10 – The Paddypower.com Vanquisher Of Straw Men

“Cor, look at how ridiculous this is!” says our chummy everybloke champion. With one voice, we reply “Yes, of COURSE it looks ridiculous, you made it yourself with the express purpose of making it as ridiculous as possible!” On the other hand, the spoof advert is actually fairly nicely observed. On the third hand, it looks way more like a perfume ad than one for mobile phones which rather undercuts the point. And without recourse to hyperbole, that point seems to be “Adverts are pretentious, so why not have a bet? The illicit high of gambling will distract you at least temporarily from the depressing spectacle of Western culture mindlessly eating itself.”

9 – The Ladbrokes Shouty Commentator

http://youtu.be/v_-GjKaqh9Q

Do you SEE? He is FOREIGN. And from thence the HUMOUR AROSE.

8 – The Bet365 Matey But Menacing Cockney Geezer

http://youtu.be/KrwiMgb0p0w

I like Ray Winstone. Everyone likes Ray Winstone. I’ve liked Ray Winstone ever since he was Lambeth walking around with the Merry Men begging the inevitable but frustratingly unstated question “what part of Nottingham did you say you were from, again?” But Ray Winstone is really testing our imaginary relationship at this point. We’re now several years into his We’re Mates So You Want Me To Be Happy Don’t Ask What Happens If I’m Not Happy corporate shill phase and it’s getting very old very quickly. What we are learning from this list so far is a that all adverts for bookies are absolutely awful, even if they don’t involve Paddy “Hugging” McGuinness.

7 – The Head And Shoulders Jensen Button

In which a man already compensated far beyond the value of his single skill – guiding a rocket-powered rollerskate along a windy country road – feels the need to pocket a relative pittance in order to turn up on my telly, admire himself in a mirror and annoy the wee-wee out of me. Without recourse to hyperbole, I defy anyone to endure Jensen’s delivery of the line “Wow, it’s bracing!” without wanting to smash in his stupid smirky self-satisfied face with a claw-hammer.

6 – The InjuryLawyers4U “Injury” “Lawyer” “For” “You”

“Hi! I’m Billy Murray. No, not that one. You probably don’t remember me from such movies as Strippers vs. Werewolves. I’m here today to try and reposition frivolous litigation as spiritual enlightenment. I know, right? Still, I’m going to get three solid years of work out of this gig, which will eventually culminate in a hilariously cliched ad that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be on YouTube. It starts with me swanning around the Gherkin, because that’s definitely where a company called InjuryLawyers4U would have its offices. Then I teleport to a random rooftop where I’m joined by the cast of an ultra-low-budget British remake of Ocean’s 11. Which coincidentally is my next movie project. Watch out for Seaside’s 5, available from the DVD rack of all good petrol stations, summer 2012.”

5 – The WKD Gaggle Of Sniggering Manchildren

This really would work better if their sickly-sweet alcopop slop was named ARSHL. Without recourse to hyperbole, if there really are enough people in Britain going “Ahahaa, YES. That’s EXACTLY like me and my mates! WE’RE inconsiderate, entitled, feckless misogynist hugwits as well!” to make this campaign a success then, without recourse to hyperbole, the total implosion of British society cannot be far away and I weep for us all.  FULL DISCLOSURE – the Robocop one is alright.

4 – The Pepsi Max Gaggle Of Rapey Manchildren

The WKD ARSHLs might be obnoxious wastes of perfectly serviceable carbon, but at least they’re not actual psychopaths. To be honest, even taking aside this particular breathtakingly ill-judged ad in which a manufactured threat of apocalypse is used to manipulate an emotionally traumatised woman into sex these absolute huggers would still make the list for that nauseating self-congratulatory dance they do at the end of each advert. “WOO!! WE RUUULE!!! GO TEAM RAPE, YEAH!!!!”

3 – The BT Family Who Care A Bit Too Much About Telecommunication Technology

A chilling satirical vision of a dystopian future where enthusiasm for the tools that allow us to communicate with other people has supplanted any genuine feeling we might have for other humans. Friends and family drift aimlessly around us tethered by faint, brittle echoes of emotion but no actual affection survives in this weird, sterile, utterly alien world.

2 – The G- C-mpare Abomination Of Nature

There is apparently a school of thought in advertising which believes that it doesn’t matter if an ad annoys you or delights you so long as it gets an emotional reaction, because either way you’re likely to remember the product in question. Without recourse to hyperbole, it’s exactly that kind of pragmatic, careless, self-regarding workaday evil that’s causing the decline and fall of Western civilisation. Do not give in to it. Do not allow it a foothold. Do not permit something that was deliberately, callously designed to make your life just a little bit worse cause you to give a moment’s thought to a price-comparison website identical in every respect to the twenty other available price-comparison websites. Do not give it power. Do not speak its name.

