What I thought about: Cruel Summer (t/w: grooming)

I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked, stunned, and disappointed in a season finale cliffhanger than the one in this show. And now you get to watch me review it without spoiling it for you.

How did Kate Wallis end up here? The truth may shock you.

What’s it about?
In 1993, Jeanette Turner is living her best, if slightly nerdy and unpopular, teenage life. By 1995, she’s one of the most hated people in America. What went wrong? We actually find out quite early on: In late 1993 the popular, pretty, and wealthy Kate Wallis goes missing – kidnapped, in fact, by the principal at her school, Martin Harris. When she’s eventually rescued towards the end of 1994, she accuses Jeanette of having seen her chained up in Martin’s basement, locking eyes with her before walking away without alerting anyone.

Each episode in the series looks at a significant event in the characters’ lives which, due to the circumstances, plays out differently in each of 1993, 1994, and 1995. In 1993, Jeanette is on a mission to up her coolness by competing with her friends to complete a list of challenges (mostly petty crimes and pranks). But in 1994, she’s a totally different person, filling the void that the now-kidnapped Kate left behind. Literally – she has Kate’s friends and even her boyfriend. And things are going well. In 1995, however, Kate’s allegations against Jeanette have reverberated around the nation, ruined her relationships with friends and family, leaving her fighting to tell the truth in court.

What do I like about it?
Props have to go to the actors, Chiara Aurelia (Jeanette) and Olivia Holt (Kate) – it must have been challenging to convey three different personalities and they do it so well. You might think Jeanette’s change from nerd to popular girl is a sharp contrast, but if you look closer, you will see that she was developing her confidence in lying early on in 1993, still displays an element of self-doubt in 1994, and only drops her lip quiver in 1995.

I also think the show handles the topic of grooming pretty well, although I’m no medical expert in this area. Kate wasn’t especially vulnerable – she had friends, she was well liked, she even had a boyfriend! And, as the show carefully conveys, the kidnapping wasn’t anywhere near as violent as you might think. All of that culminates in a very disturbing penultimate episode dedicated to the time Kate spent trapped in Martin’s house. I actively squirmed throughout that one.

What do I not like about it?
The timeline can actually be really hard to follow – it often felt like we were really only guided by Jeanette’s completely different hairstyles in each year, and the harshly-done desaturated and darkened filter placed on the 1995 scenes. Even with these, it can be difficult to know where you are – the 1994 scenes include a mix of pre and post-rescue of Kate, and the narrative style shows the same event (and therefore the same setting) happening across three different years.

I am also really fucking disappointed in the ending, but I haven’t worked out if that’s because it’s so good or because I hate the writers for it.

Worth a watch?
It’s a bit of a slog at 10 hours, but if the premise interests you then I think you will find this quite a deep and captivating show. Give it more than the first episode, too, as it starts off slow.

By the way…

  • There are side plots in this show but none of them are particularly relevant, which added to my confusion when watching.
  • Olivia Holt was cast as a replacement for Mika Abdalla. I don’t know why, but Olivia was a great choice so there’s no complaints from me.

628w

What I thought about: Sweet Home

If you want to see a slideshow of horrible things happening to undeserving people; of despair and violence and gore and destruction, you’re in the right place. If not, run. Run far away from this show.

Monster or human? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

What’s it about?
One night, an infection (or some say a curse) sweeps across South Korea. The first symptom is a torrential nosebleed, and those unable to fight the darkness often turn into powerful monsters with various ‘abilities’ that are said to relate to their deepest desires. The residents of the Green Home apartment complex find themselves barricaded inside. When someone tries to leave and is promptly skewered by a monster, they realise it’s for their own good.

Essentially, it’s an apocalypse survival series. Except it somehow manages to weave an insane amount of backstory and side plots into its 10-episode run. It’s also ghastly and brutal. Bad things just keep on happening to the residents, relentlessly. The monsters, aided by some pretty impressive CGI (and some of whom are just plain human, if you catch my drift), keep coming.

