15 Under-Appreciated TV Shows You Need To Watch – Part One

November 3, 2011

So I’ve done the films and now it’s time to start on the TV shows.

I should point out for anyone reading that these TV shows aren’t necessarily under-appreciated all over the world, because to suggest that some of these shows aren’t rated that highly is ridiculous. But I was surprised to learn that some of them aren’t shown on particularly mainstream channels in the UK and as a result if your method of watching TV shows is by watching them – you know – on TV (i.e. the 20th century method) then you’ve probably not heard of some of them.

So if some of these imported shows are hidden in the UK schedules on channels nobody watches, how have I seen them? Well, it could be suggested that I do what a lot of people do in 2011 and just download them.

And as the main character from my first pick would say, “You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment” – and THAT dear readers is how to do the perfect segue (look it up).

1. The House of Cards Trilogy (BBC1 – 1990-1995)

This is the story of the rise to power of ruthless and murderous MP & Conservative Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart.

Sublimely played by Ian Richardson, the story of Urquhart starts just after the resignation of Margaret Thatcher at a time when everyone is jockeying for position to become the new PM.

As Chief Whip, Urquhart knows the darkest secrets of all the other candidates and uses that knowledge to slowly pick them all off, all the while taking advantage of an up-and-coming political journalist with a daddy-complex to position himself as the dark horse candidate.

The beauty of House of Cards is that Urquhart breaks the fourth wall all the time, letting the viewer know all of his machinations and plans, which has the sublime effect of making the viewer feel like a co-conspirator.

It has one of the most shocking and iconic moments in BBC TV history at the end of the first series, and – like many of the TV shows I’ll be highlighting over the next few days – also has a great theme tune.

2. Veronica Mars (US TV – 2004-2007)

One show that doesn’t have a good theme tune is Veronica Mars, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of this show.

Tucked away on E4 in-between it’s endless repeats of Friends, when I heard of this show I found that it wasn’t even available on DVD in the UK. Thankfully this has since been rectified.

The show that launched the career of Kristen Bell, it’s about the daughter of a Private Detective who likes to indulge in a bit of amateur sleuthing herself.

All told there are three seasons, each of which involves one major storyline (the first is about the murder of Mars’s best friend, the second is about a bus crash and the third is about a campus rapist) and several episode-long tales.

The show combines being amusing with dramatic and Bell rightly has gone on from it to become a reasonably well known actress.

The most disappointing thing though is that the series was cancelled after the final episode had been filmed, so unlike most TV shows, it didn’t get anything even approaching a suitable conclusion.

3. Dad (BBC1, 1997-1999)

The most underrated and under-appreciated TV show of all time, Dad is the BBC comedy that got away. Made at a time when the ‘traditional’ sitcom filmed in front of a studio audience was starting to go out of fashion, it could best be described as a ‘Generation-Gap Comedy’.

The always good Kevin McNally plays Alan Hook, a man who struggles in his relationship with both his son Vincent (Toby Ross Bryant) and his father Brian (The Great George Cole). Most of the time the comedy involves Alan being perplexed by the behaviour of them both and finding himself in normal-yet-ridiculous situations.

Ok, it doesn’t sound all that funny, but neither do the likes of other BBC sitcoms One Foot In The Grave or Only Fools & Horses if you were to try and give a general synopsis.

Combining slick dialogue and top-notch performances, this show is far better than the likes of 2 Point 4 Children and The Brittas Empire, both of which were more popular at the time.

Sadly the show has never been repeated in the UK (despite getting regular re-runs on BBC America in the US) and is not available on DVD or Video.

But never fear, when looking for the series 1 opening credits – which incidentally I defy anyone to watch and not instantly fall in love with – I’ve found that every episode is available to watch on Youtube.

Pretty much every episode is class, but I’d recommend ‘Dadcoholic’ and ‘Transcandadtel’ as a starting point.

4. Grey’s Anatomy (US TV 2005-Present)

A lot of people seem to think that Grey’s Anatomy is a ‘Chick’s TV show’ and yet they couldn’t be more wrong.

I wont deny that it involves a fair amount of sub-plot concerning the love lives of the Doctors of Seattle Grace Hospital, but that’s not the main thrust of the show.

As a medical drama, I’ve never seen better. Up to now, there have been 155 episodes and yet they still manage to come up with interesting and new medical storylines in each episode.

