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Barry

12th April, 2024.

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Barry

Hollywood has long mixed glamour and violence and with Barry, creator and actor Bill Hader has taken it to the ultimate conclusion with a hitman who wants to quit the life of killing to be an actor - after watching people die at the end of his gun, will people now watch him die on stage?

 

This modern classic - and I don't use that term lightly - is both laugh out loud funny, whilst also being a compelling drama.

I read an article recently about how the sitcom has died  - or maybe I heard it on a podcast? - and I remember thinking, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this before. A quick google and oh yes, there’s an article from a couple of months ago, and then last year…oh, and this one from 3 years ago…and then pretty much every year or back to 2015…and back 17 years to Victoria Wood saying that The Office had killed The Sitcom. Yes, The Sitcom has been killed off so many times it should be wearing an orange parka.


But the truth is - much like the 4-4-2 in football - it doesn’t die out, it just gets reinvented a little. And Barry is one of a new breed of sitcoms that are more of a hybrid - a sitcom / tragic drama. Sort of like the violent, bleak flipside to Ted Lasso.

Bill Hader as Barry

FROM SKETCHES TO SKETCHY

Bill Hader is Barry Berkman (a comic book nod with the name alliteration?), a traumatised war veteran who is both saved and used by old friend Monroe Funches (Stephen Root) who puts him to work as a hitman. On a job in LA, Barry follows his target to an acting class where is persuaded to perform and then onto a bar where he is smitten with aspiring star Sally Reed. Something is kindled in him and wants to leave behind his violent solitary life and make a connection - so obviously, he puts off killing his target, and instead joins the acting class. But obviously, the sunshine of LA is clouded by other storms and as we all know, it aint that easy to leave a life of crime behind…

ACTING UP

The stakes are raised when Barry’s refusal to carry out his hit puts him and his handler at odds with the Chechen mob whilst he is also accepted into the acting class. Before long Barry is battling three fronts - the mobsters, his old friend and handler Fuches, and trying to get truth into his monologue for acting class.

 

Oh, and the police have a blurry photo of a killer they’re trying to track down…

SO...IT'S A COMEDY?

Now look, you might start watching and wonder why the genre “sitcom” is anywhere near it - sure, there’s now amusing cold open like you might get in a Cheers, or Will and Grace, and there’s not a high laugh strike rate BUT… when it was funny, it was very funny. But it isn’t like funny gags funny - it is character funny, awkward funny, and sometimes absurd funny - like you can’t believe you’re laughing at what’s happening. In fact, in that regard, the lazy comparison is probably to a groundbreaking film also set in LA’s underworld - Pulp Fiction; the scene with Marvin in the back of the car feels like a scene that would exist in this world.

 

The comedy when it comes is sharp and jabby, but this is a TV show that is ambitious and will not be held back; when it does drama, it does emotional, involving drama, when it does action, it is full of exciting and explosive action. There is a car chase scene with a motorbike and shootout that is simply outrageous and out actions a number of  Hollywood action films.

 

I’m not a fan of people urging you to stick with a series for 4 or 5 episodes “cos then it gets good”, but I will say here, if you’re not on board with the tone and style by the second episode then it’s safe to bail out. Plus, these are 30 minute episodes - you;re not having to invest a couple of hours here. If you are sold enough to carry on you will be richly rewarded by some sharp writing, inventive plotting, and incredible performances. Sarah Goldberg as actor Sally Reed, Henry Winkler as old actor now acting coach Gene Cousineau, and Anthony Carrigan as over the top Chechen gangster NoHo Hank are all at the top of their game; but it is held together with subtle brilliance by Bill Hader.  

 

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Over 4 seasons and 32 episodes, Barry evolves and gives shocks, twists and tremendous story and character acts that elevate way above a sitcom and in a rare occurrence these days - it totally sticks the landing. 

 

Some studio or producers have hopefully now just said to Bill Hader, “here’s a stack of money - do whatever you want.” 

My biscuit rating?

Dark chocolate glazed Lebkuchen Rounds - looked intriguing and different and I didn’t know what to expect but OH MY GOD are they amazing and like nothing else.

Silo (Apple TV)

25th August, 2023.

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After a catastrophe destroys the planet's atmosphere, a group of 10,000 people survive in underground silo, eking out a bare existence following strict societal rules. But more is hidden beneath the surface than just their homes.Apple continues its pitch to be the place for grand and thoughtful sci-fi with this adaptation of Hugh Howey's book series. 