What do I like about it?
I really can’t tell if this is a great show or a terrible one. On the one hand, it is technically brilliant. It’s gripping, the cliffhangers at the end of each episode are perfect, the acting is top notch and the audiovisual elements add so much depth to it (watching this with a 5.1 surround setup was a real treat).

The show also benefits from typical K-Drama quality. You become attached to the characters, all of whom, besides the usual background characters, have such unique personalities and qualities. This allows the show to deliver some side plots and flashbacks that add a surprising amount of depth to the crisis, even if I wished they would tie together a little more neatly.

What do I not like about it?
On the other hand, this show is absolutely awful. The monsters are really, really bad. You can’t kill them unless you set them on fire. They are strong. People keep dying, all the time, in every episode. Whenever there is a shred of hope dangled in front of you, the show executes more characters all over the place.

There is so much violence and so much despair. Also, lots and lots of blood. This is not a show for the faint of heart. Blood pours out of infected people’s noses and splatters onto people’s faces. At one point, someone picks up a sword from his own severed hand in order to make one last attempt at stopping a monster from killing everyone else. It’s fucking horrific.

Worth a watch?
I don’t think I know anyone who would find this an enjoyable watch.

By the way…

  • There is a setup for a second season but, considering the characters who are left standing, I’m not sure if it would be worth watching
  • I kid you not, Imagine Dragons’ Warriors (a song they wrote for a League of Legends gaming tournament) is played at least 5 times during the show. Criticism of the show’s soundtrack is warranted.

522w

What I thought about: Alice in Borderland

Very Japanese, this part-sci-fi part-thriller part-horror series, based on a popular manga, has random citizens of Tokyo get teleported to an alternate universe where they must take part in sadistic games to survive.

Don’t get too attached to anyone in this show. Consider yourself warned.

What’s it about?
One moment you’re having a shower, or something. The next thing you know, the lights go out and, when they come back on moments later, everyone around you has disappeared. In fact, not just the people around you – the entire population of Tokyo. Gone. Just like that.

That’s the situation facing Arisu, Chōta, and Karube – a trio of delinquents and misfits. As night falls, the only source of light comes from screens around the city which read ‘this way to the game arena’. They follow the screens to a building with mobile phones set out on a table. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve just registered for their first game.

Two doors, one says ‘live’ and the other ‘die’. Two minutes to choose before the room is incinerated. Another player (they’re not entirely alone) freaks out and runs through the ‘live’ door, only to be zapped in the head with a powerful laser. The rest escape through the ‘die’ door into the second room, now with less time to choose another room. With some luck Arisu, good with puzzles, work out the shape of the building and draws a map that leads them confidently through the rest of the game. Their prize? A three-day visa, the importance of which is explained to them when a disheveled man rounds a corner and yells ‘I can’t take it any more, my visa has expired’. He is promptly blasted in the head by a laser from the sky. Your visa is your right to live, and you can only get them by clearing the dangerous games.

What do I like about it?
The games are cool, and most are well designed, if a little confusing what with the additional language barrier for on-screen cues. Along the way, more characters are introduced and we start to learn more about the pseudo-Tokyo and what’s going on. Also, in contrast to Escape Room (which you might consider to be a related concept), the set-up for the sequel is fantastic. No spoilers, though!

What do I not like about it?
There’s a little too much filler for my liking, Some scenes are long, drawn out, and emotional. I also wasn’t a fan of the fact that the ‘main character’ is basically a nobody except for the little nuggets of wisdom he occasionally dishes out, but then again, that is a trope of manga like this.

Worth a watch?
This is a very violent and miserable show. Things only really go from bad to worse for everyone involved, so be careful. But if, like me, you were intrigued by the mystery and are a fan of Japanese on-screen violence, Alice in Borderland is brilliantly produced.

