better off on Team Esther it is apparent and logical. Everything comes together nicely.

Perhaps I found her final decision a bit paradoxical after her speech about the fierceness of her love for the baby, but this is minor.

Conclusion

Sanditon is a decent show and I enjoyed it. Sadly, it lacked the deft touch necessary to bring it home as excellent entertainment. What did you think?

Tom Liberman

Sanditon is it that Difficult to Keep a Timeline?

Timeline

Argh, Sanditon, I say. Argh, I repeat with emphasis. Is it really that difficult to construct a timeline that makes sense? Of what do I speak, you might ask? The latest episode centers on a festival later on today or tonight or next week or tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure. They keep changing it.

I know I’m the only one in the world who cares about this sort of thing, but the fuzzy timeline of the big festival largely ruined my immersion in this week’s episode of Sanditon. When is the festival? When? Every time I think I have a handle on the timeline, it shifts likes the sands of Arrakis.

The Festival is Today

Tom Parker gets a package. He looks up at the sky and tells the clouds not to rain. Clearly there is something on tap for today. He opens the package and finds a bunch of fliers for a festival. Oh, good, he exclaims with glee as gazes at them.

I’m already confused. He just looked at the sky and told it not to rain. Does that mean the timeline for the festival is today? That seems like the only explanation but why are the fliers only arriving now? Why haven’t those been pasted all over town a month ago?

The Festival is Next Month?

Tom doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to paste the fliers all over town. I am utterly confused. Maybe the festival isn’t happening today. Next month, perhaps? Surely, he understands promotion well enough to know he can’t post the fliers a few hours before the event?

The Festival is Tomorrow Morning

The elephant is cancelled? If the event is happening tomorrow, I’d expect the elephant to be on premises at least a few days early. There’s much to do, setting up a pen for the mighty beast, arranging for food, and other necessities.

Everyone does seem excited about the elephant. Tom is ripping down the fliers, that the timeline hasn’t accounted for putting up, because it’s embarrassing that the elephant he promised, today, won’t be here tomorrow.

Charlotte is Time Traveling Again

Charlotte is with her employer and the girls, Alison is out on a date with the shady officer, now they are talking to each other with Miss Lambe at the Parker house. Now she’s back with her employer having a picnic. When is the festival? I’m lost. Is Doctor Who in charge of the timeline of this episode?

It’s Tomorrow

Oh, it’s tomorrow. When is the festival starting, tea time? Everyone is going about their business like the thing is happening later but it’s been all day already. Charlotte woke up, went to work, had a picnic, tutored the girls, and is still back in Sanditon in time for the hydrogen balloon, no hot air required for those of you with inquiring minds.

Winch

How incompetent is Colonel Lennox? You’ve got three soldiers holding a rope for the balloon? Winch. You need a winch. Not a wench, Alison is all over that. I know, this has nothing to do with my rant today but I can’t stop myself.

At least we’ve got jolly Arthur Parker to save the day. Although, honestly, after that fiasco I’d be less inclined to make the ascent. The soldiers are clearly all idiots.

Conclusion

Is it really that difficult to construct a coherent timeline? Why weren’t we told about the upcoming festival last episode. The elephant, the fliers, all the things required to make this week’s focus, the festival, make any sort of sense.

Argh, I repeat for likely not the last time.

Am I the only one who cares about out of sequence events?

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Tom Liberman

Sanditon Cliffhanger not Resolved Well

Cliffhanger

The first episode of Sanditon ended in a pair of cliffhangers. One when Miss Lambe and Miss Heywood, Alison that is, crashed their coach. The army officers training on the beach rushed over to rescue them and Charlotte’s little sister gazes up into the eyes of her handsome hero.

The second when we find out Sidney Parker, before his death, learned something distressing about Miss Lambe. Now, generally speaking, when ending an episode or a season with a cliffhanger it’s reasonable to expect it to be resolved fairly quickly in the next episode. It’s not a necessity by any means and there are good reasons not to do so, which I’ll talk about later.

Generally speaking, the reason you include a cliffhanger in an episode is to draw the audience back for the next episode. People want to find out what happened. Cliffhangers are generally structured so a resolution is the next possible event. But not always.

Were the choices made good ones? Let’s discuss.

Coach Crash Cliffhanger

The coach crash falls into the immediate category. We left off with the young women spilled out all over the beach, knocked nearly unconscious. We sort of need to know if Alison and Miss Lambe suffered any serious injuries.

I imagined we’d pick up right where we left off. We’d see the rescue, first aid applied, a rushing over of concerned bystanders, and eventually a return home. Later scenes might include a visit to the doctor and the concern of Charlotte for her sister’s safety, an admonishment to Miss Lambe for her careless driving. None of that happened.

Instead, we pretty much immediately see both of the young ladies up and about in good health and spirits. The only mention of the accident comes when Captain Carter comes to deliver invitations for the ball and Alison somehow doesn’t even know his name. It seems like information she’d have from the aftermath of the crash, but, whatever. Not a big deal.

The problem with resolving the crash this way, for me at least, is I found myself totally confused during the opening scenes of the episode. Wait, wasn’t there a crash? Did I miss an episode? Is this out of order?

I’m guessing, without any evidence, a rescue scene was filmed but the editor decided it didn’t add much to the story and cut it. It just felt like an odd way to handle the cliffhanger.

Miss Lambe’s Finance Cliffhanger

The other cliffhanger was less immediate. We learned Sidney was investigating something about Miss Lambe and we suspect it might be financial shenanigans. This is the sort of cliffhanger that doesn’t need an immediate resolution. The truth of the matter can slowly unfold over the course of the next episode and those that follow.

That being said, it barely got a mention at all. The only time I recall it coming up occurred when Arthur Parker is speaking with Miss Lambe. They both seem aware of the situation involving Sidney but no further information is divulged.

