TV

Keeping Faith: series review

* spoilers ahead

Regardless of your opinion of Keeping Faith, its success is impressive. With more than 8 million views on iPlayer, and almost 300,000 in Wales ‘have watched each of the weekly episodes … the highest audiences for a non-network drama shown in Wales for over twenty years, the series, produced in both Welsh and English, focuses on Faith (Eve Myles check name), as she tries to uncover the whereabouts of her husband after he simply fails to arrive at work one morning.

The central conceit, while fairly standard, is engaging, and the status of their relationship, currently fractured after the birth of their youngest child, allows for discussion surrounding the nature of her husband’s disappearance and her own identity. The couple, both solicitors running a firm together, have seemingly drifted apart and Evan, struggling to drum up business while Faith is on maternity leave, becomes increasingly secretive and distant. Interesting, while Faith is obviously bereft at her husband’s disappearance, her character also displays a great deal of righteous anger, recognising the selfishness and ignorance that her husband has displayed.

It’s a shame then, that with a strong central narrative, the series chose to focus on a myriad of storylines that add needless complication and distracts from that central relationship. While I understand that the moments showing Faith supporting clients, fighting for their cause and defending them in court, is intended to aid character development, it frequently results in a baggy, loose narrative in a series and genre that relies on cohesion for its success. Myles is a strong enough actress that such backstory or additional detail is merely unnecessary.

We can see from the interaction with her children that she is a good mother, in the same way, we can see from her interactions with her peers and friends that she is a good person, thus a collection of scenes that end up feeling a collage, are not needed. In fact, all they do is distract from the central story, and in turn, undermine its importance. While it is clear that Faith is concerned about her husband, her various exploits and attempts at investigating, become the central focus with little connection to her apparent central mission of finding her husband or at least uncovering his reasoning for leaving. Perhaps then, it’s a question of balance in terms of narrative or editing. Certainly, we would expect Faith to be desperately searching for answers, but when this search is set against a backdrop of humdrum activities (defending a client who has stolen from the church collection), it results in the viewer losing their hold on the narrative thread.

Similarly the use of repeated incidental music, along with a handful of songs, to signal emotional development, immediately cheapens the series. The acting is strong enough to convey these feelings to the audience without the need for additional emphasis from poorly judged music choices. The repeated music actually impedes any real development, or sense of the story moving forward, and in turn, slows the pace.

This confusion is perhaps best exemplified in the series’ final moments. After spending much of the series searching for her husband, and getting increasingly angry at his actions, Faith admits her feelings for Steve, whose generous help has afforded Faith much needed support. This moment, in which Steve arrives at Faith’s house after the apparent narrative conclusion, allows for an instance of physical closeness between the two, with a clear declaration of romantic feelings. This scene feels like the right conclusion for the series, and their relationship, in its sensitivity and realness, feels entirely believable, is instantly brought into question by the apparent reappearance of her husband. This revelation is entirely misjudged. Evan as a husband has shown himself to be entirely lacking, and no amount of sun-dappled scenes in a meadow (which consistently intersperse the series) can convince otherwise. Thus, his arrival is one, for me at least, that was entirely unwelcome. His disappearance had allowed Faith to reassert herself professionally and intellectually, and rediscover herself, why then, should his reappearance take place? It feels lazy, resulting in a schlocky conclusion that is simply included for the opportunity for a second series.

That is not to say that the series as a whole is unwelcome, but rather, that the series could have been so much more. It is immensely gratifying to see a Welsh drama receive so much attention, and yet, the decision to produce it in both Welsh and English, when a version in just Welsh would have sufficed, smacks of attempting to appeal to the masses. Given the plethora of dubbed neo-noir series that have seen huge popularity, there seems to be no real reason to have produced two versions. With news announcing a second series, one hopes that a Welsh version alone will be released having proved its merit.

