Category Archives: Television

Failed Critics Podcast: TV Special (S3 Ep2)

game of thronesWhen you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground. But the game of the Failed Critics Podcast is a bit more accommodating and has more of a flexible work-life balance. Plus it has much less incest too.

This episode is part two of our third TV Special podcast, featuring Owen Hughes as host in place of Steve Norman. As in part one, Owen is joined by Matt Latham from The Bottle Episode and Failed Critics founder James Diamond.

With the Emmy’s chat firmly done and dusted, the team move onto answering some tough, insightful and deeply ponderous questions such as “what TV show did you used to hate but now really like”, and “what is the best new TV show of the year”. You know, the sort of questions you just don’t hear anybody else deal with.

We’ll be back to our regular output next week with Steve returning to hosting duties as we review Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

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Failed Critics Podcast: TV Special (S3 Ep1)

emmyThe Failed Critics TV Special revolution will not be televised, brother. Although, it will still be a conveniently downloadable audio podcast. No change there, then.

However, what is different, for our third TV Special episode, there’s no Steve Norman. Instead, Owen Hughes leapt into Steve’s upholstered velvet host’s chair whilst it was still warm, swivelled himself around, and read questions from the teleprompter to our special guests for this episode. Owen was joined by both Matt Latham from the TV blog and podcast, The Bottle Episode, and returning to us like the prodigal son, former head-honcho at FC HQ, James Diamond, now co-running the Diamond and Human podcast.

With so much content to get through, you may consider saving this episode and box-set binging later in the week with the release of Part Two. Going massively over-time and blowing the entire Failed Critics Entertainment Budget on one two-part special, we just had so much to talk about that we’ve had to split our TV Special in half. In part one, we have our Primetime Emmy Award themed quiz, inspired by the recent announcement of the nominations for the 67th annual awards and our reactions to them. And to give you a taste of what’s to come in part two, the trio also respond to the first question asked of them, “what is the best ongoing show of 2015?” Spoiler: it wasn’t Masked Spooner.

Join us again later in the week for less Emmy’s chat and more Q&A’s, and the team each pitch an idea for a TV show that they’d like to see brought back from the dead.

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Pusher (S3 Ep17)

In a brand new entry to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, Tony Black of Black Hole Cinema fame inducts one of the most iconic TV villains of all time, Pusher, from one of the most iconic TV shows of all time, The X-Files.

by Tony Black (@BlackHoleWriter)

i want to believe“You mean you killed this man for nothing, you sick bastard?”

“Oh haven’t you figured it out yet, Mulder? They all kill themselves.”

One of the chief inspirations for FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, erstwhile and dogged investigator of The X-Files, was the master of detection, Sherlock Holmes. Chris Carter himself has cited Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary literary figure as a touchstone for Mulder, with his remarkable leaps of logic to explain the unexplained, not to mention his eccentricities and detachment from traditional life & relationships – plus he has a ready made Dr. Watson in fellow Special Agent Dana Scully, yanked out of her normal existence, swiftly enraptured by Mulder’s world. Up until ‘Pusher’, the seventeenth episode of The X-Files‘ third season–as the show was really hitting the mid-90’s zeitgeist–Mulder had never found his Professor Moriarty, his nemesis. He arrived ready made in Robert Patrick Modell, the eponymous ‘pusher’, and the result saw Vince Gilligan deliver the finest X-File in the show’s (to date) nine season run.

The genius of ‘Pusher’ is that it’s one of those concepts, even for an X-File, that is breathtakingly simple yet beautiful in construction; a man capable of talking another human being into doing whatever he desires, a form of mind control inducement thanks to the cadence of the person’s voice. Giving that power to a twisted, bitter sociopath who wants nothing more than a worthy adversary is a stroke of brilliance, and that’s the central key to ‘Pusher’ being such a perfectly constructed hour of television. The X-Files by its very nature, much like Doctor Who, had the freedom to go almost anywhere and tell a myriad of stories, such is the vast canvas of the paranormal & unknown in our world; when it wasn’t about global alien conspiracies, man eating monsters or natural pathogens or predators, often the more intriguing character-based concepts would come into play – the reality bending seduction of ‘Milagro’, the unnerving fetishism of ‘Irresistable’ or cold hearted pain of ‘Paper Hearts’. With ‘Pusher’ it was a battle of wills, a chess match between two adversaries, as Mulder desperately begins to realise that Modell simply wants to watch the world around him burn, look into the face of the man good enough to beat him, and smile. Indeed though he wants to be Moriarty, in truth he’s more like the Joker. Scully describes him at one point as “a little man who wants everyone to believe he’s big” and that’s the tragic, sometimes jet black comic ideal driving ‘Pusher’ as an episode.

“Modell psyched the guy out, he put the whammy on him!”

“Please explain to me the scientific nature of ‘the whammy’.”

Enormous credit must go to guest star Robert Wisden as Modell, because it’s his performance that truly sells Gilligan’s marvelous writing; he’s sly, calculating, quippy and strangely charming, a hugely tricky balance to pull off, but Wisden is able to flip between these styles at will. At one moment Modell may be calmly talking a court judge out of sentencing him, almost the friendly neighbour next door, then the next he’s inducing a cop to immolate himself, taunting Mulder jokily over the phone or, in arguably the second most memorable scene of the episode, talking bullish local detective Frank Burst into having a heart attack over the phone. It’s truly chilling and the moment of complete shock and horror on the faces of Mulder, Scully and the team of detectives around Frank at that point still sends a chill down the spine – topped off when Modell then calmly gives them the pay phone number Frank was keeping him on the line to trace. Wisden manages to craft the finest ‘human’ monster the show ever created – especially given that tinge of tragedy to the man; he’d spent his life being average, amounting to little, and only upon discovering his ‘power’ was he able to make any kind of mark, styling himself after the Japanese Ronin, a ‘warrior without a master’. Gilligan manages to tap into this psychology while always keeping Modell alien enough to be frequently terrifying.

In many of the stand alone episodes of The X-Files, you got the feeling it was just another case for either Mulder & Scully, sometimes having a deeper impact on the guest stars than they themselves. For Mulder in particular, ‘Pusher’ you know stays with him. That’s borne out indeed two seasons later in sequel episode ‘Kitsunegari’ which while vastly inferior, actually serving to hugely neuter Modell’s power, does show how much Mulder felt strongly Modell should die for his crimes in ‘Pusher’. Often he can saunter through a case facing a few scrapes but coming out the other end proven right and unscathed bar some cuts & bruises, but both times he encounters Modell he’s marked; you can feel the moments in ‘Pusher’ where Mulder is being pushed, being drained, such as his vociferous prosecution and frustration at the judge after he catches Modell, and later his aforementioned fury at Frank Burst’s chilling murder (and his desperate attempts to save him when he realises what Modell is doing). It all culminates in, appropriately, the show’s final act, an absolute master stroke in narrative tension from Gilligan and particularly director Rob Bowman, which sees a ‘pushed’ Mulder led by the dying Modell into a final battle of ‘Russian roulette’ in an evacuated hospital, with an emotional & shaken Scully acting as arbiter at the table. David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson give it their all, you can feel the power, tension and emotion at that table as Modell strives to win his final victory.

“It was like you said. He was always such a little man. This was finally something that made him feel big.”

“I say we don’t let him take up another minute of our time.”

The reason that ‘Pusher’ might be the greatest X-File ever made isn’t just because of Vince Gilligan’s supreme script, or Rob Bowman’s expert direction, or indeed the magnificent guest performance of Robert Wisden, but rather because for a show built around the unknown, about the monsters within and without, Robert Patrick Modell was never truly a monster at all. He committed horrific crimes. He was deeply twisted and hateful. But he was also a sad, lonely, desperate figure who’s only way of making a stamp on the world was by controlling the whims of others and, perversely, trying to grab the attention of the man he no doubt wished he could have been. That wonderful sense of twisted humanity is what drama, what great storytelling, is all about.

As for this reviewer, as Modell’s victims might say, he had to go.

You can listen to Tony’s previous appearances on the Failed Critics Podcast here or read the rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles on our website.

Training (S1 Ep4)

With one episode of The Office (US) already entered into our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series by Kate, Failed Critics podcast host Steve has taken it upon himself to induct his favourite episode from the original UK show. And it’s about damn time!

by Steve Norman (@StevePN86)

the office trainingI could quote The Office endlessly. It’s funny how a good show can permeate the mind like that. For some, it’s Only Fools and Horses or Monty Python. For others it’s The Mighty Boosh or I’m Alan Partridge. For me, it used to be Phoenix Nights.

Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant’s creation is a work of genius and lives long in the memory. The jokes range from side splittingly hilarious to cringe inducing laughs.

Undoubtedly the best episode comes from Series One and is titled ‘Training’. It has the three main protagonists of the show, Tim, Gareth and David, all at their best. It also taught me that a postage stamp is legal tender and should be accepted by bus drivers.

The episode centres around staff training at Wernham Hogg and Brent is at his obnoxious best. Constantly interrupting the outside teacher Rowan, thinking he knows better. Who can forget the exchange ending in ‘I THINK THERE’S BEEN A RAPE UP THERE….GET. THEIR. ATTENTION.’ Or the equally brilliant ‘There is no room 362 in this hotel. Sometimes the complaints will be false.’

It also introduces his back catalogue of tunes from the sombre Princess Di tribute ‘Goodnight My Sweet Princess’ to the epic ‘Freelove Freeway’ (which incidentally I think I know all the words to).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEtQj9wuqhs]

Gareth is at his moronic best – ‘Shouldn’t be allowed around animals then’ and ‘two girls, sisters, me just watching.’ Tim, who the viewer should be watching the show through the eyes of – the downtrodden office worker with a lack of ambition and drive and one small glimmer of hope in his life, Dawn – suffers the agony of rejection as the receptionist gets back with massive dickhead Lee and shows his frustration towards his irritating colleague and clueless boss.

Whilst Gareth and Brent are giving you the laughs in abundance, Tim is, well, not so much making you tear up, but making you annoyed with his co-workers . You genuinely feel for him and are frustrated for him. You will him to get Dawn and leave ‘The Office’. You want him to succeed, but deep down know he won’t.

The Office was always able to make you crack up with laughter but also feel genuine sadness or happiness for its relatable characters. Whether it’s Tim getting with Dawn, or Brent getting one over on Finchy, or Brent pleading for his job. It’s what all the best sitcoms do and this episode’s is that at its very best.

You can catch up on all of the entries to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes here and find Steve every week on our film podcast.

Innocence (S2 Ep14)

In another new article for our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, first time writer for the site Matthew Latham looks back at one of the most pivotal moments in Joss Whedon’s hugely popular show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

by Matthew Latham (@theBottleEp)

buffy angel“Growing up is hard”. It’s the clichéd phrase that’s thrown around pretty much everywhere you look. There’s been a lot of TV shows that try to highlight this, but perhaps some get a little carried away in their own spectacle. They can show an over-exaggerated view of teenage life that doesn’t fully exist and creates high standards to live up to. Skins, for example, its first series is brilliant drama series but isn’t an exact representation of teenage life; it’s a character study for Nicholas Hoult’s character. Whilst other teenage shows of the last ten years appear to go for kitsch soapy drama (Gossip Girl and 90210) in niche areas of society.

In every TV generation, a show is born. It alone will be able to take a more mature look at growing up with a more level headed respect for its audience. With relatable characters that are more like the average viewer. In this modern era, the closest we have is probably Awkward (if you finish watching it at the end of the third season), but even that descends into sometimes dodgy soap territory alongside some genuinely smart story-telling techniques. Before then you had Friday Night Lights that explored growing up in the context of a small town environment. There’s also Freaks and Geeks, which was aimed towards adults who were teenagers in the 1980s.

Okay, okay, so shows involving a blogger and football are a tad more realistic than a girl who fights mythological creatures. It’s not exactly My So-Called Life (the quintessential show about growing up) is it? What Buffy had was a clear goal: to show the struggles of growing up and the pressures that go with it; juggling school work, social lives, family, possible jobs alongside the fear of entering the adult world and preparing for it. Buffy throws in a bunch of metaphors involving mythological creatures that still was more relatable than those rich kids with that famous zip code. Felt ignored? There’s an episode about a girl who ended up turning invisible because of it. Pushy mum that wants you to do something that she did as a teenager? There’s an ep for that. It’s more apparent in the first season and the first half of the second, and the episodes aren’t superbly fantastic (and not to mention dated). The show couldn’t keep doing this forever, so it had to get to a point when it risks going for the bigger issues and extended arcs.

Innocence concludes a two-part story that started with the previous episode, Surprise. It’s when Buffy, the show and the character, begin the process of growing up. It has had arc plots before, but this sees a massive turning point in the season arc involving Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Geller) relationship with the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). Since the pilot the attraction between them has grown from when Angel mysteriously popped up to give Buffy cryptic advice, and then vanish. Buffy (inevitably) ended up being drawn to him and vice versa before he revealed that he was vampire. Only one with a soul. It transpires Angel used to be an evil git in the past, with this life finally catching up with him after killing a young gypsy woman. Scorned, the woman’s family cursed him with a soul so he would be haunted in an eternal life of guilt.

It turns out that these gypsies had a pretty questionable loophole in that if Angel had a moment of true happiness, then he’d lose the soul. This episode sees the result of Angel losing his soul via sleeping with Buffy at the climax (ha!) of the previous episode. Thus he reverts back to Angelus. Immediately Buffy, her friends and the audience are taken out of their comfort zone. Whatever trace of Angel there was, and what we’ve seen in the past has gone. We meet the real “Big Bad” of the season as Buffy has to enter a war against a man who used to be the man she loved.

“But where is the relatable metaphor?” I (don’t) hear you cry. Innocence kicks off an extended arc which deals with the boyfriend that you sleep with and doesn’t call or seem interested in. Angel turns into the kind of guy who leaves after “doing the deed”, breaking Buffy’s heart in the process. Geller has to do a lot here, and she pulls it off effortlessly. The first scene between Buffy and Angelus (the name used to differentiate between him and Angel) sees him being incredibly crude; commenting on Buffy’s sexual prowess and cutting her down emotionally. It’s a heart-breaking scene and it helps you get on Buffy’s side immediately. The mystical events are a backdrop to a conversation that could happen in real life or any other “straight” (with no-fantastical element) dramas, as Buffy has to come to terms with the guy she thought she knew has gone. In his place is…well, a jerk.

And what a jerk Angelus becomes. Boreanaz is a delight, revelling in the fun as this darker incarnation of Angel. The previous episode introduced the show’s usual “Demon of the Week” villain in the form of The Judge, a being that “burn humanity” out of people. It’s very much a plot device that’s clearly set-up for the scene where The Judge tries to burn a recently de-souled Angelus but doesn’t. It’s another scene that whilst convenient, the writing is indicating that the show is different now. Characters are different. Angel is gone and we’re using every viable method we can to show this.

As the drama around Buffy and Angel’s relationship crosses its own Rubicon, other characters find significant changes within their own arcs. Willow (Alyson Hanningan) discovers that Xander (Nicholas Brendan) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) have…well, whatever the hell they’ve been doing. Alyson Hannigan gets one of her many great moments in the show here, laying into Xander and delivering the breaking: “it means you’d rather be with someone you hate, than be with me.” But it’s good in the long term, because in Willow’s quest to “even the score” she offers a make-out session with new love interest Oz (Seth Green) in a van whilst the Scooby Gang (the name given to Buffy’s friends) are sneaking into an army base. In perhaps the best piece of writing where you’ll find yourself loving a character, Oz replies with a “no”, spotting the reasons behind it in one of his better moments in the show. Even Giles (Anthony Steward Head) gets his own place to shine, acting as the father figure Buffy deserves and showing his loyalty to her in despite of the revelation that his girlfriend Jenny (Robia La Morte) was part of the Gypsy tribe that cursed Angel (Though I’ve always felt that they may have been a little too harsh towards Jenny).

The writing is incredibly strong in this episode and you can pin that down to Joss Whedon, the guy behind those recently successful Avengers movies you may have heard of. I often recall a quote he once said; “The two things that matter the most to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers. Party of Five, a brilliant show, and often made me cry uncontrollably, suffered ultimately from a lack of rocket launchers.” This sums up his attitude to the show: the emotional relatability is there to see, but to have that impact you need to make sure you have something exciting alongside it. This works from the opposite angle as well, as action sequences need a layer of emotional resonance for the audience to be attached to them.