I found myself surprised that someone told Miss Lambe about the situation at all considering they don’t know much. How did Arthur find out? Presumably discussions occurred but all off screen. I’m not a big fan of handling a major plot device with such exposition. Show us the scenes where Miss Lambe is told about the potential irregularities. Let’s see her reactions. It’s an important plot point because Miss Lambe’s wealth is a major focus of her many suitors. If she’s not the heiress we all imagine, if the money is gone, that is pretty important information.

Why was the situation largely ignored in the second episode? I’m sure more is coming but a few scenes where Miss Lambe is informed of the problem, perhaps where Charlotte is told, are in order. The lack of those scenes dulls my interest. If this is to be a major plot point, we need some information, some scenes, some concern about the potential consequences, but nope, a couple of useless lines.

Conclusions

I find myself quite disappointed in the way Sanditon handled the two big cliffhangers from the premier episode. Confused at the opening scenes of the episode and mostly forgetting about the Sidney situation.

The show is largely lacking the deft touch of say, Jane Austen.

Tom Liberman

Oh Sanditon don’t be The Gilded Age

Sanditon

The much-anticipated premier episode of the second season of Sanditon arrived with fanfare on PBS and because of that, you get to hear my thoughts about it. I’ll be clear right away, I’m not one to mince words. The episode borrowed far too much from The Gilded Age and that does not make me happy.

I don’t think the episode nearly met the low standards of The Gilded Age but it seemed the producers of Sanditon, at least in this first episode, used the same playbook as those who created the aforementioned series.

Now, perhaps it’s a good thing to borrow from a successful show but to my way of thinking, success is not equivalent to high quality. Let’s get on with it.

Blistering Pace

Sanditon blasts off with all the subtlety of an Elon Musk product launch. The opening iambic pentameter recap just wasted time reminding us of the events of the previous season. Then came the race to start every plotline as quickly as possible.

Sidney is dead, Charlotte is returning with her sister, Sanditon is rebuilt, loans must be repaid, miscarriages, army units, nefarious officers, dashing officers, children running under horses, women working for a living; it’s all happening too fast. Who, what, why, when, where? Doesn’t matter, stand aside, we’ve got to introduce every conflict as quickly as possible instead of letting them unfold organically.

Out of Time Sequences

Scenes out of time and out of place is a particular annoyance of mine although I know it doesn’t bother others as much. It’s a staple in the Gilded Age where one character has five days roll by and another only has a single afternoon pass when they meet for lunch.

It wasn’t nearly as egregious in Sanditon, but Charlotte went from applying for the position of governess to having lunch with the Parkers and then to walking back from the job interview. Maybe the good Doctor Who intervened somewhere to make that possible.

Contrived Conflict

The majority of the conflict seem to come out of nowhere. Why does Miss Lamb hate the artist who will clearly be her love interest? The argument between Charlotte and her employer was out of place. Even the military unit’s presence in town didn’t make a lot of sense. As for the two wayward children, they seemed almost like alien entities. Why are they here? What’s going on? Don’t know, don’t care, we need plot!

Now, I’m not a stickler for this sort of thing. You’ve got to have conflict and sometimes you need contrivance to make it happen. A few coincidences and events I don’t mind, but it was just one after the next in the premier episode.

Not All Bad

The middle section of the show slowed down to a calmer pace. Particularly, the story of Lady Esther Babbington arrived organically and makes sense. The plot line of the loaned money also seemed very natural and normal as did the cliffhanger regarding Miss Lamb.

The acting is universally strong and that stands in stark contrast to the Gilded Age. The director lets the actors act rather than forcing stilted conversation on them. They speak to one another rather than at each other. It is this quality acting that largely saves Sanditon in my opinion.

Conclusion

I hold out every hope the frantic pace of the premier episode of the second season will disappear into the background. That the show, with all the conflict set in motion, will move forward at a more regular pace.

A boy can hope, can’t he?

Tom Liberman

Accounting for Change in Around the World in 80 Days

Around the world in 80 Days

A moment in the finale of Around in the World in 80 Days gives me a chance to discuss accounting for change. As probably a few of my regular blog readers know, I write novels. And a serial as well. In the writing process, not everything stays the same from draft to draft.

One vitally important thing is accounting for change. When something changes early you must remember it and change later events to match.

I can’t say for sure what changed from one episode to the next in Around the World in 80 Days. I’m not privy to that information, obviously. But, as a young man who grew up reading Jules Verne and other authors of the same ilk, I am familiar with the source material.

Let’s talk about Abigail Fix.

The Original

In Around the World in 80 Days there is no Abigail Fix. There is Detective Fix of the Scotland Yard. Fix spots Fogg in Egypt and mistakes him for a bank robber of vaguely the same description. The purpose of the change is of little interest to me, it is accounting for it that focuses my attention.

Abigail adds to the story in a number of ways. She is a love interest. Fix is a confidant for Fogg. The plucky Fix is an independent woman in the world. What is she also? A reporter. That’s important. Because, you see, in the original version of the story, the journey is largely made in anonymity. The press knows nothing of the endeavor.

No one knows of the arrival in London. Our heroes think they are too late to win the wager and only learn of the mistake just in time. They rush to the Reform Club in the nick of time. All well and good, in the novel at least.

The New Version

In the new version of the story someone needs to be in charge of accounting for change. You see, Fix has published the exploits of Fogg to the world. They are met in New York by a phalanx of reporters and the boarding of the Henrietta is international news. The clamor of the world is upon them. This change from the original story is brought on by the addition of Fix the reporter instead of Fix the detective.

The passage of the Henrietta and thus Fogg and his companions is public knowledge. They are famous. It’s an integral change to the original story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the change. I don’t mind Fix as a female reporter. I don’t mind the fame of the journey. I’m no purist. If a female dwarf doesn’t have a beard, I’m completely fine with it.