Throughout the series there have been plenty of disasters including an episode where someone had a live bomb inside them, a ferry-boat crash, a plane crash and many more, and – and I don’t say this lightly – it has also had some of the most dramatic and well written cliffhangers and series finales I’ve ever seen.

There are plenty of good actors involved in the show and naturally there’s a large number of guest stars as well, thus ensuring it doesn’t get stale.

And yet despite all of this, people still consider it to be a ‘Chick’s TV Show’ and don’t give it a chance.

Well guys, I recommend you do, because there isn’t a better medical drama out there, and at times there isn’t a better drama, full stop.

5. Breaking Bad (US TV, 2008-Present)

Walter White is a Chemistry Teacher who has been diagnosed with Lung Cancer. In a bid to leave his family with enough money to cope once he has gone he becomes a Crystal Meth cook.

That’s Breaking Bad in a nutshell.

I’m not even sure if it’s on in the UK, but the story of Walter White is one of the most critically-acclaimed-yet-overlooked TV shows on at the moment. Its on a very minor TV channel in the USA, which means not many people watch it.

And yet the amount of critical acclaim it gets is incredible. Online review aggregator Meta-Critic currently has the 4th and most recent series of the show sitting with a score of 96/100 with the tagline ‘Universal Acclaim’, and some examples of quotes from critics include “TV’s Finest Hour” and “One of the Greatest Dramas in Television History”.

Breaking Bad is a very dark show. Walter White – the supposed protagonist – slowly develops into a severely unpleasant man, yet you have to love him.

The stories are deep, the characterisation is ridiculously good and the acting is some of the best around.

It wouldn’t be remiss of me to say Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and yet I bet more than 80% of you reading this article have never heard of it, much less seen it.


Film Review: Contagian (or ‘I Knew I Should Have Taken That Left Turn At Albuquerque’)

November 2, 2011

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. That to me would seem pretty obvious.

Perhaps it wasn’t too obvious for the makers of Contagion – a film which started so well but ended up delivering very little.

What’s This Film About?

As you might guess it’s about a virus (a particularly nasty variant on swine flu) that originated in Hong Kong but ends up spreading throughout the world and killing millions of people.

The film focuses on the fight to find a cure as well as what would happen to society in a situation like that; so as you might expect there’s panic, looting and freelance journalists out to cause as much of a stir as possible in the hope of making a quick buck.

Thoughts (as Spoiler-Free as possible)

When watching the film last night, about 20 minutes before the end it occurred to me that it was beginning to bore me. Why? A valid question…

Well, as I say above, it starts off strongly. Gwyneth Paltrow comes back from Hong Kong with a flu-like virus and within a couple of days both she and her son are dead. Her husband – the usually good Matt Damon – is immune to it. Meanwhile, other people who shared the same table as Paltrow at a Hong Kong Casino have also succumbed to the virus, and so it begins its spread throughout the world.

That was good, as was the rest of the groundwork done on it, including all the stuff at the World Health Organisation and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, but then it just didn’t go anywhere.

Beyond the stuff that happened in the early part of the film there just wasn’t any drama. It became almost like a documentary about what might happen if a nasty virus started to spread. I now know what  R0 means in relation to infectious diseases, but that’s about it since I already knew that viruses like this can spread by touch and that we touch our faces a lot.

Part of the problem was that they tried to give a storyline to too many characters. Sometimes that can work, like in Love Actually. But in Contagion it doesn’t. What we have is – with the possible exceptions of the characters played by Jude Law and Laurence Fishbourne – a series of two-dimensional characters who amble through the film without doing much.

I said earlier that Matt Damon is usually good, but in this he was poor. I’ve never seen a character show so little emotion at the death of his wife and stepchild. Beyond that the whole point of his character was to be mildly protective of his rather fool-hardy daughter.

Kate Winslet’s character could have been a lot better and just seemed to phase out. Alright, as you know if you’ve seen the trailer she contracts the virus. From a dramatic standpoint that just didn’t push the right buttons. It could have, but it didn’t. Instead, what happens is that by being around people with the virus, she gets it too. There’s no drama in that.

There are plenty of other characters who don’t have enough time to develop, including the WHO worker in Hong Kong, Elliot Gould’s character (who just disappears) and the woman who finds the cure about half way through the film.

Which leads me to my biggest gripe of the whole thing, and the reason the film bored me.