In terms of Innocence, this is represented by an actual rocket launcher. It’s as if Whedon wanted to be subtle by not being subtle at all. It’s what her friends break into an army base to get; as “any weapon forged” can’t kill The Judge – so they get one that was made in a factory instead. It’s a very cool visual, one that will linger in the title sequence for seasons to come. The climax of the episode sees a fight between Angelus and Buffy in which she can’t bring herself to kill him, so she kicks him in the nether regions. It’s a great thematic end to the episode as the power that Angelus took via that conversation in his apartment is transferred back to Buffy. It isn’t much, but it’s enough. “Give me time,” she tells him.

Points of no return have been crossed. With Buffy’s loss of innocence, the show follows suit and the rest of the season spirals into a darker turn. Buffy’s mother asks her what she did for her birthday, and she replies with one word: “older”. Buffy had to grow up, and so did the show. Sure, the show would still dabble in the stand-alone metaphorical tales (like the late season episode Go Fish), but there was now more layers of characterisation, characters would react to situations differently. The show’s mission statement was in full effect: this is what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is capable of.

It isn’t an episode to watch in isolation; nor is one to introduce people in the show. But it’s a pay-off for those that stuck with it, accepted what the first season is and started to fall for the characters. The ramifications of this episode end up affecting the entire run of the rest of the show, and forms the backbone of the later Angel spin-off. If that doesn’t show the episode’s case for one of the best forty-five minutes of TV ever, then I don’t know what will.

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

Dish and Dishonesty (S3 Ep1)

In the latest entry to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, we’re introducing Nicholas Lay, a new guest writer to the site, who’s inducting one of the most intelligent episodes from the BBC classic comedy, Blackadder.

by Nicholas Lay (@laidbaremedia)

dish and dishonesty 1In the spirit of the frantic general election that last week, as per usual, made a mockery of the political and social system in the UK, it seemed only natural that my contribution to Failed Critics 100 Greatest TV Shows should be the timeless send up of British politics that is the opening episode of the late 80s sitcom, Blackadder the Third. While II and Goes Forth are arguably stronger seasons, certainly in terms of consistency, and are no doubt more popular, I find it difficult to hold any single episode in higher favour than Dish and Dishonesty. Set during what could perhaps be considered a ‘brave’ time period selection – the turn of the 18th/19th century British Regency (a historical period lodged primarily in further education compared to the primary school-taught, everyone-knows-a-few-facts-about-them Elizabethan and WWI periods of II and Goes Forth respectively) – the episode features some of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s finest, altogether smartest writing, terrific performances and comic timing across the board, as well as probably my favourite Blackadder sequence of all time.

Right off the bat there are jokes aplenty regarding the rather backward electoral structure of the age, with facts presented that could essentially produce the humour out right due to the almost tragic nature of their genuine existence. Curtis and Elton of course sprinkle their delicious sense of exaggeration on virtually everything, but as is the case throughout Blackadder the comedy stems from the reality that, while ridiculous, each social and political aspect ridiculed to the extreme isn’t actually that far away from the truth. Within the first five minutes or so we’re treated to a brief history of the unfair manner of voting procedure (“Look at Manchester…population, sixty thousand; electoral roll, three”), an introduction to the running joke of an overly adolescent Pitt the Younger, and the outrageous class divide as depicted by Blackadder himself, who describes MP Sir Talbot Buxomley’s interests as “flogging servants, shooting poor people, and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn’t got a knighthood”.

Although helped by the fact that period pieces tend to stand the test of the time with greater success than their contemporary cousins, Curtis and Elton were evidently masters of the sitcom set up of their day. Immediately punching out lines and gags of this ilk over and over again, they really allow the old day BBC studio audience to get their teeth into things from the off, thus pulling the whole thing off spectacularly well throughout. Incidentally, the episode is a fine example of a time when a live audience laughter track genuinely did drive and enhance the comedy, from the perspective of both the working actors and the end user, so to speak, in the form of the audience at home.

Working in tandem is the superb delivery provided by the cast, led by Rowan Atkinson’s legendary title character, whose bitter sense of both curiosity and utter loathing alike manifest themselves marvellously with each straight close-up of his subtle, completely apt facial expressions. His calm, permanently sarcastic demeanour in the face of complete buffoonery, both above (Hugh Laurie’s elite thicko, Prince George) and below him (Tony Robinson’s ever-present dogsbody, Baldrick), results in punch line after spot on punch line. Laurie excels opposite as the brain dead Prince, the non-state related concerns of whom remain consistently at the forefront of the comic proceedings (“Socks are like sex…tons of it about and I never seem to get any!”). The nauseating guest characters are as close to perfection as one is likely to find in sitcom history, with Dennis Lill’s grotesque, flushed elitist Buxomly’s brief cameo matched by the depiction of two-time Prime Minster Pitt the Younger, played wonderfully by Simon Osborne. Like the “Darling” gag during Goes Forth, the joke that the PM is a mere teenager is simple but genius in both subsequent connotation and all round execution, as he continuously spars with Blackadder in fantastically immature, highly patronising fashion.

The highlight of the episode is the development of the by-election held in the fictional corrupt rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, discussed first by Blackadder and the Prince (in no other context could the lines “a small hen, its late forties” and “window tax” be delivered with such understated aplomb and work so damn well), before culminating in the eventual election declaration. One of the all time great moments of British television, the fourth wall-breaking election result – presented as a BBC-type event with contemporary political commentator Vincent Hanna speaking directly to the camera/audience – is a masterpiece of witty political satire. From start to end it precisely dissects the sometimes seemingly insane practice and nature of politics in the late 18th/early 19th century, alongside modern day politics and the ugly, concurrent themes of power, wealth, and corruption. The sight of Prince George holding Colin the dachshund and approving Mr. Hanna’s acknowledgement of the beast sets the tone for a scene in which each scenario, portrayal, and line is pure, side splitting gold. Baldrick’s old timey version of political “gagging”, Pitt the Even Younger crying to his mother in defeat, the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party’s policy of the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, and Mr. Hanna’s Country Gentleman’s Pig Fertilizer Gazette media outlet are just some of the standout moments, all held together by Blackadder’s treacherous, completely transparent rigging of the vote. Never again did a single scene have my heavily inebriated weeknight YouTube-watching first year history university student-self on the floor quite as long as this.

A momentous, everlasting piece of British comedy, Dish and Dishonesty opened a season that deservedly won the BAFTA for Best Comedy Series in 1988, with the episode itself a cornerstone of its success. The blend of quirky, restricted staging and cynical writing forever associated with the series is at its absolute strongest here, a factor from which the cast rose to the occasion to produce a practically flawless thirty minutes of television. To any fan of history, comedy or political satire who may have missed it, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. If you still don’t wish to give it a try, then I say, in the words of Mr. Pitt the Younger, poo to you with knobs on!

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

Into The Bunker (S2:E2)

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @Callum Petch)

Spoilers of varying degrees for Gravity Falls abound throughout this article, up to and including a short scene from Season 2 Episode 8 “Blendin’s Game”.  You are strongly advised to go and watch Gravity Falls before reading this article.  Trust me.

gravity falls“Mabel, how can everything be so amazing and so terrible all at the same time?” – Dipper Pines

Throughout Secondary School, I had a crush on a very close friend of mine.  From pretty much the moment I saw her, I was rather head-over-heels – she was funny, tough, kind, smart, good-looking, and she voluntarily chose to acknowledge and associate with me, which meant a lot since my first year or so at Secondary School was a relentlessly lonely and miserable experience otherwise.  We hung out a lot, talked a lot, there were frequent out-of-school-hours email conversations (not IM or anything like that cos have I ever mentioned that I was a really weird kid), and became really rather close.

I also never properly told her how I felt.  I hinted a lot, wrote godawful blatantly manipulative blog posts expressing my feelings hoping that she’d never read them but steering her towards them anyway (because goddamn was I ever a sh*tty teenager), and one time – during a really, really stupid idea that our school only implemented once – I bought her a Valentine’s Day rose from our school reception and explained it away as a friendship thing.  She almost certainly figured it out because I was nowhere near as subtle as I thought I was and she was not stupid, but we never openly acknowledged it, as if we realised that bringing it into the open would make things uncomfortably weird.  And I planned to never tell her, because I could live with just being her friend.