There is much to admire about Silo - especially the fact that when I got a notification that a new episode was out I could sing about its arrival to the tune of Beyonce’s Halo. Lovely stuff. 

Gimme the gist:

After a civil war destroys the planet's atmosphere, a society survives in an underground silo eking out a bare existence following strict societal rules. But more is hidden beneath the surface than just their homes.

If The Peripheral is a high brow espionage type action thriller with hints of a western and conspiracy all sewn together in a very expensive dress, Silo is a much more down to (below) earth detective mystery in its well worn trench coat. Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible, The Greatest Showman) is our hard-boiled detective Juliette who unexpectedly gets promoted from the depths of engineering to the higher rank of Sheriff. She uses a spate of deaths that those in charge want neatly covered up to dig around deeper mysteries in the silo.

What’s it all about?

We are well into the future and 140 years after a civil war, people live in an underground silo that neatly matches society's hierarchy: those in charge live in relative comfort towards the top, whilst down at the bottom are the mechanics and engineers keeping the lights on and the heat working. And there isn’t much prospect of changing your circumstances in the silo as people tend to stay generation after generation on the same level doing the same work as there is no mechanised transport allowed in the silo. This is one of many rules in “the pact” that governs the silo - along with one around “relics” (old objects) from the time before the silo. These relics and old technologies are all strictly regulated and monitored. 

 

Another rule is that no one is allowed outside the Silo - in fact, being sent outside to clean the camera lens that beams back a view of the desolate outside world is seen as the ultimate punishment. If you say “I want to leave the silo” then leave you will - and it’s seen as a death sentence, a futuristic sci-fi version of walking the plank that is watched by an audience hoping you’ll survive in your space suit - but no one ever does.

 

When two high profile people ask to go outside it tips the dominoes onto a bigger mystery as people die, go missing, and we find out who really is making the rules and staying in charge.

Why should I watch?

I’m aware this might sound odd, but if you’re a fan of gritty, grimy, detective shows that uncover dark mysteries then don’t let the sci-fi tag throw you with this one. If you also get a bit of a thrill from conspiracy theories and cover ups and “ooh, the people in charge are up to something!” type shenanigans then you’ll probably get a kick out of Silo. It is no glossy, high tech, universe exploring sci-fi for which you need a guide book and a translator, but a tense, nervy, gripping mystery thriller.

The clues and the trail that Juliette follows are cleverly and patiently pieced together and I suspect will reward a second viewing when you go back and pretend you noticed something all along. It throws in plenty of shocks and surprises and early on you realise that this is one of those shows where you can’t take any character’s safety for granted. 

 

For all the brilliant mystery, perhaps the stand out episode is almost a stand alone one about a dangerous failure of the generator that keeps them all alive. It is almost unbearably tense. I’m normally a pretty passive viewer but I was literally inching to the edge of my seat with my hands over my mouth. 

 

The cast is full of familiar faces and you can play my favourite game of “ooh, where do I know them from?” Rebecca Ferguson is given a lot to do with carrying the show as Juliette - the brilliant but obstinate and distant engineer who left her life of comfort as a doctor’s daughter to learn her trade down below after the death of her mother. We step to the different layers of her character in the same way we step into the different levels of the Silo - slowly. Her mannerisms and spirit speak of someone who is used to fixing things and getting her hands dirty and Ferguson deftly shows us all the suffering even when she’s being belligerent. If this was a detective show set in 2023 America she’d be up for mainstream awards and spoken about like Kate Winslet was for Mare of Easttown.

Will Patton and Geraldine James  as Deputy Marnes and Mayor Jahns elevate one storyline to something far more touching than it has any right to be but the two standouts are the always ace Harriet Walker who plays Juliette’s surrogate mother, and Chinaza Uche as Paul Billings. He arrives and brings a compelling balance to Juliette as their investigation veers off course into dangerous territory. 

A small aside: it tickles me that so many futuristic stories resort back to what seem like very old fashioned society structures and titles: Mayor? Sheriff? Do we all think our future is simply a retread of the past?

If it’s not abundantly clear already, I am MIGHTLY pleased that Silo is coming back for season 2 (please don’t go back on this one: grow a conscience and pay your writers and actors properly.) I’ve bought the first book in the series to tide me over until the second series but I might have to get the rest of the books just in case.

 

My biscuit rating? A Border dark chocolate ginger: Expertly made and original with intense flavours and plenty of rich after taste.

The Peripheral 

24th August, 2023.