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Monica and Chandler’s pallid marriage

Given the release of Friends on Netflix, it seems inevitable that many, myself included, have re-watched the much-loved, and retrospectively maligned sitcom. Of course, much has already been written about the series’ attitude toward gender roles and homosexuality, and I myself have written on the questionable nature of Ross and Rachel’s apparent aspirational relationship. Now my viewing has reached the ninth season (the one in which Monica and Chandler begin trying for a baby after the birth of Emma) it is becoming increasingly apparent that the writer’s simply didn’t know what to do with Monica and Chandler after they have married.

A quick google of Monica and Chandler brings up countless articles and lists in which the pair’s relationship is consistently referred to with the positive moniker ‘couple’s goals’. Certainly, on the surface the relationship, one which originates from years of friendship before converting into romance, is admirable. Initially, the pair truly respect one another and know every facet of each other. Their relationship, being borne from so many years of friendship, is one that is rooted in equal and positive dynamics. Thus, the early days of their relationship, during the time in which they felt compelled to keep the changing nature of their friendship secret, is one that is rooted in both attraction and excitement. The pair regularly employs tactics to avoid detection but ultimately fail due to their all-consuming passion and desire for each other.

Such chemistry is long forgotten by the time season 9 arrives, and indeed long before that. The pair, when hoping to conceive a child, perform the physical side of their relationship in an entirely perfunctory manner. Following an argument, after Monica discovers that Chandler has smoked, Monica and Chandler angrily place restrictions on the act: ‘no kissing your neck’, ‘good I hate it when you do that’. The fact that the pair, who by this point have been together for several years, don’t seem to know what pleases each other is notable. The scene is played for laughs, with Chandler retaliating with the line ‘and lots of kissing your neck’, but the response, rather than sparking a conversation between the two, simply highlights that their previously passionate relationship is one that has become entirely staid with little pleasure.

The power dynamics between the two is, when watching the episodes in quick succession as I have done, rather startingly in its change. Previously, Monica and Chandler appeared to respect one another, asking for advice and discussing issues at length. Later, when Chandler is working in Tulsa, Monica readily stays In New York for a job opportunity (to which, rather positively, Chandler gives his blessing to) and quickly forgets the very presence of her husband. The group sitting in the coffee house sans Chandler, remind Monica that Chandler is not currently present when she refers to everyone being present. Monica’s realisation again played for laughs, is to exclaim her shock and surprise, but not truly register the problem. Why then, is their relationship, one that started in such a positive way, so rapidly rendered as one without true understanding or respect. Why is it one that is perceived as aspirational by so many?

The series’ presentation of marriage, or a long-term relationship, is not wholly positive. Certainly, no such relationship is free from faults, but the manner in which the audience is encouraged to both accept and laugh at the state of Monica and Chandler’s relationship is questionable. Gone is the respect, and in its place, a relationship that relies on quips and apparent witticisms to demonstrate apparent contentment.

Friends: Ross and Rachel’s toxic relationship

 

1996 DAVID SCHWIMMER AND JENNIFER ANISTON OF THE TV HIT SERIES "FRIENDS"

I, like many others, have spent the last few weeks rewatching Friends on Netflix. In reality, this watching has largely consisted of hate-watching, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the series is even less-progressive than first recalled. Much has been written about the rampant homophobia that runs throughout the series, with references to sexuality regularly serving as an insult or a punchline. Much too, has been written about the series’ questionable representation of women in general. What has become most apparent in this period of rewatching is the toxic, and abusive nature of the series’ central relationship: Ross and Rachel. The status of this relationship, despite its breakdown in season three, runs throughout the ten seasons. Characters regularly revisit its demise, with Ross frequently proclaiming ‘we were on a break’ as an eternal defensive catchphrase. Audiences held, and still do hold, this relationship in such high esteem, that it is often perceived as a litmus test for relationships. Many fans believe that the difficulties the pair experience somehow result in a fulfilling outcome when the pair are eventually reunited.