Accounting for Change

The problem, I’m sure you realize by now, even if you did not while watching the episode, is all of London should be waiting for the Henrietta to dock. One imagines an adoring crowd waiting to carry Fogg and his companions to the Reform Club in glorious triumph. Oopsie.

Someone didn’t account for change!

The ending needs to change! The ending must be altered to accommodate for this change or it makes no sense. As, I said, I’m not a purist. It’s fine to change things to match a modern standard, to tweak the story in interesting ways.

A sat mouth agape, “This doesn’t work,” I said to myself, perhaps out loud even. I’m a nuisance this way, just ask anyone who knows me.

Conclusion

Luckily, I wasn’t all that invested in this show anyway. It never grabbed my interest the way I hoped and my previous reviews get into that. I’ll not reiterate here. Even with that said, failure in accounting for change at the climax left me downright peeved. The officious customs clerk makes no sense. The lonely journey to his home, the surprise of his butler, none of it. It’s all so very, very wrong.

That was before the denouement hinting at further adventures. All I have to say about that is; Adieu, Professor Pierre Aronnax, it appears it’s into the rubbish bin for you as well.

Tom Liberman

The Difficulties of a Travel Story

Around the world in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 Days is a travel story. There is no getting around it and this presents story-telling difficulties. This week’s episode of Around the World in 80 Days demonstrated some of the problems and I’d like to look at it closely from that aspect.

The overarching problem in a travel story is that locations and secondary characters change from week to week or chapter to chapter in a book. I’d like to examine how the most recent episode of Around the World, set in the western United States, handled the issue and why it largely, in my opinion, did not succeed.

Believability in Introduced Characters

New characters come into a travel story on a regular basis and it’s important to distinguish them quickly and effectively. This way their story is compelling to the audience.

In this episode the primary new characters were a United States Marshal and his prisoner. They joined the group when the marshal flagged down our heroes’ stagecoach and demanded to ride along. We quickly learned the prisoner was a racist from the south and veteran of the Civil War.

The marshal was a one-dimensional caricature at best; frankly I’d like call him a quarter-dimensional or worse. He lacked even the most basic, white-hat wearing, cartoon hero’s credibility. The villain was no better. They both appeared to be on the show simply to have a good guy and a bad guy. I believed neither as a fully formed person.

Because I wasn’t interested in the new characters, their story did not engage me in any way. It’s important to like the hero and dislike the villain, sure, but if I find neither interesting or realistic, it doesn’t work. I can’t hate or like either one.

Intermeshing Goals

The new characters need to interact with the main characters in a way that advances their arc. That is to say, introduced characters must mesh meaningfully with the established characters in a travel story. It’s not easy to mingle a new story with the main plot and, unfortunately, I thought Around the World failed miserably in this case.

Around the World attempted to have the villainous new character appeal to the base, racist nature perceived in the main character. It didn’t really work for me because Fogg never seemed racist at any point of the story, classist certainly, but not racist. If the appeal focused on the inappropriate relationship of a servant and a well-to-do young woman, I might have found it interesting but that wasn’t the point of the story at all.

Meanwhile the marshal and Passepartout were meant to interact as black men in a racist white world. Again, it seemed ineffective to me. Passepartout didn’t have reason to see the entire world as racist, only that miserable caricature of a villain. I never saw a bond or growth in any of the main characters throughout the episode.

The Conflict

The conflict in the story was a little better although so contrived and ridiculous I didn’t find myself concerned about the outcome. A shootout at the saloon with the bad guys is a staple of westerns and I see what the writers were trying to do. It never came across emotionally to me because the villains and hero never seemed real.

The ending with Fogg and the villain was so contrived it had no impact on me whatsoever. I get the idea. Fogg gaining his courage, but it just did not work for me at all. The villain’s monolog and surrender stirred no emotions.

Playing for Laughs

I must take a moment to talk about the insertion of humor into tense situations. It’s the fourth or fifth time Around the World played a dramatic fight or chase scene for laughs. When Fix flashes the peace sign with a goofy grin and Passepartout goes into his impromptu speech, it seemed to me an attempt at humor and ill-timed to say the least. I’m not sure what’s up with all of that but it’s not working for me.

Conclusion

Another poor episode in my opinion. I don’t think the main characters gained any insight or moved forward. It seemed like a simple attempt to say racism bad. Yeah, well, ok. Count me in on that. Racism is bad, I’m with you. Now, tell a convincing travel story where it emotionally impacts me, not this mess.

Tom Liberman

Why isn’t Hugh the Villain in All Creatures Great and Small?

All Creatures Great and Small

The latest episode of All Creatures Great and Small featured the return of Hugh. It afforded the writers an opportunity to present a clear villain to contrast with heroic James. They didn’t do so. Perhaps they had a couple of shots where Hugh smiled at the misfortune of James but that’s as far as it went.

Today I want to examine why Hugh is portrayed in this manner and what I think about that choice. It’s an interesting concept because most shows tend to break down the world into simple choices. Good guy versus bad guy. All Creatures Great and Small chose not to go that route.

Who is Hugh?

Hugh was the romantic interest and rival for Helen’s affection from the first season of All Creatures Great and Small. The two were engaged with their marriage marking the season finale. Helen, for various reasons including her affection for James, calls off the marriage at the last moment leaving Hugh at the altar.

The Reappearance of Hugh

Hugh is absent from season two up until now, although he is mentioned several times. This episode starts with James going to Hugh’s estate to ring a young bull. Hugh seems to smile at James’s misfortune with the bull and that leads the audience to believe Hugh is going to play the villain.

It turns out Hugh had the nose ring inserted because he planned to give it bull to Helen’s family as gift in replacement for a bull purchase that fell through as part of an episode in the previous season. He also puts Helen’s name on the farm deed as part of the renewal. Here is where we see Hugh not behaving in a villainous fashion. We learn he’s actually a decent fellow.

The central plot point of the episode is the cricket match between the landed gentry of the region and the local farmers. Hugh is the star bowler for one team while James is a late entry for the local side, although he lacks much experience with the game.

