The Leftovers, another gem from HBO.

the Leftovers.

the Leftovers.

HBO’s the Leftovers is a deceptively high concept series. On October 14th 2011, 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappear. Which doesn’t sound terribly catastrophic until you do the maths. In a village of 100 people living in 25 houses, two of those house will have suddenly lost someone, literally into thin air, never to see them again, without ever finding out how or why.

Understandably, the suburban town we find ourselves in, in upstate New York, has been utterly devastated, as has every other corner of the country. The Departure, as it’s referred to, is effectively a What If addressed to the Evangelicals.

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Father and daughter.

Evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture is imminent, by which they mean they expect it to occur within the decade. When it does, the chosen few will be spirited up to Heaven, and the rest of us will be left behind. The Leftovers asks us to imagine, what would that actually look like, in practical terms.

Except it doesn’t. Because it’s even worse than that, as no one can identify anything that might connect those who were spirited away – if that was what happened to them – any more than they can explain why they, the leftovers, were not. So nobody can be sure exactly what happened on that fateful day, and all too many characters have their own particular theory.

The result is a post-apocalyptic landscape where heightened religious fervour merges with unmanageable guilt and suspicion, so that everyone and everything, however apparently mundane, is viewed with unimaginable anxiety. Dogs have become feral, deer conversely wander in and out of houses. Messiahs materialise, cults are formed and everyone’s addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Smoking increases, and there’s a general sense of lawlessness. But more than anything else, families fall apart.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

The series revolves, just about, around the figure of Justin Theroux, the local cop whose marriage fell apart around the Departure, and whose father, who was the chief before him, is currently hospitalised in an institution. But as often as not, an episode will focus on a peripheral character. A pastor, a member of a cult, a woman who lost her husband and both her children, immediately after arguing with her youngest, all of whom are connected to Theroux in differing ways.

The Leftovers was aired on HBO and is effectively the follow up to Lost for Damon Lindelof. And whatever he might say publically, he clearly has leant many a lesson from that less than satisfying experience. The principle improvement is scope. This is a far more focused affair, homing in on a much smaller group of characters.

Lyv Tyler.

Lyv Tyler.

Ironically, what this allows for is a far more experimental approach to storytelling. The Leftovers is surprisingly fluid and nebulous, which only adds to its sense of eerie dread. None of us know what’s going to happen next any more than any of the characters do. There’s a particularly memorable dream sequence – almost impossible after David Lynch – where you only realise that what you’ve been watching is in fact a dream at exactly the same moment as the character does, as they wake up out of it in a panic. Which is staggering hard to pull off.

Apparently, season 2 and 3 are, if anything, even better. And, best of all, and he clearly did learn this from his Lost experience, there only a total of 3 series.

You can see the excellent trailer for the Leftovers here

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“Heimat”, the original box set.

Heimat.

Heimat.

Heimat, a Chronicle of Germany, comprising of 3 seasons and a prequel and made up of 32 individual films that last for more than 53 hours, is one of the most ambitious and brilliant series ever broadcast. Season 1 has eleven episodes that cover the years 1919 to 1982 and was first broadcast in 1984.

The whole saga centres on the Simon family in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsruck, in the heart of rural Germany. Specifically on Maria, and the two sons she has with Paul, and with Hermann, the son she later has with Otto. What Edgar Reitz, who writes and directs them all, does then is to concentrate on the things that matter most to all communities, big and small, rural and urban. Family life, love and loss, triumph and despair and on all those who leave the fold never to return, and on those who stay behind.

Maria.

Marita Breuer as Maria.

Each of the decades from the 20s to the 70s get about a couple of episodes each in season 1, so all of those defining events that Germany was subject to through the course of those years are seen through the prism of village life, where everybody knows everybody and practically everyone is related to one another in some shape or form.

So instead of being the fulcrum around which everything else pivots, the rise and fall of the Nazis is just one of the many backdrops against which village life proceeds. It’s not remotely surprising then when Lucie, Maria’s sister in law, cosies up to the Nazis in the 30s and early 40s, only to completely switch sides in the late 40s and 50s as she sidles up to the Americans, who effectively replace them in the wake of the second World War.

Season 2 of Heimat was made in 1992, and the 13 episodes cover the 60s.

Season 2 of Heimat was shown in 1992, and the 13 episodes cover the 60s.

There is nothing immoral about her denial. It’s entirely amoral. You do what you have to, to survive. The second world war, like the first before it, the great depression, the swinging 60s and the fall of the Berlin wall to come, all look very different when viewed from the purblind confines of village life, buried deep in the heart of nowhere.

What Reitz does so brilliantly is to make a succession of individual, stand-alone films that each focus on one or two  characters. So that the rhythm, pace and feel is not that of a succession of episodes, but of individual, 70-80 minute European art house films.

Season 3 of Heimat was screened in 2004 and covers post 1989 in 6 episodes.

Season 3 of Heimat was screened in 2004 and covers the post 1989 period in 6 episodes.

