Happy Birthday Ross Kemp

Ross Kemp is a BAFTA award-winning British actor, author and journalist. He turned 48 years old this year and was born on 21 July 1964 in Essex. Kemp became a celebrity when he rose to fame after playing the role of Grant Mitchell in BBC’s Eastenders.

His gritty portrayl of tough guy Grant Mitchell in the popular BBC TV soap opera Eastenders for nearly ten years from 1990 won him the accolade of Best Actor in the British Soap Awards in 1999. Kemp made his debut on the show in February 1990. On-screen, Kemp, as Grant, was often at the centre of EastEnders’ plots, amongst them abusive marriages to Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean) and Tiffany Mitchell (Martine McCutcheon), and the “Sharongate” storyline, that saw Grant’s brother Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden) conduct an affair with his wife.

Since leaving Eastenders, he has become better known for hard hitting investigative journalism such as “Ross Kemp in Afganistan” and “Ross Kemp on Gangs” which won Best Factual Series in the 2006 BAFTA Awards. The award-winning TV series saw Kemp interview gang members from around the world. The first series featured gangs and police corruption in Brazil, Māori gangs in New Zealand, neo-Nazi skinheads in California, gangsters in London, and teenagers from Blaenau Gwent.

The second series featured “MS13” from El Salvador, neo-Nazis in Russia, football hooligans in Poland, American “Bloods” and “Crips” gangs in St. Louis, and the Numbers gang in South Africa. The show returned in September 2008 for four more episodes, starting in the Los Angeles district of Compton. “Ross Kemp on Gangs” has also been released on DVD which you can purchase from all good retailers. In early 2007 Kemp published his experiences from the TV programme in book form, simply titled “Ross Kemp. Gangs”.

Kemp is a keen amateur rugby player and is known for his trademark bald head which adds to his hardman image on screen. However, not many people know that Kemp’s first television appearance was for an advert of Kellogg’s Fruit ‘n Fibre breakfast cereal – see below.

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Happy Birthday Victoria Wood

On 19 May, City Connect celebrates the birthday of Victoria Wood CBE, the English comedienne, actress, singer-songwriter, screenwriter and director. Wood has written and starred in sketches, plays, films and sitcoms, and her live comedy act is interspersed with her own compositions, which she accompanies on piano. She is noted for her skills in observing culture, and in satirising social classes. Wood frequently works with long-term collaborators Julie Walters, Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie.

Victoria Wood winning 2 BAFTAs in 2007


Victoria Wood started her career in 1974 by winning the ATV talent show New Faces. It wasn’t until the 1980s that she began to establish herself as a comedy star and became one of Britain’s most popular stand-up comedians starting with the award-winning television series Victoria Wood As Seen On TV. Wood began working at the BBC in 1984 and her sketch show Victoria Wood As Seen On TV went into production. Wood chose actors and actresses herself: her friend Julie Walters starred, as did Duncan Preston. Wood’s friend Celia Imrie was also cast, as well as Susie Blake and Patricia Routledge. As Seen On TV was notable for featuring classic sketches such as Acorn Antiques, a spoof of low-budget soap opera and rumoured to be named after an antiques shop in her birthplace. Acorn Antiques is remembered for characters such as “Mrs Overall” (played by Walters), the deliberately bad camera angles and wobbling sets, as well as Celia Imrie’s sarcastic tone as “Miss Babs”. Below is “Episode 1” of Acorn Antiques starring Walters, Imrie and Preston.

Between 1989 and 1999, Wood began to move away from the sketch show format and into more self-contained works, often with a more bittersweet flavour. The television film, Pat and Margaret (1994), starring Wood and Julie Walters as long-lost sisters with very different lifestyles, continued her return to stand-alone plays with a poignant undercurrent to the comedy. In 1998, she wrote her first sitcom, dinnerladies, which continued her now established milieu of mostly female, mostly middle-aged characters depicted vividly and amusingly, but with a counterpoint of sadder themes.

December 2000 saw the Christmas sketch show special Victoria Wood with All The Trimmings, starring her traditional troupe of actors and actresses as well as a string of special guest stars. Here’s her parody of Brief Encounter that was one of the sketches on the show.

Wood wrote her first musical, Acorn Antiques: The Musical!, which opened in 2005 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, for a limited period, directed by Trevor Nunn. It starred most of the original cast, with Sally Ann Triplett playing Miss Berta (played in the series by Wood). Wood played Julie Walters’ character Mrs. Overall for matinee performances.

Wood wrote the 2006 one-off ITV serious drama Housewife, 49, an adaptation of the real diaries of Nella Last, and played the eponymous role of an introverted middle-aged character who discovers new confidence and friendships in Lancashire during World War II. Housewife, 49 was critically praised, and Wood won BAFTAs for both her acting and writing for this drama — a rare double.

In 2007, Wood appeared in her own travel documentary show on BBC One called Victoria’s Empire, in which she travelled around the world in search of the history, cultural impact and customs which the British Empire placed on the parts of the world it ruled. The three programmes covered India, Hong Kong, Borneo, Ghana, Jamaica, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Zambia, finishing at the Victoria Falls.

Wood returned to television comedy for a one-off Christmas comedy sketch-show special, her first in 9 years, titled Victoria Wood’s Mid Life Christmas, transmitted on BBC One on Christmas Eve 2009. The special, which reunited Wood with long-time collaborator Julie Walters, included a spoof of BBC period dramas Lark Rise to Candleford, Little Dorrit and Cranford entitled Lark Pies to Cranchesterford, a spoof documentary following Acorn Antiques star Bo Beaumont (Walters) titled Beyond The Marigolds and a reprise of Wood’s most famous song “The Ballad of Barry and Freda” (“Let’s Do It”).

Wood has received many awards in her long career. In 1997, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Earlier in 1994, she was made an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Sunderland. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours.

Wood has four BAFTA wins from fourteen nominations winning Best Light Entertainment Performance in 1986 for Victoria Wood As Seen On TV and in 1989 for An Audience With Victoria Wood. In 2007, Wood won Best Actress and Best Single Drama BAFTAs for Housewife 49. In December 2011, she received the British Comedy Awards award for “Best Female TV Comic” beating competition such as Sarah Millican.

Wood is a Quaker and a vegetarian, once remarking; “I’m all for killing animals and turning them into handbags. I just don’t want to have to eat them.” She lives in Highgate, North London.

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Happy Birthday Sarah Michelle Gellar

On 14 April, City Connect celebrates the birthday of Sarah Michelle Gellar, the American actress & producer famous for her leading role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and most recently appearing in the well-received drama series Ringer. She has been married to Freddie Prinze Jr. since 2002. The couple have two children.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2011


After being found by an agent in a local restaurant in New York City, she had a role in the made-for-TV movie An Invasion of Privacy and went on to appear in shows like Spenser: For Hire. She originated the role of Kendall Hart on the ABC daytime soap opera All My Children, winning the 1995 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama Series.

Gellar came into promincence in the late 1997 when landed significant parts in the successful horror films I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 and played Buffy Summers on the WB/UPN television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she won six Teen Choice Awards and the Saturn Award for Best Genre TV Actress and received a Golden Globe Award nomination. In her feature in Esquire magazine Gellar expressed her pride for her work on Buffy, “I truly believe that it is one of the greatest shows of all time and it will go down in history as that. And I don’t feel that that is a cocky statement. We changed the way that people looked at television.”

She found film critics praise for her performace in the teen drama Cruel Intentions (1999), a modern-day retelling of Les Liaisons dangereuses featured a kiss between Gellar and co-star Selma Blair that won the two the “Best Kiss” award at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. This film was a modest hit at the box office, grossing over $38 million in the United States and over $75 million worldwide, and earned several awards and nominations. Critic Roger Ebert stated that Gellar and co-star Ryan Phillippe “develop a convincing emotional charge” and that Gellar is “effective as a bright girl who knows exactly how to use her act as a tramp”. Gellar’s role showed her versatility as an actress, and many were surprised to see her playing a brunette cocaine addict with an appetite for manipulating and using people. Her performance was praised by a number of critics, including Rob Blackwelder for SPLICEDwire, who wrote about the “dazzling performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar who plunges headlong into the lascivious malevolence that makes Kathryn so delightfully wicked. (Plus she looks great in a corset.)”.

Sarah Michelle Gellar subsequently appeared in the box office hits Scooby-Doo (2002), Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, (2004) and the American remake of Japanese horror film The Grudge (2004).

Since then she has starred in limited released and straight-to-video films such as 2006’s Southland Tales, 2007’s Suburban Girl and 2008’s The Air I Breathe.

More recently she starred in the television series Ringer, which started airing in late 2011. In 2011, Gellar signed on to star and work as executive producer for the drama series, in which she plays a woman on the run who manages to hide by living the life of her wealthy twin sister. The show was originally made for CBS but was picked up by its sister channel The CW in May 2011. Gellar has stated that part of her decision to return to a television series was because it allows her to both work and raise her daughter. The series premiered with high rating for the network (the first episode brought 2.84 million viewers) and mixed-positive reviews. E! Online wrote that Gellar was “awesome” and “fantastic”, TV Line remarked she “does a fine job” as both characters and USA Today found her performance “well-defined”.

On 15 February 2013, it was reported that Gellar would return to television with a pilot for CBS entitled Crazy Ones opposite Robin Williams. The show will be a single-camera comedy, about an advertising agency run by a father (Williams) and his daughter (Gellar).

Gellar is an active advocate for various charities, including breast cancer research, Project Angel Food, Habitat for Humanity and CARE. Of her charitable pursuits, she says, “I started because my mother taught me a long time ago that even when you have nothing, there’s ways to give back. And what you get in return for that is tenfold. But it was always hard because I couldn’t do a lot. I couldn’t do much more than just donate money when I was on the show because there wasn’t time. And now that I have the time, it’s amazing.”

Sarah Michelle Gellar has a black belt in taekwondo and four tattoos.

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Happy Birthday Alyson Hannigan

On 24 March, City Connect celebrates the birthday of American actress Alyson Hannigan who is known for her roles as Willow in the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Michelle Flaherty in the American Pie films and Lily Aldrin from the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

Alyson Hannigan in 2003


Although Alyson Hannigan appeared in an industrial film for “Active Parenting” as a baby, as well as having starred in a commercial for the Duncan Hines cookie mix in 1978, it was not until 1985, when she moved to Los Angeles, California, that she formally began her acting career. Living with her mother and attending North Hollywood High School, she successfully auditioned for agents while visiting her father in Santa Barbara. After attending North Hollywood High School, she attended California State University, Northridge where she earned a degree in psychology.

Alyson Hannigan’s first major film role was in My Stepmother Is an Alien, a science fiction comedy released in 1988; one of her co-stars in the film was actor Seth Green, who would later join her in the regular cast of Buffy as her on-screen boyfriend. Then in 1989, her first regular role on a TV series came when she was cast in the short-lived ABC sitcom Free Spirit.

In 1997, at 23 Alyson Hannigan was cast to play Willow Rosenberg, Buffy’s best friend, on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show became a huge success, and Hannigan gained further recognition, subsequently appearing in several notable films aimed at teenage audiences, including American Pie, American Pie 2, Boys and Girls, and American Wedding. By the time Buffy ended in 2003, Alyson Hannigan was earning a US$250,000 salary for each episode.

In early 2004, Alyson Hannigan made her West End debut, starring in a stage adaptation of When Harry Met Sally… at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, opposite Luke Perry.

In 2005, Alyson Hannigan returned to starring in a regular television series, appearing in the hit CBS comedy, How I Met Your Mother, as Lily Aldrin. Set in Manhattan, How I Met Your Mother follows the social and romantic lives of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and his friends Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel), Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), Lily Aldrin (Hannigan) and Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). How I Met Your Mother has been a critical success, has received consistently strong ratings throughout its run and is now in it’s seventh season on CBS. It has won five Emmy Awards, including a nomination for “Outstanding Comedy Series” in 2009. The show won the People’s Choice Awards 2012 for Best TV Network Comedy and Neil Patrick Harris won the Best Male Comedy Actor for his role as Barney. The Bro Code, cited by Barney many times throughout the series, is a set of written rules for bros to follow, and has been published as a tie-in novel, an audiobook and an iPhone App.

In February 2006, Alyson Hannigan starred as Julia Jones in Date Movie, a parody of romantic comedies. She was also a guest star on the ABC animated sitcom The Goode Family in 2009.

Also in 2009, Alyson Hannigan joined forces with Emily Deschanel, Jaime King, Minka Kelly, and Katharine McPhee in “The Booby Scare” – a “video slumber party” featured on FunnyorDie.com (see below) to promote regular breast cancer screenings for the organization Stand Up 2 Cancer.

Alyson Hannigan recently became the new face of Head & Shoulders Shampoo in America. Here’s one of the TV commercials where Alyson Hannigan gives her friend some good advice on averting catastrophe with Head & Shoulders Itchy Scalp Care.

This year, Alyson Hannigan is reprising her role of Michelle in American Reunion – the fourth movie from the popular American Pie films. The movie will be released on April 2012. See the trailer below for a sneak preview of what to expect from the American Pie cast members this time round.

