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Television

ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

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ALIAS – ‘Second Double’ (2×21 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Though not officially classed as a two-part season finale for Alias, Second Double originally aired on the same night as The Telling, which gives the structure of this episode very much the feeling of a story that is inextricably linked.

Second Double operates on multiple fronts, as both the beginning of a season finale tying together numerous threads which have unfurled across the latter half of Season Two, and as a direct sequel of sorts to Double Agent, which introduced the central idea of Project Helix and the doubling technology. Crystal Nix Hines’ teleplay, from a story by Breen Frazier (though it is likely this was heavily or at least partially re-written by J.J. Abrams in advance of the finale), reasserts the significance of this plot strand by finally starting to pay off the Evil Francie storyline that has been nicely cooking since the end of Phase One. It is satisfying for the audience to see Syd and the main characters around her starting to catch up with us, given we have been a step ahead and aware of Francie’s death and Will being compromised for the last third of the season.

In that sense, Second Double feels more like the beginning of a boulder running downhill which the last couple of episodes have been steadily pushing back up the hill following the climactic point of Truth Takes Time. Endgame and Countdown were both transitory episodes in which our principle villains didn’t make significant strides in their master plan and which focuses more on character or theme – the duality of Elsa and Neil Caplan, or Dixon and Sloane’s voyages of post-traumatic discovery. Second Double from the very beginning kicks over some dominoes, having the CIA close in on the mole who has influenced events in A Dark Turn and Endgame, which dovetails with Irina and Sark, in particular, having to compromise, gamble and adapt to stay one step ahead of Sydney and her colleagues.

Consequently, Second Double feels too inextricably linked with the episode to come to feel entirely functional as an episode of its own, but it threads numerous character beats and ongoing plots to quite fast-paced, thrilling effect. Much like Truth Takes Time, it once again personalises all of the espionage scheming and threats to national security to make for a story that resonates for our protagonist.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06 – Series Retrospective #6)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the sixth and final episode of the first series, The Return of the Speckled Band, which first aired on February 8th, 1990…

As befits the traditional sitcom format, particularly the British sitcom format, the final Series 1 episode of One Foot in the Grave comes with no great moment of cathartic realisation for Victor Meldrew. Life goes on.

Whether the series would go on at this point was an open question. Critics remained divided, as they had been all series, about whether One Foot would become a classic or be consigned to the far more cluttered wrecking yard of failed British sitcoms. This being the era before online discourse, it was down to the print newspaper and their in-house critics to gauge the pulse of comedy, and while papers such as the Daily Mirror, the now-defunct Today or the Daily Express were favourable come the end of Series 1, others such as the Independent or the Daily Telegraph were quite the opposite. Christopher Tookey in the latter remarked that he felt the series offered “in general, a distorted and depressingly old-fashioned view of old age”.

The irony is that The Return of the Speckled Band might actually be the funniest half hour of the series so far. While by no means vintage One Foot, it certainly feels like David Renwick manages to latch here onto several strong comedic threads and take them to some satisfying conclusions, in a manner the previous five scripts never quite managed to do. Two that stand out in particular are the recurring problem of the hat palmed off on Victor that he tries to rid himself of but keeps coming back to him, and Mrs Warboys with her chronic sickness which intertwines with what otherwise would have been an enormously random narrative of an escaped python quite brilliantly. We haven’t quite seen Renwick weave his plots this skilfully yet in One Foot, and it displays what the series is capable of.

The Return of the Speckled Band also, in a relatively quiet fashion, dovetails with the opening episode of the series in suggesting Victor is trapped in an existential spiral he can never quite escape.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Eternal Quadrangle’ (1×05 – Series Retrospective #5)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the fifth episode of the first series, The Eternal Quadrangle, which first aired on February 1st, 1990…

Sex, and particularly sexual frustration, have always been key factors to One Foot in the Grave, and they get their first airing in The Eternal Quadrangle.

Thus far in the series, David Renwick has downplayed the side of Victor and Margaret that serves as a romantic pairing. We know they have been married for decades and are middle-aged and content in their domesticity. We don’t yet know they lost a child when young but we have assumed they are childless, given there is no mention, let alone visibility, of any offspring. What we don’t really know is how they engage with one another on a sexual or romantic level, and The Eternal Quadrangle poses a question that numerous future series of One Foot will regularly grapple with – do Victor and Margaret still engage with each other in a sexual manner? The answer, in short, is no. Or if they do, it is very seldom.

