Apple TV’s ‘Severance’ is the real deal

Apple TV’s “Sev­er­ance”

Things have been qui­et of late, in this the much her­ald­ed gold­en age of tele­vi­sion. There has been plen­ty of per­fect­ly watch­able, emi­nent­ly ade­quate fod­der on offer from the var­i­ous stream­ing ser­vices and their ter­res­tri­al brethren. But very lit­tle to write home about. 

So it was with a slight sense of wari­ness that I sat down to watch Sev­er­ance, notwith­stand­ing all the noise it’s gen­er­at­ed. But for once, that hype was entire­ly jus­ti­fied. Hap­pi­ly, it’s the real deal.

It’s a high con­cept, Big Idea series. A nefar­i­ous and implic­it­ly evil tech cor­po­ra­tion has invent­ed a chip that allows you to sep­a­rate, sev­er, your work-you from your home-you. So as you work through the mind­less chores at the face­less office where you work, you’ve no idea what you do or who you are for the rest of the day when you’re at home. 

The same neck of the woods.

As you descend in the ele­va­tor at the end of the day, the chip kicks in, and you step out on to the ground floor as your home-you, or what they call your ‘out­ie’. And after you get back into the ele­va­tor as your out­ie the fol­low­ing morn­ing, you emerge on the ‘sev­er­ance’ floor as your ‘innie’. Com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous as what you might have got up to in between. 

Why would any­body want that? Well, Mark has recent­ly lost his wife in a car crash. And, he fig­ures, at least for 8 hours a day he’ll be spared the bot­tom­less grief he’s floored by dur­ing the oth­er 16.

It’s avowed­ly left of field and off kil­ter, and veers from the sur­re­al­ly mun­dane to men­ac­ing and back, often in the same scene. Think Char­lie Kauf­man meets David Lynch, where both have had their wings clipped to rein their flights of fan­cy in. Which is, respec­tive­ly, both good and bad. 

Every­thing about Sev­er­ance is impec­ca­bly craft­ed. The art direc­tion is pris­tine, the direct­ing, by Ben Stiller, is foot per­fect and the act­ing is excep­tion­al across the board. 

All the gang on the Sev­er­ance floor.

Adam Scott takes the lead as Mark, and is impres­sive­ly abet­ted by Britt Low­er, Zach Cher­ry, John Tur­tur­ro and, improb­a­bly, Christo­pher Walken, all of whom are out­stand­ing as his increas­ing­ly rebel­lious co-work­ers. But Patri­cia Arquette man­ages to some­how steal the show, as the near­est thing to a plau­si­ble and gen­uine­ly ter­ri­fy­ing real­i­sa­tion of the wicked witch of the West. 

And, rather than address­ing them head on, it sen­si­bly flirts around the philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that it rais­es about the self, pur­pose, mean­ing, work-life bal­ance and agency. Most impres­sive­ly of all, it builds momen­tum and rais­es the stakes con­tin­u­al­ly, thanks to the per­fect­ly met­ed out parcels of sto­ry. And the increas­ing­ly com­pelling cliff-hang­ers that each episode con­cludes with.

It might not quite be up there with series 1 of Twin Peaks, and I hope it does a bet­ter job than that show did of main­tain­ing its momen­tum into series 2. But it’s com­fort­ably the best show to grace our screens since Bojack pur­sued and fed his demons (reviewed ear­li­er by me here).

You can see the trail­er for Sev­er­ance here:

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Series 6 “Mad Men”, Drugs and a Rare High.

Twin Peaks' dream sequence.

Twin Peaks’ dream sequence.

In ret­ro­spect, the arrival of Twin Peaks onto our screens in 1990 changed every­thing. On the one hand it explod­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what a tele­vi­sion series could aim for and encom­pass. And on the oth­er, it marked the begin­ning of what would become a com­plete exo­dus of seri­ous, grown-up pop­ulist dra­ma from cin­e­ma onto television.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

The exquis­ite At The Height Of Summer.