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Happy Birthday Patrick Dempsey

In this week’s Born This Day series, City Connect celebrates the birthday of Patrick Dempsey who was born on 13 January 1966. Patrick Dempsey is best known for his role as neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Shepherd (“McDreamy”) on the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.

Patrick Dempsey


Patrick Dempsey was discovered by an invitation to audition for a role in the stage production of Torch Song Trilogy. His audition was successful, and he spent the following four months touring with the company in Philadelphia. Patrick Dempsey’s first major feature film role was at age 21 with Beverly D’Angelo in the movie In The Mood, the true World War II story about Ellsworth Wisecarver whose relationships with older married women created a national uproar. This was followed by the teen comedy Can’t Buy Me Love in 1987 with actress Amanda Peterson and Some Girls with Jennifer Connelly in 1988. This film was a flop. In 1989, Dempsey had the lead role in the films Loverboy with actress Kirstie Alley and Happy Together with actress Helen Slater.

Patrick Dempsey’s first major television role was a recurring role as Will’s closeted sportscaster boyfriend on Will & Grace. He went on to play the role of Aaron Brooks, Lily & Judy’s psychologically unbalanced brother, on Once & Again. Dempsey received an Emmy nomination in 2001 as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for the role of Aaron.

Patrick Dempsey has received significant public attention for his role as Dr. Derek Shepherd in the drama Grey’s Anatomy. Prior to landing the role of Derek Shepherd, Dempsey auditioned for the role of Dr. Gregory House on another medical show, House. Initially a midseason replacement, the show was very well received and has become a highly rated program. Dempsey’s character is often referred to as “McDreamy” and has received press attention for his sex appeal, and his chemistry with Grey’s Anatomy co-star Ellen Pompeo was well received by fans and critics. Patrick Dempsey was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama at the 2006 Golden Globes for the role. On May 9, 2012, it was announced that the six original cast members including Dempsey had signed up for two more seasons.

In 2002, Patrick Dempsey had a high-profile role as the fiancé of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Sweet Home Alabama. In 2004, he co-starred in the highly acclaimed HBO production Iron Jawed Angels, opposite Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston. In 2007, Patrick Dempsey starred in the Disney film Enchanted, and the Paramount Pictures film Freedom Writers where he reunited with his Iron Jawed Angels co-star Hilary Swank. Patrick Dempsey’s most recent roles include the 2008 film Made of Honor as Tom and the 2010’s romantic comedy Valentine’s Day. Patrick Dempsey starred as Dylan Gould in the 2011 movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon. On November 1, 2012, Deadline.com reported that Patrick Dempsey is set to star in the romantic comedy Wonderful Tonight playing opposite Amanda Seyfried.

Patrick Dempsey enjoys auto racing in his spare time, having competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race, and Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race. He was a co-owner of the Vision Racing IndyCar Series team and current owner of Dempsey Racing, which is presently racing two Mazda RX-8 cars in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series GT class. He participates in this series as often as his schedule allows, as he is unable to race while filming a movie due to insurance issues.

Patrick Dempsey was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 12. As a result, it is necessary for him to memorize all his lines in order to perform, even for auditions where he was unlikely to get the part.

Entertainment Weekly put Patrick Dempsey’s hair on its end-of-the-decade “best-of” list, saying, “What made Grey’s Anatomy a mega-medi-hit? It could have something to do with creator Shonda Rhimes’ scalpel-sharp writing…or McDreamy’s impossibly luxurious man hair. Just saying.” BuddyTV ranked him #74 on its list of “TV’s Sexiest Men of 2011”.

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Happy Birthday Nigella Lawson

In this week’s Born This Day series, City Connect celebrates the birthday of Nigella Lawson who was born on 6 January 1960. Nigella is renowned for her flirtatious manner of presenting and has been called the “Queen of Food Porn”.

Nigella Lawson


Nigella Lawson (born 6 January 1960) is an English food writer, journalist and broadcaster. Nigella Lawson is the daughter of Nigel Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Vanessa Salmon, whose family owned the J. Lyons and Co. empire. After graduating from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, Nigella Lawson started work as a book reviewer and restaurant critic, later becoming the deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times in 1986. She then embarked upon a career as a freelance journalist, writing for a number of newspapers and magazines.

In 1998, Nigella Lawson brought out her first cook book, How to Eat, which sold 300,000 copies and became a best-seller. She went on to write her second book in 2000, How to be a Domestic Goddess, winning her the British Book Award for Author of the Year.

In 1999, she hosted her own cooking show series, Nigella Bites on Channel 4, which was accompanied by another best-selling cook book. The Nigella Bites series won Nigella Lawson a Guild of Food Writers Award; her 2005 ITV daytime chat show was met with a negative critical reaction and was cancelled after attracting low ratings. Nigella Lawson hosted the Food Network’s Nigella Feasts in the United States in 2006 followed by a three-part BBC Two series, Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen, in the United Kingdom. This led to the commissioning of Nigella Express on BBC Two in 2007. Her own cookware range, Living Kitchen, has a value of £7 million, and she has sold more than 3 million cook books worldwide.

Nigella Lawson has become renowned for her flirtatious manner of presenting, although she argues, “It’s not meant to be flirtatious. … I don’t have the talent to adopt a different persona. It’s intimate, not flirtatious”. The perceived overt sexuality of her presentation style has led to Lawson’s being called the “queen of food porn”. Many commentators have alluded to Nigella Lawson’s attractiveness, and she was once named as one of the world’s most beautiful women. She has been referred to as “stunningly beautiful, warm, honest, likeable and amazingly normal”, as well as being described as having “flawless skin, perfect white teeth, a voluptuous body, ample height and lots of lush, brown hair”. The media has also noted Nigella Lawson’s ability to engage with both male and female viewers; The Guardian wrote, “Men love her because they want to be with her. Women love her because they want to be her”. The chef, Gary Rhodes, spoke out against Nigella Lawson by suggesting that her viewers are attracted to her smile rather than the cooking itself. Despite often being labelled as a domestic goddess, she insists that she exhibits very few of the qualities associated with the title.

Nigella Lawson is also known for her vivid and adjective-filled food descriptions in both her books and television programmes, as one critic summarised, “her descriptions of food can be a tangle of adjectives.” In a study conducted in 2007 on the readability of different recipes, the chatty and florid style of Nigella Lawson’s recipes was judged to be confusing to readers with weak reading skills. Nigella Lawson has also expressed her surprise at how many reviews in the United States have mentioned her class and posh accent.

Comedians and commentators have taken to mocking Nigella Lawson’s style of presentation, particularly in a regularly occurring impersonation of her in the BBC comedy series Dead Ringers, because they perceive that she plays overtly upon her attractiveness and sexuality as a device to engage viewers of her cookery programmes. Impressions by Ronni Ancona that further parodied Nigella Lawson’s presenting style have also been featured on the BBC One impersonation sketch show, The Big Impression.

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Nostalgia – Part 2

“The past is not dead; it is living in us and will be alive in the future, which we are now helping to make.” – William Morris

In Part One of my nostalgia-themed article, I pointed out that the cult for nostalgia is not new, discussing the Victorian predilection for an idyllic past as exemplified through the illustrations of Kate Greenaway.

This week, in Part Two, I will be exploring the contemporary predilection for all things historical. This is a phenomenon we find expressed in the popularity of vintage clothing, and ‘retro’ styles of music, but which is perhaps most interestingly expressed in the popularity of the ITV1 series, Downton Abbey.

Cast of Downton Abbey

Fashion and popular music have always inclined towards the referential, invoking familiar sounds and images that hark from different eras. Treating the past as a vast shopping centre from which one can annex any style one chooses and reproduce it in a consciously ironic reference lies at the heart of post-modernity, to cite an over-used phrase. It is what one might call conspicuous irony.

Madonna has achieved precisely this type of relentless referentiality throughout her musical career. Her video for Vogue, released in 1990, was a pastiche of Marlene Dietrich in the film noire genre and her 1989 video for Express Yourself was a direct reference to the Fritz Lang film, Metropolis. 

Marlene Dietrich and Madonna

There is, however, a fundamental difference between this type of post-modern referentiality – self-conscious and ironic in essence – and the simple nostalgic yearning to return to an idyllic past. The post-modern sensibility is one in which there is a disenchantment with meaning.

The current leaning towards nostalgia is closer to what can be described as pre-modern, since it expresses a simple desire to revisit a time, or times, that have passed; not in order to repudiate or subvert meaning, but to recover it.

The pre-modern sensibility is more to do with taking a stand against the modern world, or expressing disenchantment with it and it is my belief that we are evolving from a post-modern culture into one that is pre-modern. That is, we have become disenchanted with disenchantment. The endless reproduction of images dissociated from their original meaning so beloved of an ironic post-modern sensibility is, ultimately, unnerving and disorientating because as human beings we have a basic need to discern meaning in our lives.

The success of ITV1’s Downton Abbey, for example, has nothing to do with irony and everything to do with the type of pre-modern nostalgia that yearns to return to a time when things seemed to make more sense.

Of course the catalyst for this current nostalgic mood is the recession. Times of economic uncertainty cause us to become introspective and nervous about the future. Instead, we retreat to the relative comfort of the past, which seems rosier and cosier than our bleak present.

Economic uncertainty can also make us feel cast adrift, unsure of our place in the great scheme of things and as we struggle to comprehend how the Western World got itself into such a mess, we may wonder if the phenomenon of the economic boom is becoming a thing of the past.

The past, of course, is a non-threatening place. We already know what the past is, or we think we do. The future, on the other hand is, as Shakespeare would say, “that undiscovered country,” an unknown place that, in times of recession, can become a terrifying one.

It is of particular note that in the equally economically depressing 1970s – also a time of recession – there was the power shortage; the oil crisis of 1973, when the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath imposed a three day week as an emergency measure. During this time, there was a plethora of period dramas such as Poldark, The Onedin Line, Flambards, and of course, Upstairs, Downstairs. 

Cast members from Upstairs Downstairs

The fashion for period dramas says much about our collective fears, our cultural aspirations and perceptions. The Edwardian era, in which Downton Abbey is set, was a time before the world changed irrevocably, before the carnage of the First World War, when the collective consciousness of the nation was still relatively naïve and idealistic.

In Edwardian times, the climate of optimism and innovation so characteristic of the Victorian era was still very much in evidence, as the Edwardians lived through a host of new-fangled innovations: the automobile, electricity, the telephone, central heating.

Indeed, there are some amusing scenes in Downton Abbey where characters struggle to cope with new inventions. Carson, the butler, has no idea how to use the newly installed telephone and holds it the wrong way round, then jumps out of his skin when the operator comes onto the line.

Downton Abbey's Carson played by Jim Carter

It is easy to see why, as well as envying what we perceive as their comparative complacency, we might identify with the Edwardians. They struggled to adjust to their new world much as we have struggled to ours – in our case, grappling with the complexity of computers in the often too-rapid advancement of technology; coping with the consciousness shifts brought about by global capitalism.

Like us, the Edwardians lived and worked in an uncertain, ever-changing world, in which the everyday lives of ordinary men and women were being revolutionised, both economically and culturally. The Edwardian world, contrary to popular belief in the myth of the Long Summer – was not a stable and secure one, but one fraught with protests and strikes. It saw the rise of the working man, through the founding of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions, as well as the long and often violent struggles of the Suffragette movement, which by the First World War, had secured votes for women.

Yet somehow our lives seem so much more troubled and uncertain than those of our Edwardian predecessors. It is not with irony that we follow the story of Downton Abbey’s cast of characters, but with a sentimental and perhaps rather self-indulgent fondness for times past, for ‘better’ times.

Until the recession ends, if it ever does, our days of conspicuous irony are over.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Nothing Personal”


The show’s villains: Ward and Deathlok.

Nothing Personal should be the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in which the pace and tension is fired up; preparing the audience and the characters for the season finale. After several strong, suspense-filled episodes, Nothing Personal should be the episode in which everything is brought to crisis. Instead, it manages to be one of the blandest and least relevant episodes of the series so far. There has been a bizarre pattern emerging from the most recent episodes of the show. The excellent Turn, Turn, Turn, had the distinct characteristics of a season finale: massive revelations, the emergence of the show’s shadowy villain and a cliff-hanger ending that changed the whole dynamic of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) S.H.I.E.L.D. team. As a result, the following episodes have had the quality of an extended epilogue. This is certainly true of Nothing Personal, which adds almost nothing significant to the progression of the series until the very last scene.

Following on from the events of the previous episode, Coulson, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) return to their hidden base with Agent Triplett (B.J. Britt). Upon discovering that their plane is missing and Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has absconded with Skye (Chloe Bennett), the truth slowly dawns upon them; Ward is a double agent for the sinister HYDRA terrorist organisation. Before they can plan Skye’s rescue, their base is invaded by US Military personnel, led by the obnoxious Colonel Talbot (Adrian Pasdar). S.H.I.E.L.D. top brass Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) also arrives on the scene in an attempt to convince Coulson to stand down and adhere to the military’s demands, or so it seems. The secondary plot of this episode concerns Skye’s attempts to misdirect Ward and prevent him from obtaining useful S.H.I.E.L.D. information. At first, she plays along with his insistence that he can be trusted. However, when Skye’s attempted police rescue backfires, Ward discovers that Skye is perfectly aware of his HYDRA loyalty. Soon Skye is caught between the machinations of the deceitful Ward and the dangerously violent Deathlok (J. August Richards), the tragic cyborg villain that Skye and the other agents failed to save.

