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.

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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.

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What I thought about: Emily in Paris

A charming comedy romance with breathtaking views of Paris, I was really enjoying this one up until its somewhat chaotic end, whereupon it suddenly felt, well, a bit of a sausage fest. I hope a second season, if there is one, focuses more on Emily’s marketing prowess.

Of course her phone case looks like a camera. It’s so _ringarde_!

What’s it about?
Emily is a young but successful marketing executive from Chicago. The company she works for recently acquired a boutique marketing agency in Paris – Savoir – which her senior colleague was due to be seconded to. Said colleague falls pregnant and Emily, who doesn’t speak a word of French, offers to go in her place.

When she arrives in Paris, she’s treated to quite the culture – and language – shock. Receiving a less than friendly welcome from her boss and metaphorical dinosaur of the marketing industry, Emily tries her best to remain upbeat by pulling off a number of successful marketing stunts and blogging her journey on Instagram, where she quickly racks up a decent following.

Being so good(looking) at her job does grab the attention of a number of male clients, including a perfumer, fashion house boss, and vineyard heir. Here’s the chick flick element – Emily has to carefully navigate the sex-infested waters of Paris to figure out her true love.

What do I like about it?
Emily is a well-written character portrayed fantastically well by Lily Collins. She is resourceful, smart, quick-thinking, and career-driven. I felt inspired watching this, and I’m a male lawyer. I can’t imagine what it might do for those more closely aligned to Emily and her career path. Also, the wardrobe department pulled off some simply amazing looks. Emily is a fashion icon in her own right.

Seeing Emily settle into Parisian life, struggling at first but slowly improving her language and grasp of the culture, was a joy to watch and included several genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments. The show’s gotten flack for stereotyping the French, but I’d have thought the majority-French cast would have pointed out if the writers were being too cruel.

And if you’re wondering, the male love interests are, to borrow a word from a friend who’s also seen the show, ‘fit’. Make of that what you will.

What do I not like about it?
Emily’s skill and endless optimism gets somewhat sidelined in the second half of the season and relationships become increasingly complicated. This culminates in a final episode that literally felt as though she was being passed around by the male love interests. It’s hard to explain, but it was quite off-putting.

Worth a watch?
It’s not a must-see, but if the premise sings to you, sit back and take in the 4K views of Paris as the story unfolds.

By the way…

  • I found it funny that Emily’s American boyfriend is literally subtitled as ‘Boyfriend’. They didn’t even give him a name!
  • I alluded to it above but I can’t stress enough – the scenes were so brilliantly shot. Try and watch in Dolby Vision if you can.

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What I thought about: Ratched

Offering a look into the life of Mildred Ratched before she began her tyrannical reign as Head Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the excellent production values and superb acting went a long way to mask this show’s otherwise quite disappointing plot.

Who knew Mildred Ratched had some compassion in her? Well, enough to protest against boiling someone alive I suppose

What’s it about?
Have you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or seen the 1975 film adaptation? No, me neither. But you don’t really have to, as this is advertised as a prequel / origin story. The season starts with Ratched talking herself into a role at a Californian mental hospital, headed up by Dr. Hannover, a Filipino pioneer of mental health treatment. Ratched is up to no good, and we soon discover why.

But we also discover so much more, as the show recalls of some of the most horrific ‘treatments’ given out at mental hospitals in the late 1940s including hydrotherapy (forcibly bathing someone in scaldingly hot water and then immediately dunking them into an ice bath) and, of course, the lobotomy. We also get a look at the period’s views on homosexuality and the death penalty (oh how wild it is to see that we have advanced mental health care so much since then, and yet some states in the US are still so incredibly regressive in the use of state-sanctioned killing).

What do I like about it?
The visuals. The music. The acting. This is just such a delightful show to watch. Mildred drives a bright turquoise car in a sea of black ones. She has dark red hair and great fashion sense. Dr. Hannover is an eccentric maverick, yet underneath his often aggressive exterior lies a delicate man who genuinely wants to cure people of their mental ills. Every character is portrayed in a way that is ever so slightly over the top. Enough to create a sort of candied view of the story that somehow comforted me through what were some truly grisly scenes of murder, death, and suffering.