Except that I couldn’t.  I really couldn’t.  Save for one very short and incredibly bad experience at the outset of Secondary School – another reason why my first year or so was awkward and horrible – I had never had a girlfriend (still haven’t to this day), but Secondary School is Secondary School and damn near every last one of my friends – and the majority of the people I was at least on good speaking terms with – ended up in romances of varying degrees of seriousness and success, which left me feeling left out and lonely, because I never had that experience.  Further compounding the problem was that, as friends of mine typically tend to do, we started drifting further apart the older we got, going from tight-knit buddies in Year 8 to very occasional acquaintances by Year 10.

Having realised this, and likely spurred on by the fact that my crush on her just would not die, I asked if she could meet me one lunchtime to talk.  I couldn’t have been any vaguer or, as far as my memory recalls, slightly creepy, which would have been part of the reason why she never turned up.  I took this incredibly personally.  Soon after, I arranged, through the school’s Student Services, to have her meet me for about half an hour so I could get an explanation and tell her everything, as if that would somehow change things.  That second part didn’t happen.  Instead, I non-specifically and non-committedly alluded to things in sh*tty ways, refused to accept her excuse of her having her own life and her own friends, and generally acted like a horribly possessive jerk.  The meeting ended with neither of us satisfied and, for the remaining 18 months of Secondary School and 2 years of Sixth Form that we shared, we basically never spoke to each other again.

You know how I said earlier that I was a sh*tty teenager?  That transcends just being a sh*tty teenager, for me; that was me being a pure bona-fide grade-A asshole.  I have regretted everything to do with it for the past five and a bit years.  I regretted it the moment I stepped out of that room and I still did nothing to make it right due to the resultant awkwardness between us keeping me from trying to make amends no matter how much time passed.  Seeing her was just this constant reminder of how badly I screwed up and how utterly sh*tty of a person I was, how I refused to just accept being friends with her instead of slightly creepily possessively crushing on her, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for it.


The Dipper Pines-Wendy Corduroy runner throughout the first season of Gravity Falls – where the 12 year-old Dipper develops a major crush on the 15 year-old Wendy – is a very divisive subject for fans of the show.  In one camp, it’s a funny, sweet, and often painful to watch plotline that constantly finds new ways to cover seemingly old ground, and excellently and realistically handles the difficulty of being friends with somebody you are quite possibly in love with, especially accentuated by the fact that, since Wendy is 3 years older than Dipper, there is only one way this story can end.  In the other camp, it’s pointless re-treading of familiar ground that wastes Wendy’s character potential by limiting her solely to stories about Dipper’s crush on her and her relationship with jerk-ass teenager Robbie, especially since there’s only one way this story can end so why bother dragging it out.

I fall into the former camp and it’s because of my experience with that girl – whose name I haven’t divulged here because she deserves better than being associated with my dickishness.  That extended awkward push-pull between having a crush that causes you tangible physical anxiety every time you accidentally think of them in that way, versus wanting to not blow that friendship you’ve built up with them by openly admitting that feeling to them, is excellently represented in Dipper Pines, which in turn resonates deeper in me and causes multiple conflicting feelings every time the plotline is brought up.  I sympathise with Dipper’s situation, I cringe and suffer along with him whenever he puts his foot in his mouth, I laugh at his jealous hallucinations of people like Robbie, I desperately root for him to beat his crush or to just admit to Wendy his true feelings, since I’d gone through all of this before myself – just without the age gap as she was in the same year as me.

It helps that Dipper shares multiple aspects with me when it comes to this type of thing: he stumbles over his own words frequently, he overthinks and over-plans every last scenario because he’s terrified of failure, he’s at his best when he just lets the situation overtake him, and he will never admit the truth to Wendy because he’s afraid of what will happen, but he also can’t just stay friends at this moment in time because the crush is killing him.  This is not meant to short-change Wendy, incidentally, who is a funny, cool, sarcastic, well-rounded and flawed character who feels like a person, someone who clearly exists outside of the show’s usage of her.  These two are incredibly well-drawn characters who feel real and that extra resonance that I have with the material wouldn’t be there if that depth wasn’t there.

This all comes to a head in “Into The Bunker”, the second episode of Season 2.  It starts off like it’s going to be yet another episode in which Dipper trips over his feelings, which I don’t have a problem with as again this kind of constant circling really can happen, in a B-Plot whilst the A-Plot pushes forward the overarching mysteries of Gravity Falls, Oregon – which are way too numerous and in-depth to touch on here; seriously, this show has the kind of attention to continuity and plotting (without ever sacrificing them at the expense of character work) that would make most live-action adult dramas feel like they’re half-assing it.

Instead, the mysteries of Gravity Falls take a backseat to bringing this runner to its logical end-game.  Despite his insistence otherwise, Dipper cannot keep hanging out with Wendy without telling her of his feelings.  When he exposes Robbie’s deception and brainwashing in “Boyz Crazy”, he’s mainly doing it out of selfish desires of wanting to have Wendy to himself, although he doesn’t realise so until after he pushes his luck too far.  By “Into The Bunker”, it’s reached breaking point, he even brings along his planned feelings speech, that he scrunched up at the beginning of the episode, in his jacket pocket because he can’t let it go.  His twin sister Mabel, fed up with all of this and realising that the sooner that he admits his feelings to Wendy the better, proceeds to shove the pair of them into what turns out to be a Decontamination Chamber to make sure that Dipper has no way of avoiding the issue.

In the end, his constant dodging and inability to come right out and admit his feelings nearly gets himself and Wendy killed by a shape-shifter, and he once again only realises this when he thinks that she’s been killed.  Running from his problems has solved nothing and if it hadn’t turned out that the ‘dead’ Wendy was actually the shape-shifter and that the real Wendy was just off-screen and heard every word of Dipper’s anguished and regretful admission of his true feelings, then he would have gone through the rest of his life carrying that regret and guilt, never letting him go.  It is, to me at least, the literalising of what metaphorically happened to me, as my refusal to just come out and say it cost me one of the strongest friendships that I ever had.

That’s what makes the conclusion of the episode so goddamn beautiful to me.  With the truth now out in the open, Wendy and Dipper sit down and talk.  They actually talk.  Wendy admits that she kinda always knew – “You think I can’t hear that stuff you’re constantly whispering under your breath?” – she lets him down easy, Dipper understands, and the two resolve to remain friends because that, above all else, is what matters out of all of this.  And though Dipper doesn’t actually feel any better at the time by getting these feelings out in the open, the change sticks and Wendy’s subsequent appearances with the gang exist in awkwardness-free purely platonic friendship stakes.  Hell, to further drive home the point, when Dipper and Mabel travel back in time about 10 years in “Blendin’s Game” and bump into younger versions of Wendy and Tambry, he feels super-awkward when Young Wendy mentions how cute he is, as if he now understands how he made Wendy feel.

And as I sat there watching the conclusion of “Into The Bunker”, through non-stop waterfalls of tears, the awful way that I handled the first friendship that I made in Secondary School came into clear-as-day focus.  I always knew that I treated her sh*ttily, that I should have handled the situation better, that I was as pure an asshole as they come with regards to how things ended, but I don’t think I realised the extent of it and how much different things could have been until Gravity Falls laid it out in front of me like that.  Because Dipper and Wendy are so well-drawn, because the writing felt so natural, because I saw so much of myself and my own experiences in the story’s progression, it hit me like a jackhammer-shaped freight train when the inevitable conclusion came around.  “I should have just told her and moved on,” I thought to myself constantly over the next several days as the episode refused to leave my brain.  “The aftermath may not have been as smooth, but at least we could have moved on.  At least we may still have been friends.”

There is a tonne more to “Into The Bunker” – the absolutely terrifying John Carpenter’s The Thing-referencing shape-shifter villain, the outstanding animation, the way that the narrative excellently pulls the bait-and-switch on the seemingly answers-focussed plotline in favour of character-work, the badassery of Wendy, the way it balances horror and drama with comedy, The Gravity Falls Bargain Movie Showcase – and they are all individually reason enough as to why the episode could be inducted into this wing of Failed Critics, but they’re not the reason why this episode hits me so.  It’s the payoff.  It was always going to be the payoff, and though the show has and will improve even on this in the years to come – “Not What He Seems” exists, after all – for me it’s probably never going to top that final scene in the woods where Dipper and Wendy sit on the fallen tree branch and just talk.  No other scene in television is going to hit me like that scene did the first time.