This episode could have been used to examine Agent Ward and his relationship to his former teammates. Upon discovering that Ward is traitorous, Fitz’s responds with an infantile tantrum and a refusal to believe that his “friend” would betray them. This moment falls utterly flat, due both to De Caestecker’s lacklustre acting, and the fact that never in the series does Ward act like a “friend” to Fitz. Right from the first episode, the agents have been written as a dysfunctional family (a staple of Joss Whedon-produced television). This dynamic has never really materialised because it was never given the opportunity to evolve. The characters were a family from episode 01, end of story. At no point did the audience see them transform from a “unit” into something more meaningful. Ward’s betrayal hurts Fitz, but it really has no reason to. Even when the two characters were paired up as a duo in previous episodes, no sense of camaraderie was indicated.

Similarly uneventful are the scenes in which Ward tries to justify his actions to Skye. What should be a punch-in-the-gut evisceration of the Skye/Ward romance that has been indicated since the pilot feels more like another example of “continuity housekeeping”. Rather than focussing on the emotional trauma that Skye should be experiencing upon discovering Ward’s betrayal, the writers choose to focus on explaining Ward’s actions and his relationship to HYDRA. For example, in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (which takes place in the same fictional universe as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), HYDRA is an organisation formed by the Nazis during World War Two. One question that has yet to be answered until this episode is whether or not the modern HYDRA retains the national socialist ethos of its founders (Ward confirms that it does not; modern HYDRA agents are not neo-Nazis). Whilst this is a question that continuity-savvy viewers may have wanted answered, it feels like unnecessary exposition that consumes time that could have been better utilised exploring the character of Ward.

By the end of the episode, every character has returned to the same place (emotionally if not geographically) that they were at the end of the previous instalment. Never has there been an episode of this show in which so very little is accomplished. There are few positive aspects of note: the special effects are very strong (Deathlok’s superhuman strength is used well), Brett Dalton delivers one of his more competent performances as the now-treacherous Ward, and the cliff-hanger in the last scene is very intriguing (as well as being quite funny thanks to Clark Gregg’s comedic timing). However, other than these occasional good points, Nothing Personal is one of the weakest and most unnecessary Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far.

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TV- Penny Dreadful: “Demimonde”- Perhaps this show has some bite after all


Reeve Carney as the immortal hedonist, Dorian Gray

Demimonde, the fourth episode of Penny Dreadful is an improvement over the somewhat monotonous third instalment. More information is revealed about the show’s main characters and the overall story arc, and there are some fantastically eerie moments that should spook and amuse any horror fan. The episode still suffers from some of the problems that have cropped up in every episode so far (such as overly flowery, pretentious dialogue) but Demimonde indicates that the show is far from running out of steam.

At the end of the last episode, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) investigated London Zoo in search of Sir Malcolm’s vampire daughter, Mina. Instead, they found Fenton (Olly Alexander) an insane teenager with a vampire-like craving for blood. Unlike the other vampires on the show, who are either super-agile thugs or monstrous skeletal creatures, Fenton is a somewhat pathetic wretch. Sir Malcolm and his allies lock him in a basement with the intention to let Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) experiment on him (in order to find a cure for Mina). Fenton’s character and appearance will be very familiar to any viewer who knows their Dracula; Fenton is extremely similar to the character of Renfield from Bram Stoker’s original novel. Like Renfield, Fenton screams feeble threats and demands animals to feed upon. So pitiful is Fenton that Chandler feels extremely conflicted about Frankenstein’s experiments; this is the first of several clues dotted throughout the episode that Chandler may be more than the gun-wielding everyman he appears to be. By the end of the episode, so many hints have been dropped that Chandler is a werewolf that it now seems fairly unlikely to be true. The writing of Penny Dreadful is too strong for Chandler’s secret to be anything so bland as a simple case of lycanthropy (werewolf-ism).

Chandler takes his dying lover, Brona (Billie Piper), to a horror show theatre, unaware that most of the show’s core characters are also attending the performance. Vanessa Ives is attending, as is the mysterious Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Ives and Gray’s relationship becomes increasingly complex in this episode, a merging of flirtatious banter and acerbic insults. This episode is the first in which the eponymous Picture of Dorian Gray is glimpsed, implying that Gray has already become the amoral immortal of Oscar Wilde’s novel. When Brona becomes intimidated by Vanessa’s obvious upper middle class status and Gray’s sudden appearance (Brona providing sexual services to the hedonistic Gray in a previous episode), she leaves the theatre and abandons Chandler. This leads to Chandler travelling the city with Gray, leading to a shocking plot twist that is sure to transform the relationships of the shows’ characters.

Also present at the theatre is Caliban (Rory Kinnear), better known as Frankenstein’s Monster. Caliban remains an intriguing villain, if not a little unclear in his motivations. At one point in the episode, Caliban foolishly boasts to Frankenstein that he plans to overthrow mankind with a new race of artificial beings like himself and that humans are weak and feeble. Yet Caliban seems to enjoy his work as a theatre stagehand, smiling and laughing as the theatre actors shock and amuse the patrons. It remains to be seen if this is complex characterisation or sloppy writing. The only other member of the cast who attends the show is Sembene (Danny Sapani), Sir Malcolm’s African manservant. So far the character has remained something of a cipher, mostly-mute figure whose motivations and history remain to be revealed.

This episode masterfully sets up avenues for future storylines. A huge treat for fans of horror and science fiction television is the cameo by David Warner as Dracula’s Professor Van Helsing. Van Helsing shares a brief scene with Frankenstein in which the professor reveals that he is aware of the existence of vampires. Later in the episode, a vampire monster invades Sir Malcolm’s home in search of Vanessa. Considering that Fenton refers to this creature as “Master” (the name Renfield called Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel), and the fact that Professor Van Helsing is established in this same episode, it is possible that the vampire is none other than fiction’s most famous bloodsucker himself. If so, fans of Gothic Horror fiction have a lot to be excited about for the future of Penny Dreadful. The problems with the show continue to mostly manifest as poor choices in the dialogue. Whilst the show is meant to be melodramatic and over-the-top, some of the dialogue in this episode crosses the tenuous line into outright silliness. In one of the first scenes, Vanessa is asked by Gray to describe a flower. Her resulting speech is supposed to be provocative and erotic, but it just comes across as farcical: she is, after all, “talking dirty” to a plant. Whilst most of the cast are assembled at the theatre, Frankenstein and Sir Malcolm discuss the latter’s planned expedition to find the source of the Nile (a nice touch for fans of 19th Century history). Frankenstein expresses displeasure at not being selected by Sir Malcolm as a travelling companion and Sir Malcolm retorts by saying that he could not bear Frankenstein’s death on his conscience. This exchange is utterly bizarre, since it suggests a strong kinship between these two men that has never been implied before. Why the cold and erasable Sir Malcolm would care so much for the slippery, cowardly Frankenstein is not properly explain beyond a vague reference to Sir Malcolm’s dead son being somewhat like the doctor. Perhaps this exchange will gather greater meaning in later episodes.

Whilst doubtlessly flawed, Demimonde achieves at being atmospheric, creepy and very intriguing. It seems as if all of the key pieces of the season’s narrative are now in place. Now the story can really begin.

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TV- Penny Dreadful: “What Death Can Join Together”- A monstrous indulgence


The Master… ?

As the finale draws ever closer, the events of Penny Dreadful become increasingly hectic and unpredictable. What Death Can Join Together brings back the shows’ main characters after the “prequel” episode Closer Than Sisters. Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) pursuit of his vampire daughter finally culminates as a full-blown self-destructive obsession. Meanwhile, Vanessa (Eva Green) begins to explore the darkest recesses of her own soul whilst spending the night with Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Interestingly, the episode seems mostly dedicated to character progression. The main narrative of the show (the search for Mina) has not really advanced. Considering that there remain only two more episodes in the season, the writing feels almost arrogantly confident. It is impossible to say how close the characters are to finding Mina and her “master” (Count Dracula?). The episode features a very well-shot action sequence and some excellent performances, but feels a little superfluous. Instead of setting the groundwork for a strong season finale, the creators of the show seem to be indulging their love of gothic horror and of the macabre.

In the last episode that was not a flashback, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) succumbed to the sexual advances of Dorian Gray. It is odd but intriguing that nothing about his shocking tryst with another man is even referenced. Chandler’s sexual encounter with Gray could have formed the basis of a love triangle with Vanessa or Brona (Billie Piper). Instead, it is not mentioned and instead becomes a small glimpse into Gray’s seductive power and Chandler’s complex sexuality. Instead of dwelling on previous events, Chandler and Sir Malcolm embark on yet another expedition to find Mina. Their investigation takes them to a quarantined “plague ship” at the London docks. This is a pretty obvious reference to the Demeter, the ship that carries Dracula to the English coast in Bram Stoker’s novel. Just as it was in Dracula, the crew of the ship have fallen victim to a powerful vampire that is hiding in the ship’s hold. Chandler, Sir Malcolm and Sembene (Dany Sepani) descend into the plague ship, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires. The ship location is a great set for a tense horror sequence; claustrophobic and dark, it is a fantastic locale to set a vampire attack. Unfortunately, the episode is in such a hurry to get to the dramatic human vs. vampire battle that the ship is fairly underutilised. More problematic is the fact that so much more is shown of the “Master” vampire this time. Whereas before, the “Master” was a horrifying entity (one of the best-designed live action vampires in TV history) because he was displayed only in shadow in brief cuts, the audience is now treated to a far better view of the creature. This is absolutely the wrong thing for the show’s creators to do, since showcasing a monster always diminishes its effectiveness and menace. Perhaps this monster is not the “Master” after all, and that the true antagonist of Penny Dreadful has yet to reveal himself. But even so, the episode’s lack of subtlety in dealing with the supernatural is disappointing.

The second subplot of the episode deals with Victor Frankenstein’s (Harry Treadaway) ongoing torment at the hands of his monstrous creation Caliban (Rory Kinnear). Still demanding a female monster as a companion, Caliban intends to destroy Frankenstein’s whole world unless he gives in and creates a new creature. It seems that Caliban has his eyes set on Maud (Hannah Tointon), a beautiful actress at the theatre where he works. The cinematography and editing of previous episodes seemed to hint that Brona would be transformed into a female monster, but this seems to have been dropped (Penny Dreadful is fond of subverting audience expectations) in favour of showcasing Caliban’s attraction to Maude. Only time will tell if this is yet another red herring, though it would be thematically effective for Maude to die and become a monster (since she “dies” every night on stage).

Perhaps the best element of this episode is interestingly also the worst; David Warner reappears in the perfectly-cast role of Professor Van Helsing and masterfully delivers exposition, only to make a very swift exit from the series altogether. This seems like a wasted opportunity, since Van Helsing would have made a great recurring character on the show. Instead, his character leaves without ever communicating with the show’s cast (other than Frankenstein). During his brief appearance, he reveals his tragic life history and informs Frankenstein about exactly what vampires are. A fact that many audience members may not have realised is that none of the vampire-hunting characters of Penny Dreadful actually know what vampires are or how to adequately fight them. It makes sense that people living in a setting in which vampires are real would not be familiar with the popular culture tropes associated with vampires, such as how to kill them. Van Helsing passes this knowledge onto Frankenstein before leaving. Perhaps this will allow Frankenstein to come into his own as a man and prove himself to his allies (something that he has been anxious about for several episodes). The most important scene in this episode seems to be when Van Helsing shows Frankenstein a cheap horror magazine, finally showcasing an actual penny-dreadful in a show named Penny Dreadful. Whilst this episode certainly has its fun and exciting moments, it does little to advance the series onwards. Hopefully, this episode represents the calm before the storm and that the penultimate episode will be more exciting and gleefully horrifying.

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TV- Penny Dreadful: “Closer Than Sisters”- A Powerful Prequel


Eva Green in one of her best performances.

The creators of Penny Dreadful seem to relish the conventions of the supernatural procedural drama. The show is something of a love letter, not just to the Gothic literature that inspired it, but to older supernatural-themed shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Penny Dreadful is not simply fun in its own right, but fun as a celebration of its genre. The show can be hard to criticise, because many aspects of the plot and production that seem “generic” or “overdone” feel entirely purposeful. Penny Dreadful is a pastiche; a work of innovation instead of invention. Closer Than Sisters, the fifth episode in the series, follows in the tradition of other genre shows by revisiting the often-utilised concept of the flashback episode. Genre TV shows from Fringe to Heroes have relied on this style of episode to flesh out one or more of the characters in a manner that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. By setting the episode months or years before the events of the main series, the writers are able to examine the background of a protagonist or of the show’s setting. Closer Than Sisters finally reveals the much-alluded to history between Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) as well as linking the events of Penny Dreadful to the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite being more than a little predictable at times, the episode is atmospheric, extremely eerie and surprisingly funny in places. Almost all of the praise for the episode must go to Eva Green who absolutely excels at portraying Vanessa’s transition from rebellious teenage girl to a (literally) haunted world-weary woman. The more Penny Dreadful progresses, the more likely it seems that Vanessa Ives was the character that Green was born to play.

