Category Archives: Television

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Song for Europe (s2 e5)

Father TedThey just don’t make sitcoms like Father Ted anymore. Sure, you can still turn on BBC1 during the week and catch a studio-filmed multiple-camera setup sitcom, complete with laugh track, but you’ll have to put up with an annoyingly voiced woman falling over or an unfunny Irishman dressed hilariously in drag. What you won’t find is a smart yet silly flight of comic fancy that feels both fresh and timeless all at once.

Between 1995 and 1998, Father Ted was a cultural phenomenon. It may have been tucked away on Channel 4, but this was a time when we only had four channels of note, and the show regularly topped five million viewers. The 1996 Christmas Special received the highest viewing figures for a non-film in Channel 4’s history at the time. Even people who didn’t watch the show knew about the drunken priest who yelled “Drink! Feck! Girls!”, and the insistent housekeeper determined to ensure visitors to the parochial house had a cup of tea. Look past the catchphrases and one-joke characters though, and you’ll see that Dermot Morgan’s Father Ted Crilly is one of the great TV comedy creations. Co-writer Graham Linehan has admitted that Ted is the only human and realised character in a show full of charicatures. Ted, exiled to Craggy Island by Bishop Len Brennan for financial irregularities (the money was just resting in his account), spends every episode wishing to escape from the drudgery of his rural posting, and trying to survive living with archetypal idiot Father Dougal McGuire.

Written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, Father Ted was probably my biggest comedic influence growing up. It made me want to write comedy, and is responsible for the tiny part of my brain that refuses to give up on this foolhardy dream. Running a film blog, I was tempted to pick one of the many great film parodies the show produced in its short three series run. Speed 3, where Father Dougal McGuire’s milk float (long story, but it concerns Pat Mustard and babies with mustaches) can’t drop below 5mph or it will explore; or Night of the Nearly Dead which replaces George A. Romero’s zombies with pensioners.

Ultimately though, I have plumped for an episode that resonates on a very personal level. Obviously, publishing this piece on the eve of Eurovision Song Contest 2013 is pure good fortune.

Song for Europe sees catholic priests Father Ted Crilly and Father Dougal McGuire entering Song for Europe, a Eurovision-style competition. As is often the case in this series, Ted’s competitive spirit is stoked into action by the news that his nemesis Father Dick Byrne is also entering. Dougal, as ever, gets a little carried away with the idea of fame and fortune, “Imagine if we won. We’d be like Nelson Mandela and his mad wife”.

The pinnacle of the episode is watching Ted and Dougal’s creative song writing process. From the suggestion of writing a song “about a lovely horse”, Ted has to remind Dougal that they’re not actually in love with the horse. Hours pass, and Ted explodes in a ball of rock diva rage shouting at Dougal to “Play the f**king note! No, not the f**king first one! The first one’s already f**king down”. With Father Jack and Mrs Doyle unimpressed by their efforts, Ted decides to steal the tune (or honour the memory) of a long forgotten Norwegian Eurovision b-side, and the magnificent My Lovely Horse is born.

And this is the real reason I chose the episode. Like the show’s title music, My Lovely Horse was written and performed by Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy. My favourite musician of the last twenty years writing a Eurovision entry for my favourite TV programme of the last twenty years. Pretty much every Divine Comedy gig I’ve attended has featured at least one request for My Lovely Horse from the audience, and after much fan pressure Hannon finally released it as a b-side on his Gin soaked Boy single in 1999. Here are the song’s lyrics in all their glory:

My lovely horse, running through the field
Where are you going, with your fetlocks blowing in the wind?

I want to shower you with sugar lumps, and ride you over fences
Polish your hooves every single day, and bring you to the horse dentist

My lovely horse, you’re a pony no more
Running around with a man on your back, like a train in the night…

Ted and Dougal make it to the finals of A Song for Ireland, where we get a glimpse of Ted’s pretty non-committal relationship with religion, and Catholicism in general. Flustered by the revelation that the show’s producer and presenter are homosexual partners, Ted desperately tries to make conversation, “Must be fun though. Not the… but the nightclubs and the whole rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. When the producer is surprised at a catholic priest condoning homosexuality, Ted tells his that “sometimes the Pope says things he doesn’t really mean”. To Ted, being a priest is just a job that fulfills a role on the island. Like being a milkman, or running the local shop.

Sadly, Dermot Morgan died at the shockingly young age of 45 before the final series of Father Ted was aired. While we will never know where his career would have taken his after Craggy Island, we can at least admire his genius in portraying a comic character that is right up there with the likes of Basil Fawlty, Mr Rigsby, and Norman Stanley Fletcher.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Skorpio (s1 e6)

Archer and LanaEver since Arrested Development was cruelly taken away from us in 2006, I have struggled to fill the void it left in my life. Then, a few months before AD’s triumphant return (15 brand new episodes available on Netflix from May 26th) I discovered my Bluth family methadone in the shape of US animated series Archer.

Much in the same way I stumbled across the pilot episode of Arrested Development late one Sunday night on BBC2, Archer is the type of show that you either discover by accident, or through the passing of secret television wisdoms by friends that you trust. It’s been showing on digital channel 5star for the last three years, but the first time I had even heard of it was when my brother-in-law recommended I watch it on Netflix.