In a perfect world, I would have been more like Dipper Pines in that moment, where I accepted what happened, accepted the consequences, moved on, and tried to retain that friendship.  I didn’t do that.  That will stick with me for the rest of my days, but at least I know that Dipper will be OK.  He did it right.  One of us did.

Callum Petch has got love to kill from a man of steel.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Horror Channel Recommendations

As you may or may not already be aware, the Horror Channel has quite recently made the transition from subscription only services, directly onto your freeview box. This opens up a world of possibilities for the recommendations section of our podcast! To give you a flavour of the kinds of movies we might be pushing on you, here’s a selection of five of their best over the next few days:

Tuesday 17th March 2015, 21.00 – eXistenZ

existenzDavid Cronenberg’s meta-psychological sci-fi thriller eXistenZ – with its wobbly translucent organic squirming control pad game-pods that characters can plug themselves into via bio-ports in order to play a virtual reality game – is probably the best film they’re showing all week. The fact he has created something so hideous both in design and concept that it can still be recalled with disgust days, weeks, probably months and years after you first see it is testament to his skill and legend as the master of body-horror. Having a strange and unnerving atmosphere spawning from a strong script is one thing, but the imagery that is incorporated into this espionage-come-sexually-invasive thriller is what gives it an edge. It’s not just a clever film about what life is, about the creation and destruction of life, and particularly in its relation to religion and environmental issues; it’s also a visual feast. Some fantastic designs only add to the entertaining and complex plot.

Thursday 19th March 2015, 21.00 – DeadHeadsdeadheads

Zom-coms seem to have a genre all to themselves. Sometimes they are painfully funny (the go-to example is Shaun of the Dead), and other times… not so much. Whilst DeadHeads is some way off the quality of Edgar Wright’s British zomedy, it still has enough going for it to make it worth your time if you are a horror aficionado. The concept is perhaps not completely original, but it’s a nice twist on the genre to show the movie from the perspective of two geeky loser zombies who happen to be able to talk just like regular guys. They just also happen to be dead. It’s simply a road trip movie where the main characters are zombies and their pursuers are zombie hunting government enforcer types, but it does have a couple of laughs scattered throughout.

Friday 20th March 2015, 00.40 (Saturday morning then I guess, technically) – Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever

cabin fever 2Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Eli Roth’s first Cabin Fever from 2002 as much as the next sane (insane?) horror film fan did. I’m basically recommending this sequel from 2010 blind, purely based on the fact that it has Ti West’s name attached to it – even if he did publicly disown the project. This time, the flesh-eating virus has spread to a high school prom, which leads to a Not-Another-Teen-Movie-meets-Roger-Corman bonanza. Described elsewhere as “joyfully gross“, it’s a film you will either love or hate (apparently). But it’s a good example of the kind of gem that turns up on the horror channel from time to time, just when you’re in the mood to watch a properly naff but gory horror film.

Saturday 21st March 2015, 21.00 – Grave Encountersgrave encounters

Low budget. Found footage. Jump scares. These are all phrases that will either put you off the Viscous Brothers insane asylum documentary-gone-wrong horror, or, if you’re like me, sound irresistible. I first watched it late at night, in bed, with all the lights out, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it creeped me the fuck out at times. There are some original twists in the story; it’s a lot more than just a bunch of idiots sneaking around an old building being scared of creaking doors. There’s a few layers to the horror, starting out quite mild and eventually building to bigger and more ambitious things. If you can forgive the fact that the characters all make unrealistic or silly choices at times (which you really should in a film of this ilk) then you will probably find Grave Encounters best watched from behind a cushion.

Sunday 22nd March 2015, 22.45 – The Vault of Horror

vault of horrorA classic British anthology horror from the 70’s, featuring the likes of Terry Thomas and Tom Baker, which has endlessly been parodied. Perhaps by no-one more brilliantly than Steve Coogan in his under-appreciated ode to Hammer Horror TV series, Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible. As always in this sort of film, some of the stories are a bit hit and miss (mostly miss), but when it’s on form (such as in Tom Baker’s segment, Drawn and Quartered) then it is really bloody good. And who doesn’t love classic British horror films? Exactly.

The horror channel is now available on Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138 and TalkTalk 487.

Fifteen Million Merits (S1 Ep2)

I haven’t got a speech. I didn’t plan words, I didn’t even try to. I just knew I had to enter the Fifteen Million Merits episode of Black Mirror series one into our 100 Greatest TV Episodes list!

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

fifteen million merits 2 Despite churning out a tidal wave of daytime TV shows, borderline freak-show “documentaries” and surprisingly off-kilter comedy shows, Channel 4 have a knack for occasionally producing intelligent, entertaining and edgy TV dramas. For example, Babylon began this week after a successful pilot / one-off episode (directed by Danny Boyle) back in February. In the past few years, they’ve also been responsible for shows like Charlie Brooker’s zombie-satire Dead Set, the comedy-drama Misfits and more recently the really quite excellent Utopia.

However, I want to focus on a mini-series they produced almost three years ago; the Twilight Zone-meets-Tales of the Unexpected anthology series, Black Mirror. Each episode of Black Mirror was different; entirely new cast, different story set in different realities, with different writers and directors even. The one thing that linked the series was creator Charlie Brooker’s influence on the absurdly twisted humour and satire of the “Twitter generation”.

Whilst the series as a whole (and last year’s second series) was fantastic, one episode in particular that stood out was the second episode from the first season starring the vastly underrated Daniel Kaluuya & Jessica Brown Findlay in a futuristic anti-utopian society. Living in stacked glass rooms no bigger than a prison cell, the occupants of this shiny facility are constantly bombarded with adverts, propaganda and strict rules flashing uncontrollably on the screens around them. Imagine living inside a Facebook news feed that simultaneously has constant porn-pop-ups. It’s that. Inescapable promotions, videos and nonsense.

To survive costs the characters in the story money – or, rather, it costs them merits. Whether for a squirt of toothpaste or a piece of fruit from a vending machine, it all costs varying amounts of credit. Merits can be mainly earned by watching certain shows or by pedalling on exercise bikes to produce enough energy to keep the self-fulfilling lifestyle going. Which is exactly what Kaluuya’s character does in order to earn enough merits to send Abi, the girl he’s fallen for, to a talent show. If her singing impresses the judges and she’s successful, she could be saved from this worker-drone life. But if not….

Looking at the entire six episodes of Black Mirror, this episode, written by Brooker’s wife Konnie Huq and directed by Euros Lyn, it might seem like the least subtle of the lot. Obviously the satire is focussed on the need to constantly be instantaneously satisfied, of the social media culture that has developed and the supposed Generation Y. But it’s so exceptionally well executed that any lack of subtlety it may be accused of can easily be forgiven.

I remember finding out that Konnie Huq – primarily known as a presenter of Blue Peter – had penned Fifteen Million Merits and being utterly flabbergasted. Not because I didn’t think Konnie was intelligent! But the writing here was so vastly superior to a million other Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four dystopian knock-off films and TV shows that I half expected it to be been written by a seasoned veteran film writer, not a children’s TV presenter. It deals with social class, of the workers and them, with an awareness and sophistication often lacking in similar narratives.

On top of all that, the story is heart-stopping, emotional and completely absorbing. Consumerism is given a kicking alright, just as you might expect, but the despair-driven tension surmounts any obstacles presented by the relatively short run time of 60 minutes or the desire to get a message across to the viewer. Certain scenes are overwhelmingly moving and left me open mouthed, gasping at what I’d just witnessed. It also features one of the best conclusions to any TV episode aired in the UK. Call to arms speeches are so passé these days but this is something else! The delivery and performance by Daniel Kaluuya is exceptional.

It’s bleak, it’s relentless but it’s an incredible hour of modern TV. So many films released in the last few years have tried to tackle a similar scenario. The penultimate film in the Hunger Games franchise is due out this time next week, but this one little episode of TV says so much more – and way more eloquently – in a snippet of the combined run time of the Hunger Games movies.

I’ll end it here in true sixth-form rebellious nature with a quote from a punk song called The Decline by NOFX. It somehow seems strangely apt. “And so we go on with our lives. We know the truth but prefer lies”. Well said, Fat Mike. Well said.