By the way…

  • Much of the shots of an empty Tokyo city centre were filmed with extensive use of green screens, and they did a great job of blending it all together
  • Apparently this season covers 31 of the 64 manga chapters – so maybe Season 2 is all we’ll get

547w

What I thought about: Big Mouth (Season 4)

The latest season of this adult cartoon continues to explore important themes of life with its usual grotesque flair – but the storytelling is less tight this time around.

Andrew (middle) has a unique fashion sense, and he won’t heed to any criticism of it

What’s it about?
Big Mouth is an adult cartoon set around a group of high school freshmen. They’re beginning their puberty journey, and learning to cope with everything that comes with it. The characters are hugely exaggerated and yet somewhat relatable.

Each of the kids have a hormone monster, an invisible creature only they can see. Sort of like fairy godmother, they talk to them and guide them through this stage of their life. I think they are supposed to be a manifestation of their hormones rather than an actual, individualised character – but either way they add so much colour to the show.

What do I like about it?
The personification of thoughts and emotions is perfect. We have the hormone monsters, of course, whom you might say are the stars of the show. But there’s also The Shame Wizard, a scraggy looking British wizard who pops up whenever you do something shameful – which for Andrew is basically all the time.

New to Season 4 is the Anxiety Mosquito and I have to commend the writers for the choice of animal because a mosquito is a perfect representation of anxiety. There can be more than one. They don’t go away when you flail and try to swat them. They question what you’re doing and shout at you when something goes wrong. As someone who went through this year’s summer with a lot of anxiety, I thought the portrayal was brilliant.

The voice acting is also on point, and somehow being able to tell which voice actor is voicing multiple characters just makes it funnier.

What do I not like about it?
Usually I love the show and it’s a consistent ten out of ten. This time around though, I didn’t think it was quite as good as before. I think it’s down to the way the stories were told. Characters had much more individualised storylines that didn’t often intersect. It was a departure from the ‘we’re all in this together’ class-sized story of previous seasons. While I do understand why this was the case (as you go through puberty and discover more about yourself, you naturally diverge from where you and your peers all began) it did just make this season a little less enjoyable.

Worth a watch?
Yes, but definitely start from the beginning and try to not take the toilet humour too seriously.

By the way…

  • One of my favourite characters, Missy, changes voice near the end as she has bene recast to be voiced by a black woman, which should have happened in the first place
  • Netflix has renewed the show all the way up to Season 6, which I was really happy about

484w

What I thought about: You Me Her (Seasons 1-3.5)

Any interest I had in this show unfortunately fizzled out at the beginning of Season 4. Characters became annoying, the plot wore thin, and the initial intrigue I had in the show’s premise simply faded away. I’ll try and unpick my thoughts here.

I had a hard time thinking Jack’s smile was ever sincere.

What’s it about?
Married couple Jack and Emma have pretty successful careers and live in the rich and fancy suburbs of Portland, Oregon. The one thing they don’t have is a sex life. After a series of increasingly tense couples therapy sessions, Jack’s brother offers some advice: go and see an escort, and you’ll have such a good time it’ll reignite something in your own sex life.

Enter Izzie, a grad student who escorts in her spare time. Jack backs out of the session before anything serious happens, but his guilt gets the better of him and he immediately confesses to Emma. Understandably pissed, Emma arranges to met Izzie as a customer, planning on exposing her and telling her to keep the hell away from Jack. Instead, uh, they end up making out. Long story short, the couple are both infatuated with Izzie and form a polyamorous relationship.

What do I like about it?
You can’t help but be intrigued by the plot here, right? Their unusual relationship situation (not to mention the fact that Izzie is quite a bit younger than them) is a poor fit for their socially conservative professional lives, and the first couple of seasons sees Jack and Emma flip-flopping over whether to commit fully to the relationship, which at times is an emotional watch.

I also really liked the side characters. Emma’s best friend Carmen and her husband Dave are particular stand-outs, as is Izzie’s room mate and fellow escort Nina. The supporting cast really helps tie the show together and I think are a big part of what kept me invested in the show for so long.