The Big Match

During the match, Hugh has a heartfelt talk with Helen where he admits his own trepidation about their relationship and shows no hard feelings.

In the big match Hugh faces James with the entire game at stake. James allows Hugh to win and rationalizes later to Helen that he felt he owed Hugh a win. Hugh then shakes James’s hand and offers him congratulations for a good game.

Why is Hugh Generous?

This question is the main focus of my blog. Why not make Hugh a monster? He has every right to be angry at James over Helen. Why not have him seek revenge? He might fail to renew the lease. He could purposely hit James with the cricket ball. He can make snide and nasty remarks at James’s expense. He doesn’t, but why?

Certainly, in a lot of other shows, that’s exactly the way they’d portray Hugh. A villain for the sake of comparing him to the hero. How are we to know James is a good guy if we don’t have a bad guy for the sake of comparison?

It’s my opinion the reason Hugh is a good egg is because that’s more realistic. It trusts the audience to understand that sometimes life happens. Just because James is a fine fellow doesn’t mean his romantic rival must be evil. It makes us view Hugh as a human being, not as a caricature of one. It’s nuanced and it’s interesting.

I like it

I think it’s probably pretty easy to guess my opinion on the portrayal of Hugh in All Creatures Great and Small. I think it’s great the writers are willing to trust my judgment. They don’t need to turn the world into tropes and boring cliches.

I don’t need Hugh to be bad to understand James is good. I don’t need James and Helen to be good all the time either. If anyone is a bit petty and angry in this episode, it’s James.

Well done, well done indeed.

Tom Liberman

Around the World in 80 days on an Island

Around the world in 80 Days

I’ve been complaining about Around the World in 80 Days since the start but I’m happy to report I mostly enjoyed this week’s episode. I’m not saying it’s the finest piece of television ever produced but it generally hit the mark despite some enormous plot holes.

Around the World in 80 Days never lacked from actors with talent but the story failed in so many ways we didn’t really get to see them action until this episode. Here we see Fix, Fogg, and Passepartout largely stuck on an island which allows us to learn about them. This is the sort of information that gives an audience reason to care about the characters.

That being said, the episode still has problems. Enough prelude, on with the review.

Stuck on an Island

The main plot structure allows us to learn more about the characters as they are stuck on an island after being forced off the luxury liner. I initially found myself extremely put off by the opening but I’m willing to forgive. The obvious question is; how did they get there?

Apparently, the gun-toting villain rounded up the characters, had them lower the lifeboat into the heavy seas, climb aboard, and launch. All without the crew or other passengers intervening. This is obviously ludicrous and certainly why it wasn’t shown. It makes no sense. But, let’s get past that and discuss character development once our heroes wash ashore on a deserted island.

We learn a great deal about Fogg and his lost love. I’m saddened this information did not find its way into the story until so late in the series. It’s the kind of thing that invests an audience into rooting for a character, to care what happens. Now, Fogg’s story is so pathetic, so weak, that I find him somewhat distasteful rather than heroic but it’s something at least. For the first time I feel for Fogg. I care.

We also get background information into about the friendship between Fogg and the others at the Reform Club after Passepartout correctly surmises who is trying to prevent them from accomplishing the goal. Again, this is really useful information and makes us like the characters. We understand the dynamics between the Fogg and his friends for the first time. This information should have come earlier but we finally get there.

Coming Clean

We also get apologies from all parties. Fogg admits his own failings. Passepartout comes clean about drugging Fogg and Fix admits revealing Fogg’s lost love was not proper. This is real character bonding. We start to actually like the heroes. Again, it took six episodes but we’re here at last.

My next opinion is nitpicky but it bothers me enough that I find myself compelled to mention it. The old British Stiff Upper Lip. Fogg as portrayed by David Tennant is over the top. He screams, yells, and waves his arms all the time. His histrionic banishing of Passepartout just didn’t work for me. I want a cold heat; a burning intensity being suppressed in order to act like a gentleman. I want Fogg to tell off Passepartout with cold, calculating words while heat burns underneath. It came across to me as improper and wrong.

Wrapping Up Around the World in 80 Days

The episode wraps up with all the characters displaying noble traits, working together, sacrificing, and coming through with a triumph. It’s all a little too convenient but it largely works. I’m actually on board with Fix, Fogg, and Passepartout for the first time in the series.

Conclusion

It’s probably too late. I never built up enough emotion for Around the World in 80 Days but at least we finally got some interesting character development and story structure. Having them stuck on the island without competing main plots helped us get here.

The best episode of the series so far. It’s a shame it took so long to get here.

Tom Liberman

A Dog too Far in All Creatures Great and Small

All Creatures Great and Small

Another week of excellent entertainment from All Creatures Great and Small was marred by a pair of imperfect plot lines. It’s saying a great deal about how much I like the show that the only things I can find to complain about are pretty nitpicky.

In this week’s wonderful episode there is a sick dog that plays only a minor, largely unimportant role, in the conflict and plot. And a missing limp. That’s it, those are my complaints. The problem here is that I’m running out of good things to say about the show. I enjoy it tremendously but I can’t keep writing that week after week.

So, it’s to the dogs!

The Episode of All Creatures Great and Small

We start the episode with Tristan being entrusted to take the lead on his own calls. It’s a big step for him although it’s clear Siegfried, Mrs. Hall, and James all have lingering doubts. In any case, off go Tristan and James to attend to business.

Meanwhile, Siegfried stays back to perform an operation on a dog. The operation is a success, Mrs. Hall lays a blanket by the space heater, the dog is dropped off. The dog whines but Siegfried assures us, that is to say, Mrs. Hall, that the dog is fine and whining is a normal under the circumstances.

In any case, the episode continues. Tristan is filing down the teeth of race horses and is somewhat intimidated by their spirit. He’s kicked in the knee by one of the animals but soldiers through the pain. He spots the daughter of the owner and later maneuvers a date with her for his birthday party.