Beginning years before the events of the main show, Closer Than Sisters follows the idyllic childhood of Vanessa and her best friend Mina (a character from Dracula, played here by Olivia Llewellyn). The two girls enjoy an extremely close friendship, due to their families living beside one another in luxurious mansions on the Yorkshire Coast. Vanessa’s perfect childhood is interrupted by the discovery that her mother is having an affair with Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm. The revelation of her mothers’ sinful actions has a slow but powerful effect upon the young Vanessa, which comes to a head in her teenage years when she betrays Mina and shatters their sister-like bond. Vanessa falls into a deep depression and is confined to an insane asylum (which is every bit as horrifying as Victorian psychiatric hospitals are known to have been). During her barbaric treatment, there is an indication of a second personality within Vanessa, a dark supernatural being that has been pushing her to evil actions all her life (this is almost certainly one of the two evil Egyptian supernatural beings referenced in previous episodes). Vanessa is ultimately trepanned (19th Century brain surgery) and becomes comatose. When she finally awakens, the events of Dracula have already taken place. Vanessa’s demonic possession claims the life of her mother in a shocking scene that is both terrifying and an example of (extremely) dark comedy.

Whilst it’s a shame that a flashback episode means that there is no time to showcase the shows’ other characters, this remains one of the best episode of the series so far. The Gothic atmosphere is palpable; whole sections of this episode could be mistaken for a Charlotte Bronte adaptation. The performances are suitably overstated and grandiose, bordering on the comical in places. The supernatural element is subtle and eerie; a disembodied whispering voice is far creepier than any prosthetic monster could hope to be. The star of this episode, by far, is Eva Green. The theme of the precarious position of women in 19th Century society has been touched upon in the show previously (with Billie Piper’s Brona), but this episode dedicates itself to examining the plight of being young and female in a society where the worth of such a person is dictated by her marriage eligibility. Even as children, Vanessa and Mina are encouraged to imagine their future husbands. Vanessa’s later transgression against Mina is born out of her frustration at being inexperienced sexually. When she attempts to express her repressed sexuality to Mina’s brother Peter (Graham Butler), he acts like the proper Victorian gentleman and flees. Like so many women of her age, Vanessa is subjected to torturous experiences in an asylum because she is an inconvenience to those around her (although, credit to the show’s writers, Vanessa’s mother and father are written as entirely sympathetic to their daughter and not as stereotypical Victorian aristocratic parents). The show is not expressing a political message so much as creating a suitable back-story for the Vanessa of the main show. Vanessa is a product of her time, through and through. Victorian masculinity is similarly examined in the episode alongside Victorian femininity. Peter’s desperate desire to prove himself to his father is well-written and fairly well acted by Butler. As the audience already knows that Peter is going to die horribly, his need to accompany his father is particularly tragic and dark. Sir Malcolm is presented as being as responsible for Mina’s ultimate fate (as a vampire) as Vanessa is. It is still not clear exactly how true Penny Dreadful is being to its spiritual precursor, Dracula. One could argue that almost everything from Stoker’s novel could plausibly have taken place during Vanessa’s coma. More characters from the novel would have been a welcomed way to tie the events of the show and the book together (assuming that the shows’ creators want them to be so connected). Closer Than Sisters is a fun transgression and an important episode for those seeking to understand the shows’ main character. It is a strong tribute to the very concept of the “flashback episode”.

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TV- Penny Dreadful: “Resurrection”- A Stitched-Together mess of an episode


Rory Kinnear as the Frankenstein Monster, Caliban.

The third episode of Penny Dreadful, Resurrection, lacks the frantic pace of the first episode and the melodramatic fun of the second episode. The show continues to be one of the most interesting things currently airing, but the third episode undeniably dips in quality somewhat. This episode suffers from unnatural, stilted dialogue and a certain lack of clear direction. By the close of the episode, every character is (physically and psychologically) almost exactly where they were at the end of the first episode. Little feels like it has been accomplished other than introducing a potential antagonist in the form of Rory Kinnear’s Caliban (better known as Frankenstein’s Monster). Performances remain strong and the show continues to impress with its Gothic atmosphere, but it can’t be denied that Resurrection is simply not as strong as its predecessors.

The episode opens by recounting the back-story of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), revealing that his obsession with re-animating the dead is the result of his mother’s tragic and painful death from consumption. The scenes with young Victor are not very well executed. The young actor playing 10-year-old Victor delivers his lines in an unnatural and wooden manner. When he comes upon a dog corpse in the first scene, the prop looks so ludicrously artificial as to suck any pathos from the scene entirely. There is a very effective and disturbing moment in which Victor’s mother vomits blood as she attempts to comfort her son, but it is the only such moment in the entire flashback segment. The plot then returns to the present, with Victor Frankenstein being menaced by Caliban, only for Caliban to begin recounting his own origin story. It seems likely that writer John Logan was attempting to draw a parallel between Frankenstein and his creation by presenting their “childhoods” side by side like this, but it falls flat since there is little to link the two mini-narratives together. The first episode of Penny Dreadful featured the birth of Proteus (Alex Price), Frankenstein’s second attempt at building an artificial human. The scene was directed in such a casual fashion that it felt ludicrous (and was one of the only bad aspects of the pilot episode). Proteus’s “birth” scene was shot and edited to feel irrelevant and inconsequential. The exact opposite is true of Caliban’s “birth”, revealed through flashback in this episode.

The “birth” of the Frankenstein Monster is one of the most famous scenes in the history of fiction. Almost every human in the western world has likely heard some variation of the phrase “It’s Alive! Alive!” (from the 1932 film version of Frankenstein). The creators of Penny Dreadful are doubtlessly aware of the significance of this scene, because it is presented in the most bombastic and histrionic manner possible. Kinnear’s Caliban, covered in blood, comes to life and begins to scream as thunder and lightning overwhelms the scene’s audio. After last episode’s hilariously over-the-top séance scene, it is actually impressive that the crew behind Penny Dreadful have managed to construct a scene that is even more absurdly hammy. After this, Caliban recounts to Frankenstein how he learnt to read and speak by thumbing his way through Romantic poetry. It is a very nice touch that the Frankenstein Monster finds his voice by reading the poetry of Shelley (this husband of the woman who created the original Frankenstein novel: Mary Shelley). After this, Caliban’s flashback relocates to London, where the monster finds work as a stagehand for a lowbrow horror-show theatre. It is at this point that Caliban is given his name (taken from the villainous monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) by a kindly but eccentric actor at the theatre. With the flashback complete, Caliban reveals his reason for tracking his former creation down- he desires a female monster as a companion; a concept taken straight from the original Frankenstein novel. When Frankenstein refuses, Caliban threatens to kill everyone that his creator loves. Honestly, this threat seems rather empty, since nothing of Victor Frankenstein’s family or friends has been mentioned of even indicated. This threat is especially confusing since Caliban claims that Frankenstein cannot love and is more a demon than a man. Perhaps the script for this episode would have been improved by a minor redraft of these scenes.

The second plotline of the episode follows Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) returning to the employ of Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). The American gunfighter has fallen for Brona (Billie Piper), the Irish prostitute that he met in the last episode, and seeks money in order to buy her treatment for her consumption. Considering Chandler and Brona’s proximity to the home of Frankenstein, and that Brona is dying from the same ailment that killed Frankenstein’s mother, it seems plausible to assume that Brona may end up dying and being resurrected by Frankenstein as a female monster for Caliban (though this is perhaps too obvious for a show like Penny Dreadful). Chandler accompanies Sir Malcolm and Vanessa to London Zoo. Vanessa has experienced a psychic vision of Mina, Sir Malcolm’s missing vampire daughter, and this same vision featured the distinctive sound of exotic animals. Whilst no trace of Mina can be found, the monster-hunters discover disturbing creatures and an unsolved mystery on the zoo’s grounds.

This episode’s main purpose is to set up plot elements for future episodes. Resurrection is the first episode to allude to the existence of Count Dracula, who will likely appear later in the series as the show’s primary antagonist. The episode introduces Caliban as the show’s first recurring villain, and establishes a “ticking clock” plot-thread with Brona’s consumption (if she is not treated, she will eventually die). Chandler is revealed to have an unusual ability to communicate with wolves; an unusual ability that none of the other characters ask about or even mention for some reason. Unfortunately, the episode offers little more than hints at how interesting the show is going to become in the future. One of the most disappointing parts of the episode is the character dialogue. Whilst it makes sense for Caliban to speak in an archaic, almost medieval manner (due to his learning to read through pastoral poetry), much of his dialogue is shockingly clunky and unrefined. At one point, he describes himself as a thoroughly modern creation of the Victorian era: a mechanical man created in an industrial age. It is the sort of metaphor that should be conveyed to an audience silently, through more subtle implementing of dialogue and performance. It is almost as if the character turned to the audience and said “I am a metaphor”. Whilst this is a show that revels in high drama and over-the-top performances, this monster/machine comparison is horrendously blunt. Caliban may be a reanimated stagehand, but his dialogue should still sound natural!

With such simplistic dialogue, and little to offer in terms of horror or excitement, this is by far the least effective and interesting episode of Penny Dreadful so far. Whilst it does set the groundwork for what promises to be a very strong first season, Resurrection is ultimately a disappointment.

Image from io9.com

Penny Dreadful:- “Night Work”


The show has already succeeded in making vampires scary again.

If one was to judge Penny Dreadful on its premise alone, it would appear to be generic in the extreme. Since the days of The Twilight Zone, the genre of supernatural horror has served as the basis for many popular television dramas. Supernatural and True Blood continue to be successful programmes, despite the cultural craze for vampire-related fiction having somewhat died down in recent years. The premise of Penny Dreadful seems almost blasé, a latecomer to genre TV. After the lukewarm reception of NBC’s Dracula TV series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it could even be seen as something of a risk on the part of Showtime Television. Set in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, Penny Dreadful focuses on a small cadre of societal outsiders brought together by the mysterious explorer known only as Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton). Sir Malcolm’s goal is to find and cure his daughter; a young woman who has been transformed into a monstrous creature of the night. Night Work, the pilot episode, introduces Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler; a Buffalo Bill-style American entertainer touring Victorian London. Being a man of considerable gun-slinging ability, he is quickly offered bodyguard work by an enigmatic spiritualist named Vanessa Ives (a perfectly-cast Eva Green). Curious about the unusual Ms Ives, Chandler agrees to escort her into the dark underbelly of London. Inside a blood-drenched charnel house, Chandler, Ives and Sir Malcolm are brought face to face with a terrifying being. The episodes’ subplot concerns Sir Malcolm attempting to recruit a young doctor (Harry Treadaway) to his crusade. Though the doctor’s name is kept a secret until the final scene of the episode, any viewer even slightly familiar with horror fiction will guess immediately which famous mad scientist Treadaway is playing.

Perhaps what is most appealing about Penny Dreadful’s pilot episode is its sincerity. There is no hint of irony or satire about the proceedings. Unlike NBC’s Dracula, which seemed uncomfortable with its Victorian setting and almost embarrassed of its source material, Penny Dreadful embraces its namesake. The show’s creators have unashamedly striven to capture the gothic melodrama of Victorian horror fiction, blending it with the hammy kitsch of 70s British horror movies. What results is a programme that revels in its own silliness. A programme that embraces the gothic horror narrative, tone and aesthetic with little concern for whether or not it is “relevant” to modern audiences. In NBC’s Dracula, the Nineteenth Century setting was part of the trappings, barely relevant beyond the costumes and sets. A no point did the setting of Dracula feel like the Victorian London described by Bram Stoker. Thanks in no small part to high production values and an impressive attention to detail, the London of Penny Dreadful feels both historically accurate and remarkably atmospheric.

Similarly impressive are the performances from each of the main players, though each actor has a certain unfair advantage. There is no casting against type afoot here: Timothy Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm with the cold intensity that is expected of a Timothy Dalton character. Eva Green is in equally familiar territory as the snarky yet deeply tragic Vanessa (identical to many of her film roles from the last decade). Josh Hartnett is the perfect brave but not-terribly-bright everyman that can serve the role of “audience surrogate”; asking the questions and probing the mysteries that the viewers themselves want resolved. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the show’s creators selected the cast and then conceived of the characters they’d be playing. Even Danny Sapani completely excels in his small but memorable role as Sembene, Sir Malcolm’s African companion and a piercing reminder of Britain’s colonial past (it seems very likely that Penny Dreadful will often compare Victorian British society’s sins with those of the bloodsucking villains). Harry Treadaway is maybe a little too histrionic at times: a speech his character gives about the futility of science is delivered with such melodramatic gusto that is comes close to being a little too absurd. But even this over-the-top proselytising does not detract from the enjoyment of the episode because it is perfectly in keeping with the established tone.

Praise should also be handed to the shows’ special effects dept. for managing to create one of the most terrifying and interesting depictions of a vampire ever shown on television. After a short combat sequence with Buffy-esque humanoid vampires (with distractingly anachronistic haircuts), the viewer is put into a false sense of ease; the vampires of Penny Dreadful seem disappointingly human and non-threatening. At which point, that which can only be described as a proper vampire lurches onto the screen. Created entirely with prosthetic makeup and forced perspective camera techniques, the vampire monster is only on screen for a few seconds and yet is the most memorable visual in the pilot. One can only hope that all of the show’s monsters are as effective.