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The Peripheral on Prime Video is based on the book of the same name by William Gibson. What’s better than a sci-fi show that builds up a fascinating futuristic world populated with intriguing characters and ideas that make you go “ooooh”?

Yes, TWO fascinating futuristic worlds...

The year is 2032, and we're in Canton County, Blue Ridge Mountains in the aftermath of a civil war where times are hard and prices and suspicions are high. And so ate some of the residents. Flynne (Chlöe Grace Moretz), is in her 20s and struggling to look after her sick mother and pay for her medication.

 

Her ex-soldier brother Burton (Jack Reynor) is making money by being a gamer online for hire and after Flynne helps him complete one job, he reveals that he has a “big” opportunity lined up.

Jack Reynor and Chloe Grace Moretz in Peripheral

The big job is using an experimental headset sent by a mysterious client. Once you put the headset on, you don't need a controller as you ARE the avatar and you control it by thinking. This means you can feel what the “you” in the game is feeling too. Including pain. 

As the better player, Flynne goes first and finds herself piloting a body in 2099, London. A voice in her head is talking her through a James Bond like mission: fast bikes, glamorous cars, a high society party, seduction, and violence.  When she goes back the next day for the next part of the mission, it all feels a little too real. And then when Flynn gets back to her time, it seems that the two worlds are connected in ways she can’t yet imagine. What would people in the future want in this past? And why would the future need someone from the past? 

 

This is an ambitious sci-fi that has lofty aspirations of combining philosophical conversations, complex manipulations of time, and the power of the state and corporations and how they use people. Oh and most definitely that sci-fi fave: the dangers of tech and robots taking over. 

 

If you’re thinking some of this sounds familiar then maybe that’s because it’s produced by some of the same people responsible for Westworld and Person of Interest - namely Noreen O’Toole and Jonathan Nolan. If you’re a fan of those, you’ll probably go for this too. And if you thought they had some glaring flaws, well, firstly: ME TOO, and secondly, The Peripheral has some similar flaws - complicated, lots of po-faced serious chats explaining the plot, one dimensional characters - but, there is more variety and intrigue here. We also get some innovative technology in both timelines and spectacular action sequences that match - even surpass? - what you might get on the big screen. Invisible cars, biological tech, and telepathically linked soldiers are just a few of the devices deployed.

 

Now I like nonsense stuff that has convoluted plots and ridiculous mysteries that keep popping out of other mysteries like a magical Russian doll; think of a show that kept adding twists and not properly resolving them and I probably enjoyed it. BUT I absolutely understand anyone that bails on this because they say “the heck is that now?” one too many times. I did occasionally feel like I needed a glossary to keep track of the jargon (stubs, polts, the Klep, peripherals) and expanding cast of characters in both timelines. 

And I’ll also acknowledge that I can often enjoy things that aren’t any good. 

 

The Peripheral has some grand designs that would have even Kevin McCloud exasperated at the scale and opulence. For the $175million budget, this series delivers some impressive visuals - but that’s a bit like saying “hmm, this £20 cup of coffee has a real coffee taste.” Does anyone pay £20 for a coffee? I bet someone does. 

 

So yes, it rightly looks good. It also sounds good. The soundtrack is fun, although perhaps a little more surefooted and in the Blue Ridge Mountains setting with some bluesy rocky country tracks livening things up - thanks for getting me into Colton Wall. 

That sort of describes this series for me too - one half feeling more accomplished than the other. In fact, the 2032 sections probably have more in common with a western in terms of the characters and set up; the storylines and relationships here are much easier to follow and connect with. When we step to the London of 2099 it’s a tad more chaotic and harder to keep up with. Although once T’Nia Miller shows up you can pretty much forget the plot and just enjoy her being smoothly terrifying.

If you’re thinking of giving this a go, a quick heads up - the first episode is LONG; it's close to 70 minutes long. But it does give you enough to know what it’s all about, what the show is going to be like, and it ends with a suitable cliffhanger. So you’ll know if it’s something you want to have front and centre of your viewing vision or…if it’ll remain on the periphery.  Soz.

My biscuit rating? A Viscount. Can sometimes be a bit hard to get into, and you might enjoy the contrasting flavours as a bit of a luxury - or just a bit confusing. 

 

You can stream all of season 1 now on Prime Video. I was all prepped to tell you that Season 2 had been confirmed when right after finishing writing this it was announced that the renewal had been cancelled and the whole show was now shelved. They blamed the strikes. Of course they did.