1 – The BMW Singularity Of Smugness. And His Brother Freddie

Despite severe provocation I have carefully avoided using the word “smug” in the rest of this post to make sure that I don’t reduce its impact here. Because Adam Who Works With Architects and his brother Freddie The Actor And Model are, with due respect to Simon Cowell, the smuggest things to ever appear on British TV. They’re so smug it’s practically a superpower. They’re so smug that the sheer mass of their self-regard threatens to cause the fabric of the universe to collapse in on itself. It’s hard to put my finger on the single smuggest part of this smugathon, and if I watch it one more time to try and narrow it down I’m reasonably sure I’ll lose my increasingly tenuous grip on sanity. The line “Freddie on the other hand, he likes to play it smooooooth” makes me want to vomit until my lungs come out, but then the shot of Adam in black and white at the 0:20 mark looking oh so very pleased at his exquisite taste in automobiles makes me want to start walking and not stop until the waves close over my head and the water’s cold embrace drags me to sweet oblivion. And yes, I HAVE watched this hugging thing enough times to tell Adam and Freddie apart and that is knowledge I cannot un-learn.

G- C-mp-re might be indicative of everything that’s wrong with consumer culture. But at least I can fathom how it came to be. I can understand the train of thought that led to its conception, disgustingly foul and cynical though that creation was. I cannot say the same for this BMW ad. I cannot start to imagine the perverted fever-dream that might have led anyone, anywhere to believe that this advert might actually sell cars to anyone, anywhere. If the reaction they were hoping to elicit from the viewer was Pavlovian urge to slash the tyres of any BMW they happened to pass in the street, then that might be understandable, but making those cars seem more attractive? Surely that’s out of the question? This advert is grotesque, obviously, but its true horror lies in the implacable alien incomprehensibility of its mere existence. The G- C—— advert is Hitler. This BMW advert is Cthulhu. Why does it exist? What cosmic sin have we collectively committed that the universe judges this as a fit and proper punishment? I don’t understand. In his BMW parked outside R’yleh smug Adam and his brother Freddie wait dreaming of SOOOOOO MANY SKINNY LATTES. The STARS are RIGHT. I do not understand OH SWEET MERCIFUL LORD PLEASE HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND.

Without recourse to hyperbole, I don’t really care for it.

,

So. That was pretty good, wasn’t it?

A long way from being perfect, obviously – the story was pretty ploddingly predictable, with the only minor suprise being the “going away is good, staying away is better” incident. It lapsed a bit into distinctly RTD-ish technobabble as the story neared an end. The whole interaction between the Doctor and the little girl didn’t quite ring true for me, although it’s entirely possible that’s just because I’ve got no soul. The “Doctor Time” stop-motion thing were we’re shown him sifting through what he’s seeing to find the telling off-key detail was a bit gimmicky, went on too long and has been done before in slightly different form by seemingly every detective drama on US telly. If there’s one thing I don’t want Doctor Who to do, it’s remind me of an episode of flippin’ CSI.

Also: remixing the theme music – good idea, absolutely Godawful execution.

More importantly though it was funny, it had just enough emotional heft (“Why did you say six months?” “Why did you say five minutes?”), Matt Smith and Karen Gillan work brilliantly together and despite being a bit disappointing in “Episodes Written By Stephen Moffat” terms it was by leaps and bounds the best season opener in the NewWho era.

Between the episode itself and the rather spiffy “Coming Soon” montage that followed, my feelings toward the new series have been upgraded from “cautious optimism” to “understated but genuine excitement”. Please adjust your watches accordingly.

,

Here’s proof I’d rather do anything than what I’m supposed to. Right now, in order of importance I probably ought to be a) preparing for tonight’s first session of a game I’ve never played before in a genre I’ve not GM’d in, oooh, 15 years?, b) sorting out my Christmas list or c) working. Instead, here’re some one-paragraph brainsplurges on some stuff that’s moved me to having to write over the last few months.

Once
The low-key and super-low budget story of the friendship between a Dublin busker and a young Czech pianist it made me laugh, made me weep like a tiny child for approximately 75% of its running time, then made me rush off and buy the DVD and soundtrack album. It’s not a musical, but rather a film about music so it’s just as well that the songs are absolutely bloody wonderful, by turns beautifully delicate and spine-tinglingly passionate. In an attempt to claw back my Hard-Bitten Internet Cynic image by proving that there’s nothing so exquisitely crafted and personally affecting that I can’t crush it under the lumpen weight of objective overanalysis, I’ll say that Once is better than Garden State and the Commitments, about on a par with Almost Famous but not as good as Magnolia. Rank: A

The Beatles: Rock Band (Xbox360)
We bought the game solely to replace the drum controller that got knackered on our heroic expedition up the north face of Mount Rock a couple of bank holidays ago, so it was a pleasant surprise that the game was so good. It’s fair to say that nobody in the family is a big Beatles fan – personally I’m so amazingly ignorant that before playing this I’d never previously heard While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Dear Prudence (other than the Banshees’ version, obv) – but this game totally won us over. The enthusiasm that the developers obviously have for their subject matter comes across over and over again, in the animation of the band members, in the often-beautiful staging of the songs (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends being a particular highlight), in the wealth of unlockable photos and video that’s included, even in the names of the Achievements. The Beatles: Rock Band is like reading an article by a really great writer on a subject they really know and really love but that you never previously cared about. Rank: B

Lie To Me
Someone’s seen House and gone “I’m getting me a piece of that action!” Quirky take on an established (some would say tired) TV genre – check. Grizzled veteran British lead actor who’s plainly having a whale of a time – check. Troubled but charismatic and brilliant central character with a distinctive gait (House’s limp, Lightman’s bizarre half-gibbon, half-Quasimodo shambling) – check. Unbelievably formulaic scripting with exactly the same story beats every week – check. The always thoroughly watchable Tim Roth does a nice job with a part that calls for him to say “Ah! Now THAT’S the truth!” fifteen times an episode but that doesn’t cover the fact that this is a slightly degraded photocopy of a show that itself has no pretentions to being anything other than disposable fluff. Rank: C