There is little to discuss about what doesn’t work in this episode. It can’t be criticised for its bombastic dialogue or unnecessary gore because these elements are intentional on the part of the show’s creators. There is a brief sex scene that feels somewhat unneeded and out of place, especially when the show’s intention seems to be to capture the essence of a gothic horror story. Sex in such source material appears only metaphorically (such as vampirism itself). Also, the final scene of the episode is very disappointing. It is supposed to be the culmination of all that the episode has burned into the audiences’ mind; a dark and graphic sequence to set the tone for future episodes. The scene is also an adaptation of one of the most famous sequences in the history of British Literature (indeed, in the history of fiction). Yet it feels rushed and very underwhelming. Not helped is the fact that it is in this scene that Treadaway reveals his character’s name as if it is meant to still be a shocking surprise – this is insulting to the intelligence of the audience. These are, however, small imperfections in what is arguably one of the strongest pilot episodes for any genre show in recent years. Whether or not future episodes will be able to match its promise is yet to be seen.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “The Only Light in the Darkness”


Amy Acker’s Audrey: a strong performance in an otherwise empty episode.

Procedural genre television shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. typically follow conventions established by the trailblazers of the genre (such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Supernatural/science fiction TV shows utilise many character archetypes, motifs and themes again and again because they have proven successful in the past, or perhaps because their usage represents one less thing for the show’s creators to concern themselves with. This can be observed by examining the characters of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Chloe Bennett’s Skye could just as easily have been a recurring character on Smallville or any other teen-based sci-fi show of the last decade, whilst Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has, until recent episodes, represented a perfect embodiment of the troubled and emotionally distant “dark stranger” archetype made famous by David Boreanaz’s Angel. This “pattern recognition” is also evident in the structure of many Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. The episode T.R.A.C.K.S. presents the same event from the point of view of each principal character in order to playfully unfold the narrative to the audience. Almost every show of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ilk has utilised this trope at some point (Buffy’s “The Replacement” was such an episode). The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “The Only Light in the Darkness”, is the (seemingly required) “romance episode”; the instalment in which of the characters admit and explore their various sexual attractions to one another. The best science fiction television will examine many aspects of the human condition, including romance and sex, by approaching it through an unconventional filter (Fringe’s “A Short Story About Love” would be an excellent example of this). As is expected by now, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt at a romance-themed instalment fails on multiple levels.

Beginning immediately after the close of the previous episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team remain in hiding from the authorities and from the villainous HYDRA organisation. When Coulson discovers that a super-powered sociopath (Patrick Brennan) has escaped imprisonment, he insists that he and his allies leave their safe seclusion in order to stop him. Coulson’s desire to break cover to apprehend the criminal are motivated by the maniac’s intended victim; a beautiful cellist from Coulson’s past named Audrey (Angel’s Amy Acker). As Audrey believes him to be dead, Coulson must stop the demented criminal without revealing himself to her. Meanwhile, Agent Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) is having trouble reconciling the obvious mutual attraction between his unrequited love, Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Agent Triplet (B.J. Britt). Back at their secret headquarters, Skye and Ward are developing a deep romantic attraction, despite Skye’s increasing fear that Ward may not be all that he seems.

Ever since she was mentioned in passing in The Avengers (the Marvel Comics movie of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spinoff), fans of the Agent Coulson character have been speculating about “The Cellist”. It is certainly no surprise that the character should appear, and that she should be played by a Joss Whedon TV show alumni like Amy Acker (Whedon’s brother has produced and written most Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far). Acker certainly gives a strong performance during her limited airtime. Despite the fact that she and Clark Gregg barely share a single scene together, the doomed relationship between Coulson and Audrey is by far the most compelling romance in the episode; a testament to the abilities of both actors. One only wishes that the writers could have conceived a less cumbersome reason to bring the pair together again than a cackling supervillain. This isn’t helped by Patrick Brennan’s terrible acting and hammy line delivery. In a show rife with melodramatic supervillains, the antagonist of this episode stands out as being so awful as to become comedic. Far more compelling as a villain is Brett Dalton’s Ward; the character commits a truly grizzly act in this episode’s subplot. The fact that he is able to seem unfazed and even sexually excited about his relationship with Skye only moments after killing someone is far more chilling than the moustache-twirling antics of the villain in the Audrey plot. Kudos should also be given to Chloe Bennett; normally one of the weakest performers on the show. A sort sequence in which she suffers a panic attack upon discovering Ward’s villainous nature is actually uncomfortable to watch because of how well the actress sells her character’s distress and isolation.

There is certainly much to appreciate about “The Only Light in the Darkness”. However, none of these strong elements come together as any kind of cohesive whole. The overall pace and tone of the episode is characteristically uneven, many of the actor’s performances are lacklustre at best and terrible at worst (Iain De Caestecker remains hopelessly out of his depth alongside far better actors) and absolutely nothing about this episode feels important to progressing the larger narrative of the season: a major fault considering that there are only three episodes remaining before the season finale. It is as if the writing staff felt that the show had to take a break to humanize the S.H.I.E.L.D. team by having them all fall in love. This is an utterly unnecessary instalment of a show that is desperately trying to justify its existence.

Image obtained from tvequals.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “Providence”


This beautiful poster was created to promote the episode. A bizarre amount of effort for such a trivial instalment.

After the fairly impressive episode Turn, Turn, Turn, Providence, the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., feels somewhat empty. So many Earth-shaking revelations, intriguing plot-twists and complex character developments were packed into the last episode that the show now feels like it is spinning its wheels; waiting patiently for the season finale. Instead of building on the pace and tension expertly established in the previous episode, Providence spends the majority of its runtime bogged down by exposition and foreshadowing. After the attempted HYDRA takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. (taking place in both the previous episode and the recent film Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team are left to pick up the pieces of their devastated organisation. When the US Military announce their intent to take the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into custody, Coulson and the others flee and go “off the grid” with the help of Skye (Chloe Bennett). Unbeknownst to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is the fact that one of their own, Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is a HYDRA operative working for the villainous John Garrett (Bill Paxton). Whilst Coulson’s team journey to a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost, Ward and Garrett rescue Raina (Ruth Negga), the mysterious “Girl in the Flower Dress” from several previous episodes. As Raina is informed of the true nature of her until-now shadowy employer, Coulson and the others arrive at the S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost… finding nothing but snowy wilderness.

One of the good aspects of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is how each episode has, until now, felt like its own entity. Every episode is certainly connected to the last by plotline, but each instalment has been written and presented as an independent adventure. A viewer could begin watching the show at any point and not feel too confused or lost by continuity. This approach has positive and negative attributes; it has not allowed for much character progression for the main cast yet it has enabled the show’s different writers and directors to take a more unique approach to crafting their episodes. Providence, however, is little more than a sequel to last week’s episode, and a set-up for future episodes. Bill Paxton’s Garret confronts the character of Raina and explains his past machinations and intentions, as well as what he intends to do now. An almost identical scene follows between Raina and Ward, in which Ward extensively elaborates on why and how he infiltrated and betrayed the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. These sequences cannot help but feel like a kind of “exposition housekeeping”; clearing up inconsistencies or unanswered questions from the last episode. Much later, Ward and Garrett raid a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and steal a collection of alien weapons, no doubt setting up action sequences for upcoming episodes. The main narrative of the show barely moves forward at all because the focus is entirely on clearing up the past and setting up the future.

The episode also varies wildly in the quality of its few action sequences. There is a tense and well-shot helicopter attack (a gamble played by Ward to convince some S.H.I.E.L.D. security guards that he can be trusted) that appears to feature a real aircraft, starkly opposing the ludicrous computer-generated S.H.I.E.L.D. plane. A later scene in the episode features Coulson’s team traipsing across the Canadian wilderness; it is laughably unrealistic since the environment looks perfectly clement and the characters don’t even appear to be cold. During this scene, Coulson loses his composure. He begins to angrily assert that there must be a reason that they’ve been sent into this dangerous landscape. Were the sequence to take place in genuinely inhospitable-looking surroundings, it may have been extremely tense and effective. However, thanks in no small part to how pleasant the snow-covered hillside appears, and how healthy and warm the characters appear, Coulson’s rant seems bizarrely over the top and out of place. Basically, the production values do not match the dialogue or the performances in any way. Clark Gregg is a charismatic and skilled actor, but his performance in this scene seems hilariously overdramatic, because his reaction doesn’t fit the aesthetics of the surrounding environment.

The episode is not without its positives, comedian and long-time comicbook aficionado Patton Oswalt makes an amusing if pointless cameo as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who’s been sequestered in a remote facility, and has become somewhat eccentric as a result. Adrian Pasdar, a veteran of the similarly-troubled superhero television show Heroes, appears in a brief but memorable cameo as Colonel Glenn Talbot (a Marvel Comics character created in the 1960s). Bill Paxton continues to be a delight to watch as the insufferable Garrett. Now that he has been revealed to be an antagonist, Garrett has started wearing a black turtle-neck as if to emphasise his role by dressing like a Bond villain. This is an amusing touch and very much in line with the character’s jokey personality. Very little can be critiqued or analysed in this episode because so little happens in it. It is an exposition receptacle and nothing more. With luck, it will allow future episodes to regain the frenetic pace of Turn, Turn, Turn and build into a strong finale.

Image from Marvel.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “Turn, Turn, Turn”


Agents of HYDRA

This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

 Turn, Turn, Turn may be the first ever episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to feel like something other than the extraneous baggage of a larger, better story. The entire premise of the show is that it takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which recently became the most financially successful film franchise in history). Previous episodes have made much of the connection between the show and the Thor movies, seemingly desperate to convince its audience that what happens in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is relevant to the larger franchise that it’s connected to. Until this episode, it has never been entirely convincing that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shares any meaningful connection with the more important Marvel movies. However, Turn, Turn, Turn changes this and in so doing becomes the best episode of the show by a significant margin. The episode is connected intimately to the events of 2014’s Captain American: The Winter Soldier, a superhero film that focuses strongly on the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation and its place in the world. Audiences who have seen The Winter Soldier are now aware that S.H.I.E.L.D. has long been manipulated by the Nazi science cult, Hydra. Far from being a bastion of peace, the organisation that the protagonists of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. belong to is a hub of dangerous terrorists (one could compare the importance of this revelation to discovering that the CIA has been secretly controlled by a still-existing Gestapo since its inception).

Obviously, an important revelation about the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation in a popular film has to trickle down into the narrative of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. However, unlike the previous “Marvel-centric” episodes of the show, the connection made between this episode and the events of Captain America feel utterly suitable. Perhaps most surprising and important is the fact that for the first time, watching an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will actually improve the experience of watching it’s cinematic cousin. The episode expands upon the revelations of Captain America; the writers have built upon the foundation that the film has laid to create an exciting and engaging episode with a real sense of scope and grandiosity.

As the episode begins, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team are unsure of who to trust. Both Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) and Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) have demonstrated potentially traitorous behaviour, and now nobody is sure who is friend or foe. Soon, Coulson’s team is joined by Garrett (Bill Paxton), who arrives aboard their plane with the shocking revelation that their long-time antagonist, “The Clairvoyant”, is a one of the show’s recurring characters. The team then returns to the Hub (the S.H.I.E.L.D. base that was introduced in a previous episode) in order to rescue Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and to finally get answers on who has been behind their troubles since the pilot episode. Turn, Turn, Turn has a real sense of drama and despair that has been sorely lacking in the show thus far. Until now, the agents and the world they inhabited felt very safe. When Skye (Chloe Bennett) was shot in the stomach, few viewers would be fooled into thinking that she was in danger of dying. The tone of the show was always too light and positive for any sense of tension to be successfully built. That changes in this episode, as the team encounters traitors from without and within. A brief scene reveals that the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy from a previous episode is being attacked by Hydra forces. Ward shares a brief moment with Skye before he charges off the face his death. The normally comedic Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) breaks down and cries as his world is essentially collapsing around him (in all honesty, this moment is a little over-the-top but welcomed all the same).

Even the affirmative and comedic quips of the characters are made suddenly appropriate by this episode. Until now, the barrage of witty banter has felt extraneous and useless. In this episode, Simmons is told that it is through such “cutesy” fraternisation that Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D.: a Hydra agent will do their utmost to befriend those around them in order to gain their trust. It is suddenly apparent why the monolithic and powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. has been constantly presented as a big happy family in which everybody is a really nice person. This episode justifies Skye’s journey from liberal “hacktivist” to an agent of “big brother”- it is because of the twist that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been harbouring neo-Nazi terrorists all along. Had S.H.I.E.L.D. always been presented as a slightly dubious organisation existing in the moral gray (as this reviewer long wished for), this big reveal would have lacked the necessary punch. All of these revelations eventually lead to a shocking climax and a massive twist that will utterly reshape the show, should it get a second season. It is likely that it will never be known how many of the big reveals in this episode were planned out ahead of time, but it seems likely that the creators knew the Captain America plot twist for some time prior to writing this episode, and built their plans around it. In other words, Captain America may have just saved Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Image from Marvel-movies.wikia.com

TV: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:- “End of the Beginning”


J. August Richards as the tragic villain, Deathlok.

After a long and mostly disappointing season, The End of the Beginning is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that sets the stage for the finale. With only a few episodes remaining after this, the stakes are being raised significantly- as is the sense of mystery. The End of the Beginning is thankfully one of the show’s stronger episodes so far; it features some well-shot (if brief) action sequences and some genuinely compelling plot revelations. The episode begins with the S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) separating and searching multiple locations for the Clairvoyant: the mysterious antagonist who’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for most of the season. The team’s splitting up allows the show to re-introduce Agent Hand (Saffron Burrows) as well as make a passing reference to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; the 2014 movie that is supposed to be taking place in the same continuity as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is not long before one of the teams is attacked by Mike Petersen (J. August Richards), their former teammate now calling himself “Deathlok” (a reference to a Marvel Comics supervillain of the same name). It is only when the Clairvoyant is seemingly found that the situation begins to unravel. Before long, Coulson and his teammates are left with no one to trust.