When people say that a film or TV show is “something meets something else unrelated” it’s usually the sign of laziness and a lack of imagination. But if you’re reading a blog by me you’re used to that by now, so Archer most definitely is Arrested Development meets James Bond. Proper James Bond as well, not these fancy modern shenanigans. It’s not just a facile comparison though, Archer utilises snappy dialogue, call-backs and in-jokes, and even loads of the same cast as Arrested Development. Most recognisable is Jessica Walter as Mallory Archer, head of an U.N.C.L.E-style international spy organisation known as ISIS. In fact, she landed the role after her agent read a script describing Mallory as “think Jessica Walter in Arrested Development”.

Skorpio is a brilliant episode from the first season, and one which really allows the main characters to develop and start to make their own mark. Mallory is explaining the latest ISIS mission to her son, and ISIS super-spy, Sterling Archer. They have been tasked to kill an overweight terrorist by the name of Skorpio, with Archer wondering “is diabetes busy?” Much like Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development though, Mallory Archer gets off on being withholding to her son, and offers the mission (and substantial bounty) to Archer’s ex-girlfriend and fellow field agent Lana Kane.

This opening scene exposes the deliberate anachronisms and contradictions that underpin the style of the show. The drinking in offices, stylish fashions, and rampant misogyny  scream Mad Men. Surely I can’t be the only one to have struggled through an episode where nothing happens and wished it was half the length and had Don Draper fighting off three scuba divers with a harpoon gun? Or wished he’s stop looking all moody in a bar and talked someone into bed with a line like “Lana, your eyes are amazing. I mean, not compared to your tits…” If you’re anything like me, you’ll love Archer’s blending of cold war style with modern pop culture references.

Like any sit-com worth its salt, there’s a love triangle featuring the show’s womanising bastard of a protagonist, his ex-girlfriend and fellow field agent (Lana Kane, played by 24’s Aisha Tyler), and her oppressively clingy boyfriend and ISIS accountant Cyril Figis (played brilliantly by Chris Parnell, better known as 30 Rock’s Dr. Leo Spaceman). Unlike most sitcoms, each character is so unlikeable you can’t root for any of them to end up with each other, just to share some dark and disturbing sexual encounters. The supporting cast of office drones (including an overweight and undersexed gossip queen in charge of HR, a psychotic heiress working as Archer’s secretary, and a scientist cloned from the DNA of Adolf Hitler in true Boys From Brazil style) add some wonderful touches of banality to the exotic location and cartoonish violent action.

I’m a sucker for self-referential shows that treat call-backs and in-jokes as gifts for the loyal fans. Archer is full of them, and one that delivers time and time again is Sterling Archer’s failure to come up with awesome names for his brilliant plans, or when dispatching enemy henchmen. At one point in the episode he sets off to rescue Lana from Skorpio’s clutches, otherwise known as Operation something about I rescue Lana and she begs me to take her back so Cyril commits suicide. Unlike every action hero to have ever graced the screen, Archer is constantly looking for validation with his laboured one-liners. When he can think of one, unlike during an escape in this episode where armed with a hand-grenade he struggles to maintain his air of cool detachment with the immortal line “Damn, I had something for this too. Dammit. Eat grenade, stupids!”

I already can’t wait to watch every episode again, and that’s the sign of a great show in anyone’s books. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting my turtleneck. I’m not defusing a bomb in this!

Best films on TV – week commencing 8th April 2013

5 out of 7 days this week, you can watch a Van Damme film. In order for me to resist posting each one as the best film on TV that particular day, you can consider it a “Muscles from Brussels Bonus” along with the real best film. Lucky you! I’ve also set myself a challenge of picking a film from 7 different channels just to keep you all on your toes and show that I don’t just watch movies on Film4, the horror channel and ITV4.

Universal Soldier The ReturnMonday 8th April – The Bourne Identity (ITV2 10.30pm)

The spy thriller that made people sit up and ask “why don’t they make the Bond films like this?” And then, of course, Casino Royale happened. Somewhat ironically, I can’t remember when the last time this film was picked for the days #bestfilmonTV. It’s on all the time, but with rarely broadcast The Bourne Supremacy on ITV2 on Friday, it’s a good excuse to watch them both. (MFBbonus: Universal Soldier: The Return, Sony Movie Channel, 11.05pm – direct sequel to the original UniSol film with Van Damme (but no Dolph) and a Sky Net esque villain. Oh, and Bill Goldberg as a big evil baddy.)

Tuesday 9th April – Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Film4, 3.20pm)

Unless you have the day off or are still on holiday, you may have to rewind a blank video tape and set the timer to record this one whilst you’re out. Released in 1973, it’s the final film in the original quintilogy of Planet of the Apes films; ‘Battle for’ is the series’ most unsubtle anti-war movie. Gorillas fighting chimps with orangutan overlords, it couldn’t be more obvious. It’s still a great movie and you don’t have to have seen the previous films to understand what’s going on here. Think of it as a prequel to the original 1968 blockbuster. (MFBbonus: Street Fighter, Sony Movie Channel, 10.50pm – honestly, it’s a decent action film. Just don’t think of it as the same as the Street Fighter game and you’ll be fine! Van Damme’s accent is fooling nobody though. American soldier my arse.)