It is strange then, given the regard for this relationship, that the dynamics are so questionable. Ross, always a selfish and irritating character, becomes positively tyrannical in his claim for Rachel’s affections. For Ross, his love, stemming from a childhood affection, validates his ownership of Rachel. From the very beginning of their burgeoning relationship, he holds little regard for Rachel or her feelings, seemingly more in love with the idea of Rachel than her as an individual.

Leaving for China, Ross proclaims that he is hopelessly in love with Rachel, yet readily returns with Julie. His love for Rachel, supposedly so pure, quickly disperses when he is reunited with a woman who returns his propositions. Yet, we are led to believe that Ross’ love and care for Rachel should be held in such high regard, that it is only right that he enters into a relationship with Rachel.

When they do finally embark upon this relationship, it seems to be a matter of minutes before Ross commits an act that undermines Rachel’s self-esteem and sense of self by creating a list of pros and cons, comparing Rachel and Julie. Rather than simply profess his love for Rachel, who he regularly insists on being a source of constant fascination for a number of years, he decides to logically decide which woman he should continue to be with. While he apologises to Rachel and tries to make it up to her on multiple occasions, it is not long before Ross, believing that he has made suitable recompense for his misdemeanour, begins to question why Rachel has not forgiven him yet. Essentially, Ross is able to manipulate and emotionally blackmail Rachel into entering a relationship, as she forgives him after watching a home video.

After Rachel begins a job, which she is passionate about, Ross immediately demonstrates his jealousy and desire to control. It is notable that Rachel’s decision to further her career by quitting her waitressing role at the coffee shop is one that is prompted by Chandler, not her apparently loving and supportive boyfriend. Given that Rachel regularly states her dislike of her job, and shows no enthusiasm for her role, it becomes noticeable that Ross has never discussed her career with her. Rachel’s career progression, made possible by her friendship with future co-worker Mark, merely presents itself to Ross as a means through which he may lose Rachel.

When she begins her role, he goes to great lengths to reassert his dominance. When speaking to Mark he pointedly states his relationship and status, remarking that he is Ross ‘as in Ross and Rachel’ implying that Rachel should only be known in relation to him. Rachel remarks that she likes being a separate, individual at work, and enjoys the freedom this awards, yet Ross continually invades her own space, arriving at work unannounced, sending her a myriad of hyperbolic romantic tokens that take over her desk leaving her unable to work. It would appear that Ross preferred Rachel as a waitress when her job role left her easily accessible (with the group regularly visiting the coffee shop while Rachel is working), and less ambitious. Early on in their relationship, she discovers that he has already determined the trajectory of their relationship, right down to the number of children they will have and where they will live. At no point does Rachel’s personal ambitions feature, nor her feelings and thoughts on the idea. Ross’ concept of their relationship is not one that invites discourse or discussion, but rather is an opportunity for him to mould and create a relationship that satisfies him, particularly given his past relationship with Carol.

After Ross’ infidelity, and Rachel’s subsequent decision to end their relationship, it is not long before Ross refers to Rachel’s decision as being ‘crazy’. He may have apologised initially, but to Ross, this apology should be enough to erase his lack of care and consideration. It’s entirely questionable then, that this controlling, and damaging relationship, is one that is still viewed by audiences as being one to aspire to. Even at the series’ end, Rachel is still compelled to leave behind her career, one that she professes to feeling inspired and excited by, in order to reunite with Ross.  Ross then eventually achieves his dream of having Rachel and a child with her. Yet Rachel has had to renege on her career aspirations and personal ambitions in order for Ross to achieve this. What is Rachel’s dream? Is this ever truly addressed, or considered? Viewers seemingly believe that Ross’ dream is Rachel’s too, but can any viewer really identify what her dream is?

The merits of First Dates

Channel 4’s First Dates and Gogglebox were released around the same time. Both, fairly similar in tone and style, have enjoyed huge success, but while Gogglebox‘s premise has become increasingly tired, with its supposed regular featured viewers demonstrating that they are ever more aware of their own audience, First Dates has, despite Channel 4 attempting to inject the series with a new appeal through the hotel concept, remained enjoyable. The series’ premise is incredibly simple, so much so that it seems strange that the series was not developed sooner. Featuring a range of couple each first on a date, the series charts the featured participants as they embark upon the prescribed date. For some this experience is exciting, for others, it presents a situation in which they feel increasingly vulnerable.