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Apéritif (s1 ep1)

It’s about time somebody entered Hannibal into our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, and Andrew is just the man to do it. Starting with the pilot episode of the hit NBC show about a cannibal psychologist seems as logical a place to begin as any.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

Hannibal 2It was always going to be a tough sell. Basing a TV show or a film on a well-loved book, or series of books, always brings the nutters out of the woodwork. The same can be said when you try to make television shows with a much doted on film series as your inspiration (we all remember that Robocop TV show, right? Or the immeasurably bad decision to make a Rambo cartoon?). So surely any TV exec worth their salt would know not to entertain an idea that would attract rabid, feverish fans from both directions. Surely.

The announcement of a TV show based on Thomas Harris’ novels had many, myself included, going extra-strength crazy at the mere notion. Any project that included the recasting of Sir Anthony Hopkins was sacrilegious and a recipe for complete disaster. The announcement of Mads Mikkelsen taking the role made it even worse. My reaction was not dissimilar to how others have reacted at, say, Heath Ledger being The Joker, or Ben Affleck playing Batman. I’m a fan of Mikkelsen, but I was convinced it was a poor choice. Wait, what? Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford? What are you playing at? I haven’t been so dead against a TV show since someone likened Mad Men to The Sopranos!

A few months later and I’ve given in. I can’t say it’s pants until I’ve tried it. So I grab my coffee and my remote and, not completely willingly, wade in.

Starting in the only way a show with this kind of pedigree in its name could, we are thrown into a fresh crime scene. Blood splattered across walls and oozing across the floor as a corpse is unceremoniously zipped into a body bag. A mysterious figure is standing, watching as police and CSI tackle the unimaginable scene in front of them.

I’m still not convinced.

I turn to my wife. Angry. “They’ve gone and made it a bloody procedural! It’s NCIS-fucking-Hannibal! CSI-Goddamn-psychotherapy!”

Without a word of dialogue being spoken, the figure, which fans will quickly recognise as being Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), appears to walk backwards through the scene. With the crime apparently reversing itself and the bloody display returning to the serene home it was, we begin to see how Graham’s mind works.

Replaying the crime, the psychologist walks us breath by breath through the scene and the events of the evening. Giving us as deep a look at Graham as he wants with the killer, uttering the words soon to become synonymous with Will and his methods, indicating that what was done was planned, premeditated and coldly calculated. “This is my design”. The scene plays out with an air of menace and moves on.

“Ok. I’m up for this. Let’s see where it goes” I say to the other half.

The next ten minutes or so, we are treated to the standard cop drama steps. We are introduced to Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford, the man at the top of this particular FBI food chain and the man about to pull Will Graham into this story for us. Some background info, a little forensic work, lots of scene setting and a quick glance at a suspect and his inspiration. All typical shots for a crime show’s pilot. A post-mortem scene, a stroke of brilliance from Graham and a line of dialogue sure to put some off their dinner softly walks us to what we came for. The first appearance of our titular character.

In a surprise move for a show clearly trying to break out and be its own thing, introducing Hannibal to the viewer with Bach’s “Aria” as musical accompaniment was a strange move. But it works. It instantly conjures up images of Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal and we’re given time to relate to that as we watch him eat.

I wasn’t sure how to react if and when Mikkelsen’s real accent came from my speakers when Lector speaks. It’s not something I would usually fixate on, but it seems an important detail for a franchise known for Hopkins’ dulcet tones. In truth, I was simply indifferent. It didn’t matter. Hannibal’s mannerisms are the important thing and Mads brings them beautifully. His calm demeanour, the air of danger and his penchant for civility all acted in such a magnificent way that even the harshest of critics were starting to relax.

It takes a little over twenty minutes for Hannibal and Graham to be in the same scene. And boy is it tense. Will’s damaged, misfiring psyche clashing with Lecter’s cold calculation. It’s an uncomfortable scene as the men are presented immediately as polar opposites, but there’s a strange and intriguing atmosphere suggesting they are more alike each other than different.

The pair’s next meeting is the most poignant of the episode, and maybe the season. Visiting Will at his home, Lecter brings a dubious breakfast for the pair to share as they discuss Jack, the case, and size each other up. Substituting his couch for the breakfast table, Hannibal psycho-analyses Will over scrambled eggs and a coffee. It’s a beautifully dark scene. Superbly shot and oozing with tension.

It’s this scene you’ll remember. As the episode wraps up and the foundation is set for an edgy thriller, it’s this scene that left an impression. The pessimist in me has accepted the show, it’s been brilliantly introduced and it feels new and I’m very willing to give it a few more episodes to see if it holds up (it does, very well). But that breakfast scene feels like genius the more I recall it. As if they weren’t just talking to each other, they were talking to the audience. Not all of them. Just the few, like me, that went in ready to hate it. We went in jaded and cynical and this tense scene between the pair was absolutely speaking to us as Hannibal suggests that they could perhaps be friends.

“I don’t find you that interesting”

“You will”

‘Brooker’ is the latest debutant writer for Failed Critics (although he has written extensively on video-games in the past) and can usually be found over on Twitter – at least until we coax him back here to write some more! The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: The Visitor (s4 ep3)

It’s life, Jake! You can miss it if you don’t open your eyes.
-Captain Benjamin Sisko

by Jackson Tyler (@Tylea002)

ds9 2**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!**

Choosing a single episode of Star Trek for a list such as this is an inherently impossible task. The strength of the franchise is in its breadth, its innate ability to tackle a multitude of themes and ideas, as over decades, disparate episodes, movies and series combine to form a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

The main reason for this is that Trek has always relied on the intimacy of television, on the bond between audience and art: much of the franchise would simply not work without prior familiarity and emotional investment in the characters and universe. Many episodes that would rightly be considered the greatest of the franchise are interrogations of the core values within Trek itself, such as “Chain of Command (TNG),” “In The Pale Moonlight (DS9)” and practically every episode of Enterprise. Star Trek’s longevity and consistency is in thanks to the manner in which it is in constant conversation with itself, the writers merely visitors holding the show’s past with the reverence not just to reference it, but to question it, and in doing so, evolve it.

This episode is not one of those. For whilst Star Trek matured and began to use its head more and more, far more important is that when doing so, the show never lost its heart. Really, how could the episode on this list be anything other than a little sci-fi fable?

“The Visitor” tells the story of Jake Sisko, or more specifically, an old Jake Sisko tells his story to a young writer, who arrives at his doorstep in the middle of the night. Jake is a main character in DS9 throughout all seven seasons, despite appearing in less than half the episodes in the show’s run. As the writerly son of Benjamin Sisko, he didn’t often fit into the ensemble plots of the show, which focused on the main Starfleet crew of DS9. Yet episodes such as this make it clear why he doesn’t just earn this status, but plays a crucial part of the show’s dynamic. Jake Sisko is the show’s melancholy heart.

The plot of the episode, described in literal terms, is a mess of sci-fi words and nonsense jargon. When Jake was eighteen, his father, Ben Sisko, was caught in a warp core accident that left him in subspace, causing him to disappear from the known universe except for specific moments in time. Star Trek gets a reputation for being a series bogged down by its own fictional technology, and if you’ve watched more than one episode of Voyager, you’ll know it often can be. But in its best stories, it simply takes sci-fi concepts as narrative devices to explore thematic and emotional content in ways that would be impossible without them. Far from being a story about subspace and warp cores, The Visitor is a heartbreaking tale about the importance of letting go.

For all intents and purposes, Ben Sisko died in that accident. Every time he reappears, he does so for only a moment, enough for he and Jake to chat, but not enough for them to truly connect. When forced to leave the station, Jake assumes there is no way to reach his dad anymore, and lives his life. We see him at his happiest as he meets with Nog, his once childhood friend, and catches up with him about the lives of all those he was close with on the station. Jake himself is a successful author, settled down and married and planning to have children of his own in the future. At this point, Ben reappears, and in the fleeting moment they share, he’s nothing but smiles as Jake tells him of the life he has lived, until he disappears in Jake’s arms.

The unconventional nature of the episode, the narration and flashbacks, are at their most effective in these happier times, it infuses them with a twinge of melancholy, the inevitable fact of life that things are only happy until they are not. But not in a nihilistic way, the bittersweet nature of these scenes plays right into the show’s central thematic thrust.

After seeing his dad again, Jake gives up writing and rededicates his life to studying subspace mechanics in the vain hope of finding a way to save his father. His obsession is so great that he alienates his wife and ends up alone. When he sees his father again, Ben is heartbroken that Jake has sacrificed his own lifetime, his own passions to the futile cause of saving him. Jake takes these words to heart, and in the episode’s final scenes, commits suicide with Ben in his presence, severing the subspace link, and sending Ben back in time to prevent the accident from ever occurring, giving both father and son a second chance.