Wednesday 10th April – A History of Violence (More4, 10pm)

Having only watched Cronenberg’s multiple award winning drama on More4 last week, I can heartily recommend it on the same channel again this week. It tells the story of a family man who must reluctantly turn to violence in order to save his family from mobsters and from his past. It’s probably Viggo Mortensen’s finest performance, and he has a bucket load of those to choose from. Useless bit of trivia for you, it was the last Hollywood film to be released on VHS. (MFBbonus: Knock Off, 5USA+1, 12.25am – remember when Jackie Chan made those slightly jokey, fun, Hong Kong kung-fu capers in the 90’s? This is basically Van Damme’s attempt at that. Ignore Rob Schneider, if you can.)

Thursday 11th April – Twins of Evil (horror channel, 9pm)

Assuming not everybody has Sky Atlantic to catch Tarantino’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, Thursday’s best film comes in the form of Hammer Horror’s 1971 oft parodied vampire film, Twins of Evil (despite the fact it narrowly missed out on a place in my favourite films of 1971.) With the gravitas of Peter Cushing tying it all together, plenty of large-chested scantily-clad young ladies, and lashings of bright red syrup–I mean blood, it’s about as typical a HH as it’s possible to get. In a good way! (MFBbonus: Replicant, Sony Movie Channel, 1am – the second film where Van Damme plays two separate characters (an evil serial killer + his clone) although perhaps not as good overall as Double Impact. Also, it features Merle from The Walking Dead as a cop. It’s honestly a very good, very sad, and very serious film.)

Friday 12th April – Mean Streets (BBC2, 12.10am (technically Saturday but close enough to still be Friday’s choice!)

Eight different films could’ve easily made today’s choice, but with most of them appearing on TV channels I’ve already used, and seeing as Mean Streets is a damned fine film, I figured this is as good a choice as any. It may be a little rough around the edges, but it shows flashes of the brilliance that was to come from Martin Scorcese. Harvey Keitel and Bobby De Niro are also superb here too. (MFBbonus: Hmm you’ll have to take the day off. There’s no Van Damme film on TV on Friday. How very disappointing.)

Saturday 13th April – Rocky III (Channel 5, 4.25pm)

I pity the fool who hasn’t seen the third Rocky film (see what I did there?) Something of a half-way point in the series, shifting from the sentimental mushyness of the first two films to the montage-laden epicness of Rocky IV; Rocky III is at an interesting impasse. It also happens to feature the best “bad guy” in the series (better than Ivan Drago) in the shape of Mr T as Clubber Lang! (MFBbonus: Sudden Death, ITV4, 9.05pm – as close to Die Hard as Van Damme got, he plays a security guard who protects an ice hockey arena from a terrorist attack. Yeah.. it’s quite a bit “Die Hard”ish. Good fun though!)

Sunday 14th April – Land of the Dead (ITV4, 11.25pm)

Well, I couldn’t not pick a zombie film, could I? Particularly when it’s a George A Romero one, at that! This is the movie that Romero said he wanted to make when he made Day of the Dead, if he’d had the budget for it back in the 80’s. Land of the Dead is the first in his modern ‘Dead’ trilogy, and features some of his best and most clever work. See if you can spot a cameo from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright too! (MFBbonus: there actually isn’t a Jean-Claude Van Damme film on TV on Sunday as far as I can tell. I’m sure you can find one online if you’re desperate. Wake of Death is on Crackle.com for free! Try that if you like.)

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Blackwater (s2, ep9)

When I found out that Failed Critics would be running a series on greatest ever TV episodes, a few shows came to mind. However there is one from recent memory that is more deserved of a praise than anything I’ve seen in years.

As the world had come to accept fantasy drama as mainstream following the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Game of Thrones took that world by storm in 2011, when it was launched into realism as a TV drama out of the pages of its author George R. R. Martin. Where GOT differs from other classical mythology of Tolkien-ilk, is its unyielding portrayal of real-world brutality and shocking morality.

The new series was an overnight success and quickly became the most talked about TV show on the Internet, as people scurried to find out more from the existing texts than their weekly supplement could satisfy. Wheels are set into motion in the first episode of the very first series, pitching five families against one another for survival and ownership of the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Blackwater, the penultimate episode of the second series, is arguably the culmination of all the episodes of GOT that came before it, as circumstances create a chain of events and pawns are strategically (or sometimes less strategically) placed for the infamous ‘Battle of Blackwater Bay’.

The episode begins with the patrons of King’s Landing (the kingdom’s capital) laying in wait of the wrath of would-be King, Stannis Baratheon. The capital is ill-armed, ill-prepared and under-manned due to an ongoing war with the Northern uprising (led by Robb Stark). The tension in the air is truly palpable as troops drunkenly await their call to arms, as particularly highlighted by a delicate conversation between Sandor Cligane (The Hound) and sell-sword, Bronn (Jerome Flynn).

As the city faces seemingly insurmountable odds, the scene appears grim as the army of Stannis sails right into Blackwater Bay without any interjection from the defending King’s army. Cruel King Joffre Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) flouts the possibility of defeat despite making zero preparation, all of which has been left to the most intelligent and charismatic character of the series, Tyrion Lannister (the King’s uncle) played by the extraordinary and Emmy award-winning Peter Dinklage.