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Love it. Love it love it love it. It’s a properly beardy fantasy RPG for properly beardy people. I could pick nits – I’d like the game mechanics to be a bit more transparent so that I could make more informed decisions when levelling up, and while the main story feels decently epic it doesn’t wander far from painfully familiar fantasy tropes – but that would be stupid because this is the best game I’ve played this year that doesn’t involve a man dressed as a nocturnal mammal jump-kicking people in the face. What makes it come alive for me above anything else are your NPC party members, as consistently likeable a group as I’ve ever encountered in a CRPG. In particular, the droll-but-dorky Alistair (Chandler Bing in plate mail, but nowhere near as annoying as that sounds) and Morrigan the sarky heartless sorceress have spent most of the game in my active party, in large part because I enjoy them sniping at each other so much. Only slightly less fun are desperate romantic Leliana, the golum Shale who’s reminiscent of the (awesome) psychopathic android HK-47 from the (awesome) original Knights Of The Old Republic, and lust-for-life Elfish assassin Zevran who’s spent most of his time with the group trying to get into my pants. Bring on Mass Effect 2! Rank: A

[rec]
An hour of enjoyable-enough mockumentary zombie hokum, 15 minutes of HELL ON TOAST. In a good way. Rank: B

Dexter
When I first heard the premise of Dexter – a serial killer working for the Miami police department who preys on other serial killers – I was utterly repulsed. It sounded tacky and sensationalist and dark-for-the-sake-of-darkness and generally not my cup of tea. But eminently sensible people kept singing its praises, so eventually I gave it a whirl and was duly blown away. After a bit of a wobbly second series it got back on track with an excellent third (starring Jimmy Smits’ enjoyably terrible Cuban accent), and now the new season is easily the best yet. The latest episode – set on Thanksgiving – is like a distillation of everything that makes the show worth watching. It’s got Dexter struggling to cope with regular human interaction, it’s got terrific performances all round (particularly from John Lithgow in magnificently creepy form) and it’s got incredibly tense sequences alongside moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. It really is pretty much as good as telly gets at the moment. Rank: A

Lungs – Florence + The Machine
Since last.fm arrived on the FunSquareSuperPlus, I’ve spent a fair bit of time listening its automatically-generated reccomend-o-tron. It seems that Skynet has decided that I’m almost exclusively into impassioned and slightly eccentric female singer-songwriters. And, you know. It’s hard to argue. So it’s fair to say that there was a better-than-average chance I’d go for this album. And sure enough, it’s awesome and proof positive that modern pop really needs more a) harp-playing and b) songs about werewolf-themed sexuality. Rank: A

Let The Right One In
Unsettling lo-fi Swedish vampire flick that plays with themes of alienation and adolescence. But better than that sounds. I couldn’t shake the feeling there was stuff going on here that I was too stupid to understand – what was with the repeated shots of characters’ feet, f’rinstance? Rank: B

,

Tom Clancy Presents Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. By Tom Clancy (Xbox 360)

It’s an arcade flight sim in a contemporary setting. And it wants to be Ace Combat 6 so badly it hurts, right down to the pre-mission target-percentage breakdown, the post-mission cinematic replay and the three camera view options, each practically identical to its equivalent in AC6.

Here are the things H.A.W.(ks – Ed) does better than Ace Combat 6: more planes (although they all feel pretty much exactly the same to fly), external fly-by “assistance off” view that looks hugely cool (but is completely unnecessary and massively difficult to control), your plane carries anti-missile flares (not that you’ll have any left when you need them because some idiot mapped “deploy flares” to a click of the control stick, something that’s incredibly easy to do accidentally when engaged in intense flight manoeuvres) no portentous and jarring cut-scenes about the hideousness of war (instead there’s a staggeringly nonsensical plot about a corporation as lacking in business-sense as they are in morals), moderately groovy R6: Vegas/CoD4 XP-O-Gain level system (which mostly only unlocks new planes which, as previously stated, aren’t much more than re-skins), looks hugely pretty in places (but extremely ropy in others – the Chicago level with the skyscrapers jarringly plonked down on what looks like a perfectly flat Google Earth map will take you back to the worst sins of mid-nineties flight-simmmery) and its whole campaign is playable in co-op (actually, that one’s pretty much an unreserved yay).

Here are the things it does worse than AC6: smaller maps with smaller, almost linear missions. One of my favourite levels in Ace Combat sees you asked to assist a massive amphibious assault on a coastal town. There are three different allied forces landing in three different places facing different compositions of enemy, and who you choose to primarily support in what way is up to you. Fly a mud-moving A-10 Warthog with iron bombs to easily take out enemy tank formations? Or air-to-ground missles for knocking out priority targets from a safe distance? Either way, you’ll be vulnerable to enemy interceptors and too slow to effectively support all three fronts. Go with a multi-role plane like the F-16 or the Mirage 2000 which’ll let you carve through enemy close air support bombers like a multimillion dollar supersonic knife through butter but is somewhat brittle in the face of ground fire? Should you take the risk of attacking the well-defended town in order to secure its airfield, giving you a base near the front-line where you can land to get repaired and re-armed?