Since the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation was first introduced to the world outside of comicbooks in 2008’s Iron Man, they have been a compelling background presence in many Marvel superhero movies. Appearing in Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers, the organisation has always been portrayed as extremely powerful and morally questionable. Like a science fiction-drenched equivalent of the CIA or MI6, S.H.I.E.L.D. has typically been portrayed as doing whatever was necessary to protect ordinary people from extraordinary threats. In The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. attempts to nuke New York City because they believe that it may save the rest of the world. The announcement of a spinoff TV show starring agents of this organisation not long after The Avengers held great promise; a chance to show the darker, morally greyer side of the world of superhuman heroes – a very intriguing premise for a television programme. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a show comprised of the bland adventures of “witty”, “quirky”, two-dimensional characters. The audience did not even get the opportunity to watch these misfits slowly become a tight unit of comrades, and then into something of a family (in the manner of similar shows like Fringe or Warehouse 13) because the characters were written as a dysfunctional family from the pilot onwards. Outside of Ward (Brett Dalton) beginning to engage in casual sex with May (Ming-Na Wen), none of the characters developed in significant ways. Even Skye (Chloe Bennett), the “audience surrogate” character is given precious little to do after she served her initial purpose of bringing the team together.

The End of the Beginning is really the first time in the show’s short and sad history that it begins to feel like the show that it should have been from the beginning. The characters hunt down a dangerous superhuman, there are shocking revelations and red herrings and twists, the agents are paranoid and unsure who is friend or foe. Not only is this great television, it is exactly what espionage-centric TV is supposed to be like. Apparently, it took almost the entire run of the TV show for the writers and creators to realize what kind of project Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always supposed to be. Whilst the show has improved in quality gradually over time, this is the first episode that really feels like what was promised when the show was green-lit. What really saves this episode is the cameos from recognisable talent. Bill Paxton returns as the always-amusing Agent Garrett, as does BJ Britt’s Agent Triplet (whose possible romance with Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons appears to be developing into a major plot point). J August Richards remains a compelling tragic antagonist as Deathlok, who now looks like a fully-fledged comicbook supervillain. Special praise should be given to Brad Dourif, who manages a chilling and very effective performance whilst barely saying or doing anything but sit in a chair. It is a testament to Dourif’s expressive face that he manages to be terrifying whilst only using his eyes.

Not that the episode is perfect. Its pace and tone are as uneven as usual, the cinematography remains bland and lifeless and the one exciting action sequence in the episode, the attack by Deathlok, is over before it begins. This is, however, a massive step up in quality for this maligned show. Unfortunately, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a massive step up in quality simply means that it is now as good as every other genre procedural show on TV. In other words, not good enough.

Image from io9.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “T.A.H.I.T.I”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - T.A.H.I.T.I.

The great Bill Paxton as Garrett

T.A.H.I.T.I. is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow on directly from the last, becoming something akin to the second episode of a “two-parter”. At the end of the previous episode, Skye (Chloe Bennet) was left mortally injured by the villainous Ian Quinn (David Conrad). As a result, this episode hits the ground running with a metaphorical ticking clock; the members of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team must find a way of treating Skye’s terrible injuries before she dies. Since the show is set within the same universe as the Marvel superhero movies, travelling the world to find a cure for death is not a particularly bizarre plot. Indeed, Coulson believes that he knows of a way of keeping Skye alive… because he himself was brought back from the dead. Whilst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains a disappointing show (considering its potential as a classic of sci-fi procedural TV drama), this episode is certainly a massive improvement over the last few. Finally, the creators of the show have been able to instil a degree of drama and tension into the proceedings. The steaks are far larger than just Skye’s life. As he searches into his own recent past, Coulson is portrayed as a haunted and vulnerable figure. If T.A.H.I.T.I. had been the quality of an average episode of this show, its reputation as a disappointing mess would be unfounded.

Perhaps the greatest favour that this episode does to the series is that it essentially “retcons” the disappointing revelation from The Magical Place (a previous episode). Coulson’s mysterious return from the dead had been the subject of much speculation since the show premiered in September 2013. Fans of the Marvel movies debated across the internet, arguing interesting ways in which Coulson may have been resurrected. The Magical Place revealed that Coulson was brought back through what amounted to “really fancy surgery”. It seems likely that the show’s writers incorrectly believed that their viewers would just assume that Coulson had never died, and that the revelation that he was brought back to life by mechanical surgery would be a shocking surprise. Instead, fans readily accepted the notion that the character had been killed and they wanted a satisfying explanation as to how he returned from the grave. Almost every popular fan theory was more interesting than what the creators chose. It seems that the powers behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now agree, since they’ve reworked the events of Coulson’s death and rebirth to be far more mysterious and interesting than they originally appeared. T.A.H.I.T.I. reveals that Coulson’s resurrection was in part due to a very mysterious chemical hidden in a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker, the source of which serves as the episode’s final reveal (it seems very probable that the chemical’s source is an attempt to tie the show into Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film).

Aside from fixing previously broken plot-lines, the episode is also good in its own right. The characters’ emotional investment in Skye feels much more genuine now that they have had time to get to know each other. In earlier episodes, the team seemed to become far too close and familial far too quickly; going from strangers to a close-knit team at a ridiculous speed. However, now that these characters have had a dozen or so adventures together, it is easier to buy their emotional investment in Skye’s wellbeing. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) even mentions that she and Skye have only known each other for a short time, but that she cannot imagine her life without Skye in it. A viewer watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that this is the result of a long character progression, rather than an attempt to conceal the lazy writing of previous episodes. Another positive is the inclusion of Bill Paxton as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent John Garrett; a gruff yet comedic soldier whose “tough guy” attitude contrasts well with the more stoic and debonair Coulson. The Garrett character does not seem to serve much purpose (yet) but Bill Paxton is always entertaining to watch, especially when he’s playing a soldier running around in dark subterranean laboratories (a pity that he gets no excuse to say his iconic “game over, man” line from Aliens).

However, it seems that no episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be without its major faults. T.A.H.I.T.I. features some truly bizarre moments that only serve to confuse a viewers’ understanding of the tone and of the characters. When he is taken aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane for interrogation, Quinn is brutally treated. Whilst he is a villainous character who has just shot someone, the torture he endures at the hands of the supposedly heroic characters feels unbelievably out of place. When he is finally escorted from the interrogation room at the end of the episode, he appears terrified. Garrett rather bizarrely tells him that his torture-induced confessions will be used against him in court (a court that apparently accepts confessions acquired under torture?). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always displayed an unusually Conservative political viewpoint; unusual because the target audience for the show and the film universe in which the film is set tends to steer more towards a politically Liberal mindset. Previous episodes have cast “Hacktivists” as misguided idealists or two-faced criminals. The monolithically powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation, a paramilitary organisation not beholden to any international laws whatsoever, is presented as humanity’s kindly caretaker. It is not unfair to say that a Right Wing-leaning viewer is probably more likely to agree with these concepts. There is certainly nothing wrong with adopting these political viewpoints; one might even condone the show for presenting an uncommon worldview in science fiction television. But many would likely see the celebrating of torture as a form of righteous vengeance as overstepping a boundary. Torture remains a very political subject in the US, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s peculiar endorsement of it seems irresponsible.

Despite this rather mystifying political angle, T.A.H.I.T.I. remains one of the best episodes of the show so far that works hard to undo much of the damage wrought by poorly-made past episodes. It is perhaps too late to save this show’s credibility… but we shall see.

Image from sciencefiction.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – T.R.A.C.K.S.


Stan Lee, creator of the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books that inspired the TV show, cameos in this episode.

The idea behind T.R.A.C.K.S., the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly has potential for interesting television. After an initial chaotic event separates the main characters, the episode follows each of them individually (showing the different storylines of the characters one after the other). This leads the viewer to try to guess what has become of the other agents through hints and clues provided in each segment. Not only is this an unconventional and risky method of telling a story in any medium, it is exactly the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that this show desperately needs to finally grab the attention of its audience. Unfortunately and predictably for this extremely troubled show, the creators have somehow managed to fall short yet again. T.R.A.C.K.S. fails to be compelling television, even with the interesting non-linear plot. The problem, as usual, boils down to the characters themselves; both how they are written and how they are performed. At the beginning of the episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his teammates are on a train travelling through the Italian countryside. Posing as tourists, they are hoping to apprehend recurring villain Ian Quinn (David Conrad) and a mysterious object that will soon be in his possession. Almost immediately, the episode becomes grating; the characters are back to communicating in infuriating witty one-liners and snappy jokes. This is especially annoying, since recent episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have featured much better-written character dialogue. Particularly annoying is the interaction between Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker); a poorly-written sequence that somehow manages to be offensive to British and American viewers alike. Similarly aggravating is a short scene in which Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is supposed to be under cover as a grieving young woman. There is nothing more embarrassing to watch then a bad actress trying to deliberately play a bad actress.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this episode is that it wastes a cameo by Stan Lee, the 90 year old creator of the Marvel comic books that inspired Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. among many other comic book properties. Whilst Lee is certainly not much of an actor, his appearance in this episode is poorly conceived and feels very much like it was hastily written into the episode (interestingly, Lee recently openly criticised Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for being uninteresting). After an unnecessarily lengthy opening scene, all hell breaks loose on the train and the agents are separated from each other. Coulson and Ward (Brett Dalton) leap from the train which seems to vanish before their eyes; the ultimate revelation as to how this is possible is incredibly disappointing and boring. Simmons is rendered unconscious (sort of) and left on the train. Fitz and Skye ride the train to its destination and then follow their enemies on foot through the Italian countryside (somehow managing to keep up with several cars despite not knowing the local environment). May (Ming-Na Wen) falls from the train and quickly becomes involved in one of the few exciting and tense action sequences of the episode. The fact that these adventures are told out of sequence and one at a time, rather than intercutting them with one another, gives the episode a unique feel but it is squandered by the poor dialogue and performances. Admittedly, things do improve towards the end of the episode when the severely injured Skye is trapped inside Quinn’s mansion. Not only does Chloe Bennet deliver a surprisingly strong performance during this mostly dialogue-free sequence, but the scene is filmed and edited in a disorienting and uncomfortable manner. It is as if a production crew with actual skill temporarily took over and crafted a tense sequence. This well-made scene is one of two surprisingly graphic portrayals of violence within the episode. During May’s storyline segment, she is strung up by her opponents and stabbed. Whilst there is very little blood or gore, the fact that a main character is being tortured is rather shocking and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. The two violent scenes are certainly well directed and tastefully filmed, but they feel entirely out of place in a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which as always leant more towards general audiences.

Possibly intriguing for the future is the return of J. August Richards as Mike Petersen, the superhuman from the pilot episode, who the S.H.I.E.L.D. team believed to be dead. Now boasting a robotic leg that is almost certainly a leftover prop from one of the Iron Man movies, it is heavily implied that Mike will soon take centre stage as the show’s primary antagonist (his new robotic persona is loosely based on a villainous character from Marvel Comics) but this prospect is not enough to save the episode from being boring. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to blunder, to miss opportunities and to fail miserably. After some genuinely good episodes in recent weeks, it’s a real disappointment to see it return to its usual low quality. At this stage, watching it has become a fascinating examination of how not to write, direct and act in a television show.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Seeds”


The good part of the episode: the Mexico City chase scene.

The most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Seeds, is a mixed affair. The episode is divided into two subplots; one of which is fairly interesting and well-written. The second subplot is indicative of everything that is wrong with the show since it began airing: a dull and predictable mystery that is mired with bland characters engaging in cringe-worthy “witty banter”. Overall, this is a dull episode that is so ineptly written and directed that a plot-point that should completely change the direction of the entire series is negated to the background. Most annoyingly of all, Seeds continues in the show’s tradition of reinventing the fictional S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation (made famous by the Iron Man films and The Avengers) from a morally questionable paramilitary group into a “big happy family” free of complexity or subterfuge. Instead of taking the interesting option and creating a show featuring a small team of heroic and dedicated agents butting heads against their dubious superiors, the producers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prefer to present a Manichean, morally black-and-white television show in which the line between heroes and villains couldn’t be clearer; a monstrous missed opportunity to tell compelling procedural drama within a fantastic fictional world.