It is this opportunity for vulnerability that engages, and in turn, compels the viewer to consistently watch. Scenarios in which participants have lost a loved one, or endured difficult, at times abusive, relationships immediately connect with the viewer on an emotional level. Similarly, it is the universality of these situations that so aid the series’ success. Each date is well-orchestrated, and there is never any sense of meanness or maliciousness on the part of the producers when matching couples.  Rather, it is clear that the producers, in creating the show, have recognised that for sustained success viewers don’t want to witness awkwardness or conflict, but instead, want to experience positive connections between participants. This is rather notable, as the regular tendency with reality programming is to attempt to generate aggression and argument in order to attract viewers. Instead, First Dates is, simply, a nice show.

Call the Midwife: dangerous hyperreality

Given the nature of the Christmas period, it is inevitable that many end up being subjected to television programming that would not have ordinarily been selected as part of their festive viewing. As such, it was my misfortunate to be subjected to BBC’s Call the Midwife Christmas special on Christmas Day. Having some insight into the nature of the programme I have, thus far, intentionally and purposefully avoided the series finding the clichéd, halcyon representation of life in the 1950s entirely questionable. Having no option but to endure the episode on Christmas Day, it became rapidly apparent that despite my initial misgivings, the series is far worse than I could have anticipated, largely due to what it attempts to represent and the manner in which it is received by its targeted audience.

The central narrative needs little explanation, with the numerous subplots focusing on the various entanglements that the midwives become involved with through the nature of their work. The storylines themselves are not entirely questionable, despite their saccharine nature, but rather the manner in which they are presented. The world of the series is entirely cosseted, harking back to an era that, for its targeted audience, is one that is desirable. A time in which, despite the hardships and prejudices, was one in which things were simple. It is this attitude that proves to be so damaging, with viewers noting the lack of central heating, and the hyperbolic weather as a rite of passage, or as a marker of hard work and determination.

Such an attitude creates a divide, both in terms of generation, class and gender. The careers of these women are still largely restricted to the domestic sphere, and the myriad of intrigues are similarly centred. The gender roles of the women featured are lacking in progression and predominantly rely on stereotypes: the matriarch, the unintelligent woman focused on her appearance, or the overly emotional. While these approaches in themselves are questionable enough, it is the interaction that it encourages from its audience that highlights the series is far more ominous than its first appearance may present. Viewers, obtaining information from one specific media source and then finding their television viewers habits similarly aligned, simply create an echo chamber for their views.

The problem with Christmas 24

The form and tone of a Christmas film is an interesting one. Given the nature of the holiday season, viewers are far more likely to be forgiving when it comes to a film’s quality, allowing for poor acting or cliché so long as the film’s central conceit of celebrating Christmas, is successful. There can be little other explanation then, as to why so many films that largely focus on the same theme or topic attract multiple viewings. While some of these films are permissible, despite their failings, some, such as those that feature on the Christmas 24 channel is entirely questionable in their entire premise and execution.

Those films that are offered and presented for consumption at Christmas time on this channel are seemingly innocuous, with their entirely vanilla representation of relationships and family dynamics apparently entirely innocent and inoffensive. Arguably though, it is this very presentation, in its simplicity that is actually so sinister.
The world of Christmas 24 is overwhelmingly white, and WASP. The relationships are heterosexual, and the representation of all involved is entirely heteronormative. The diegesis that exists within these films is one that is entirely unrecognisable in reality, but though its persuasive presentation and manipulation of festive emotions, form some manner of hyperreality with viewers believing that these worlds did exist, and can exist once more.

Given the overwhelming conservative approach that these films take, and the core ethos that it attempts to engender to its audience, these films despite their seeming inoffensive nature, are in fact utterly pervasive and should be treated as such.