James continues to struggle with telling Helen about his job offer. Eventually the various plot lines come to a head at the party. Helen already knows about the job offer but she and James have a heartfelt moment to smooth over hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, Siegfried, annoyed by Tristan’s acting performance during the day’s rounds and the whining of the dog reveals that the young man failed his exams. Tristan is crushed. The situation is not resolved but Tristan enjoys some sort of revenge by nicking some of his brother’s good whiskey. I approve, Tristan, I approve.

My Nitpicks

I have two very nitpicky problems with this otherwise excellent episode. I’m honestly more worried about the dog and the damn space heater than I am about Tristan on his own. That’s a problem. Spoiler, there’s nothing wrong with the dog. Siegfried is perfectly correct and the dog is fine despite all the whining and fussing he’ll be doing for the next hour.

It’s entirely possible the writers want us to be worried about the dog only as a way to show that Siegfried, for all his bluster, is an excellent veterinarian. I think that’s a reasonable explanation but it doesn’t solve the issue. I spent almost the entire episode worrying about that dog! Is it going to get burned by the space heater? Was the operation a failure? Is it going to die? Why is whining? Is it going to live? I’m distracted from the main plot.

My other nitpick is even more nitpicky. Why isn’t Tristan hobbling around for the rest of the episode? That horse kicked him right good. I want limps!

Conclusion

The episode illustrates why this show works so well. They continued with the main plot lines built previously while creating episodic conflict. It’s interesting to watch. I’m always eager to find out what will happen next.

A wonderful little sequence occurred at the dinner party when Tristan’s date noted Helen and James sitting next to one another. The date is a good friend of Hugh, who Helen left at the altar. She gets a little snippy with Helen who defends herself but also admits she waited too long to end things and accepts responsibility for the hurt and embarrassment Hugh suffered.

The date apologizes for being snippy and Helen accepts. It’s a scene showing we don’t need Hugh to be a villain and Helen to be a hero in all things. Life is complicated and there isn’t always a good answer. This small scene makes me believe the characters are real people in real situations. That’s the goal in a fictional show, to invest the audience in the lives of the characters.

Well done, despite my nitpicks.

Tom Liberman

Opening Sequence Analysis All Creatures versus Around the World

Opening Sequence

Sunday night television on PBS here in St. Louis offers Around the World in 80 Days followed by All Creatures Great and Small. It’s been a great opportunity for me to give my opinions on the two shows. I’ve done so over the last couple of weeks.

Today I’m going to narrow my focus down a little and simple compare the opening sequences of both shows. What works? What doesn’t work? Why does it work? Why doesn’t it work? I will attempt to refrain from being critical of other elements of both shows although I promise nothing. Anyone who’s read my other reviews is sure to know my thoughts on the merits of each of the shows.

Opening Sequence Around the World

The opening sequence of Around the World in 80 Days involves our three protagonists walking through a fly-infested region appearing somewhat lost and disheveled. They come across a young girl who leads them to a village. In the village they encounter a matriarchal figure who explains a wedding between her daughter and a young man is planned for later.

This sequence probably took about five minutes although it seemed to drag interminably.

Opening Sequence of All Creatures

The opening sequence of All Creatures Great and Small has our four protagonists walking along a road at the back of a funeral. The camera focuses on a woman, apparently the widow, her two small children, and a strapping young fellow. A farmer coming the other way tips his cap.
The scene took perhaps a minute or two and not a single word of dialog is spoken.

The Implications

The implications of the opening sequence are quite important in telling a story. The audience needs to know the focus of the episode. What is the story going to be about?

Around the World and 80 Days and All Creatures Great and Small are certainly two different kinds of stories with apparently little in common. But, if you look closely, there were similarities this week. In both shows a group of strangers drive the external conflict and plot.

In this case the implication from the opening sequence in Around the World revolved, to my mind, around the little girl and the family matriarch. The wedding didn’t seem like it was going to be that important, there was something about the girl.

In All Creatures it seemed clear to me that the widow and her children were the focus of the conflict in the coming episode.

How it Unfolded in Around the World

This is where, in my opinion, the opening sequence failed in Around the World and succeeded in All Creatures. It turns out the young girl was unimportant and even the matriarch of the family only played a smaller role. The wedding brought on the conflict as it turned out the groom deserted his unit. A young British lieutenant and his troops arrived in the middle of the wedding and dragged the groom off.

A moment to commend Charlie Hamblett for his portrayal of Lieutenant Bathurst. The only performance I found convincing. I shall not dwell, onto my focus.

The problem here is the opening sequence didn’t introduce the antagonist or even really let us know about the main conflict of the episode. It completely misdirected us to the young girl.

How it Unfolded in All Creatures

We immediately find ourselves entangled in the main plot of James helping the widow with her sick cows. The widow is desperately trying to manage the farm and her two sons with the help of a young man but it’s not easy. The cows are sick, they must be kept inside, this costs money. The local farmers think she should sell.

The opening sequence did not lie to us. It introduced us to the main characters of the story and the conflict of the sick cows is a direct result of the death of the farmer. Everything unfolded in a completely natural and organic fashion. It made sense. The story grabbed me and held me. I didn’t find myself confused.

Conclusions

This is why an opening sequence is important. It prepares the audience for what is to come. I think All Creatures succeeded in a two-minute sequence with no dialog where Around the World failed in a much longer sequence with too much dialog.

The failure and success in the first few minutes of the episodes tell us a great deal about the general quality of the writing in both shows. It’s no surprise that the entire episode of All Creatures engrossed me whereas 80 Days largely left me unsatisfied.

But, I promised I wouldn’t get into all of that, so I won’t.

Tom Liberman

All Creatures Great and Small Episode Two

All Creatures Great and Small

Ah, that’s the stuff. After a lackluster hour watching Around the World in 80 Days, we get some excellent entertainment. If you hadn’t guessed already, I enjoyed the second episode of All Creatures Great and Small as much as I liked the first.