Bronn-stands-tall-in-the-Battle-of-Blackwater

As the city forces take position at the walls, the King panics when he sees only one defensive ship in his harbour sailing directly into the ensuring armada. The attacking forces also curious as to why only one boat sails out to meet them begin to suspect a trap, but it is too late by the time they see the neon green substance leaking from the defending ship and a solitary flaming arrow flying over their heads…

What follows is the most spectacular piece of television I’ve ever witnessed, as the flaming arrow ignites the substance called ‘Wildfire’, thus creating a huge explosion of semi-biblical proportions and a shower of death closely resembling napalm, as a significant number of Stannis’ forces are consumed and their ships destroyed.

Stannis, unimpressed and non-relenting to the devastation, tells his forces to attack. When prompted by one of his commanders that so many are dead and many more will surely perish if they attack, Stannis merely responds with ‘Thousands…’.

A siege then begins as Stannis’ remaining troops storm the bay and even following the Wildfire attack still outnumber the defending troops. An impressive battle of archery and swordplay ensues on the beach between defenders and attackers, and there appears to be hope for the defenders of King’s Landing, until the King himself panics and retreats to the inner walls of the city, leading to his troops losing morale and ceasing to defend.

Reluctantly Tyrion (who happens to be a dwarf) has no choice but to lead an attack himself in the King’s absence to save the city. He is able to sneak a garrison of troops behind the attacks as they ram down the gate and begin to ascend the city walls, but they are greatly outnumbered and all seems lost as Tyrion is struck down by one of the City guards, at the orders of rival sibling Cersei (Lena Headey).

At the very last, a charge of cavalry is seen smashing into the attackers and the King’s grandfather, Tywin Lannister pronounces the battle over, just before Cersei can administer her youngest son with poison to save him from the wrath of Stannis.

The Blackwater episode is very much comparable with the Battle of Helm’s Deep from LOTR’s The Two Towers yet, in my opinion, is more impressive and unquestionably more graphic. The GOT universe until this point had almost exclusively been forged in a Medieval mythology that is compatible with real history. All that changes with the introduction of alchemy via Wildfire, and then sorcery by the end of the series with ascension of Dragon’s and the rise of the un-dead from beyond the Wall.

Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the hottest property on TV currently, and the whole-world is on count down to the launch of Season 3 in early April 2013. It’s like watching a fantastic hour long movie every week and, like any good show, it leaves you desperately awaiting the next episode. Whatever Season 3 has in store, it certainly has a great deal to live up to following the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the finest pieces of television you’ll have seen in many years.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Win, Lose, or Draw (s4 ep22)

(This article features a television episode not yet broadcast in the UK. It contains spoilers.)

knope 2012By Kelly

So I just googled Plato and Aristotle’s theories on comedy (I go HARD every night, you guys). According to Plato, comedy is a little bit malicious. Its characters are ignorant and foolish and hampered by delusions of grandeur. According to Aristotle, comedy is ridiculous and ugly, its characters “lower types.”

Nice try, philosophy, but (K)nope.

Parks and Recreation makes its own rules every day, reimagining the comedy landscape as a place where good things happen to good people. These characters love and support each other. They know themselves and chase their own ambitions, which are great and worthy and never taken lightly. So much of what makes this show different is in the way it lets people grow over time. You can’t see all of that in one episode. But if you could, “Win, Lose, or Draw” would be that episode.

To start with, it’s a brilliant little study in the absurdities of the government process. Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks Department, has run a hard-fought campaign for City Council against “legendarily stupid” golden boy Bobby Newport (played by Paul Rudd. PAUL. RUDD). This should be no contest; Leslie’s worked her whole life for this. Bobby’s only there because his dad runs the biggest corporation in town. He doesn’t even want the job, and he wouldn’t know what to do if he got it. Still, thanks to his campaign manager’s manipulations, Bobby could easily win this thing. Pawnee is a hot mess—case in point: in the event of an exact tie, the woman is thrown in jail—but sometimes it’s also frighteningly true to life. Tampering with voting machines, anyone?

And yet despite everything, the show itself isn’t cynical toward public service. When Leslie selects her own name on the ballot, fulfilling a lifelong dream and achieving one of her all-time happiest moments, we all get to pause and enjoy it with her. From the way she’s fighting back tears, it’s clear that the vote is its own kind of victory. Hard work is its own reward, and at the end of the day, even an imperfect democratic process is still pretty darn amazing—win, lose, or draw.

Spoiler alert: Leslie does win. But this episode works because we don’t feel like she has to. She already had her big moment in the voting booth, and it’s easy to imagine Leslie picking herself up and finding a silver lining. A loss would be better for Ron, because the man hates change. He still gets his milk delivered by horse. A loss would free Chris to date Ann. And of course, since Jerry forgot to vote, a one-vote loss would be hilariously poetic. There’s more than one person to consider here. No one achieves anything alone. That’s the Parks and Rec motto.

It’s fitting, then, that “Win, Lose, or Draw” is peppered with great relationship moments, as the whole team comes together for the big day. Ann helps Leslie keep her mind off of the election. Ron knows right where to find her when she goes missing. Ben holds her hand and writes her victory speech—and just her victory speech, because he never believed she’d need anything else (awww!). In return, Leslie tells Ben to take his dream job in DC. She puts a Washington Monument figurine in their very special box, and she lets him go.