Thoughts on The Miniaturist

Adapting any text, particularly one that has proven to be hugely popular, is always a difficult feat. The tendency is, often, to adhere to the text with little deviation, fearing the ready-made audience may baulk at any error in textual detail. In adapting Jessie Burton’s wildly successful The Miniaturist, the approach has been, as may have been predicted for a Christmas airing, to largely retain the events of the text, representing the narrative faithfully. While this approach is largely acceptable, it is only admissible when the direction and rendering retain the central mood and tone of the text. In creating an adaptation for a less discerning, and in turn, arguably more mainstream audience, the creators have arguably taken a less progressive approach.

Thus the narrative, in attempting to appeal to many, fails to truly engage. The cast all perform admirably, particularly Romola Garai and Anna Taylor-Joy, but the dialogue is restrictive. Little is done to truly create atmosphere or tension, and there appears to be little to really concern the audience or drive the central conceit forward. Burton’s text, while engaging, does largely rely on the interior, a difficult narrative function to demonstrate onscreen. It is not merely this though that results in such a lacklustre affair, but rather a culmination of a myriad of factors. The pacing, in its restrained manner, is simply sedate, while its characters, despite some backstory, never feels fully developed.

Easy Season 2

For some, Easy’s anthology based format felt jarring, allowing little room for organic and sustained character development. Certainly, this is a point to be noted in regards to this style of narrative. Focusing on numerous stories and characters, some interconnected, others entirely isolated, can, in lesser hands, lead to characters that leave very little impression or impact.

Joe Swanberg’s Easy is not such a series. Its characters, while often flawed in execution do, largely, land with the audience. The second series sees the narrative returns to many of the same thematic concerns: affection, marriage, and the banality of the mundane nature of our lives.

The first episode, ‘Package Thief’ for example, focuses on a small, select neighbourhood who find themselves entirely focused on the exploits of a man who routinely steals their deliveries. The group of neighbours, all ostensibly liberal and middle class, quickly descend into their own interpretation of the martial law, deeming it appropriate and necessary to install CCTV cameras in order to identify the thief. Members of the group, feeling empowered by their own ability to extend their dominion beyond the confines of their own property, seek to further exert their own vision of the community upon passing visitors.

The episode, while seemingly innocuous, leaves the viewer with a clear sense of how little it takes for such a community to band together and attempt to prevent those of a disliked disposition from entering their living space. Its simplicity, on the surface, ensures that the narrative remains with the viewer long after.

Other episodes, focusing on the dynamics of both long-term, often constrained relationships, and new, tremulous couplings, are wonderfully natural, with the dialogue feeling realistic and relatable. The final episode of the series focuses on a thirty-seven-year-old woman (a familiar face from the first series) who, after the breakdown of her relationship, helps a friend in distress by looking after her young baby for several days. The episode largely consists of several scenes of the woman and baby interacting, playing in the park, partaking in bed-time routines and the activities that some may find banal. The interaction between the pair, while containing little dialogue, is given emotional depth given that the viewer recognises how much these moments mean to the woman. Not having had children of her own yet, and previously believing that she would have done by now, the opportunity to play mother provides her with moments of real revelation and warmth.

Not all of the episodes are wholly successful, and the narratives that return to the male writer of the first series do not always fully engage. Arguably this is due to the very nature of the writer himself, whose arrogance and self-belief does, at times, lead to the story feeling male-dominated. Certainly, this is intentional, given the nature of this writer, whose self-perceived intelligence means that he seeks to dominate conversations with women, or does not always recognise their worth.

Regardless of the trajectory of the series as a whole, the format and the presentation is refreshing. Netflix, in its funding of such projects, is once again, highlighting its worth as a producer of intelligent and unusual writing.