What do I not like about it?
Unfortunately, the supporting cast’s magic eventually runs out and you start to realise how boring the main characters became, or perhaps how boring they always were. Despite claiming to be fully committed to the three-way relationship, the show is fully of petty and often bizarre fall-outs between them. Characters change their minds on a whim. Emma, who essentially comes out as bisexual in the first season, ditches the throuple for a full-blown lesbian relationship at the end of Season 2. By Season 4, she’s basically the most annoying character in the show.

Put simply, it lost its polish.

Worth a watch?
No. Not because the idea is bad – but because, if you’re a completionist like I usually am, you’ll find the latter seasons a real grind.

By the way…

  • It says a lot that, when writing this review, I had to Google Jack and Emma’s names, but not Carmen or Dave’s.
  • I like how, on Wikipedia, episode synopses for the show stop at the beginning of Season 3. Seems like I’m not the only one who gave up on this show.

508w

Quickfire round: Love and Anarchy

This quirky Swedish show – ostensibly a workplace comedy romance – was an intriguing watch and ended up having a much deeper emotional side to it than the trailer would suggest. It won’t be for everyone, though.

The lipstick is a token for their dares.

Married mother-of-two Sofie is called in to a small publishing house in Stockholm to help them restructure as they struggle in a tough marketplace. Sofie is good at her job, but must be having trouble with her husband because, in the first few minutes of Episode 1, she’s masturbating in the family bathroom before work. After a long day at the office, she does the same thing, this time at her desk. Enter Max – no, literally, he enters the building to carry on with his IT construction work, having been sent home by Sofie earlier in the day for making too much noise. Max quickly gets his revenge by snapping a photo of Sofie doing her thing, and the next day turns up to work with a renewed sense of power.

“How much do you want?” Sofie asks, keen to have the video deleted. “I just want you to take me out for lunch”, says Max (character building earlier in the episode shows us that Max, many years younger than Sofie, has a thing for older women). And so out they go. Max hands over his phone for Sofie to delete the photo, but she then refuses to hand it back. “You made me do something, now you need to do something to earn this back”, she says, “do something outrageous at the office”.

And so begins a pretty hilarious game of workplace dares between Sofie and Max.

What I loved about this show was the setting. Everyone else at the publishing house are just trying their best to keep going, but still manage to be funny in their own right. Friedrich is an old stalwart of the publishing world whose older, male, clientele occasionally clash with Denise’s younger and more liberal authors. At one point Friedrich, following a series of failures (one of which is at the hands Sofie’s dare to Max), goes to an Ayahuasca retreat to treat and find his true self. You can imagine how that went.

Towards the end, the show reveals a sort of underlying purpose. We learned earlier that Sofie’s father, a staunch communist, is sometimes mentally unstable. Although her willingness to participate in Max’s escalating dares is perhaps an indication that Sofie might be suffering a similar ailment, it’s not until she literally hisses at her husband, animal-like, that we can be sure of it. You could also say that Max, feeling the pressure from his spiteful mother and stepfather, also loses it when he poses completely nude for a family photo. (This is also a good time to mention that there is full frontal nudity in this show.)

A short, charming, crazy show that’s absolutely best watched in its original language with subtitles, I really quite liked it.

499w

What I thought about: The Minions of Midas

I am simply not smart enough to understand the plot. This Spanish thriller starts off with a bang, but its twists morph it into something that, right to the very end, had me scratching my head.

Victor has two expressions. His shocked face, which is this one, and his thinking face.

What’s it about?
Victor Genovés, an executive at media conglomerate the Malvar Group, has recently become the company president after being named heir to the late owner’s fortune in his will. Shortly after, he receives a letter at his office, closed with a traditional wax seal. It’s from the Minions of Midas or Los favoritos de Midas, a shadowy group who want to engage in a business transaction with Victor. That’s a very polite way of putting it – for in reality they are extorting him to the tune of 50 million euros. The consequence if he doesn’t pay? A stranger will die – and they give an exact time and place for the murder.