All that light tactical layer is absent from H.A.W.(ks. – Ed). In your first playthough, you’ll have a lot of planes to choose from but generally only one weapons load and one approach to any given scenario. There’s no landing at carriers or airbases, no chance to change your payload mid-mission, no trading off effectiveness against X sort of target with effectiveness against Y. It’s pretty much just a shooting-gallery – hostile unit appears in front of you, press A to fire a missile, done, done and I’m onto the next one.

There are tons of smaller niggles. Hard mode is too easy (so I presume you could finish Normal mode without actually looking at the screen) while Elite mode doesn’t, y’know, make the enemy AI any more dangerous it just artificially and unfairly limits the number of weapons you can carry (which wouldn’t be as much of an issue except that, as previously mentioned, there’s no way of re-arming mid-mission). The targeting system is fiddly and thoughtless – if I’ve got AAMs armed, why on Earth does it let me lock onto ground targets that I can’t hit? And why oh why oh why is “change weapon” mapped to the D-pad? Did nobody twig that when you want to switch to, say, dogfighting missles you might possibly be in, f’rinstance, a dogfight and so not really be overly keen to LET GO OF THE HUGGING CONTROLS?

If the flight scenes in Top Gun mildly arouse you, you’ll have some fun with H.A.W.(ks – Ed). Me? They do and I did. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just shallow, workmanlike, a bit bland and lacking in charm. It’s like a tribute band – the songs are still good but the magic’s not quite there. H.A.W.(ks – Ed) is the Bootleg Ace. It’s the Counterfeit Combat. It’s the Tesco Value Ace Combat 6.

With an unnecessarily silly name.

John Woo Presents John Woo’s Stranglehold By John Woo (Xbox 360)

The graphics are ropy, the controls are slightly worse, its difficulty is up and down more than a manically depressed junkie kangaroo on a space hopper and it’s a pony that barely manages one trick. And that’s the exact same trick as Max Payne’s, only – and I appreciate this will be hard to believe – with a worse story. If I’d paid full price at release I’d have been a) insane and b) furious. But as a cheap, throwaway b-movie title it hits the spot. Stranglehold is the first game in history where the stuff you can do in-game is cooler than the stuff you’re shown doing in cut-scenes. The first time I slid down a banister, shot a sign that fell on a mook’s head, blew up a second mook by taking out the barrel of propane he was slightly foolishly hiding behind, then dove onto a wheelie-trolley and rolled across a courtyard shooting two more mooks in the face I’d pretty much had enough fun for the fiver the game set me back. And the massively over-the-top spinny-around-with-doves-flying-up-everywhere special move made me laugh every single time I did it. For that, I’m willing to forgive semi-frequent moments of frustration brought on by the lack of a Left 4 Dead-style “Spin 180 Degrees” button and insufficient information as to the location of the THOUSANDS OF ENEMIES currently shooting your wanger off.

Stranglehold is rubbish. But it’s extravagant, operatic, cheerfully stupid, generally good fun rubbish. It’s rubbish with the courage to be rubbish as loudly and forcefully as it can. Much like Face/Off, actually.

Russell T. Davis Presents Russell T. Davis’ Doctor Who Easter Special By Russell T. Davis (Alright, you can stop now – Ed) (Telly)

It was alright, wasn’t it? The Lara Croft wannabe pseudo-assistant was good fun, the visual of a London bus crashed in the middle of a desert wilderness was cool to the point that you strongly suspect that RTD started with that image and worked back to find a story that semi-justified it, I liked that the ugly menacing-looking aliens actually turned out to be innocent bystanders and the story rollocked along at a decent old pace even if it didn’t make a lot of sense and fell apart a bit in the final third. No change there, then. So not a boundary, but a controlled single that keeps the scoreboard ticking over. Still looking forward to seeing what Who will turn into in fresh hands, mind.

Nobody Presents Nobody’s Empire: Total War By Nobody (You’re fired – Ed) (PC)

Medieval: Total War is one of my favourite games ever, I’ve read every Sharpe book ever written (they are, after all, Mills And Boon for boys), and there’s nothing I like more in movies than some buckles being suitably swashed. So why oh why oh why hasn’t this game clicked with me? Am I just a bit Total Warred out? The real-time battles have a very different feel to Rome or either of the Medievals. Those games depended on you winning the scissors-paper-stone-lizard-Spock matchups (archers beat everything at range, everything beats archers up close, spears beat cavalry, cavalry beats swords, swords beat spears) and making practical use of flank and rear attacks on already-engaged units. Outflanking remains important in Empire, but its battles seem to primarily hinge on your ability to concentrate fire. Almost everyone’s got guns, so all things being equal what you’re trying to do is get two of your units shooting at one of the enemy’s. If you can do that, the opposition will rout before you and your freed-up soldiers can then start shooting at the next enemy unit, continuing a virtuous circle that will eventually see you “rolling up” the other fellow’s battle-line. It’s a different tactical challenge, and an interesting one, but for some reason the whole package isn’t quite grabbing me.
 