Every frame is carefully and precisely composed, and you’re deliberately given the time to take in its composition. Music is used but sparingly, and in its place tactile sounds resonate; film being loaded into a very early camera, the soles of worn, leather boots scrunching on a dirt track, the chopping of vegetables being readied for a soup. And all the while, Reitz slips in and out of the predominant black and white and into occasional bursts of colour, as his very personal aesthetic dictates.

History unfolds in the distant background as village life is brought to a standstill by the defining events that shape their lives; the laying down of the first tarmacadam road, the arrival of the very first telephone, the opening of that first industrial factory in the post war years, those gorgeous, curvaceous, open-top Mercedes’ that they manufactured so triumphantly in the 60s, and the erosion of their very specifically German, and rural German culture, that all that late 20th century progress destroyed so methodically as it made its way inexorably onwards.

The 2013 Heimat prequel covering the 1840s.

The 2013 Heimat prequel covering the 1840s.

Like Syberberg’s equally magisterial Hitler: A Film From Germany from 1977 (over 7 hours and in 4 parts) and the work of W. G. Sebald (specifically his almost unbearably moving novel Austerlitz), Heimat is a nuanced and measured exploration into how what happened in Germany could have happened there, and what it means therefore to be German. Like the people it deals with, it’s a serous work that demands to be seen.

Season 1 was screened over the summer on Sky Arts, so there’s every chance it’ll be repeated there. While the recent prequel Home from Home, which Reitz made in 2013 and which covers the 1840s, was  screened recently on BBC4, so keep an eye out for it there. All four hours of which are every bit as captivating as the very first episode of season 1, first broadcast over a quarter of century ago.

You can see the trailer to Home from Home here.

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Is this a golden age of TV ads?

Bank of Ireland's delightfully playful ad.

A singing lavatory seat. Delightful.

Say what you like about the Carlsberg wrong number ad here, or Guinness’ perennial Christmas ad here, but there are a plethora of TV ads currently doing the rounds that could give anything from the proud history of advertising a run for its money. And most of them have been made for our banks.

Where to begin. Well, for starters there’s that trio of stellar ads from AIB. In the first, we see a cosmopolitan hued mother with her child, as she gets given her new car by her, let’s call him partner – obviously they’re not married, they’re far too modern for that – although it was still up to him to organize the finance. But here’s the genius of the ad; they use actual footage.

Look at that, cosmopolitan or what!

Look at that, cosmopolitan or what.

Normally with an ad like that, you’d have to get a camera crew, a director and hire a couple of actors and the whole thing would look horribly staged. But this actually happened! The camerawork’s all over the place and it’s all horrendously shaky. Clearly, he took the footage himself, managing to capture her reaction almost by accident! It’s priceless. And here’s the amazing thing; it’s not the only footage that AIB got their hands on either.

There’s that second ad, with this mum – a normal one this time, you know, Irish – who gives her three kids the tree-house they’ve always dreamt of. And she manages to capture their reactions as well, on camera! It’s heart-warming, genuinely.

Fair play to you, Mick And Kate.

Fair play to you, Mick And Kate.

But the piece de resistance is their ad with that elderly couple explaining how they’ve finally managed to pay off their mortgage. The whole thing could have come across as unspeakably smug and been literally painful to watch, were it not for the fact that technically, it’s both brilliant and daringly innovative.

First, part of it is shot in glorious slo-mo. Which gives the ad that touch of class – and frankly, I’m very surprised that more ads don’t make use of this. And second, part if it uses actual home videos which were never meant for public viewing, but which the couple obviously gave AIB access to. You simply can’t fake that sort of footage, and it gives the ad an emotional depth that’s genuinely moving.

Look, a hipster! Well spotted KBC!

Look, a hipster! Well spotted KBC.

Not to be outdone, KBC have produced their own little gem. There’s this girl and her hipster boyfriend – you can tell he’s a hipster because he’s got a beard, and by the bye, I predict beards are going to come back in fashion – don’t’ laugh – any day now. And flares, and maybe even disco. Also, anything vintage. Mark my words, you heard it here first.

They’re dancing up and down in their living room, mindlessly celebrating the deal they’ve just been offered by their bank. Which, needless to say, would all be unimaginably tedious and frankly unwatchable, were if not for the brilliant, not to say daring innovation at the heart of the ad; it’s shot in glorious slo-mo.

A still worthy of the ads themselves.

A still worthy of the ads themselves.

And there’s more. What about Bank Of Ireland’s hilarious singing lavatory seat. Which is both brilliantly funny and clever. Because the music that they use is actually a subtle commentary on the ad’s message. “Don’t stop believing” they sing, which actually has a double meaning, when you think about it – and ditto cheesy, retro music loudly placed in a knowing po-mo manner in ads and TV series, that’s another one you can add to my list of predictions above.

The ghost of Christmas past.

The ghost of Christmas past.

Best of all though are those hilarious set of ads with those D4 lads, who sit chatting on that couch in those charming AIG ads. Imagine how proud those All Black players must have been to have had the chance to star in a TV spot with that pair of jokers.