Jake Sisko sacrifices himself not for his father, not even for his younger self, but the bond that ties the both of them. The Visitor is Star Trek at its most sad and yet most optimistic. Ultimately, it was always a show about people, and the potential of humanity that could be tapped if we were able to truly work together. The Visitor is this idea thematically purified, focusing not on how we as a species could explore the cosmos, but how we as individuals rely on each other emotionally, highlighting the beauty and wonder of simply living a life, and reminding us just how fragile it is.

We could miss it if we don’t open our eyes.

Jackson has previously made a guest appearance on the podcast to talk video game-movies, but makes his solo debut for Failed Critics with this article on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You can agree or argue with him here or over on Twitter. You can also browse the rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series on the site.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Homer the Heretic (s4 ep3)

The latest addition to our 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by Gerry McAuley. Homer the Heretic makes The Simpsons the first series to have two separate entries into our list!

One of my criteria for greatness in the arts is timelessness. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Now, that isn’t to say that you can only call something great if it’s been around for a long time; sometimes you just know instantly that something is so amazing that your grandkids could watch it* and, while they may not get the same experience as you did given the different cultural environment, there’d still be something tremendously valuable about it. In this case, it’s that the episode is still brilliantly funny and simultaneously tells us something interesting about the culture of its time.

In a few months time, Homer the Heretic will be 21 years old. It was on TV recently and even watching it for the umpteenth time I was laughing like a loon. David Meyer’s writing is so crisp and poised and brilliantly structured that it’s almost divine. This is where I feel we see Homer at his best, the Homer of the earlier series: selfish, ignorant and gluttonous in a way that we can all identify with, rather than just some oafish buffoon to do slapstick gags and dumb jokes with. What’s more, he asks genuinely insightful questions of society through his actions and even his words – famously and poignantly asking God:

“I’m not a bad guy, I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”

Who knew he could say something that wasn’t entirely stupid, eh, current Simpsons writing team?

homer 1

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

For the handful of people whose lives have somehow led to them being able to read this article online but not having seen this episode, here’s the story: one freezing morning, Homer decides to stay in bed rather than go to Church. He enjoys it so much that he decides to stop going to Church altogether, incurring the wrath of Marge and causing various concerned Springfield citizens to try to bring him back into the fold and see the error of his ways.

Homer’s joy at having the house to himself is something I think we can all relate to and, while we may not all enjoy his patented space age out of this world moon waffles, I’m fairly confident we’ve all enjoyed some of the activities he does when home alone. The Simpsons is brilliant at making movie references and the Risky Business reference is actually one of the most obvious. It is, however, sure to bring a smile to your face. They also riff on the previous year’s Backdraft, finding comedy in the classic cinematic trope of the heroic rescue.

This is The Simpsons at its most bold. To actually depict God, in physical form, appearing in dreams and chatting to Homer is quite ‘out there’, especially in the good ol’ US of A. To show God as an ordinary guy at heart (“You know, sometimes even I’d rather be watching football”), mocking certain aspects of religious beliefs (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear in a tortilla in Mexico”) – that really takes some stones.

Meyer was brought up Catholic but became an atheist and the combination of detailed knowledge and devastating criticism here is perfectly balanced. The episode drips with quotable, funny lines.There’s a very fine line to tread when dealing with multiple religious groups and managing to poke fun at Christians, Jews and Hindus (or “miscellaneous” as Reverend Lovejoy calls them) without really annoying them massively is an impressive feat. The resolution, with its message that we’re all human no matter your religious beliefs, chimes with God approving Homer’s decision to worship in his own unique way. Meyer and his team manage to provide a ‘message’ that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different audiences and thus keep everyone laughing and largely unoffended.

homer 2

This episode has everything that makes the show great: bags of humour, thought-provoking social commentary and satire, an insightful depiction of family life and a remarkable likeability even when characters seem to be acting selfishly. Episodes like this are also significant in that they laid the ground for shows like South Park to really tear into things that people hold dear. A much more delicate and family-friendly balance than that is struck by The Simpsons team at the height of their powers; sadly, they don’t replicate such highs these days, but at least we have the memories. Or should I say, at least they show the classics on TV on a regular basis so we can keep enjoying them. As I say, I have every intention of still laughing like a lunatic at this episode with my grandchildren many years from now.

 

*The caveat being that some truly great shows might be a bit uncomfortable to watch with your grandchildren, no matter how old they are. Like Game of Thrones. 

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THAT’S GAME HENDRIX!

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Twenty-One Guns (s12 ep 22)

A less than regular series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics & other TV obsessives.

ER gurney

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor. Not in any real sense, you understand. But in the same way that The Good Wife made me believe I would legitimately succeed as a lawyer, fifteen years of ER provided me with a pretty comprehensive medical education.

Ask someone to name their favourite episode of the County General drama, and they’ll more than likely mention George Clooney in a storm drain. Stalwarts may also reference helicopter crashes, road trips, or a certain hand written letter. Season 12 doesn’t feature highly (or at all) in many of the great episode lists.

By season 12, many people had given up on ER. If not during the first episode (an hour dedicated to the disappearance of Nurse Sam’s annoying, diabetes-ridden kid) then definitely midway, when some disillusioned writer, still mourning the loss of Carter, would scrape the bottom of his high school creative writing level barrel and come up with The Monkey Episode. Later weeks spent a significant amount of time in Darfur which, while enlightening, were not particularly escapist TV. In short, season 12 was disjointed, and watching it was all a bit of a chore. Until Twenty-One Guns.

Twenty-One Guns takes us back to basics. A typical day for the ER staff: religious groups spouting premonitions, hapless trainees, disgusting irrigations and board level bureaucracy. Alongside this, the funeral of one of their own, unexpectedly killed off in the previous episode. Oh, and the O.K. Corral.

The season finale drama is provided by Nurse Sam’s dysfunctional family members. Again. Only this time it’s her convict ex-husband, come to stage a prison break via the suture room. So that’s actually pretty cool. And, for those of us only just recovered from the security breach which led to the fatal stabbing of a medical student back in season 6, pretty fucking tense. Cue guns, lots of guns. Possibly over twenty.

As ever, the heart of the show lies in a crisis, as the nurses and doctors step up and do their thing. Morris, a slacker from the moment he arrived on the job, finally seems to know what he’s doing and, on his last day in the ER, might actually save a life. Possibly his first! And who knew you cared so much about desk clerk Jerry until he nearly died, huh? When Weaver, the matriarch, finally arrives in the aftermath of the bloodbath, there is a palpable sense of relief. These guys really are a family. And not just because Kovac got Abby knocked up.

Few characters could pull off ‘interesting subplot’ when your main storyline features guns, hostages and vending machines. Neela is the little English doctor that could. Parminder Nagra (from Leicester, don’t you know?!) is brilliant generally, but particularly strong when burying her dead husband. Yet even in the midst of her grief, she and Pratt, her funeral wing man, find themselves inexplicably drawn to the hospital. That Emergency Room has a weird hold over them all. You generally have to die to leave County. Or land a big screen casino heist franchise.

I’m a sucker for dramatic American set pieces soundtracked by British alternative rock bands (which is totally a spoiler for my choice for greatest episode of The Newsroom). Nonetheless, the final minutes, from the opening bars of Open Your Eyes, give me goose bumps every time. This entire sequence is wonderfully done and, after humble (shit) beginnings, closes season 12 with an almighty cliff-hanger.

ER is an ensemble drama which is almost entirely famous for a single character, who left less than a third of the way through. However, as anyone who stuck with the show to the bitter end will tell you, the real star isn’t that Kentucky born, pig-keeping, silver fox at all, but the admit desk, the board, and the gurneys. They set the tone.

“I think there’s something going on at the hospital.”

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Hitting The Fan (s05 ep05)

A sporadic series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics & other contributors.

hitting the fan deskIt’s easy to see why The Good Wife has passed a lot of people by. Or, indeed, been actively avoided by many of the usual fans of American TV drama. Starring that chick from ER (and, erm, Snakes on a Plane) and the old dude from Sex and the City, the housewife-turned-litigator premise seems a little derivative. But to know Alicia Florrick is to know that she, and her incredible supporting cast, are so much more than their crummy title suggests. They should have called it The Fucking Badass Wife.