There are lots of little problems with it, but nothing I can see as being The Sticking Point. The naval battles are fiddly but easily-skipped. The battlefields seem a lot more varied than they used to be, with buildings that you can garrison, but occupied buildings are such easy prey for enemy artillery that they’re not remotely worth the bother 90% of the time. In the strategic layer, I don’t feel like I’m getting enough feedback on the socio-economic situation in my territories making it hard to determine which cities are performing well and which are on the brink of anarchy, although this may simply be down to not yet having spent enough time learning the nuances of the game.

Can’t put my finger on it. All I know is that this weekend I spent nine hours fiddling with a game I’ve had for six months and three quid’s worth of tower defence shenanigans rather than bestriding the nations of the Earth like a colossus. That can’t be right, can it?

Werner Herzog Presents Werner He… (*gunshot*) Grizzly Man (DVD)
 
Grizzly Man is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent 13 summers living among bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear.

(Much as with Steve “Man Who Teases Dangerous Animals For A Living Killed By Dangerous Animal He Was Teasing” Irwin it’s such a horribly predictable fate I’m not even sure that it counts as ironic.)

It’s fascinating stuff with some beautiful footage of the Alaskan wilderness in general and bears in particular. The opening scene, with Treadwell talking the camera, describing himself as a “gentle warrior” who’s “earned the trust” of the bears and will never be hurt by them leads you to think that he’s going to be portrayed as an absolutely colossal tool. In fact the film gives a much more nuanced, interesting picture of a divisive, remarkable, quixotic and thoroughly tragic figure.

A few of the interviews seem weirdly forced, even staged – every time the guy who did the autopsy on what was left of Timothy Treadwell’s body is on camera for instance, or the scene where Herzog listens to the audio recording of Treadwell’s last moments. But that aside, it’s a terrific film that I’d thoroughly recommend.

,

While laid up with a dodgy leg a couple of weeks ago I found myself strangely compelled to catch up with the last couple of series of Hustle that I missed, in the same way that when you’ve got a broken tooth throbbing in your gum you feel strangely compelled to poke your tongue at it.

Somehow in the eighteen months or so since I last watched it I forgot how much more-or-less everything in Hustle gets on my pecs. All of the individual missteps it makes could be forgiven, but they come together to create something fundamentally disagreeable. In the rather spiffing recent Screenwipe special on writing for television, Hustle’s creator Tony Jordan said that when writing the scripts for the series he’d start with a premise but have no idea how it would end. Instead, he’d just follow the story until something suggested itself.

Frankly, this explains a lot.

Too often, Hustle plays – I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry – a con game, talking fast to try and rush you past a plot point or story conclusion that seems to superficially make sense but falls apart if subjected to the slightest scrutiny. It’s also painfully formulaic – every week, about two thirds of the way through it seems that everything’s gone wrong for the team but by the end it’s revealed that the trap they were seemingly caught in was just part of a wider con and, aha, actually they were in control the whole time. House gets away with repeating the same basic episode structure over and over again largely because its antihero central character is unusual, engaging and well-written. Hustle doesn’t because its antihero central characters are either cataclysmically dull or brain-detonatingly irritating. Even the more likable personalities (that’d be Ash, a combination of the Faceman out of the A-Team and a bulldog licking a nettle) are forced to transport levels of weapons-grade smugness far in excess of government-mandated safety guidelines. It desperately, desperately wants to be Ocean’s Eleven but succeeds only in being Ocean’s Twelve. Damningly, the characters look to be having a far better time than the audience ever will.

Top tip! If you’re writing a series about a group of con artists, whatever you do don’t rip off The Sting which is, y’know. Only the most famous movie about con artists ever made. And really, really, don’t do it twice. And when you’re having one character explain the con to another, really really really don’t have them say “you know, like The Sting.” Because that’s not funny, it’s not clever, it makes no sense. If you acknowledge that The Sting exists in your setting, then apparently your con artists are banking their life, wealth and liberty on the fact that their mark and anybody he happens to talk to haven’t ever seen a film that won SEVEN FLIPPIN’ OSCARS. More than that, it’s probably not a great idea to remind your viewers that they’ve seen this story done before with better writing, better acting, better directing, better costumes and better music. In The Sting, for instance. And to anyone who considers watching that episode like I did, thinking to yourself all the way through actually, this is really clever, they’re following the plot of The Sting almost line-for-line in order to spring a massive unexpected twist at the end that works because I think I’m familiar with the story” – don’t bother. Because they’ve followed the plot of The Sting almost line-for-line in order to spring a massive unexpected twist that’s exactly the same as the end of The Sting.

Grrrrr.

Top tip! If you’re writing an episode that focuses on poker and you don’t know anything about poker, why not try not writing an episode about poker? Otherwise, you just end up in a situation where Evil Max Beesley flat calls a pre-flop raise heads-up with pocket kings (perfectly reasonable in itself, of course), calls again after the board comes down ace-high and he’s facing a pot-sized bet (um…), calls another big bet after a blank on fourth street (eh?), then flukes into one of his – count ‘em – TWO outs, catching trips on the river to beat the raiser’s top two-pair. Which would be bad enough, but then he’s got the nerve to smirk “Call me sometime and I’ll teach you how to play poker!” as he scoops a pot that he’d have lost 23 times out of 24 after the call on the turn.

Top tip! If you’re a team of high-class con artists who repeatedly bang on about how you only ever take money from people who deserve it, why not try not constantly conning the poor Scouse sap who runs the bar you always meet at? Not only does this make you look like a bunch of complete hypocrites and remove any last lingering traces of sympathy I might have had for you, but it’s also spectacularly unwise to systematically antagonise someone who’s seen and heard the planning of about 75% of every criminal act you’ve ever committed, you enormous idiots.