It wouldn’t be the quintessential Parks and Rec episode without that box, would it? I keep all of my Leslie and Ben feelings in there. It’s where they put the things they sacrifice for each other. As Ron so adorably reminds his deputy, love isn’t about personal glory; it’s about unconditional support. Ben and Leslie probably have that embroidered on a pillow somewhere, because it’s just how they roll. They build each other up, and they’re not the only ones. When April makes a huge mistake in the office, Andy’s right there beside her, hiding under the table and planning a possible escape. In return, April helps Andy figure out his dream job. “Catch Your Dreams” really is this campaign’s theme song, in more ways than one.

But maybe the most remarkable thing about this episode is that it gives us all of those big happy tears and still manages to be absolutely hilarious. If you think sentimentality stands in the way of laughter, try watching this show cut from Leslie’s emotional victory hug to Bobby Newport’s concession speech (“Honestly, I’ve never been more relieved in my entire life”). There is genius everywhere here: Paul Rudd giggles at a boom mic, Jean-Ralphio shows up long enough to sing about insurance fraud, Ben tries an awkward non sequitur about jeans, Leslie is tempted by Joe Biden’s home phone number, and Adam Scott literally wipes his drink off of his tongue, which might be the hardest I will ever laugh about anything in my life, and I’m fine with that.

“Win, Lose, or Draw” wins. On all counts. Care to join me in some victory waffles?

Kelly is an aspiring television writer who’s currently trying Brooklyn on for size. Find her online at TVmouse, where cheese is strongly encouraged.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: To Be a Somebody Part 1 (s2 ep1)

crackerI was a very serious child. A real worrier. I had problems sleeping throughout my teens and, as this 100 Greatest TV Episodes series progresses, a pattern of self-inflicted televisual abuse may well become clear. While my nightmares of imminent nuclear destruction, terrifying child murderers, and dying several horrific deaths on a farm could be traced back to the factual media of late-night documentaries, Crimewatch, and public information films that are seemingly only shown in Devon, they were still hysterical and slightly fantastical nightmares. The type of things that I could convince myself only happened to someone else. We lived in a world of right and wrong, of good and outright evil.

Then in October 1994, I watched the latest series of Cracker; the Jimmy McGovern police drama starring Robbie Coltrane as the alcoholic, gambling-addicted forensic psychologist Fitz. I can just about remember the first series, but it was during the second, and the opening story ‘To Be a Somebody’ in particular, that Cracker became a one of the most-watched dramas on UK television. Coltrane’s Fitz is one of the great television ‘detectives’, with a brain sharper than anyone on the force and about 15 different vices when most flawed mystery-solvers have one or two. And I fucking loved him. When most kids my age were idolising Eric Cantona or Jon Bon Jovi, I wanted to be a forensic psychologist when I grew up. Preferably a chain-smoking, obese forensic psychologist, who spent most of his day in the pub.

But there was something that disturbed me about this particular story-line  and it can be briefly summed up in two words: Robert Carlyle. Carlyle plays Albie Kinsella, a lonely but otherwise normal man struggling with the death of his father, and his recent divorce.  Despite being intelligent, he does a manual job and struggles to earn the respect he feels he is owed. After work, Albie pops into a shop to buy teabags and the Guardian but, following  an argument with the shopkeeper over four pence, storms out. He returns later having shaved his head, and stabs the shopkeeper in cold blood. It is this ‘snap’ and transformation from downtrodden citizen to monster that captivated and terrified me. Carlyle’s portrayal of a seemingly good man capable of acts of such violence is the first time I can remember seeing the many shades of grey that exist in this world. People weren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘evil’ any more.

The episode also referenced, quite controversially at the time, the Hillsborough disaster. Albie’s mission becomes an extreme ‘eye-for-an-eye’ project, intending to murder 96 people for the 96 who lost their lives in the terrible tragedy. At the time a number of survivors groups criticised the making of this episode, but I remember it being the first time I had really questioned the official version of events that we now know to be a disgraceful police cover-up. I’m not saying Cracker was the first media source to question what The Sun laughingly referred to as ‘The Truth’, but the way it invited us to empathise with Albie in spite of his crimes was incredibly powerful television.

The rest of the storyline plays out with a little more convention. Once Albie has been set up as the psychotic avenging angel, the focus shifts to the police and Fitz’s increasingly desperate attempts to stop him. It’s still compelling television though, and the death of a major character will live very long in my memory. This was probably the peak of the Cracker series, and almost certainly the one episode that everyone remembers.

It’s a shame to see how far ITV have fallen.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Pilot (s1 ep1)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.

sopranos

By Dr. Pangloss

I had to write this entry early, if only to preclude someone else inevitably chiming in with “Pine Barrens is the best episode of The Sopranos”. For sure, ‘Pine Barrens’ is an immaculately realised vignette with some of the deftest comedy to be seen in such a high minded drama, but it can hardly be held aloft as representative of a show best described as a sprawling narrative, drama in the most literal sense that is patiently grown over hours of screen time.

In that sense, it is almost impossible to pick one episode of the show to champion, as the intricate intertextuality (and obscenely consistent high quality) of the episodes which build on one another make it difficult to wrest one out of context as the best. But as the title of this post suggests, I’m going to make a case for the ‘Pilot’ episode nonetheless.

While inevitably not as layered as subsequent seasons, the first is (perhaps because of the fact) the show’s most complete. Each piece fits neatly into the next, inexorably leading towards the intense finale – which itself sets into motion the events of the next season. And, working backwards, it is the Pilot which sets the foundations for all that follows.