This episode of All Creatures Great and Small expands on the main conflicts introduced in the first episode while also introducing potential romantic interests for Siegfried and Mrs. Hall. The major story arc continues to be James potentially taking a new job and Siegfried’s unwillingness to listen to James’s ideas.

Inciting Incidents

Episode two unfolds leisurely, as is the general pace of All Creatures Great and Small. The big Daffodil Day festival is around the corner and the gang all purchases tickets except Mrs. Hall who prefers to stay at home reading a book. Siegfried and Tristan leave to tend to an important customer James apparently forget the day before. Meanwhile James and Mrs. Hall are left to hold down the fort but their orderly schedule is disrupted by an emergency. Helen drops by because Tristan told her James had something to ask.

These inciting incidents largely direct the rest of the episode, as it should be. The events of the opening sequence let the audience know what to expect. This is nothing more than standard writing technique but it seems absent in most other shows I watch. Every thread introduced in the opening sequence of this episode of All Creatures Great and Small plays an important role the rest of the way.

The Incidents Lead the Plot

At surgery, Mrs. Hall redirects all the morning clients to the afternoon in order for James to tend to the wounded dog. A trap caught the dog and mangled its leg. The owner is a veteran who also has a wounded leg. He and Mrs. Hall find a connection and it quickly becomes apparent this is a romantic interest.

James saves the dog, of course, although recommends it be kept overnight to make sure infection hasn’t set in. Events unfold naturally in a way that makes sense. There is drama without piercing music telling us the situation is frightening. I found myself far more afraid for the dog than for Fogg and Passepartout an hour earlier as they stumbled through sandstorms and desert heat. Why? It all seemed real, natural, believable, part of a flowing narrative. I am immersed.

Meanwhile, Siegfried defers to an important client who threatens to move his business to another veterinarian. Then we have some comic relief with Tristan and a large sow. On the return trip Tristan makes some pointed remarks in regards to Siegfried’s timidness in regards to the client and general demeanor of not wanting to take risks in his old age. This speech drives future narratives between Siegfried and James in regards to upgrading the surgery to modern standards. In other words, it is there for a reason.

The Pay Off

All Creatures Great and Small does not disappoint. Everything setup in the opening sequence comes to bear in the last half of the episode. James and Helen dance at the festival. Siegfried stands up to the important customer. Mrs. Hall sits alone petting the wounded dog as a symbolic substitute for a romantic relationship with its owner.

We, the audience, are rewarded for paying attention to events. Things don’t come and go for no logical reason therefore it’s important we watch each moment of All Creatures Great and Small with attention. When I know something is pertinent, important, I care. I care about the characters and what happens to them, I’m invested.

Wrapping Things Up

We end with questions unanswered and further intrigue ahead while still wrapping up this episode in a satisfactory fashion. The wounded dog is fine. Helen is ready to move on. Mrs. Harris declines a polite invitation for a dog walk but we know it’s not the last of the handsome man we’ll see.

Meanwhile, James’s mother took it into her own hands to accept the position offered at the modern veterinarian clinic leaving James torn. He wants to stay here but he feels an obligation to his parents who paid his way through school.

Siegfried makes of point of telling James that suggestions for improving the surgery are welcome although we’re not completely sure if we believe the stern owner.

Conclusion

Another excellent episode of All Creatures Great and Small. The writers, actors, set designers, and all the rest clearly pay attention to details. Simple things are not taken for granted. Near the end of the episode an old client comes in who reminds us of how James and Helen spent the night attending a pregnant doggo. It’s the same dog or at least one that looks the same.

It’s a real pleasure watching this show and I eagerly await next week’s episode.

Tom Liberman

Around the World in 80 Days Episode Three

Around the world in 80 Days

The quality of the third episode of Around the World in 80 Days falls somewhere between the first and the second in my opinion. The structure of the story was fairly similar to that of the previous episode. We meet some new and interesting people, and our heroes find themselves in grave danger.

In a travel tales such as this, these sorts of plot devices are fairly integral to moving the story along. The protagonist and companions find themselves in a desperate situation and must extricate themselves either with the aid or hinderance of the new characters.

In this case the new characters are based on people from real life, most notably Lady Jane Digby. I heartily approve including historical figures in a work fiction of this nature but found myself sadly disappointed in the amount of screen time for Digby. In fact, that is my primary complaint.

The Episode

This episode of Around the World in 80 Days finds our heroes aboard a ship headed for the Suez Canal with everything seemingly in order but, of course, that changes quickly enough. The ship is delayed by the threat of pirates and they find themselves in the city waiting for a British war ship to escort them to Aden.

At the port our trio spots the scandalous Digby and her husband and ignore them as social outcasts.

Our heroes, led by Fogg, decide to hire camels to cross Saudi Arabia to get to Aden. A distance of some 1500 miles although shortened dramatically for narrative purposes to a three-day trip. Fogg refuses to allow Fix to go as the journey is dangerous. The guide abandons Fogg and Passepartout and only Fix hiring Digby saves our heroes.

They continue on in the desert where Bedouin tribesmen attack and only the quick thinking of Fogg and the marksmanship of Passepartout save the day. Eventually they arrive safely in Aden where the erstwhile fake valet is offered money in order to sabotage the endeavor and seems to agree to the proposal.

Pacing in Around the World in 80 Days

This episode of Around the World in 80 Days suffered from a lack of proper pacing. Parts that needed fleshing out and time sped by in an instant while sections that didn’t require a great deal of effort lingered too long. In addition, Digby and husband, interesting characters to be certain, suffered from a lack of development.

We start on the deck of the steamer headed across the Mediterranean toward the Suez Canal. Valuable time is wasted in watching Passepartout attempt to throw food in his mouth while Fogg and Fix talk about nothing useful. Then, suddenly, they are in a city where we are treated to a long series of expositions.