Wow. 800 words on the hatefulness of Hustle and I haven’t even had to mention Marc Warren and his stupid squinty smirky Mockney hamster fizzog.

Next week in Blue Man’s Timely Telly Reviews Of Large, Slow Moving Targets we’ll be covering Day 6 of 24 in a feature entitled I Feel Like I’m Taking Crazy Pills or: I Know What Jack Bauer’s Dad Looks Like And You, Sir, Are Not Jack Bauer’s Dad.

,

Good news, everybody! Being Human has been picked up for a second series! Being Human is the only home-grown telly I’ve bothered setting the Sky Plus for (alright  other than TV Burp and, um, Total Wipeout – alright, alright, it’s not something I’m proud of) and by and large I’m still enjoying it very much. There are a couple of nits of differing sizes to pick, mind.

George remains the cast’s Achilles heel. Every other performance in the series is so easy and natural his peculiarly mannered nerdiness is really starting to grate. Playing a geeky character who’s socially awkward while remaining sympathetic and not descending into sneering caricature is obviously difficult, but I’m currently watching the first series of the thoroughly enjoyable Big Bang Theory which pulls the trick off (with admittedly varying degrees of success) four times. So, y’know.

My main gripe is with the series’ treatment of women, however. In episode 4, the only recurring female character who wasn’t almost wholly defined by their relationship with a man – Annie’s obsession with Owen, Lauren’s with Mitchell – was clobbered with the “if you’re a strong, intelligent, independant woman then you must have been damaged by your past” stick.

Grrrr.

Come on, Being Human. You’re well-written, mostly well-acted and more intelligent than 95% of the drama we’re subjected to on British TV. You don’t need to be indulging in such an overdone and frankly offensive cliché. You’re better than this.

,

The Living God-King Of Genre Television is back! Huzzah! Three series created to date, all three stone classics (for four seasons, two seasons and until its vastly premature cancellation respectively).

You know what to expect from Joss Whedon (for it is he) – women kicking ass, wisecrackery, appealing characters, rollercoaster writing that subverts tropes to entertaining effect and the slight uncomfortable sense that he’s trying to have his cake and eat it regarding the whole feminism thing. It’s a bit of a surprise then that the first episode of Dollhouse only hits the last of those bullet-points.

The titular Dollhouse is one of these Top Secret Quasi-Governmental Agencies Far, Far More Secret Than The CIA that are so popular these days. Its agents are assorted ne’er-do-wells who’ve had their memories erased with mind-rubbers. When they are called upon to undertake a task, the agent has a new persona downloaded into their brain with a suitable personality and skillset for the job at hand, before being returned to a tablua rasa state to await the next mission. Our protagonist is Echo, a ne’er-do-well who’s had her memory erased with… you get the idea.

Dollhouse is a conscious move away from the comedy-drama that Joss Whedon is best known for, and some people will take against it simply because it’s not what they were expecting. Which is a shame and somewhat unfair because there are plenty of more legitimate gripes to choose from. The most fundamental issue is that there’s not a single engaging character in the whole of the first episode. Echo, by dint of the programme’s central conceit, is a cipher – you can sympathise with her situation, but not directly with her. The supporting cast meanwhile is made up entirely of stereotypes. You’ve got Echo’s handler, who’s not sure that the ends of the Dollhouse justifies its means. You’ve got Helo out of Battlestar Galactica, who’s the Rogue Cop convinced that the Dollhouse is real despite everyone telling him it’s just a conspiracy. You’ve got the geek who created and maintains the mind-rubber technology who’s more than a bit emotionally detached and inhuman There’s nobody who appears to be anything other than a cog turning to keep the plot moving forward.

From Buffy through Serenity, you might have been able to say that Joss Whedon’s writing is a bit smug, you’ve been able to say that perhaps all his dialogue sort’ve sounds the same no matter which character’s saying it, you’ve been able to say that he often goes for the cheap funny over actual character development. Before now, you’ve never been able to say that he’s predictable. His usual MO is allowing you to make yourself comfortable in familiar surroundings before suddenly kicking the bed over (see: the evil ventriloquist dummy in Buffy, the end of the deeply funny Angel-turns-PC episode, Mal negotiating with the crimelord’s agent in The Train Job, the end of Dr. Horrible). Nothing of the sort happens here. The story ambles from A to B to C without the slightest deviation from its expected path, with the notable exception that Echo’s first persona isn’t a deadly assassin or elite soldier but rather a bookish hostage-negotiator with asthma.

I don’t mean to sound too down on Dollhouse. It’s early days of course, and the episode was passably entertaining in a sub-La Femme Nikita sort’ve way, certainly enough that I’m interested to see where Whedon’s going with it. It’s still possible that this is a massive headfake, that it’s not going to just plod through Echo discovering that she’s not who she thought she was and escaping the Dollhouse with the help of Helo and her handler at all, and that there’s a far more interesting and less overdone story waiting for us down the line.

I’m not sure if I’ll be more surprised if there is or there isn’t.