You can still see seri­ous dra­ma in the cin­e­ma. Films from Atom Egoy­an, Asghar Farha­di reviewed ear­li­er here, Julio Medem, Jafar Panahi reviewed ear­li­er here, Lynne Ram­say, Tod Solondz, and Tran Anh Hung. And of course David Lynch. But they are very much the excep­tions. The vast major­i­ty of what is on offer these days at the cin­e­ma is aimed at teenage boys and pubes­cent girls.

Tele­vi­sion on the oth­er hand has pro­duced, to pick but four of a long, long list, The Sopra­nos, The Wire, Mad Men and Break­ing Bad. And it all began with Twin Peaks, which was the prece­dent, the blue­print, and the inspi­ra­tion for them all.

Of the many, many things that Twin Peaks did so effort­less­ly well, the one thing that most peo­ple prob­a­bly think of is dreams. Specif­i­cal­ly, the dream sequence that so mem­o­rably end­ed the sec­ond episode.

Lynch got his actors to mem­o­rize and say their lines back­wards, which he filmed, and then reversed in the edit­ing suite. Sim­i­lar­ly, he got them to per­form some of their actions – but cru­cial­ly not all of them – in the same way. It’s daz­zling­ly unset­tling, and you can see it again here.

Lynch has always had a sen­sa­tion­al han­dle on dreams. David Thomp­son astute­ly writes in his entry on Mul­hol­land Dr. that the Dr of the title refers not to Dri­ve but to dream here. It’s strik­ing how often dream crops up in the dia­logue. And his career began of course with the all too con­vinc­ing por­tray­al of a liv­ing night­mare in Eraser­head.

So intim­i­dat­ed was David Chase by Lynch and his facil­i­ty with dreams that he was ren­dered cre­ative­ly pet­ri­fied. Dreams are the one thing that The Sopra­nos failed to daz­zle on.

If Chase is the tele­vi­su­al son of Lynch, then Matthew Wein­er is his spir­i­tu­al grand­child. But Mad Men has most­ly avoid­ed dreams. What it’s done instead is to tack­le the one area that’s even more dif­fi­cult to get right than dreams; drugs.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

After all, at least in the­o­ry, anything’s pos­si­ble in dreams. But for any­one who’s ever tak­en opi­ates, amphet­a­mines or hal­lu­cino­gen­ics, there’s only ever one way that that looks or feels. And it’s cringe-induc­ing to watch when­ev­er any­one tries and gets it wrong.

Impres­sive­ly, on the few occa­sions that drugs have sur­faced in Mad Men, they’ve got it bril­liant­ly right. There was that brief scene in series 2 when Don had his – and the show’s – first joint. There’s was the just­ly cel­e­brat­ed scene in series 5 when Roger does LSD here.

And now in series 6, there’s a whole episode, 8 The Crash, when a Dr. Roberts type fig­ure gives Don and the rest on the cre­ative team a shot each of speed. I’ll not spoil any­thing by giv­ing any of it away, but it cap­tures per­fect­ly that mis­placed sense of cer­tain­ty that some drugs cause you to fix on oth­er­wise mean­ing­less ephemera. And it’s absolute­ly, and hor­ri­bly hilarious.

Series 6 is cur­rent­ly hid­den away in the depths of RTE2’s  Tues­day night sched­ule, like a for­mer hip­pies’ final acid tab buried deep in a secret draw.

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French Television Comes of Age with Beguiling “The Returned”.

The Returned.

The Returned.

One of the things that the French crit­ic Roland Barthes was refer­ring to in his Mytholo­gies (1957) was the assump­tion that going to the­atre was bet­ter for you than going to the cin­e­ma. And that best of all was read­ing a book. The myth being, that some things are nec­es­sar­i­ly bet­ter for you than others.

It was in France that Le Cahiers du Ciné­ma was launched as a reac­tion to that. And from there, the French New Wave of Truf­faut, Godard, Rohmer, Demy and Chabrol emerged.

Hotel Costes.