What do I not like about it?
Sitting back and taking it all in after the first episode, I have to agree with what many professional critics have said about the show. The plot… is not great. Characters show up out of the blue in unconvincing ways and often with a dramatic effect on the story that just isn’t believable. There are moments that are painfully slow, particularly as the show tries to provide some context to Ratched’s life – her work and family history, and her struggle with sexuality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have seen those in the show – it is, after all, an origin story – but somehow the writing just didn’t pan out.

Worth a watch?
It’s still a yes from me. Especially if you can watch on a Dolby Vision-supported TV, because the cinematography is truly stunning. Watch the trailer first and be forewarned that the show contains some grisly scenes of violence.

By the way…

  • Netflix ordered two seasons in one go, so Ratched will be back soon.
  • A cursory glance at the plot of the book reveals many an inspiration for the events occurring in this prequel story – just different characters at different times.

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What I thought about: Criminal (UK) (Season 2)

I couldn’t wait to get started on the second season of this gripping police interview drama. It’s a testament to the quality of acting in this show that I remained captivated for the entire runtime despite all the action taking place between a few actors in a small room.

It’s not all finger-wagging, I promise.

What’s it about?
A special unit of the police (we assume in London), practice unorthodox interview techniques in order to tease out a confession or some other crucial information from their subjects. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the CIA, there’s no waterboarding, it’s purely psychological. Things like padding a medical examiner’s report with blank paper and slamming it down on the table to make it seem important. Playing good cop bad cop. Selectively choosing who asks what question. These all add up to mount pressure on the subject and get them to give in.

This season includes Kit Harrington (accused of rape) and Kunal Nayyar (convicted but suspected of a second murder) among a pair of slightly lesser-known actors for a total of four episodes, one more than last time.

What do I like about it?
The acting is incredible, as indeed its has to be. Armed with viewer’s foresight (for we know that something is going to happen due to the nature of the show), you can really appreciate the skilful writing and acting. The team pick up on a fairly obvious moment in episode one, where the interviewee Julia (not a suspect!) launches into a mini tirade and yells out about facts that only the killer would know. But there was something much more subtle earlier on. She asks if her husband (convicted murderer, and suspect of a second murder) had been charged for the it. “Not yet”, comes Detective Constable Vanessa Warren’s reply. Julia lets out a deep sigh and puts her hands to her face. “When will it end?” she says, ostensibly referring to the misery of being married to a murderer.

Now, why would she do that? If she was innocent, I’d argue the response would be more like ‘oh’, or the question wouldn’t even be asked. What she’s doing is checking in on the investigation into the second murder, to see if she’s gotten away with it. When she learns he hasn’t been charged, it means she’s still at a degree of risk. The fact that this is acted out, but is never referred to again for the rest of the episode, demonstrates the show’s the attention to detail. Detail that’s necessary to make such a slow burning, single-room drama so gripping.

What do I not like about it?
Why are the police staff so limp outside the interview room? Inside, they are powerful and cunning, and have a way with words that makes even the most hardened criminal slowly crumble. But outside it – in the corridors of the station – they buy drinks from vending machines and throw little paper balls into tiny bins, letting out a depressive sigh when they inevitably miss. I’m not sure I get what the writers are going for here.

Also, as a lawyer myself, I can’t help but question the way the solicitors – who are sometimes also present in the room – just sit back and let the police’s line of questioning happen. They do speak up at times (they’re not totally silent!) but you just know that if this were real the solicitor would be reading out a statement and advising their client to reply with ‘no comment’.

Worth a watch?
You have to appreciate that it is literally just people talking in a room. Sit through absolutely any episode in the first or second season – they’re all good – and if you liked it, carry on. If you didn’t, it’s probably not for you.

By the way…

  • The first season launched simultaneously with editions in France, Germany, and Spain, all with their own plots and local actors…
  • …But the UK show was the only one to be renewed for a second season.

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