Hitting The Fan happens early on in season five. It should be a comfortable, middle of the road episode. At this particular point in The West Wing, for example, there was a birthday. ER did Halloween, Sex and the City did a book launch (didn’t they do that every week?), while in The Sopranos someone almost slept with someone they shouldn’t. The Good Wife, however, decided that season 5, episode 5 was as good a place as any to spend 41 minutes skilfully destroying everything they’d built up in the previous 94 episodes. “It’s time I try something new” said Alicia. And then they did.

Alicia and Cary Agos, her former nemesis, have come a long way since the pilot. After years of billable hours and court room successes, they’ve worked their way up to Partner and 4th Year Associate respectively. And now it’s time to start their own firm, taking their hard earned clients with them. The other hapless 4th Year Associates – more interested in cappuccinos than contacts – who complete this new start up worry me, and afford Alicia the occasional tut. But it doesn’t matter, because this is clearly the Florrick/Agos show. And, let’s face it, we never really saw any of Lockhart/Gardner’s colleagues, save for the delightfully brutal David Lee. Alicia and Cary, for all their history, are going to be the new Will and Diane. Believe it or not, I can actually see them slow dancing around the office together a couple of seasons from now. Just don’t you dare say that to Will.

Oh Will. Even the way you stand up from your chair when presented with mentee/former lover Alicia’s treachery is sexy. As he strides off to confront her we get a series of flashbacks of their infamous white sheeted sex scene. Frankly, it’s so hot I can’t have been the only one expecting an angry shag rather than shouting when he lunged at Alicia and swept the entire contents of her desk onto the floor. “I took you in…you were poison” Will seethes, in an exchange a world away from the previous episode’s amicable reminiscence of their office romance days. Cynics might well call this the end for Will & Alicia, but I live in hope. Of Peter Florrick dying from a massive stress related heart attack, mainly.

After rumblings of dissent in the camp for weeks, it is Diane, class personified, (and still hanging around after being so unceremoniously ousted herself the previous week) who finally figures out what is going on. And she does it via a quick glance at Alicia’s office decoration stipend; I told you she was classy. In contrast to Will and Alicia, the mentor/mentee showdown between Diane and Cary is a far more civilised affair. She clutches his laptop and talks about betrayal. He accidentally gives away the fact that they’re taking the chumhum (The Good Wife’s version of Google) account with them, but still manages to sign off with his trademark cheeky grin.

Kalinder makes a brief but always welcome appearance, as she blithely double crosses the new firm and proves once and for all that you can’t trust her as far as you could lob one of her enormous leather boots. Meanwhile David Lee races around in his Bluetooth headset screaming “hands up from the keyboard” at everyone, like he’s in the FBI.

Peter (the Good Husband, if you will) shows up for the obligatory booty call, complete with ‘lean in’ gags; because even the sex scenes are well scripted, damn it! Indeed it’s a testament to the show that the Governor Elect’s main role is as a piece of ass. Ok, he throws a bit of executive office weight around at the end, securing Florrick/Agos the toppest of all the top clients, but he’s primarily in it for the sex. Meanwhile, Alicia’s kids continue their recent trend of having short enough scenes to remain unannoying. And, best of all, there isn’t a single second of Jackie Florrick.

Hitting The Fan leaps effortlessly from screaming tension to laugh out loud funny (“Go to hell.” “You go!” “Oh, your daughter called. She needs a permission slip for school.”). It’s exhausting television, like watching an entire season in under an hour. Alicia is escorted from the building before the opening credit sequence even appears, in the kind of dramatic set piece normally reserved for a season finale cliff hanger. This is one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. And, while I’m sad for all those people who won’t see it, the makers of The Good Wife don’t care. Oh no, they’re too busy kicking ass.

“We’re coming after you. All your clients. Every single one we worked to make happy while you swept in at the last minute to take credit. We’re taking them. And then you know what you’ll have? A very nice suite of offices.”

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Good Grief (s2, ep4)

arrested development good grief peanutsCult US sitcom Arrested Development returns to our screens this Sunday and, rather than the harsh and unforgiving world of network television, it has found a new home on Netflix. It would be unfair to blame Fox for the show’s failure to gather an audience during its original three season stint between 2003 and 2006. The network gave it a fair crack, but this idiosyncratic comedy couldn’t attract more than the proverbial handful of dedicated followers.

It wasn’t that the show was too clever or highbrow, just that it required commitment. Most popular sitcoms allow you to dip in and out casually, with the majority of the jokes being explicitly and verbally expressed; ‘there’s the uptight one getting annoyed by the lazy one, then the one with the great one-liners is about to deliver a great one-liner’. On AD, Ron Howard’s title-sequence narration spelt out the basic premise of the Enron-style downfall of a family-run construction firm (“And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together”), but the myriad of inter-related storylines were far from simple.

Arrested Development’s greatest triumph, and ultimately its downfall, was the abundance of call backs, in-jokes, pop culture references, and visual gags that required some serious concentration and, at times, remarkable recall from the viewer. I can’t think of a greater example of this interweaving than in the second season episode ‘Good Grief’. In fact, I’m going to have to assume that you’ve already seen it, as to try and explain the set-up of this episode would take 5000 words alone.

The episode opens on G.O.B (Will Arnett) asking Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) “Did you see the new Poof?”. Michael thinks G.O.B is referring to the company’s new homosexual employee Gary, rather than the magician’s industry magazine. G.O.B didn’t even realise Gary was gay (which makes the flashback where he tells Gary he would “kill for that ass” seem like a come-on), and is instead jealous of rival magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) making the cover of Poof by baking himself into a loaf of bread and then popping out of the resulting sandwich to feed the troops.

What makes this particular episode so strong though, is the way the entire Bluth family spend the majority of the episode in the same plot strand. Ice (who bounty hunts to support his real passion of party planning) arrives with news that George Snr has been killed in a Mexican jail. That this is proven by a political cartoon showing George being lowered into a ‘cornballer machine’ shows how deep the call backs go. The corn baller is a deep-fat fryer that George marketed in Mexico despite the US government banning it as hugely unsafe. To really find this funny you would need to have seen a particular episode in the first season, and that’s the point you realise why the casual viewers didn’t stay.

George Snr’s body hasn’t been recovered, but G.O.B spots an opportunity to “get in this Poof” declaring “I will be my father’s body”. His fake burial at George Snr’s wake is one of the crowning moments of the series. Standing atop a mound of earth, he dismisses the rest of his family, ”the speeches we have heard today are nothing more than words, but I will prove I loved my father more than anybody”, and proceeds to dance and pose to a gothic version of Europe’s The Final Countdown’. Again, hilarious if you’ve seen G.O.B perform magic before, but probably slightly bewildering if not.

In Good Grief we also get Michael in a less-than perfect light. In most episodes he is the grounded character, a beacon of sanity in a world populated by magicians, analrapists (Tobias Funke, the world’s first analyst-therapist), and Carl Weathers. However his son’s relationship with Ann Veal brings out the worst in him, frequently referring to her as Egg (after he once saw her eat an egg) and at one point telling George Michael that the love they share is “as Ann as the nose on plain’s face”.

I could reel off a whole list of brilliant moments from this episode. Buster telling the family that “Army had half-a-day” while trying to hide the fact that he hasn’t actually joined the army; George Michael’s eulogy to the man that he’s hiding in the attic; Maeby trying to set her mum up with Ice so that she can get divorced from her parents: “All Pop-Pop ever wanted was to see you with another man besides Daddy”.

But it isn’t just the funny lines, it also has the subtle details that are sometimes only spotted during (numerous) repeat viewings. Since this is the Peanuts episode, most of the male characters do the Charlie Brown head-down walk to ‘Christmas Time is Here’, while a Christmas Tree and a kennel with a dog lying on top can be spotted in the background of one scene. The Bluth Banana Stand has a sign saying “The Frozen Banana Maker is…OUT” in exactly the same format as Lucy’s psychiatrist stand.

Love this show with all your heart, and it will love you back.

Hopefully Arrested Development has found the perfect home on Netflix. It won’t need to worry about ratings, and people can discover it at their leisure. Then inevitably binge on an entire season over a weekend once they get obsessed with it.

Taste the happy!

Arrested Development Season 4 is available to stream on all Netflix regions from Sunday 26th May.