Hotel Costes.

Equal­ly, they refused to snig­ger at pop music.  From Serge Gains­bourg and Fran­coise Hardy to Daft Punk and Stéphane Pom­pougnac – and if you’ve yet to dis­cov­er the laid­back seduc­tive­ly louche lounge world of Hôtel Costes, then lucky you. It awaits. You can begin here with this video from Hôtel Costes 15.

But for what­ev­er rea­son, the French have always refused to look at tele­vi­sion oth­er than from a lofty, dis­dain­ful height. Iron­i­cal­ly, they’ve always viewed it in much the same way that the rest of the world used to regard cin­e­ma. So The Returned is a wel­come cor­rec­tive to an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic prejudice.

The series revolves around a school bus that has crashed over a cliff and the sto­ries that emerge as the dead chil­dren re-sur­face as if noth­ing had hap­pened. The rea­son that it all works so well is that every­thing is played absolute­ly straight.

It’s a mil­lion miles away from any of the hor­ror genre gore and blood fests that have slipped into vogue of late. What it’s clos­est to is prob­a­bly Break­ing Bad’s first two and best series’. But with­out any of the thriller ele­ments that came alas to dom­i­nate the latter’s lat­er episodes.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Like Break­ing Bad, it asks what would you do if your dead daugh­ter sud­den­ly turned up four years after her death? Real­ly. How would you react?

The oth­er obvi­ous touch­stone, as is invari­ably ref­er­enced, is Twin Peaks. Which isn’t ter­ri­bly fair, as unsur­pris­ing­ly it is in no way as visu­al­ly or as son­i­cal­ly dar­ing. But then again, what is?

That caveat aside, there is a sim­i­lar­ly eerie air to events here. And it real­ly is an impres­sive­ly cin­e­mat­ic piece of work.

The Returned.

The Returned.

That it’s not quite suf­fi­cient­ly Lynchi­an is hard­ly the most damn­ing thing you could hurl at a direc­tor. It’s com­fort­ably the best thing you’ll see on tele­vi­sion this year.

The Returned began on Chan­nel 4 last week­end. But don’t wor­ry if you missed the first episode. It won’t make you any the less wis­er about what’s going on. And you will regret it if you don’t start tun­ing in.

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HBO’s “Entourage” Ends on a High.

Entourage came to an end this year with its eighth and final series. The show revolves around up and com­ing Hol­ly­wood heart-throb Vince and his mot­ley crew. There’s his best friend and man­ag­er E, his less suc­cess­ful actor broth­er Dra­ma (played by Kevin Dil­lon, the less suc­cess­ful actor broth­er of Matt), his friend and gofer Tur­tle, and his agent Ari, and his wife, assis­tant and var­i­ous love interests.

It’s Mark Wahlberg’s baby, and all of the char­ac­ters are based unashamed­ly and far from loose­ly on his own real life cast of char­ac­ters. It could eas­i­ly have been insuf­fer­able, like watch­ing one of those nev­er-end­ing in-jokes that Sina­tra and his rat pack used to make in Las Vegas and release as a movie. As with drugs, fun to do, oh so tedious to watch.

But thanks to its clever plot­ting, gen­tle ban­ter and pitch-per­fect per­for­mances it man­aged instead to be irre­press­ibly effer­ves­cent. Basi­cal­ly 30 Rock for boys, it was impos­si­ble not to be charmed. Or at least it was for its first few series’.

Amer­i­can TV series are writ­ten in the spir­it of un-dilut­ed cap­i­tal­ism. Once a show has got beyond its pilot and grad­u­at­ed into its first and sec­ond series, its num­bers are relent­less­ly poured over. And the writ­ers are called back in and told which of their sto­ry­lines have and have not worked, and which ele­ments of the show need to be dialed up and which ones qui­et­ly shelved. 

So that fre­quent­ly, lat­er episodes in a series have been com­plete­ly re-imag­ined in response to how the audi­ence react­ed to the dif­fer­ent sto­ry­lines in the first few episodes. 