Like any self-respecting millionaire, Victor is a little spooked by the letter but ultimately ignores it. Sure enough, a woman is killed in a hit and run at the exact time and place specified in the letter. Unlike any self-respecting millionaire, however, he refuses to cut the loss-making Observer newspaper from the Malvar Group. This upsets the board of directors and they assemble enough votes to ditch him – that is, until another letter from the Minions shows up. “We have some information that can help you keep your position in the company,” they say, “remember, your gain is our gain”.

How mysterious.

What do I like about it?
The first half makes for a great thriller. The police scramble to hunt down the Minions as, every five days, exactly where promised, another seemingly random stranger is killed. It’s also mind-bending at times – some of the murders are arguably not caused by the Minions at all but rather by the police themselves and the hysteria invoked by the shadowy organisation.

The other events of the show are also pretty good – and pretty bleak. Victor’s love interest, Observer journalist Mónica Báez, uncovers the Bank of Madrid’s shameful financing of the Syrian regime, and there are mass protests verging into riots across Spain moments before they are due to host the European Summit. The polarisation of Victor’s penthouse apartment and the rioters below him make for a stark image of class divide, and tie in somewhat well into the extortion plot.

What do I not like about it?
This is probably just me but… I didn’t get it? I don’t want to spoil the plot but, towards the end, Victor changes how he reacts to the Minions and makes decisions which are unlike his character in the first half of the show. I just can’t quite work out what it all means – and I’m one of those people who longs for at least some kind of closure.

Worth a watch?
Probably not, unless you like the idea of it. Not to sound weird or anything but there wasn’t a lot of death and violence in it to make up for the slow parts.

By the way…

  • There is some nudity.
  • This is a limited series – it ain’t coming back.

537w

Back for more: Unsolved Mysteries (Season 2)

Slightly less captivating than the first season, this show about mysteries which remain – literally – unsolved to this day, still managed to keep me hooked for long enough to recommend it.

A body found in a landfill – how did it get there? We still don’t know for sure.

The first season kicked off with a genuinely eerie mystery – a man found lodged in the roof of a hotel building, having seemingly fallen through it from a great height. Season 2 kicks off in similar fashion with the discovery of a body in a landfill site. Former White House aide Jack Wheeler showed up there after a short disappearance following calls of a disturbance near his house. We see lots of CCTV footage of Jack’s last hours, where he looks agitated and confused, which raises plenty of questions aside from the apparent murder.

For the rest of the episodes, we swap out last season’s broad theme of ‘injustice’ (recalling the murder of a black man at a house party in a highly conservative town) with one of sheer mystery, as we learn about abduction of two different toddlers from the same New York City park – just three months apart. Absolutely mortifying.

Another one for the mystery fans – and one that makes for really good book material – is the unexplained death of a woman in a hotel room in Norway. This was probably my favourite of the series. For starters, we don’t ever find out the woman’s identity, let alone how or why she died. But the story of how they tried to answer these questions is fascinating and a real treat for mystery fans. Of course, it is also grossly tragic – and one must remember that these are real cases with real people waiting on the end of a phone line to hear from viewers who may have information that can lead to the case being solved.

There is also, like last season, a paranormal episode, this time involving ‘spirits’ said to have appeared after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I gave this one a miss, as I usually don’t do paranormal stuff where it is represented as fact.

Overall, whilst I wasn’t quite as captivated by the mysteries from the first season, viewers who enjoyed that one will no doubt enjoy this one as well.

376w

What I thought about: The Queen’s Gambit

Simply beautiful. This mesmerising tale of a female chess champion, set in the 50s and 60s, is a sheer wonder of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. And I say this as someone who has never much cared for chess.

I have never looked this lovingly at a chess board

What’s it about?
Beth Harmon, mere days into her time at a Christian orphanage following the suicide of her depressed mother, is sent to the basement to clean the board erasers, having finished her Maths test before anyone else. Sitting in a corner of the room is Mr Shaibel, the custodian (janitor), quietly playing a game of chess against himself. Curious, she one day approaches him and asks to play. ‘Girls do not play chess’, he says. ‘I already know some of the rules’, she retorts, and recites them perfectly – not from a book, but from her memory, pieced together from having observed Shaibel play day after day. He offers her a seat at the table.