Exposition

Fogg complains about the captain delaying the ship because of pirates. There’s Lady Jane Digby and let me tell you all about her. Why didn’t we see the captain explaining the pirate situation to Fogg? Why wasn’t the history Digby told through conversation with Fix later as they are chasing after Fogg? Exposition is lazy and not particularly entertaining. I was extremely bored through the opening sequences.

Finally, the story gets going when Fogg foolishly trusts a local to guide them to Aden for a mere ten pounds. Passepartout is skeptical and fights for Fix to join them but Fogg insists on having his own way despite the fact he can’t even unbutton his shirt properly. I liked this scene because it shows Fogg’s naivete and incompetence as part of the Hero’s Journey.

Left behind, Fix hires Digby and her husband to chase after Fogg. This was the opportunity for us to learn about Digby and her past connection with Fix’s father. An extended scene with Fix, Digby, and her husband to explain all the nuances of their connections seemed in order but we didn’t get it.

Then we waste more time back in London showing the embarrassing financial situation of Fogg’s friend at the Reform Club. This entire plot line just takes away from the main story of Around the World in 80 Days, that is to say, getting around the world. I shall only briefly mention the improperly arranged Snooker table.

The Desert

Fogg and Passepartout find themselves abandoned in the desert. We waste a tremendous amount of time watching them slowly bake. The scenes just don’t convey desperate and dangerous. The sandstorm, the looming death. I felt nothing, no sense of danger.

Then, suddenly everyone is rescued. Why not spend most of that time with Fix, and Digby and her husband? They are compelling characters with interesting stories. In episode two we got to spend time with the industrialist and his son.

The best scene happened when Digby’s husband virulently defends her. I found the actor didn’t fit the role in appearance but I absolutely believed this was a proud man who deeply loved his wife. It was largely the only compelling moment of the episode.

Digby tells Fix outright going forward is almost certain death at the hands of Bedouins but suddenly, for reasons I can’t figure out, offers to take them to Aden if that’s what Fix wants. I want Fix to prove her worth to Digby, to show she’s a woman cut from the same cloth, to drive the plot forward.

In any case, the predictable Bedouin attack is handled badly from a cinematographic perspective. Our heroes repeatedly tell us they can’t see the attackers and are firing blindly into the night at the sound of hooves but we, the audience, can see pretty clearly. I guess the decision was made so that we can visually see the actions of the various protagonists.

It seems to me a scene of darkness, thundering hooves, shouts, gunshots, a scream from Fix, confusion, and mayhem was in order. I might have found that dramatic. What I saw was rather dull. I won’t talk about the flammable properties of raw crude oil as the mechanism for Fogg to save the day.

Conclusion

Another decent episode of Around the World in 80 Days. Certainly not compelling or particularly good but watchable and moderately entertaining. I suspect this is what we’ll get the rest of the way.

Tom Liberman

All Creatures Great and Small Episode 1 Review

All Creatures Great and Small

In addition to Around the World in 80 Days we get the first episode of the second season of All Creatures Great and Small. Your faithful blogger is going to have busy Mondays for a few weeks. You can refer to my review of the first season of All Creatures Great and Small here.

I won’t go too deeply into my thoughts on the first season. It was very enjoyable. I anticipated the second season with great hopes but also deep fears. Wrecking a show with sequel seasons is not exactly impossible. However, I’ll dispense with any drama, All Creatures Great and Small is once again great!

Spectacular Opening Scene

I can’t express enough the wonderfulness of the opening scene of All Creatures Great and Small. I’ve written a review of the first episode of Around the World and the opening sequence here is something the writers of that show should commit to memory.

We start off with James working in what is clearly not Darrowby and Siegfried’s surgery. What is going on? Has he left? Drama from the first second without a word of dialog! James finishes splinting kitty’s leg and then all is explained. The veterinarian at this high-tech surgery offers James a job after his two-week stint filling in.

The vet is highly impressed with James and so is the nurse. Conflict! Basically, what is clearly going to be a season long storyline is introduced in the first minute of the episode. This, this, this is how you do it! There is also mention of transferring the practice to pets instead of farm animals, another season-long conflict I suspect.

Now, we know James loves Darrowby and there is no way he’s taking this job. So, what do we do? We give him reasons. His father is ill, his mother wants him home, he has friends, knows the town. Within five minutes of the credits, we have drama, conflict, a season-long story with an unknown outcome.

Then there are the little touches. The nurse is keen on James so a potential love interest is thrown into the mix. The vet is kind and gives James time to think about the job offer. The mother makes a home cooked meal and tries to convince James to stay with the phrase, “Home is where the heart is.”

Meanwhile the father knows his son, he knows James is making his own way and is proud of it. It’s not a black and white decision to stay or go. It’s shades of gray.

This is delicious, delightful. We all know where James’s heart is. Mom says you can’t get home cooking like this in Darrowby but we know Mrs. Hall’s feasts all too well. Yes, mom, I’m afraid he can. Mother is saying one thing but we, the audience, are hearing something entirely different. It’s superb writing. The writers understand the story, the characters. This is how you start a season.

Another Conflict

James arrives back in Darrowby and we find out it’s around Easter thanks to Tristan eating some of the chocolate egg. Simple, effective.

We then cut to Siegfried’s house where Mrs. Hall has embroidered professional credentials on Tristan’s bag. Uh oh, we say to ourselves even before Siegfried tries to stop the plan. We know Tristan hasn’t passed his exam. Another season-long conflict brewing!

The Main Story

Only after setting up the entire season, do we get into the episode. There are two story lines, one involving a dead bird and the other a wayward puppy.

The dead bird allows us a little comic relief, provided as usual by Tristan. I’d like to take a moment to discuss a small touch. Mrs. Tompkins budgie needs its beak clipped. The bird is her only companion these last ten years since she lost her vision. Tristan is on the job. That is until the bird dies.