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this can some­times be dis­as­trous. Series 2 of Twin Peaks, and much of the lat­ter half of Lost being obvi­ous exam­ples. But here it has to be admit­ted the sys­tem has unde­ni­ably worked. 

What had been so endear­ing about the troupe ini­tial­ly was that, despite all the out­ward appear­ances of liv­ing the wet dream in an end­less reel of unin­hib­it­ed debauch­ery and unre­strained hedo­nism, all of their lives sucked. Every one of their rela­tion­ships was a com­plete disaster.

But by the time we get to series 5, and espe­cial­ly 6 and 7, they have each become so gar­ish­ly suc­cess­ful, that every­thing else about their lives has been drowned out. You’d have episodes in which one char­ac­ter gives the oth­er a Maserati, and then lat­er they race one anoth­er at the traf­fic lights.

Nobody minds see­ing suc­cess, in fact we love watch­ing pret­ty young things liv­ing the dream, so long as they are all pro­found­ly and vis­i­bly unhap­py. Thank­ful­ly, the home­work was done, and the writ­ers duly respond­ed. And accord­ing­ly, come series 8 absolute­ly every­thing is going wrong for each and every one of them, and in every con­ceiv­able way. It’s great.

There’s talk at the moment of a movie fol­low-up. Let’s hope they hur­ry up and script it. They’re back on a roll.

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Crazy Clown Time” – David Lynch + “Bad As Me” – Tom Waits

For those who regard him as the most impor­tant liv­ing artist work­ing in any medi­um, and I count myself among their num­ber, the first full length album released by David Lynch was always going to be some­thing of a slight dis­ap­point­ment. The expec­ta­tions it cre­at­ed were nev­er like­ly to be realised.

Nobody, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Robert Alt­man, has under­stood quite so clear­ly the pal­pa­ble impor­tance of sound in film. So the music employed by Lynch has always been fun­da­men­tal to the mood and men­ace that his films evoke.

Lynch wrote the lyrics for his long-time musi­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Ange­lo Badala­men­ti when they teamed up for the mon­u­men­tal and still ground-break­ing Twin Peaks, and the all too ethe­re­al Julee Cruise added the gloss to the lush sound­track they togeth­er pro­duced. Then in 2010, he teamed up with pro­duc­er supre­mo Dan­ger Mouse and the ill-fat­ed Sparkle­horse to pro­duce the melan­choly Dark Night Of The Soul (reviewed ear­li­er here).

So the even­tu­al release of an album prop­er oughtn’t real­ly to have been too ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing, and nor should the way it sounds be. Moody blues, at the RnB end of the spec­trum, spiked with men­ac­ing gui­tar riffs and laced with the occa­sion­al female vocal line, with Lynch’s own vocals buried in a sea of vocoder synths.

If you’re look­ing for a defin­i­tive album expe­ri­ence, then this isn’t it. But if you want to lux­u­ri­ate in the kind of mood his films evoke, then enjoy. It’s the kind of album you might only stick on every six months or so, but it’s one that you’ll con­tin­ue return­ing to for years to come.

Strange­ly, that’s not some­thing that can be said for the lat­est Tom Waits album. Which is odd, because super­fi­cial­ly, it’s delight­ful. It’s basi­cal­ly a great­est hits album made up of all new mate­r­i­al. What could be more sat­is­fy­ing than that?

You get bits of the gut­ter­grav­el roman­ti­cism of Blue Valen­tine, indus­tri­al, N’Orlins RnB à la Rain Dogs, the coif­fured avant-garde of the under­rat­ed Pale Rid­er, plus the manda­to­ry nov­el­ty act of the title track. It’s hard­ly Waits’ fault if all the inno­va­tions and fresh­ness that were once so excit­ing have now become the norm. And the first cou­ple of lis­tens will bring a smile to the most cur­mud­geon­ly of faces.

And yet. You just know, that after that fourth or fifth lis­ten, you’re nev­er going to put it on again.