Like all essentially true revelations, the central concept behind The Sopranos seems so inevitable, so intrinsically true, that it is a wonder it had not been done a thousand times before. In a Postmodern world, of course a mob boss would suffer from stress-induced panic attacks and be forced to visit a psychiatrist.

It is from this one simple, delectable idea that the entire show is built. Throughout the six seasons, Tony’s struggle with identity, both as an American, a father and an alpha male, his attempts to reconcile obligations to Family and family, his fractured relationships with friends, family, women, colleagues – all are thrown into stark relief through his sessions with Melfi. Never has a TV character been so impeccably recognised, and deeply explored, as Tony Soprano.

The show displays levels of subtlety, subtext, immediacy, depth, visceral fear and even empathy that no other before it or since has come close to matching. Not only that, the series operates within one of the most hackneyed, over-saturated genres in film and TV and one over which The Godfather films bestride, unmoveable. And yet, not only does the show, and the pilot episode, confidently operate within this sphere, it has the the audacity to incorporate countless elements, references, quotes, impressions and indeed actors from the genre’s most famous examples, in effect negating their power and excavating a space in which to operate. “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type” – he grew up, he got in touch with his feelings. His type is gone. Never had a TV show interacted in such a sustained way with its bigger Hollywood brothers; not even as their equal, but as their superior.

Pilots are often a test run, something to be changed and adapted according to executive and viewer feedback in order to reactively shape the future of a show. This was no such thing. ‘Pilot’ was a fully-formed, fully realised 54 minutes which was to act as a blueprint for every episode that followed. The seeds sown, narratively, thematically, stylistically, take root throughout the rest of the season and sprout over the course of the show’s course. This is why, were it not for seasons 3-15 of the Simpsons, The Sopranos would be my favourite TV show of all time and why I think comparisons with shows like The Wire etc to which it is often subjected are belittling.

While an unconventional choice (Whitecaps, College and Made in America usually feature prominently in such lists), the first episode may also seem a bit like a cop out. But before you flee in your white robe, consider just how revolutionary ‘Pilot’ was, and how utterly essential each aspect of it was for both the original season’s arc, the five seasons that followed and indeed its place at the vanguard of HBO’s drama production, which revolutionised how audiences perceived TV and what such programmes could achieve.

It’s no stretch to suggest that without ‘Pilot’, we would have no The Wire, no Six Feet Under, no Band of Brothers, no Breaking Bad, no Mad Men – in other words, nothing produced after the year 2000 that will appear on this list.

And that, quite aside from its own considerable merits, is enough for its inclusion.

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: The Cold Open (s1 ep2)

studio 60 matt albieTime flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The show The West Wing could have been. Aaron Sorkin’s 2006 offering, set behind the scenes of a live TV comedy sketch show (so, SNL basically) was cancelled after a single season. The blame for its demise can be placed on the debut of similar in subject matter only 30 Rock the same year, the expense of such an enormous production, or just the fact that it wasn’t good enough. Indeed, there is much criticism on the internet. It took the haters five years to move on (and only then because Sorkin incurred fresh wrath by making Newsroom). Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of those 22 episodes of television.

My tastes are perhaps a little niche. But any show willing to ditch the three main characters and dedicate an entire episode to reuniting Allison Janney and Timothy Busfield, The West Wing’s second best on screen couple, is alright with me. Add to that all the usual Sorkin walking, talking, calling each other ‘sir’ shenanigans, a guest appearance by John Goodman, and the fact that it’s about a television show, and it’s guaranteed to be one of the first box sets I turn to when asked to contribute to a list of greatest episodes. Sadly, these days, television networks tend to base their renewal decisions more on Nielsen and less on my own personal preferences. For shame.

The pilot opens with the executive producer of the sketch show (which is also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – huh!) doing a Network live on air, and the subsequent return of former employees Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Trip (Bradley Whitford) to take over. Maybe it was the use of Under Pressure as the closing song, or just the way Matt & Danny jumped onto the stage at the end, but never have the final scenes of a pilot inspired such a squeal of anticipatory delight in me. It’s fair to say I went into this second episode with sky high expectations.

The Cold Open charts the new executive producers’ struggle to put together their first show in five days, in the face of huge media attention and sponsor pressure, with specific focus on creating a cold open. After the pilot, in which we mainly meet a bunch of characters and listen to Queen, it also acts as something of a cold open to the rest of the series. You see? It’s a show within a show!

Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) is the newly appointed president of entertainment programming. I’ve never wanted anyone as a boss more. Jordan is hugely successful, fiercely loyal, devastatingly attractive and makes really appalling jokes at all the worst possible moments. She is pretty much the perfect woman. While she jokes about being high at press conferences, and battles with affiliates about the Rapture, back at the studio, Danny tries to coax Matt into writing their first episode. Danny is just the right mix of disciplinarian, mother hen and cocaine addict to make the perfect executive producer for a live prime time sketch show. I imagine. I mean, I’m no expert, but the show gets made, so I’d call it a success. And, if you were one of the few who watched the entire series, Danny utters an important line during the press conference that comes back in the last few episodes. I love that kind of shit.