Now, there are some people in this world, not to name names, who will immediately look up the lifespan of a budgie to see if natural causes are possible or if Tristan just committed parakeetacide. Wikipedia informs people like the aforementioned that a Budgerigar has a lifespan of five to eight years. So, natural causes are perfectly reasonable and poor Tristan did nothing wrong.

It is little touches like this that bring a smile to my face. A writer included the dialog about the bird being a companion for ten years. Someone knows the lifespan of a Budgerigar. It all fits. They took the time to do it right. Doing so isn’t easy but it is appreciated.

Small Problems

My only issues with the episode are nitpicky and unimportant. Having all the sheep passed out was overkill. Anyone would know to train Scruff rather than kill him. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the solution to the problem.

That being said, conflict is necessary and there’s nothing wrong with a little drama to move the story forward.

The Music

I’d like to take a moment to reiterate my thoughts on the music from this show. They don’t shove it down your throat like every other drama. The music is there, quiet, subtle, enhancing a scene. It’s not blaring and distracting. I don’t understand why this is apparently so difficult to understand.

Conclusion

Superb start to the second season of All Creatures Great and Small. I can’t wait for more.

Tom Liberman

Around the World in 80 Days Episode 2 Review

Around the World in 80 Days

I watched the second episode of Around the World in 80 Days and enjoyed it more than the first. This, if you’ve read my first review, is damning with faint praise. Still, I thought this episode showed an understanding of the Hero’s Journey and the structure of a good story even if it didn’t generally succeed.

In this episode our band traverses Italy by train heading toward, well, that is a bit of mystery to me as the geography didn’t make much sense. I’ll get to that later.

The Strangers

We start the episode on a train with a group of Italians led by an industrialist giving a speech and being interrupted by his son who spots our heroes in a balloon. Soon enough the balloon crashes and Fogg, Fix, and Passepartout climb aboard the train where class restrictions send the Frenchman into the rear with the unwashed masses while our heroes enjoy the luxury of privilege.

I was a bit confused about where our heroes got their evening wear but I shall not nitpick too much, it’s not important.

The idea of the main characters encountering strangers and interacting with them is obviously going to be a major theme of Around the World in 80 Days. This requires a deft touch because we only meet people for a short time. I expounded on the problems with this in my review of the first episode in Paris.

This time the situation is handled with greater aplomb. We actually get to meet the father and son while seeing their conflicts first hand. We see the son’s wonder at new inventions and the father’s staid demeanor. This helps later when the two become focal points in the story.

Personal Conflict in Around the World in 80 Days

Conflict makes a story and we have it aboard the train in two ways. First, Fogg is berated by the Italian father for not being much of an adventurer. It’s a good conflict in that it exposes Fogg’s weaknesses but I’m just not sure from whence it came. Why such vitriol? Still, this is actual character development and a good thing. We learn Fogg is insecure about his life and rather timid in nature. Episode one might have spent time developing all of this but at least we’re getting it now.

Meanwhile Passepartout is getting drunk and losing at cards in back. He is upset by his brother’s death, understandable although it came and went so fast, I’m having trouble finding empathy for the Frenchman. Then Abigail Fix arrives on the scene.

Fix begins blathering on and on about how she is independent and doesn’t need a man. This annoys the card players as they simply want to play. It’s an interesting scene but I am confused. Is Fix actually this socially oblivious? If so, why didn’t we see it earlier? In her first scene she seemed to be interacting with the rough and tumble newspaper men with ease and style.

Perhaps Fix is a card sharp who recognized Passepartout’s inept playing and contrived her social ineptitude as a way to limit the Frenchman’s losses without embarrassing him. This is an interesting story idea but, necessarily, we need to know Fix is good at cards. Again, the failures of the first episode of Around the World in 80 Days is haunting us here in the second.

The Bridge is Out!

Conflict is necessary. Sure, the bridge being out is contrived but that’s fine. We writers need to do things like that. Yes, the son’s gaping wound is overkill but I can live with it and it’s necessary for the boy to eventually inspire the despondent Fogg. More on that in a moment.

The reluctant protagonist finding out he has the resources necessary to overcome obstacles shows a firm understanding of the Hero’s Journey. Fogg figures out the load of the train and the support of the remaining track and guides our team, with no small help from Fix and Passepartout, to success.

My problem with this scene is that we didn’t know Fogg was an engineer by trade or at least has significant education in that regard. Maybe it was mentioned in passing at the Reform Club but not with enough emphasis to make me notice. This is the sort of development we needed in the first episode of Around the World in 80 Days.

Nitpicking

I know I said I wasn’t going to nitpick, but I would have simply emptied out the carriage of seats and other heavy items. Then there’s enough coal for the journey. It makes no sense.

In addition, they mention it is six hours back to Rome and two hours to their destination. Rome is basically near the center of Italy and I’m guessing they are heading south to catch a ship across the Mediterranean to Cairo. This indicates a journey to Taranto which is 268 miles from Rome. Now, I’m no engineer but the time scale seems way off to me.

The bankruptcy of Fogg’s fellow Reform Club member and need to create further obstacles is sprung on us too quickly and, frankly, I find it unnecessary. There should be plenty of conflict on the journey without the mysterious villain. Why weren’t the financial troubles mentioned earlier if they are so important? Again, missed opportunities in the first episode.

Fogg the Hero

Eventually they arrive at their destination and Fogg is still despondent for some reason. Fogg just saved the boy’s life; he solved a major obstacle. Why isn’t Fogg elated, ready to take on any adventure? In any case, a quick word from the wounded lad and he’s ready to go again. The writers have the right idea of Fogg needing inspiration, I just thought a lighter touch necessary.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this episode far more than the first. It shows an understanding of story structure, character arc, the Hero’s Journey, conflict, and other elements required for engrossing entertainment. Having said that, it all seemed heavy handed at best.

It gives me hope.