 

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The flaws of season 12

I am, thanks to Netflix, a fairly recent convert to the wonderfully acerbic It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s fast-paced, complex, and often bizarre storylines ensured that all of the available 12 seasons were quickly and readily consumed. As such, and as is often the case when binge-watching a series, it was difficult to, at least initially, identify the decline of quality within the series. Watching episode after episode with very little break in between results in series rapidly blurring into one, thus making it difficult to pinpoint a marked change in writing or success. It was only when rewatching the episodes for a second time that it became explicitly apparent. Series 12, while still containing some excellent episodes, presents a quite clear departure from the previous series. Certainly, series 12 is still well-written, but previous series, while containing moments of pop culture, are largely rendered timeless as there is little reliance on overt cultural references.

Watching an episode in series 12 then, in which very direct reference is made to Obama, or Making a Murderer immediately feels jarring. Much of the humour and character pathos within the series stems from the sense that they, in frequenting their bar, remain very much separate from popular culture and are unable to truly understand it. In introducing this very obvious Meta-tone, the series instantly and rather precisely dates itself. Thus watching series 12, the episodes, through these references, feel more dated than the earlier series in which no such explicit reference is made.

The series is still intelligently written, but it is almost as if the writers have felt the need to prove their worth by demonstrating their awareness of specific cultural moments and movements which largely feels clumsily done. In shifting focus, the characters lose some of their vicious tendencies, and in turn, feel less engaging. Given the success of the series, and the maintenance of quality for such a long run, it’s quite intentional and deliberate shift in tone and mood is both questionable and disappointing.

Motherland BBC: class and hyperbole

Motherland, written by a team of writers that includes Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, has, after a well-received pilot, been awarded a full series which starts next week. With a roster of impressive stars including Anna Maxwell Martin, and the talented Diane Morgan, the series takes a cynical, and apparently humorous look at motherhood, and in particular, at the difficulties of balancing work with childcare, and the hierarchy of so-called ‘alpha mums’.

I say apparently humorous because the pilot, relying heavily on entirely hyperbolic stereotypes, is far from truly comedic. Certainly, there is humour to be found within motherhood, and there is unquestionably an appetite for such humour if the upcoming Bad Moms 2 is anything to go by, and yet, Motherland’s pilot episode was, largely, dull and inane.

Despite its lack of intelligent humour, perhaps the biggest issue with Motherland is the smug writing. Entirely classist, the series has intentionally chosen to principally focus on a mono-middle-class culture. Morgan’s character, in her overt northernness, freezing all food and neglecting to stock herbal teas at home, is othered by the simpering mothers in thrall to the head alpha mum.

Her single mother status, alongside her regional accent, immediately marks her as separate from the middle-class liberal mothers. Given that much of the humour provided by Morgan’s character stems from her perceived otherness, and the fact that this otherness is so linked with her identity, its depiction of the class is immediately questionable. Her exaggerated bluntness and her lack of culinary knowledge (going as far as freezing eggs) are entirely, and problematically, connected with her regional identity.

Its depiction of both class and matriarchs, in general, is hugely problematic. I am not suggesting that all characters, particularly comedic characters, need to be fully developed, but choosing to depict motherhood, gender roles, and class in such a manner is lazy. There is no reason why comedy and progressive representations cannot be depicted together.

The men of Motherland, aside from weak stay at home father Keith, are disinterested in both the issues of their wives and their children. Julia (Maxwell Martin) arriving for an informal tea with a gaggle of children is quickly ushered into the kitchen by the family patriarch. When arriving, it is quickly apparent that all the visitors have been relegated to the typically female domain, with alpha mum Amanda’s husband berating Julia for daring to enter his domain.

Similarly, Julia’s husband feigns little interest in the childcare responsibilities as Julia struggles to manage the school run. Instead, he ponders his coffee and cake choice at a leisurely pace, listening to Julia’s plight without care.

These character types are of course recognisable, and are, in part, grounded in truth, but they are so poorly drawn that they fail to truly engage. Motherland, then, at least thus far, fails on all accounts. It is neither inventively humorous, or wittily acerbic, lacking any social commentary, or any insight into the plight of motherhood.