What becomes clear in The Eternal Quadrangle, too, is that Margaret has a much bigger issue where this is concerned than Victor himself does. Renwick doesn’t yet quite position her as deeply sexually frustrated, which becomes apparent in later series, but there is a disquiet where Margaret is concerned about how Victor deals with any woman she considers a threat, sexually, to her position as his wife. She never meets Doreen, the stately, middle-aged but slightly voluptuous nude model Victor paints at an art class, but especially early on in the episode she is especially jealous of her. “Did you have to draw her breasts in quite this much detail?” she asks, Annette Crosbie chewing the word ‘breasts’ around her mouth before spitting it out with a bitter distaste.

In the end, however, Renwick is keen with The Eternal Quadrangle to suggest, in their own different ways, Victor and Margaret have become as sexually anaemic, and as sexually oblivious, as each other.

Don’t Mention the Comedy: FAWLTY TOWERS and Reactionary Cultural Politics

Whether ten years old or close to a hundred, we have all seen Fawlty Towers at some point in our lives. We have either binge watched the series, casually caught it on a satellite channel or streaming service, or even seen clips on one of the many comedy panel or discussion shows over the years with talking heads discussing the brilliance of John Cleese’s monstrous creation Basil Fawlty.

What, though, is Fawlty Towers really *about*? What are all our comedies *about*, whether in the UK with a long-standing tradition of legendary comedic creations or the US with their penchant for long-running, familiar series? Every drama is about something and comedy is no different. The jokes are born from an idea or theme or societal construct the writer is looking to explore. One Foot in the Grave, which I’m currently examining episode by episode, sees David Renwick unpicking the listlessness of the working man at the tail end of Thatcherite neoliberalism after Victor Meldrew is displaced by a heartless corporate system. Only Fools and Horses was a fantasy of working class meritocracy, of Derek, and in a different way Rodney, Trotter overcoming their background of poverty and struggle to try and prove their worth within an elitist class system where the deck is stacked against them.

Following the surge of protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a swift trickle-down effect in terms of racial politics which has proven, this week, to be on some level ‘knee-jerk’. Britbox and BBC iPlayer started by removing the 2000’s Matt Lucas & David Walliams’ series Little Britain, which was always festooned with sketches that were politically incorrect even back then, citing that “times have changed”, while Netflix subsequently pulled The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh as both display characters who engage in what would be termed ‘blackface’. Catch up service UKTV subsequently removed the well-known Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, featuring Basil’s infamous line “Don’t mention the war!”, due to the overt racism displayed by the character, and the use of racial slurs by an ageing colonial character. This has been questioned by some who feel the reactionary cultural politics of the moment has gone too far.

I’m wondering the same. I understand some of these examples. The Germans, however, is an example in which context is missing, and with comedy, context is king.

ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st. …

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03 – Series Retrospective #3)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the third episode of the first series, The Valley of Fear, which first aired on January 18, 1990…

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

ALIAS – ‘Endgame’ (2×19 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

You might not think it, but ‘Endgame’ is a surprisingly common episode title in genre fiction, and not just for the final episodes of seasons or even series.

Star Trek: Voyager memorably uses ‘Endgame’ as the title of its series finale, of course, and Highlander manages to squeeze a film subtitle out of it (although we know that story never really ends…), as recently has the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its epic Avengers finale. Numerous films, however, share the title, and Alias is by no means is the first series to deploy it. The seventeenth episode of The X-Files Season Two has the title End Game, and it crops up in shows as varied as Kyle XY, the BBC’s Holby City, The Equaliser, Babylon-5, Law and Order: SVU, Stargate SG-1 and on and on and on. It suggests finality and is described, frequently, as analogous to chess or games along similar lines. The endgame is the final stage of a game in which few of the cards remain.