The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth (has there even been a strong female lead stronger than Beth Harmon?) as she climbs her way up the ranks to becoming a world chess champion, while battling with substance abuse that began with her time in the orphanage. Can she avoid the destructive tendencies of her biological mother, and manage not to succumb to the temptations of alcohol and pills? It’ll take you seven roughly hour-long episodes to find out, but it’s absolutely worth it.

What do I like about it?
Too much to fit into this review, because every area of the show deserves an honourable mention. The set design (this is the 50s and 60s, remember) was brilliant. The musical score (particularly when playing via surround sound) is perfect and genuinely added a new dimension to the show. Major props also go to whoever was responsible for changing Beth’s look as she grew from 15 (pretending to be 13, so she would be more appealing to adoptive parents) all the way to her mid-20s. They actually did the transition between child actress Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy so smoothly that I had to squint to notice the difference in Taylor-Joy’s first scene.

Perhaps what I liked most about the show was how it never resorted to cheap tricks to keep me engaged. Beth gets a little bullied at school, and she suffers a bit of a shock in Las Vegas, but all of it felt appropriate. By not distracting me with sudden disaster, I floated through the story and appreciated every single scene, all the way up to the gripping finale.

What do I not like about it?
I don’t know if I just didn’t get it, but I’m really not sure what the whole thing was with Beth’s love interest, D.L. Townes. I said earlier how the show doesn’t get in your face about what’s happening on screen, but I’d have appreciated a little more explanation here.

Worth a watch?
Yes and, if you love chess, you might just explode.

By the way…

  • Netflix made it very clear this is a one-off Limited Series and I agree – don’t make a sequel. But please make more of whatever kind of show this is.
  • Yes the kid from Love Actually is in it and no I did not appreciate the moustache.

553w

What I thought about: Ted Lasso

Do me a favour. Open Apple TV+, look for Ted Lasso, and hit play. This heartwarming comedy had no right to be this good on paper – or even going off the trailer. And yet, I laughed. I teared up a bit. But most of all, I just really enjoyed it.

I agree with Lasso, tea is disgusting.

What’s it about?
After helping an American football team to success in the US, Ted Lasso and his assistant coach (referred to as ‘Coach’ pretty much throughout) are drafted in to support Richmond FC, an English football team (read: soccer) who are teetering on the brink of relegation from the premier league.

Leaving aside the elephant in the room, Lasso has a unique coaching style that is centred on belief, high sprits, and bringing out the best of everyone on the team. His unorthodox approach (and aforementioned elephant) do not go down well with the people of Richmond, who give him an icy cold reception, as do most of the players in the team (at least initially).

What do I like about it?
I don’t particularly like football. I don’t particularly like shows that drop Americans in England and show the character navigating our ‘different’ ways. So by all accounts, I shouldn’t have liked this show.

In the end, it comes down to the sheer charm of the show (and Lasso). The show makes each character stand out – often going from piss-taking comic to serious and heartfelt in mere moments. You start to find yourself rooting for the show’s antagonists, not giving up on them despite their serious flaws, just like Lasso does. It’s so human.

What do I not like about it?
I’m drawing a blank here. Ted Lasso really is a gem of a show. It’s not something I obsess over, like Elite, or You, instead it’s something for everyone, in every way.

If I had to pick something out, I would say that I didn’t really get the whole divorce thing. It wasn’t quite enough to knock Lasso for more than a day or two, and his (ex) wife seemed pretty cool with him the whole time?

Worth a watch?
Isn’t it clear from the above? YES! Yes, and if you end up not liking it, please let me know because I will have some questions for you.

By the way…

  • There’s a second season on the way, and my only concern is how they will top the first one.
  • Why does Antony Head always get cast as the dickhead ex-husband? See e.g. The Inbetweeners and The Stranger.

429w