While you’re waiting for Dollhouse to become any good, you’d be well advised to have a look at Being Human, a new series on BBC3 that doesn’t so much nod in Joss Whedon’s direction as bellow at him across a crowded room waving its arms in the air. Its central premise is easily summed up – a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house in Bristol, each of them trying to engage with but protect themselves from the general mass of humanity. If the first series of Angel had been about 50% grimier and 500% more British, it would have looked something like this.

For all the justifiable cynicism that this is some sort of focus-group box-ticker, Being Human is actually terrific fun. It’s a bit rough around the edges but it’s funny, it’s tense, it’s well-written and it’s convincingly dark in places. My only serious reservation is George, the werewolf. Obviously the idea was to make him slightly geeky and socially inadequate to throw the bestial nature of his transformation into relief, but it doesn’t quite work. The nerdiness is just writ a touch too large, and the actor goes to the shrill-and-squeaky well a little too often. It’s particularly noticeable because the other two leads both give very strong, assured performances.

Being Human pretty much manages to do what Torchwood’s been failing at for the last two years – tell contemporary fantasy-horror stories for grownups, and the first four episodes are all available for viewing on the iPlayer. If you like Joss Whedon, I’d wholeheartedly recommend you give it a try.

Which is sadly more than I can say for Joss Whedon’s new series.

,

For your subscription fee this weekend, at halftime during the impossibly dreary Manchester City-Middlesborough game, deadlocked at that point at 0-0:

Richard Keys: “What do City need to do to come away from this game with a win?”
David Platt: “Score.”

Top, top work. Almost Billy-The-Fishian (“At the end of the day, it’s the team with most goals that’ll win the match”) in its jaw-dropping blandness. Even at a time when the BBC are giving Alan Shearer regular work and Andy Townsend is still inexplicably cashing ITV’s paycheques, Sky really are pushing the envelope in terms of “experts” who refuse to say anything about anything. Even taking Platt aside, there’s Jamie “Literally” Redknapp, Ray “Shouldn’t You Be Paying More Attention To Your Day Job?” Wilkins, Glenn “Triffic” Hoddle, Graham Souness, Peter Reid, George Graham, Alan Smith – crikey, that’s just a murderer’s row. Or it would be if boredom could kill.

In some cases, the lack of anything meaningful to say seems to be a matter of simple incompetence (Mark Lawrenson, David Pleat take a bow). However, more often and more insidiously there seems to be a reluctance to criticise either the expert’s mates in the game (Jamie Redknapp’s the best choice to commentate on a game featuring a team he used to play for that his dad manages? Really?) or anyone who might conceivably offer them a job in the future (hello, Sam Allardyce!). It’s only when you’re listening to someone who seems to view offering genuine insight and honest criticism as his responsibility that it’s possible to fully appreciate the sorry state of football punditry. It’s difficult to imagine any Sky mouthpiece emphatically declaring that anyone who paid to see the game they’re watching deserves a refund, as the ever-excellent Brian Moore did during the England rugby team’s turgid win over Italy.

That City-Boro game also contained several examples of the two most irritating verbal tics indulged in by football commentators. Question – what happens more often, someone scoring a goal or a talking-head squealing “He should have scored!” It’s the latter and it’s not even close, right? Similarly, compare the number of goals to the number of “Great save!” exclamations. Again, there are apparently more fantastic saves than converted chances.

Here’s the point: if a player “should” score a chance, doesn’t that heavily imply that he should be converting more of those opportunities than he misses? If a save is “great” or similar, doesn’t that imply that it’s not one you’d expect the keeper to make, and so you’d expect to have more goals than terrific saves? But we don’t, in either case because the “fantastic chance!” and “wonderful save!” descriptions are thrown about like handfuls of confetti and are now completely devalued. The former gets attached to any relatively free header in the box or any reasonably clean strike of the ball in the penalty area. The latter is used to greet any save where the goalie has to leave his feet, or any stop of a shot inside the six-yard box even if the ball’s blasted straight at the keeper and he’d have to actively jump out of the way to avoid it (come to think of it, Paul Robinson’s given that technique a go during recent England games). It’s mindless, thoughtless hype and in any sensible world there’d currently be a course of aversion therapy going on featuring every commentator ever, replays of Liverpool’s European campaigns of a few years ago and a car battery attached to assorted dangly bits.

Actually, listening to Jonathan Pearce’s demented squealing any time the ball goes anywhere near either penalty area, it’s possible that course has already started.

,

So, why did nobody tell me that Doctor Who got good again pretty much the moment I stopped watching it?

I bailed about halfway through Season 3, after the shambolic, eye-popping awfulness of the Daleks In Manhattan two-parter. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more a meandering away – if they couldn’t be arsed to make up a better monster than this, I couldn’t be arsed to find the time to watch it.

This weekend I was feeling a teensy bit fragile following a prolonged encounter with Wollabang Australian Chardonnay (“this is not a wine for drinking. This is a wine for laying down and avoiding”) at our works Christmas do on Friday night. With my FunSquare currently on holiday in Frankfurt my only option was some undemanding telly. My shabbiness regarding Doctor Who had been nagging away at my Nerd Conscience for some time, so it got the nod.

Eight episodes. Not a duff one amongst them. Why was I not informed of this miracle?