That feels fairly appropriate to Alias at this stage because as we enter the last few episodes of Season Two, particularly after the shattering events of Truth Takes Time, a sense of tragic finality is falling across the series. Emily is dead and Sloane, consequently, has suffered a powerful loss at the very point he was on a high – he had facilitated Irina’s escape, he was assembling Rambaldi’s work, and Emily was even prepared to forgive him his trespasses out of her love for him. Her death sends him down a path of no return. Sydney, at the same time, has lost another mother in her life. Dixon has killed an innocent woman and is struggling to come to terms with his role in that. An ending feels in sight for these characters, even if Alias uses this point to pivot many of them again in a direction we didn’t, earlier in the season, see coming. Endgame also, along the way, manages to make a literal use of the title and weave it into the plot.

Endgame, while doing so, also manages to pick up and return to more of a stand-alone story thread that Alias didn’t necessarily need to focus on again, but serves as a key thematic point to explore that is resonating right now across the entire series: the security and fallibility of the American nuclear family.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02 – Series Retrospective #2)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue with the second episode of Series 1, The Big Sleep, which first aired on January 11, 1990…

The second episode of any new series is designed to build on the foundations of the pilot, to flesh out and contextualise the concept of the show beyond the initial set up, and The Big Sleep does just that for One Foot in the Grave.

Death stalks David Renwick’s show across the entire run. It’s inherent in the very title, let’s face it. Victor’s retirement is considered to be the beginning of a slow death, one foot literally in his own grave, waiting for the inevitable release. The great thing about Renwick’s show, in the end, is that there is no life-affirming message. Victor doesn’t find some cheesy reason to go on living and find a new lease of life. He adapts to his new circumstances but goes on grumbling about the state of the world until that car mows him down unceremoniously in the final ever episode, never reconciling his position in an uncaring, fast-paced, greedy, selfish world that is developing around him. Victor’s lot in life is to be perennially disappointed in it.

The Big Sleep has the freedom, relieved of having to establish the characters and set-up, to dive a little more into Victor’s existential position in relation to death. Alive and Buried, as a title, alluded to the same thing but that episode focused more heavily on Victor’s sense of loss, and of his position suddenly as a pensioner ‘on the scrap heap’. The Big Sleep introduces some key elements that Renwick will play with a great deal over the next six series – Victor’s hypochondria, his abject fear of death, and to contrast this his innate, under-recognised sensitivity and heart. Renwick uses, as a spine underpinning this episode, Victor’s relationship with nature, reflected in a robin in his garden which he cares for and has much more time for than any human he encounters in the story.

That’s why The Big Sleep is a stronger script, for me, than the pilot. It’s still not figured out the classic One Foot structure, but it is beginning to figure out that duality within Victor’s character.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01 – Series Retrospective #1)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

To begin, we look at the pilot episode of Series 1 where it all began, Alive and Buried, which first aired on January 4th, 1990…

There have been hundreds of successful situation comedies on British television in the last sixty years, but few of them have the nuance, grace and intelligence of One Foot in the Grave.

Devised by writer David Renwick, the series revolved around Victor Meldrew, a cantankerous Scot living somewhere in England’s Home Counties with his, as oft-quoted, ‘long-suffering’ wife Margaret. As played expertly by Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the Meldrew’s frequently found themselves in an array of unusual, eccentric and downright bizarre comic situations in otherwise dull 90’s British suburbia, as Renwick’s tightly constructed scripts saw Victor, thrown unceremoniously on the scrap heap after losing his job in opening episode Alive and Buried, face enforced retirement and his own mortality with growing frustration at society around him, which would frequently manifest in irascible rants that would include what became his catchphrase, and one of the signature comic lines in British comedy history: “I don’t *believe* it!”.

Alive and Buried establishes the concept in clear and concise fashion. Victor is retired by the company he has worked at for 26 years, finds himself listlessly wandering around the house while Margaret goes to work, facing constant reminders of his pensionable age everywhere he turns, and being irritated by the cruel happenstances of fate which conspire against him in everything from broken down cars to magic acts. Yet, as with most pilot episodes, particularly with comedies, the mixture isn’t yet refined. There is a broadness about Alive and Buried that later One Foot episodes swop for naturalistic eccentricity, playing on Wilson’s talent for silent or physical comedy. The essential formula is present and correct but the rhythm and cadence that makes Renwick’s series stand out hasn’t quite clicked yet.

That said, Alive and Buried is among the better first episodes of British comedy series. One Foot in the Grave already knows what it wants to be, even if it isn’t quite there yet.