Matthew Perry originally turned down the role of Matt Albie, but apparently Sorkin was insistent that no one else could play him. Understandable, since Albie is fairly obviously based on Sorkin himself; from the feuds with other writing staff, to the righteous indignation, and even the devout Christian ex-girlfriend. We all know that Matthew Perry can play neurotic, but this time he’s freaking out over a digital clock and some index cards pinned to a wall, rather than house-mate related mishaps, and he really is a delight to watch. Within five minutes of meeting his new writing staff, he’s giving them a lecture on clothing ‘Couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth, but apparently I felt pretty strongly about it.’ and is anal enough to appreciate that 17 is a much funnier number than 15. Hero.

Of course, the real star of the episode is the cold open itself. From its office based conception to the final closing performance, it is the perfect blend of big band musical number, Gilbert & Sullivan, and words. Glorious, Sorkin shaped words.

We’ll be the very model of a modern network TV show,
Each time that we walk into this august and famous studio,
We’re starting out from scratch after a run of twenty years and so,
We hope that you don’t mind that our producer was caught doing blow.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: You Only Move Twice (s8 ep2)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.

You Only Move Twice

By Dr. Pangloss

It’s a pity this series of ‘100 Greatest TV Episodes’ doesn’t come in order. Quite aside from being a sure-fire way to attract indignant comments from readers and bump up page views, it would allow me to make a frankly unanswerable case for the superlative ‘You Only Move Twice’ as number one.

Because as the best episode of the best show to have ever been broadcast, it certainly would be.

If you were to take one episode from the 508 screened so far which encapsulates the show’s intelligence, wit, uncanny ability to provide endless quotable lines and its unique blend of reverence for and irreverence towards popular culture – you could do little better

First broadcast in 1996 (!) the episode displays the staggering ability that is the hallmark of the show’s earlier episodes to send a storyline spinning wildly out of control with divergent storylines, in this case to an entirely new city and with a sub-plot for each family member only to effortlessly draw everything back together in time for a lesson on the importance of sacrifice and family values. This wasn’t the first time The Simpsons had up and moved for Homer’s career (Dancin’ Homer was), but it was the first to have a storyline for each mover. There’s actually a fifth for Grandpa which features on the DVD extras where, somewhat predictably, he is left at home, forlorn and forgotten.

Damn right we’re talking DVD extras, it’s that kind of blog.

Underpinning the episode is the wonderful conceit that Homer has inadvertently found his dream job at the corporation run by a pastiche of a 007 villain more energetic and charismatic than the Blofeld he was loosely based on. From the opening titles, through the Goldfinger, Thunderball, Moonraker, You Only Live Twice and View to a Kill nods, to the closing theme song, the episode is an homage to Bont (for legal reasons). The writers even manage to throw in a parody of a parody in a way only The Simpsons would be able to, with a cameo from Mrs. Goodthighs of Casino Royale fame (1967, youngsters).

And yet its strength is that it manages to retain that unique Simpsons feel throughout, partly in thanks to a cameo from Al Brooks as Scorpio; arguably the greatest one-off character ever and a career-defining performance. And that is a career which boasts appearances in Taxi Driver, Drive and as five other Simpsons characters – bonus points if you can name them all. The writers famously barely bothered to script his lines, as they knew Brooks would improv most of them anyway, often changing tack mid-take. The entire hammock dialogue was ad-libbed on the spot by Brooks in one take; listen and you can hear Castellaneta struggling to keep up.

‘You Only Move Twice’ possesses the multi-faceted, layered script that all of the great episodes of the show have, and that possibly only Pixar at its best moments can match. You can (and I have) watch this show at the ages of 8, 12, 17 and 24 and laugh at different moments with each viewing. From the slapstick throwaway shoe gag (see what I did there?) and a remedial class full of Ralph Wiggums, to the meta-humour of recurring gags like “what lifelong dream?” and the sophisticated, wicked double entendre of “want some cream, too?”, the show stuffs in an incredible number of gags of a hugely diverse range into a mere 20 minutes. The writers also manage to take trenchant swipes at the US Army, the UN and include a rather sad hint at the dark life Marge would have if not for the housework.

And it lovingly references Dr. Strangelove. What more could you possibly want from a TV episode?

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Niagara Part Two (s6 ep5)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.

jim pam weddingFrom the very first episode, I loved The Office. Particularly Tim & Dawn. When America stole it from us I, like many, feared it would be ruined forever. Instead I fell even more hopelessly in love with Jim & Pam. Frankly, they’re who I base my marriage on.

It had an admittedly rocky start. The pilot was, aside from a few minor script alterations for US audiences, a direct copy of the UK pilot. This didn’t sit well with many of the fans. It felt uncomfortable. Forced. Yet I couldn’t not watch. It was filling a void that had been created the day after Boxing Day 2003; a void I was reminded of every time I heard Yazoo’s Only You. (Ok, every time I played Yazoo’s Only You. It’s not exactly a cornerstone of mainstream popular culture.)

Niagara may not be the most obvious choice for some. It could be argued that there are funnier, cleverer episodes. Episodes featuring Dundies, Dinner Parties and Gay Witch Hunts. But, for me, that’s what makes it so good. This is a comedy series, with an ensemble cast, in a documentary format. And yet, amidst all that, is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Ok, I’m being dramatic. But this is important! The greatly anticipated wedding episode is written by executive producer Greg Daniels and Mindy Kaling, who pitch a series of cheesy exchanges and sweet lines to perfection. ‘This is supposed to our wedding day. Why did we invite all these people?’