The more interesting of the two subplots concerns Agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and May (Ming-La Wen) tracking a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative through the streets of Mexico City. These sequences feature engaging dialogue, important personal development for the characters, a well-choreographed fight scene and even the return of “Lola”; Coulson’s flying car. The dialogue between Coulson and May is sharp and interesting as they debate recent events in the show’s history (such as Coulson’s “return from the dead”). Both actors are clearly having fun with their characters, exhibiting a level of camaraderie that is totally believable. After a short but fun chase sequence, Coulson and May discover important information relating to the childhood of Skye (Chloe Bennet). Skye’s involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. since her first appearance has been motivated by the desire to find out about her birth parents; it has been one of the two mysteries that has driven the show since the pilot (the second being the recently resolved mystery of Coulson’s resurrection). The fact that her origins are now revealed should be a huge turning point for her character and for the show. Admittedly, the scene during which Coulson explains the truth to Skye is very well shot and edited; instead of watching Coulson retell the story of her origins, the audience is simply shown Skye’s increasingly distraught face set to music. It is an intensely powerful moment in a show that has had so few of these. It is shocking that this incredibly important revelation is predominantly overlooked in favour of the episode’s second plot-line; Fitz and Simmons going back to school.

Everything about the second subplot reeks of the ineptitude that so defines Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is poorly written, poorly acted and poorly executed in every way. Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are requested to return to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s training academy in order to solve a series of bizarre attacks on students involving sudden outbreaks of ice. Soon, they become convinced that someone is attempting to kill off the academy’s students for their own sinister ends (the villain of the episode is finally revealed to be a drastically re-imagined version of a Marvel Comics character called “Blizzard”). Everything about the sequences at S.H.I.E.L.D. academy is inept. The academy is supposed to be a top secret facility that trains superhumanly intelligent adolescents; it looks like a high school or university campus. The once sinister and shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation now has its own high school, complete with a secret nightclub run by the students. There’s a “nerdy” loner student (with a secret lab in his dorm room ceiling) and a “cool” popular student who aces every test. The dissonance between S.H.I.E.L.D. as it has appeared previously (the sinister military force) and S.H.I.E.L.D. as it appears now (super-scientist Hogwarts) is staggering. Even for a spy show set in a world with superheroes, it just all feels so silly. To use 1990’s television as a comparison, it would be like the cast of The X-Files visiting the cast of Dawson’s Creek.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticise the performances of the cast, considering the material that they are working with, but many of the teenage and 20-something student characters are portrayed by terrible actors. Chloe Bennet is never very impressive as Skye, but compared to some of the student characters in this episode, she deserves an Oscar. The only positive thing that can be said of this episode is that it finds a clever way to tie its events to the recent “Polar Vortex” that has gripped North America (it is insinuated that the true cause of December 2013’s bad weather was the ice machine from this episode). After a marked improvement in the overall quality of the last few episodes, it is most disappointing to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. return to its usual mediocre state. Perhaps now that the lingering plot mysteries have all been resolved (aside from the identity of the show’s villain, the Clairvoyant), things can finally progress towards a more exciting finale. Right now, however, this doesn’t seem very likely.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Magical Place”

MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. - "The Magical Place" -- Coulson uncovers vital information about the mystery of his death, but, with Centipede out for blood, this knowledge may come at the cost of one of the team on MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., TUESDAY, JANUARY 7 (8:00-9:01 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Ron Tom) CHLOE BENNET

Skye (Chloe Bennet) dresses as May (Ming-Na Wen) in this confused and meandering episode.

The episode The Magical Place marks the return to TV for the troubled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Since the show’s pilot episode, it has struggled to connect with audiences (as evidenced by its lower-than-expected ratings in the US and UK); transforming it from a sure-fire premise for a great genre TV show into a bad joke. It is unlikely that at this stage, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can recover its squandered potential. Perhaps the most tragic irony of all is that the last few episodes of the show have actually been marked improvements. Many of the problematic aspects of the early episodes (poor dialogue writing, confused politics and sub-par special effects) were rather suddenly rectified. These positive changes may be an example of “too little, too late”. The Magical Place probably represents the final chance the show has to gain new viewers. Marketing for the episode has touted the fact that audiences will finally discover the secret of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) miraculous resurrection; the event that kick-started the first story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Unfortunately, when the ultimate truth, the mystery that has been alluded to and teased throughout the entire season is finally revealed, the most likely response from viewers is… “That’s it?”

The episode begins with Coulson being held prisoner by the Centipede organisation, the sinister dark counterpart to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Under orders from their off-screen leader, military strategist Edison Po (Cullen Douglas) and Centipede recruiter Raina (Ruth Negga) attempt to break Coulson’s mind in order to discover how it was that he was able to come back from the dead. Meanwhile, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team are scrambling to find Coulson with the assistance of their superior, Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, reprising her role from an earlier episode). When Skye (Chloe Bennet) is deemed to be a security risk, she is forbidden from assisting in the hunt for Coulson and so ventures out on her own in the hopes of rescuing him. Both Skye and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team ultimately converge on a 50s-era nuclear testing site (complete with mock buildings and mannequins) where they must survive attacks by Centipede-modified superhumans in order to rescue Coulson.

For every great idea that this episode introduces, it squanders several others. Interesting implications are made about the relationship between Skye and May (Ming-Na Wen); their interactions with each other remain problematic and prickly, yet when separated from each other, both women demonstrate their admiration for each other. This fascinating mother/daughter dynamic could have been the basis for an episode in and of itself. Instead it is mostly utilised as an excuse for Chloe Bennet to dress up as a “sexy badass” agent. In the episode’s first half, it appears that the writers are intending to present a darker side of Fitz (Ian De Caestecker); the usually squeamish Fitz freely talks about harming innocent people if it means getting Coulson back. However, this plot point is not really resolved or even properly addressed. It feels as if the writers of the episode became bored with the concept and dropped it. A smuggler of alien technology (technology left over from the events of The Avengers) is briefly introduced, only to disappear from the plot as soon as he’s provided the team with the info they required. This character (played by Aiden Turner) could have been a great recurring villain; a slimy opportunist who is profiting from the bizarre events of the show’s cinematic counterparts. However, it seems unlikely that this character will reappear. One could easily believe that the show’s creators had several partially-completed script ideas and that they chose to mesh them all together in order to pass the time until the dramatic reveal at the end.

Said dramatic reveal is the greatest missed opportunity of all; Coulson’s resurrection. For months, episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have dropped subtle hints that the official version of Coulson’s return from the dead, that he was successfully resuscitated and that he then recuperated in Tahiti, was a lie. The episode’s title, The Magical Place, refers to the recurring line Coulson has said in each episode when his time in Tahiti is addressed— “It’s a magical place!”

It was clear to any viewer paying attention that “Tahiti” was some kind of implanted false memory, created to prevent Coulson from remembering how he really returned from the dead. Genre television shows thrive on mystery (the extreme popularity of Lost was in no small part due to its emphasis on mystery; the fact that many of the show’s mysteries were not revealed in the series finale was considered a betrayal by many of the show’s fans) and one would expect the “Tahiti” revelation to be suitably shocking and rewarding; something that would alter the character dynamic in the show and would justify continuing to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Instead, the big reveal feels entirely irrelevant. Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced, the internet has abounded with fascinating theories about Coulson’s return from the grave. Fans have speculated everything from alien magic (something that exists in the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe) to Coulson being some kind of artificial intelligence (a robotic antagonist will be appearing in 2015’s Avengers 2). The explanation that the writers have selected is the most boring and the least sense-making; a revelation that won’t change Coulson as a character or his relationship to the other characters. The Magical Place is certainly not the worst episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but it may be the most disappointing.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “The Hub”


Saffron Burrows appears as Agent Victoria Hand

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to try to build an identity for itself in the most recent episode; The Hub. After the sentimental and corny tone of the last episode, this is certainly an improvement (if only a slight one). Unlike the previous instalment, the emotional stakes of this episode feel legitimate and the moments of tension are far better conceived. Were it not for some extremely poor writing decisions, this could have been the first episode since the pilot to rise above being “passable”. Unfortunately, as with almost every episode so far, the faults have a severe impact. The Hub begins with a very tense and well directed sequence in which Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is rescued from a foreign military facility. Coulson and his agents then report to “the Hub”; a mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. base of operations. Soon Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) are dispatched to Georgia to track down a powerful new weapon. Only after the two have departed for their mission does Skye (Chloe Bennet) discover that her fellow agents are being sent to their deaths.

There are a lot of things to like about this episode. The two interconnected plots (Ward and Fitz’s mission and Skye trying to mount a rescue) are tense and fast-paced. There is a strong emphasis on character interaction over action and spectacle. The fact that the superhero science fiction aspect of the show is used very minimally in this episode allows for more focus to be given to the characters themselves instead of the Marvel Comics references (although the episode does feature a cameo from Saffron Burrows as a character from the comic book source material). Perhaps most interesting is the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally being written and presented as a massive organisation with complex political allegiances. A new viewer who is unfamiliar with the Marvel Studios films could easily make the mistake of believing that Coulson and his team are S.H.I.E.L.D.. This is the first episode that really promotes the idea of them being a small part of a larger whole. Coulson’s team are written as if they are members of a family; their association with one another is very informal and familial. This has given the impression that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a rather homely, friendly entity. This episode re-emphasises the more sinister and secretive side of the organisation.

However, the problems with The Hub outweigh these positive attributes. The character dialogue continues to be surprisingly irritating; an attempt to mimic the witty banter wordplay of Joss Whedon but failing to achieve that writer’s perfect balance of humour and drama. The scenes of Skye convincing Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) to help her hack into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s restricted files is written like a child is convincing her little sister to do something naughty; one could easily forget that these two are supposed to be adults. Obviously the intent of the writer is to make the characters seem human and endearing, but more often than not, they merely come across as incompetent, stupid and possibly a bit insane. These scenes between Skye and Simmons are meant to mirror those between Ward and Fitz (Skye and Ward are slowly being set up as a couple as are Fitz and Simmons). In both cases, a novice is being pushed out of their depth by someone who is more experienced. Also in both cases, the novice proves themselves to be more cunning and devious than the more experienced team member realised. This attempted narrative symmetry just comes across as lazy and perhaps even a little bit sexist: Fitz proves himself to Ward by being surprisingly tactical and brave, whilst Simmons proves herself to Skye by being surprisingly flirtatious and manipulative. Another troubling element of this episode is the continuing identity crisis that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has in relation to its politics. Instead of outright avoiding the question of what it means to work for a government organisation that polices the world, the show keeps trying to address social commentary about freedom and security. Throughout the episode, Skye is told to “trust the system”. When she objects to this philosophy, Fitz makes a bizarre comment about radical socialism; as if Skye’s concern over what the organisation that she works for is secretly doing  is “socialist”. Victory is only gained when Skye and the others defy the system that they keep being told to trust. This apparent stance against government cover-ups is then torpedoed by the saffron burrows character claiming that their insurrection was always part of the plan and that they are still working within “the system”; as if the character’s display of antiestablishment rebellion was something that the show’s writers felt that they needed to apologise for. At the very end of the episode, there is a not-at-all subtle implication that S.H.I.E.L.D. is continuing to lie to Coulson and that Coulson in turn is continuing to lie to his team, reversing the “trust the system” theme of the episode. These issues with The Hub prevent it from being considered a strong episode. The things that work about this episode work really well. Unfortunately, they are not enough to save this latest instalment from its own monumental errors.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Girl in the Flower Dress”



Ruth Negga as the Episode’s title character

Girl in the Flower Dress is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to progress the show’s overall plotline since the pilot. Various plot points that haven’t been addressed for weeks are quickly resolved or developed further. More significant events happen in this single episode than in the past four episodes. In some ways, such progress is a good sign. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had tremendous problems finding a distinct identity and tone; though none of the episodes have been terrible, many have bordered on being mediocre because of this lack of direction. The unfortunate side of an episode like this is that it has automatically made the previous four episodes utterly irrelevant. A future viewer could easily forego them without losing anything of importance. This is episodic storytelling of the laziest nature.

The episode itself, however, is certainly entertaining. A Hong Kong street magician (Louis Ozawa Changchien) with the power to project fire from his hands is abducted by the sinister Centipede organisation that was last seen in the pilot. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. agents travel to Texas to track a computer hacker with a connection to the abduction. The computer hacker, Miles (Austin Nichols), turns out to be Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) boyfriend. More shocking to the team is the revelation that Skye has been compiling information on S.H.I.E.L.D. in secret, breaking the bonds of trust between her and the rest of the team. Secrets and information are at the forefront of the episode’s thematic concerns. Much of the episode is spent with Miles and Skye debating the merits of freedom of information. Edward Snowden’s name is dropped (likely in an attempt to be culturally relevant) as the two characters discuss the politics of leaking potentially dangerous information to the world in the name of freedom. Unlike the similar debate that took place in the second episode, in which no conclusion was found in regards to the freedom verses security dispute, this episode almost outright condemns the “hacktivist” movement by portraying Miles as untrustworthy and arrogant; hiding behind his speeches of freedom and democracy whilst committing crimes for his own self-interest. This is a surprisingly conservative viewpoint for the show to take, considering its usually more liberal sensibilities. Depending upon one’s politics, the episode will either be more or less palatable than any other episode so far.