My run started with The Lazarus Experiment and Cindy-from-Eastenders-falling-into-the-Sun-fest, 42. They probably represented the weakest episodes of the bunch but were perfectly fun and watchable, and following Mister Squidhead and the ridiculous Daleks story they felt like stumbling onto two undiscovered episodes of Firefly. Then on to a cracking two-parter set in a British boarding school in 1913, which largely revolved around a belting performance from the always-excellent Jessica Hynes (née Stephenson), best nerd-known as Daisy from Spaced. The story wasn’t completely watertight and lost its way a bit in the third quarter, but generally it used the time that the extra episode gave it really well and allowed tension to slowly build in classic Who fashion.

(One of the biggest problems with New Who, particularly in its first couple of seasons, is that too many of its single-episode stories seem to be uncomfortable with its running-length – plotlines amble along pleasingly enough, then suddenly seem to realise it only have fifteen minutes to resolve everything and turn either into a confused mess or an unsatisfying deus ex machina.)

Everyone who’d seen it recommended Blink in “if you watch nothing else of the third season, watch that” terms, so I was absolutely delighted that it completely lived up to its billing. Funny, inventive, unnerving (see: the Doctor’s videotaped monologue – “Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good luck!”) and featuring a classic Doctor Who brain-trumps-brawn resolution, it’s everything that Who seemed to me when I was ten years old. Steven Moffat has conclusively proved that he understands what makes Doctor Who tick, that he understands what makes the character and the series special, that he can produce one gem of a story per series (see: The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace). I don’t know if that means that he’ll be able to handle the head writer/executive producer role he’s inheriting from Russell T. Davies in Season 5, but I certainly can’t think of anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Boss Sweden” that I’d rather see have a crack at it.

Season 3 finishes with a traditional RTD mega-enemy world-threatening three-parter. And, unlike pretty much every other RTD mega-enemy world-threatening three-parter, it’s not terrible. John Simm left me slightly cold as The Master, it’s a faintly uncomfortable reminder of how vastly superior the Steven Moffat-scripted Captain Jack is to anyone else’s take on the character and the resolution was a teeny bit cringe-inducing but on the whole it was a perfectly good story told perfectly well.

This may sound like faint praise. It IS faint praise. But it’s enough to have me looking forward to watching Season 4 with a renewed sense of optimism even though Caroline Tate is prominently involved. I mean, she was really good in the act-y bits of Big Train before she became someone who bellowed catchphrases for coins, right? She might be perfectly acceptable in this, right? Right? Right?

More news as it comes in.

,

The first series of Heroes was great. Unashamed four-colour schlock, it got away with some iffy plotting and dodgy performances thanks to its interesting if not massively-original plot (Ozymandias called. Yeah, he wants his evil scheme back), its enthusiasm and its general charm. Even the Episode Set In The Future didn’t suck, which might be a TV sci-fi first.

The second series wasn’t great. Just like Spider-Man 3, it took a whole bunch of workable ideas then smashed them into each other at high speed. As a result there are a few fragments of story and memorable scenes (usually involving Hiro, still easily the best and most likeable character in the series) lying intact about the place but they’re largely lost in the mess and carnage.

Heroes season 2 spoilers incoming.

There were plenty of other missteps. Horn-Rimmed Glasses Guy was much more interesting when we knew much less about him. The stuntcasting, which actually worked really well and was enormous fun in the first season (wahey, it’s the guy who drove the Enterprise! Wahey, it’s Doctor Who! Wahey, it’s The Master! Wahay, it’s the bloke who killed Captain Kirk!) was toned down to wheeling out Nichelle Nichols (wahey! It’s the lady who used to answer the space-phone for the white guy!) and then giving her nothing to do. We needed more of Monica and her ace muscle-mimicry power and more of Matt Partman, whose gradual corruption by his powers was one of the few really interesting character arcs on show. 

Matters weren’t helped by the fact that 90% of the characters appeared to be suffering mild concussion or else had just gotten a new prescription of Stupid Pills. Peter “Sodding” Petrelli was of course the worst offender, displaying quite literally world-threatening levels of gullibility (“I don’t care if literally every person we’ve encountered has told me that this bloke’s a wrong ‘un, he’s my friend so I’m going to hand him the Doomsday Virus rather than, say, destroying it myself or even just standing outside this incredibly secure vault door for the rest of the day and making sure nobody touches it”) and you have to question the wisdom of building so much of the second series around both him and Dr. Suresh, comfortably the worst actors in the cast.

Even accepting that hand-waving explanations storyline contrivances are a staple of the source material Heroes is emulating, there were just too many things that made no sense and even full-blown Idiot Plots (a term coined by Roger Ebert to describe storylines that would be instantly resolved if everyone involved would stop acting like a complete idiot) kicking around Season 2. Why DID the company hang on to the virus that could kill everyone on the planet? If shooting a regenerator through the head kills them, why did a small infusion of Clare’s blood bring her dad back to life after he was, er, shot in the head? If they knew how to kill a regenerator, why didn’t they kill Adam the first time he attempted to commit genocide? Why did they put Peter in the cell next to him, allowing Adam free rein to drip poison in the dopy sod’s ear? Aaaaaagh!

It’s possible the pacing and plotting of the series was adversely affected by the writer’s strike. With the third season just starting in the States that’ll probably become clear one way or the other soon. But the signs are at the moment that Heroes might be going the way of the X-Files – a brilliant core concept, but one with finite milage that ended up being stretched far beyond the point that anyone other than rabid fans were remotely interested.

,