Cardinal

6th April, 2023.

Let’s be absolutely clear right from the get go here - it was pretty much nailed on that I was going to like this show. If there was a dating app equivalent to match you with TV shows the bio for this would have had me swiping right so hard.

  • Police procedural.

  • With an overarching mystery.

  • A lead character who is brooding, slightly tortured and deeply committed.

  • Set in a snowy landscape with a hint of desolation.

  • An unwanted new partner. 

  • Some dark mystery in the past.

I mean…come on!

THE SET UP

If you’re craving something innovative or totally different then this is probably not for you, but if you are a fan of Scandi-noir type thrillers then get ready to strap on your snow boots and step into some icy, murky mysteries. 

Based on the novels by Giles Blunt, the first season introduces us to the fictional city of Algonquin Bay and detective John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) who has been demoted for his failed investigation of a missing native Canadian girl. For family reasons, he has moved out to the country hoping a “quieter life” will help them.

You’d have thought these detectives would have shared a memo by now about avoiding small towns and their creepy serial killers. And John Cardinal becomes convinced this is a serial killer when another body is found…and another young person goes missing…

 

The body of the teenage girl has now been found in the ice, and Cardinal is called back on the case along with a new partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) - who we soon discover is investigating Cardinal as much as the murder. What is he hiding in his past? Could he really be covering up his role in corruption? This duality of purpose is mirrored throughout the show. Cardinal himself is private and quiet, but also intense and dogged. Delorme is ambitious and secretive, as well as righteous and reflective. 

The Canadian landscape is beautiful but dangerous. 

The community is tight-knit but fearful. 

Keeping a family together or starting one.

Love or obsession.

 

This conflict and duality helps draw us in as there is something to doubt and root for with each character and it helps heighten the peril - there is no way that everyone gets out of this okay.

The six episodes pack a hell of a lot of story in and in the current streaming climate it’s refreshing to not endure 2 or 3 episodes of set up before the story gets going.

 

You know how sometimes you have to reassure your friends that your recommendation is “worth sticking with, it’s a bit slow, but by the 3rd and 4th episode it gets really good” ?

Yeah, that isn’t the case here. I tipped a friend off about this show and got a text back a couple of hours later that they had blown through two episodes straight away.

The six episodes pack a hell of a lot of story in and in the current streaming climate it’s refreshing to not endure 2 or 3 episodes of set up before the story gets going. You know how sometimes you have to reassure your friends that your recommendation is “worth sticking with, it’s a bit slow, but by the 3rd and 4th episode it gets really good” ? Yeah, that isn’t the case here. I tipped a friend off about this show and got a text back a couple of hours later that they had blown through two episodes straight away.

Although the comparisons to Scandi-noir thriller are right there (I mean, Billy Campbell was even in the US version of The Killing ), Cardinal actually reminded me more of a fave British show of mine: Unforgotten.  And I don’t just mean the similarity in their gorgeous, haunting theme songs.

 

The two leads set the tempo in communicating volumes with the expressions and delivery without the need for histrionics, long speeches, or dramatic actions. You’re rewarded for fully engaging instead of maybe half watching whilst you check social media as discrete glances and barely concealed expressions key us in on emotions and thoughts. These characters are satisfyingly complex - and watching them navigate moral quandaries and messy relationships not only adds to the drama but also adds fuel to the fire of uncertainty - how can these two messed up people work together?

 

Like Unforgotten, it is delicately plotted with less reliance on big reveals or moments of intuitive genius. The thrills here are often the slow burn ones where get to go “ohhhhhhh” as you realise how clues are knitted together. I would never have thought that a petty thief’s stalking of a supermarket could be so tense and also deliver a “no way!” moment.

 

You might also say “no way” at some of the violence - Cardinal is no cosy murder mystery. It is violent, at times gory, and unflinching in depicting the worse of what people are capable of doing to each other. And whilst it is subtle and considered, it doesn’t dawdle, maintaining a brisk pace and expecting you to keep up as it accelerates towards a tense ending with lives at stake.

 

As always with great TV shows, you come for the hook (murder, mystery, a lost spaceship) but you stay for the relationships. And Cardinal offers up so much of the human experience for us to unpick and by the end I felt like it was a dissection of the many forms of love, as it was of the bodies found in the Canadian ice.

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Biscuit rating: Duo Choc Sandwich.

This solidly made treat gives you plenty to munch on and you'll find that one just isn’t enough. Luckily, you’ve got 4 seasons to enjoy.

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