Alongside the Skye and Miles plot is the ongoing story of the Chinese magician, who comes to call himself “Scorch” in reference to his superhuman fire powers. The notion that all people with superpowers have to select bizarre names for themselves is an interesting way of linking the series back to its cinematic precursors; the Marvel Comics films (in which superheroes with catchy codenames are commonplace). “Scorch” is taken to a secret lab by the titular girl in the flower dress (Ruth Negga) where he and his strange powers are experimented upon. Shannon Lucio returns from the Pilot as a scientist hoping to advance Scorch’s powers. Having a character with fire powers allows for a very exciting and visually stunning finale in which Coulson and May (Ming-Na Wen) have to enter the lab facility and battle the now-insane Scorch. The special effects of Scorch’s fire powers look great, as does a surprisingly dark sequence in which one of the villains is burnt to death and melted into ash. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has so far managed to tell several varied and interesting stories centred around ordinary people gaining powers and at least at this point in the show’s lifespan, the trope has not become worn or overused. More episodes of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team taking on superhumans would be very welcome.

Like every episode of this show, there are some pretty glaring problems. All of the scenes that take place in China are accompanied with stereotypical Chinese music. Not only is this more than a little racist, it insults the intelligence of the viewer by suggesting that we’d forget where the characters are unless the music reminds us. Much of the character’s dialogue continues to be trite and witty for the sake of being witty. One imagines that Brett Fletcher, the writer of this episode according to IMDB.com, was concerned more with the characters speaking in cool quotable one-liners than he was with giving the characters compelling or realistic lines. The Scorch character’s turn from slightly unpleasant to homicidally insane was far too quick to take seriously. Perhaps the biggest problem with this episode, and with all of the episodes of this show, is the creator’s emphasis on the characters as a family rather than as a team. Five episodes in and the characters are being written as if they’ve been together for years; as if this is the second or third season rather than the first. Obviously, watching the characters bond over time is the appeal of a programme like this. The problem is that it seems like the show’s creators wanted to sidestep character development in order to make the team like a dysfunctional family from day one. Watching these characters evolve from a formal team into something more personal and familial should have been the main joy of watching this show. Instead, when Skye seemingly betrays her teammates in this episode, the other agents act like a beloved family member has been lying to them. It is too early in the show’s existence for the characters to be treating each other in this way. In other words, this episode is one of the stronger thus far but it still has not broken away from the same issues that have surrounded the show from day one.

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TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Eye Spy”


 The dramatic opening sequence.

Eye Spy is the most consistently good episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far. The episode boats an interesting premise, genuine emotional stakes, strong acting and much of the tension and suspense that was missing from the last episode. However, it retains many of the faults that have plagued the show thus far. The episode begins with a visually interesting sequence in which a small group of masked men in red masks board a subway train in Stockholm. A mysterious woman (Pascale Armand) stealthily follows and attacks these men in an attempt to steal diamonds that they are carrying. Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane (nicknamed “the Bus”), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) reveals to his S.H.I.E.L.D. team that the mystery woman is a former agent who has been missing for years. After some investigation, the team discover that she has been fitted with a cybernetic implant in her eye and that she is being forced to carry out criminal acts by an unidentified antagonist. With the wayward agent in S.H.I.E.L.D. hands, Skye (Chloe Bennet) hacks the ocular implant and finds a way to transfer its feedback into a pair of glasses. Ward (Brett Dalton) wears these glasses and endeavours to carry out their unknown opponents’ mission commands in an attempt to find out who they’re dealing with.

Surveillance is the central theme of this episode. Early in the proceedings, Coulson remarks that in this world of Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, there is little need to covertly watch people because so many people provide all of their personal details willingly. This is contrasted to the constant surveillance forced upon Amador, the agent with the implant. This is an interesting and heavy subject matter for such a light-hearted show; not unlike the political debate from episode two or the commentary on superheroes as gods in episode one. Despite being portrayed as a benevolent organisation, Joss Whedon and the other creators wisely choose to present the problematic aspects of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s activities such as its disregard for people’s privacy (in the last episode, they were referred to as “Big Brother” by one character). Perhaps this notion of the characters inhabiting a morally grey world could be developed in future episodes. Eye Spy is far more successful in its attempts to create mystery and tension then last week’s episode was. As it was last time, one of the agents (Ward this time) has to infiltrate dangerous hostile territory whilst communicating with other team members. The sense of dread and fear that Ward will be discovered is presented in a far more credible manner here than in the previous episode. Whereas Skye was portrayed as being blasé and overconfident when she was sneaking around enemy territory, Ward’s constant efforts to avoid exposure and his panic when he is inevitably discovered are truly exciting; more than enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

The episode is also more successful in its attempts at comedy than last week. There is a very amusing moment when Ward is instructed (by the mysterious villain) to seduce a heavyset Belarusian male security guard; the unknown villain believes Ward to be Amador and Ward needs to maintain this illusion. Ward’s attempt to befriend the suspicious guard is one of the funnier moments of the whole series so far. Even the usually annoying duo of Fitzsimmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) is put to good comedic use in the episode; a scene in which they have to perform ocular surgery on Amador is both tense and humorous at the same time. In addition to the episode’s quality, Eye Spy is significant in that it may be the first episode to indicate that there will eventually be a recurring antagonist or central villain in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Amador’s mystery controller wants her to gain access to a bizarre physics equation; the nature of which has not yet been explained. Coulson refers to this equation as being of alien origin, possibly indicating a link to the Chitauri alien race that appeared in The Avengers (of which this show is a spin-off). This is hopefully the first evidence of a long-term villain for the programme, since a regular antagonist would add both a greater sense of consistency and a greater sense of tension to the show.

Whilst certainly a step up for the overall quality of the show, the episode still suffers from insufferable “witty” dialogue that sound like unnatural sound-bites and not human conversation. The sequence in which Ward murders several security guards also feels a little off; these men are hardly threats or even bad guys, yet Ward guns them down without a second thought. Worst of all is the post-credits stinger, which is both juvenile and potentially even insultingly sexist. However, these are small faults in an otherwise strong episode. Perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting to find itself.

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Asset”


Dr Hall’s gravity device.

The Asset, the third episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is the first to feel utterly unnecessary. Nothing truly significant takes place and nothing important is revealed. That’s not to say that the episode isn’t fun or exciting; merely that for the first time, the show feels like it is dragging its heels (problematic, considering the fact that we’re three episodes in).

The episode begins with a short and enticing sequence in which a truck is ripped off a lonely freeway and up into the sky by an unseen force. It transpires that the truck is secretly a S.H.I.E.L.D. transport vehicle carrying a brilliant scientist (Ian Hart) named Dr Hall. Because of Hall’s research into gravity manipulation, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is dispatched to rescue him from the Malta-based home of a sinister magnate called Ian Quinn (David Conrad). Because of Quinn’s bureaucratic protection from international agencies, the team is forced to send the untrained Skye (Chloe Bennet) into Quinn’s home to find and to help rescue Dr Hall.

The entirety of the episode feels like a missed opportunity. Skye attempting to blend in at a garden party of wealthy socialites could have been comedic and provocative; given Skye’s previously-established egalitarian political views, her character is written with an odd level of comfortableness among the sort of characters she should disdain. Given the even-handed and subtle political debate in the last episode, it seems peculiar that Skye’s hot-headed personality is not brought to the forefront when surrounded by the wealthy and the powerful. Similarly wasted is any sense of tension in these garden party sequences. Skye is working as a spy yet there is no real sense of tension of threat in these scenes. She and the team are entirely in control of the situation until she decides to pursue her own strategy. A viewer cannot develop a sense of concern for her safety because she always appears to have the upper hand. In addition, the biggest waste by far is in the science fiction element of the story. Dr Hall’s kidnapping is due to his understanding of a rare element that can control gravity. A device that has been built beneath Quinn’s mansion is capable of dramatically altering gravity across a large area. This could have made for some amazing visuals- seeing the contents of a beautiful Malta mansion floating around as if in space would have made for unforgettable television. Yet the best we get is two actors standing in a small room that has been set-dressed to look like they’re standing on the ceiling.

Obviously, the television effects budget of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prevents its creators from indulging in the kind of spectacle seen in its cinematic cousins (the Marvel superhero films), but considering that the program has featured flying cars and exploding superhumans, something a bit more visually interesting than an upside down room was surely possible. Dr Hall is apparently a character plucked from Marvel’s superhero comics so it seems likely that the character will reappear on the show in the future; perhaps at that point the real possibilities of a zero-gravity weapon will become better utilised. There are certainly positive aspects to this episode but they do not help to overcome the sense that this was the first totally redundant episode of the show. David Conrad equips himself well as the villainous Quinn (much more so than the dreadful performance by Leonor Valera in episode two) as does Ian Hart as the desperate and fanatical Dr Hall. For some reason, it is revealed that Dr Hall is a former teacher of Fitzsimmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge); something that never becomes relevant in the episode as the three characters do not share a scene together.

Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward is given a more developed back-story, revealing the reasons for his abrasive personality. The mystery of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) continues to evolve in interesting ways. It now seems very likely that the Coulson who appeared in The Avengers is not the same man currently leading the team. The best aspect of the episode is that the dialogue sounded a great deal more natural. For the most part the implausibly witty banter that made all of the characters sound so artificial has been cut back; the characters now talk to one another in a manner closer to that of real people rather than talking to each other in sound bites. The Asset is a disappointing episode because it really has no impact or importance other than to set up a possible villain for a future episode (Dr Hall). None of the interesting ideas put forward are developed and nothing of real substance happens. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to have no strong identity.

Image reproduced from comicbook.com

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “0-8-4”


Sam Jackson makes a cameo appearance as Nick Fury.

The second episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shares many of the good and bad points that were evident in the Pilot. However, this second episode in the season, 0-8-4, is an overall improvement that suggests that the show will become a great deal better once it finds more of an identity. As the character Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) says in this episode, “We’re still working out the kinks”. Now that the team has been fully assembled, creator Joss Whedon has begun to focus on the interactions between the main characters. Teamwork is an important theme in this episode; each character is called upon to bring their particular skills to the episode’s conflict. Unsurprising considering Whedon’s track record, the appeal of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly going to be the team itself and how the various agents play off one another.

Picking up almost immediately from where the Pilot left off, Skye (Chloe Bennet) moves onto the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane in order to serve as a consultant for the newly-formed team. Their first mission takes them to the jungles of Peru to hunt down a mysterious artefact that previously appeared in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (reminding the audience yet again that the show takes place in the same continuity as the Marvel Comics films). Soon they are attacked by local militants and have to make a hasty retreat with the help of a military official who happens to be an old friend of Coulson’s. Once the team is back on their plane, they soon realise that the artefact is far more dangerous than they realised and that the aircraft is in considerable danger. The good news about 0-8-4 is that its positive aspects certainly outnumber its faults. The narrative of the episode is even better than the previous one. The jungle setting sets the episode apart from its cinematic source material. The connection to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” is subtle and clever (much more so than it was in the Pilot). The action sequences are well shot and very engaging. Most important is the fact that the tone continues to be light-hearted and optimistic. So many television shows that utilise sci-fi concepts like superheroes and alien technology (Heroes and Fringe being the most obvious examples) are written and shot with a strong emphasis on gritty realism; as if the creators are self-conscious and embarrassed about handling such out-there concepts and feel the need to disguise it with the trappings of serious drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has no such reservations—the creators are clearly not conflicted about making a live-action comic book on the small screen; making the show a refreshingly cheery watch.

Also impressive is the show’s subtle but mature examination of important modern political issues. Skye professes her support for the lower class revolution taking place in the show’s version of Peru, citing the use of Twitter as an organisational tool for protest as being an amazing symbol of unification against oppression. Meanwhile, Ward (Brett Dalton) argues from a more conservative point of view; that Skye is ignoring the violent militant behaviour of those she supports because she is not directly involved in the combat. The show doesn’t exactly take a side in this debate. Instead, both characters learn something from one another’s differing perspectives. This is extremely intelligent stuff for escapist action-adventure television.

Nevertheless, the episode is not without its problems. One wonders why Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) gives Skye such a hard time for not knowing about the events of Captain America; events that were supposedly classified (most likely, this scene is a shout-out to the more diehard Marvel fans in the audience). Guest star Leonor Varela delivers a pretty weak performance which tends to harm the more serious scenes. Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons continues to be a very irritating British stereotype. Most problematic for this particular episode is the frequently poor computer effects. This is likely due to the creators attempting comic book movie action on a television budget. The jungle action scenes are far more compelling than those in the plane because they feel more real and perilous. Most egregious is how the characters solve the problem of a large hole that has exploded in the side of the plane: their solution is so ludicrous that it goes beyond far-fetched (even in a world where Iron Man and Captain America exist). But none of these problems serve to damage the episode. These faults feel more like the natural growing pains of a very young show than they do serious flaws. Considering that the show is even better than it was last week, there’s no reason not to be optimistic about the future of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Plus, a special appearance by Samuel L. Jackson is always something to get excited about!

Image from charactergrades.com