These people include Kelly & Erin at their teenage girl gang best; Oscar, Stanley & Phyllis providing background bitching; and Andy with a torn scrotum. Dwight is at his very finest at the falls, where we dispense with beet farming and martial arts almost entirely, for an exploration into his occasionally referenced status as a player. Their incredibly ill-judged, undoubtedly well-meant hijacking of the ceremony with a recreation of the JK Wedding Entrance Dance perfectly encapsulates this merry band of colleagues on their holidays, while Jim and Pam showcase a collection of their trademark ‘looks’ from the sidelines. It’s all very funny. And then some unexpected flashbacks make you cry and cry and cry.

I’m specifying part two because I feel that bending the rules of the list to include a double episode would be somewhat ill-mannered for our inaugural post. But also because this genuinely works as a stand alone episode. In part one, Jim makes an adorable toast, which is lost in a lot of Michael interruptions and external plot points. In part two, Michael is dispatched to be funny elsewhere, and we get to enjoy Jim & Pam’s moments in their entirety.

I’ll even forgive it the Kevin centric final scene. And I really can’t stand Kevin.

‘I bought the boat tickets the day I saw that YouTube video. I knew we’d need a backup plan. The boat was actually plan C. The church was plan B. And plan A was marring her a long, long time ago. Pretty much the day I met her.’

I’m 32 years old. TV is my life.

FCTVThe problem with films is that they’re ever so long.

Maybe if they were 90 minutes as standard (alright, with the odd exception for Tolkien based adaptations) I’d be on board. After all, 90 minutes was good enough for High Noon, Airplane, Stand By Me. But films seem longer than ever these days. If you go to the cinema, factoring in the obligatory half hour of adverts, that’s the whole evening written off. And if you watch a film at home, well, my sofa is so comfortable, and I’m only going to shut my eyes for a second.

I like watching trailers. It’s like seeing a whole movie, with all of the drama and none of the time commitment. And, although I’ve probably never mentioned it before, I also love TV.

I’ve seen most of my favourite films a handful of times. But if you tot up all the time I’ve spent watching The West Wing (which is only one and a half viewings of seasons 1 – 7 , plus the occasional episode here and there) it comes to over an entire week of solid TV! And, let me tell you, there are few better ways to use up seven days of your year. Bartlet for America.

Yes, I once went to the hairdressers and asked for a ‘Rachel’. But I was 14. Who else was I supposed to look to as a role model? I’ve grown up with some of these shows. ER was on air for the best part of 15 years. How can you invest so much time in something without forming an emotional attachment? You have your inevitable rough patches (ER pushed its entire fan base to the very brink with a certain chimpanzee surgery storyline) but ultimately you know you’ll stick it out until the bitter end, before enjoying a suitably soppy final episode (Seinfeld notwithstanding) and mourning its loss from your viewing schedule for a long time to come.

Some might see me as kind of pretentious, but I just like to think I take my TV seriously. When Friends ended we had a small gathering of, well, friends over to watch the finale together. I served food, but cleared it away hours before the broadcast, lest anyone ruin one last Ross & Rachel moment for me by crunching too loudly on a crisp. When 24 made the leap from BBC to Sky (killing off the excellent spin-off Pure 24 in the process) we eschewed the entire following season, instead waiting for the DVD release because we couldn’t bear to see our precious CTU tainted by adverts. Thank god Sky+ came along when it did. I have a self-imposed ban on Arrested Development quoting on twitter, as I find it difficult to stop. I think of Meadow Soprano every time I parallel park, long to swear as competently as Susie Greene, and have spent at least two hours of my life practicing the Troy & Abed handshake with my husband. I’ve been known to chastise people who write off The Office (US) without having seen it, and am already judging those who will inevitably dismiss Parks & Recreation when it finally hits UK screens this Spring. I watch my favourite TV shows without my phone in my hand. And there isn’t much I do these days without my phone in my hand. Including writing this.

The majority of my disastrous dalliances with Netflix end with me flicking back to my recently watched list, and highlighting a comedy or drama series I’ve seen before. The beauty is that, when one episode ends, you can just stare unblinking at the screen and wait for the next one to kick in without even touching the remote. It’s kind of like watching a film. But a film made of TV. So it’s better.

Failed Critics Triple Bill: TV-Film Adaptations

In honour of this weeks Triple Bill – TV-to-Film adaptations – we upped the budget slightly and went to the continent on holiday to record it. Owen booked us into an unfinished hotel, James got drunk on local alcoholic concoctions, Gerry got into fights with all the foreigners over sunbeds, and Steve found love.

The end result is flashier, but ultimately less satisfying than the original series – unlike our choices of our favourite TV-to-Film adaptations!

Next week we return to normality with the Failed Critics Review covering Paranormal Activity 4, and in Triple Bill we choose our scariest moments in cinema.

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Failed Critics Review: TV Special

Welcome one and all to this week’s Failed Critics Review, where we’re doing something a little different – talking about TV instead of film.

You’ll get to hear what we think about programmes we’ve been watching this week, as well as the shows we think you really should be watching.

Don’t worry – the Review returns to normal next when we review Paranormal Activity 4.

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