And nor do we have a monopoly on those kinds of heart-warming if technically daring ads here in Ireland. Have you seen that wonderfully emotional set of ads all those renowned poets have done for Nationwide over in Britain? As we all know, financial institutions were probably the people most seriously affected by the downturn in 2008, so it’s really great to see so many established poets in Britain doing their bit to try and help them get back into profit again.

A suitably lofty use of his poetic gifts. Well done sir!

A suitably lofty use of his poetic gifts. Well done sir.

You can read my extensive analysis of each of those, and indeed all of the above, in my 734 page epamphlet which you can download (for free) here.

What an age to be alive.

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South Park S20 still relevant.

South Park Season 20.

South Park Season 20.

The Simpsons are in their 28th season, and the last time they were even remotely funny was around season 13 or 14. So for the last ten years they’ve been painting by numbers, and a once cutting edge show has rendered itself completely irrelevant. And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, have clearly been thinking about this very carefully.

At the moment we’re up to episode 5 of the current season (20) on Comedy Central and it’s clear that it’s become a noticeably different beast to the South Park of five or six years ago. The main difference being, that instead of having neat, individual episodes that exist in their own bubble, independently of any episodes that come before or after, there are now three main story arcs that link each of the episodes across the whole season.

The yawn Simpsons.

The yawn Simpsons.

Inevitably, the main story arc gives us their take on the seemingly unsatirizable election, with the girls and the boys at the school divided into two factions hell bent on mutual destruction. Then there’s the internet troll story, which gets increasingly interesting the more it unfolds. And finally, there’s the Member Berries dig at J.J. Abrams and co and the never-ending stream of nostalgia-fuelled tedium we’re being subjected to because of their reliance on pre-existing franchises instead of ever coming up with anything actually original.

Much more riskily, as ever, they are reacting in real time to the events of the week which then get incorporated into that week’s episode. So last week they had Mr. Garrison – as the Trump stand-in – spewing forth a torrent of anti-female bile at his crowd of supporters. But when then a number of women get up to leave in protest, he quite reasonably asks them, so that’s where you draw the line? It’s fine for me to say all that stuff about all Mexicans being rapists and all Muslims being terrorists, but as soon as I start insulting women, well that’s when I’ve crossed the line?

That was the week that was.

That was the week that was.

They are down to ten episodes a season now, so inevitably you’re occasionally going to get the sense that they are just trying to jam too much into each episode. But taken as a whole, this is easily the funniest and the most relevant commentary on what’s going on at the moment in the US anywhere on television. You can follow it on Friday nights at 10pm on Comedy Central. But if you can, you should really try and see it from the beginning of the season. In the meantime, here’s a taster of what the debate looked like.

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Transparent, yet another perfect US dramedy.

Transparent.

Transparent.

Transparent sounds for all the world like one of those punchlines from an early Simpsons episode, one of the ones when, God be with the days, they were still funny. A California family have to deal with the emotional havoc caused when the family patriarch comes out and decides to live out the autumn of his years as the woman he’s always known he really was.

Written, directed and mostly starring women, all it needed was to be set in a hippy commune at the Joshua Tree run by a latter day Janis Joplin figure, played of course by Holly Hunter, who takes under her wing the emotionally lost stray waif played by the blondie one from Girls.

transparent03

Jeffrey Tambor, right.

When the show’s creator and showrunner Jill Solloway gave an interview in the New Yorker with Ariel Levy here, and she mentioned her cameo as a gender studies professor in one of the episodes, she seemed to be discussing those kind of views with fervour rather than the hint of irony one might have been hoping for.

Happily, Transparent is nothing like that. It’s about a completely normal family, that is to say a gloriously dysfunctional one, who just happen to be financially comfortable and fantastically Jewish – it makes Curb Your Enthusiasm look positively preppy.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

The three grown up children are all apparently successful if secretly rudderless and quietly lost. So when their father decides to come out in episode one, yes that emotional turmoil is to some degree explained. But more to the point, it’s yet another complication that they all have to deal with.

What makes Transparent so good, and it really is very, very good indeed, is that like Girls and Louie before it, it is first and foremost a drama, out of which the comedy evolves.

With a sitcom, even ones as sophisticated as Curb Your Enthusiasm or the late great Larry Sanders Show, their primary, indeed their sole duty is to make you laugh. But a comedy drama has to involve you emotionally, so that the laughter that arises from the mess the characters make of their lives is tinged with sadness and recognition.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, those crazy Girls.

Of course you have to care about the characters in your sitcom for the jokes to have their full effect. But that’s not the same thing as being moved by them.

What makes Transparent so powerful is the forceful way that it engages you emotionally in the lives of its protagonists. So that by the time you get to the finale of season one, you’re left an emotional wreck after the carnage they wreak upon one another, in a way that only families can.

The genuinely great and now late Gary Shandling.

The genuinely great and now late Garry Shandling.

The writing, acting and production are almost painfully spot on, and the series glides confidently from the present day to the recent past and back again giving the whole family portrait an added poignancy.

If you were wondering what to do with your evenings, now that you’ve got through seasons one and two of Girls, look no further.

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