I’ve already said that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. This one has the beginning and it has the middle, but about 40 or so minutes before the end a virus is found and the last 40 minutes become about the logistical issues concerning the creation and fair distribution of the vaccine. Once all the main characters have the vaccine, the film just ends.

That might be a realistic way of concluding matters but it’s also a dull one.

There are other issues with the plot as well. Like the issues with characterisation, the film tries to include too many plot-points within the time frame of the film. There was no tension involved when it came to the half-hearted looting and civil unrest, or the border controls imposed on a state-by-state basis.

There was a scene in which they perform an autopsy on Paltrow’s character, which shows the medical examiners being appalled by what they find the virus has done to her brain. Only we don’t get to see it, it isn’t described and it’s never brought up again.

There’s also an interminable teen-angst love story, and the film ends by showing how the virus started.

Note: the film starts on ‘Day Two’ of the contagion and ends backtracking to ‘Day One’. But since we knew where it came from, it was hardly an M. Night Shyamalan style twist.

Ultimately it all adds up to equal a disappointing film.

Should You Watch Contagion?

Arguably the plot of a virus killing off a large percentage of the population is hard enough to do as it is. Look at the remake of Survivors.

When the plot is about a virus that might kill off ‘only’ 1% of the world’s population but then it gets cured just over half way through it becomes even more difficult to do in an entertaining way.

I went into the film expecting a disaster movie to rival the original Survivors, but instead I got an educational episode of Doctors where they inform the public about the importance of guarding against infection.

It started off well and could have been good, but it spreads itself too thin and the decision to cure the virus so early and move the plot in the direction of vaccine distribution was – in my opinion – a mistake.

It’s like one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he’s not ended up where he thought he’d be and says “‘I Knew I Should Have Taken That Left Turn At Albuquerque”.

That sums up the plot to this film in a nutshell.


15 Under-Appreciated Films You Need To Watch – Part Three

November 2, 2011

Previously on Stuart Reviews Stuff…

So far I’ve revealed 10 of the 15 most Under-Appreciated Films of all time. They are Rope, All About Eve, The Emperor’s New Groove, Quatermass 2, The Butterfly Effect, The Iron Giant, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, The Manchurian Candidate, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel and The Day The Earth Caught Fire.

There are five more to go. What are they? Well it might surprise you to know that there are no Science Fiction films in sight.

Read on…

11. Clockwise (1985)

From the file marked ‘What’s Not To Love’, John Cleese is almost Basil Fawlty in a full length British film.

Rather than being a rude hotelier, he instead plays a School Headmaster who is obsessed with punctuality. He’s due to travel to Norwich to give an important speech at a teaching conference, but a mixup at the Railway Station sees him get on the wrong train, and then leave his speech on that train when he tries and fails to catch the right one.

So he ends up having to get a lift from a female sixth former from his school, but this in turn leads to the dropkick (what an Australian term) science teacher – who is having an affair with the girl – following them because he thinks something is going on. Then a chance encounter at a petrol station makes Cleese’s wife thinks something is going on as well, and so – with a group of dementia suffering old women that she had taken out for the day from a nursing home – she follows too.

Inevitably circumstances are against Cleese in his efforts to get to Norwich on time in the era before Sat-Navs.

It’s a hilarious film which may seem implausible to some, but I would suggest if you’ve ever been on holiday with my dad, you’d know it’s actually quite realistic.

12. Goodbye Mr. Chips (2002)

This is the only TV movie on my list and therefore it’s one that doesn’t even have a trailer.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the story of Goodbye Mr. Chips, but if not, it tells the story of the career of a teacher at a boys’ public school from the 1870s all the way through to the early 1930s.

Not only does the story focus on the career of Mr Chipping and his rise up the career ladder, but also his personal life

There's no Trailer for Goodbye Mr Chips, but here's Martin Clunes ageing throughout the film

(including his friendship with an Austrian teacher that was tested when WW1 broke out, and his relationship with his wife) and crucially, the effect that World War 1 had on the school and all the former pupils and teachers who fought and died during it.

It’s a classic story, but I’m nominating this version – from ITV in 2002 – for the brilliant performance by Martin Clunes.

Perfectly cast as Chipping, Clunes does a fantastic job of changing his performance throughout the film to reflect the age of the man he’s playing. Indeed, his portrayal as the very old Chipping on his death-bed is probably the best ‘old’ performance I’ve ever seen a young man give.

Worth watching for the quality of the story, but a must see for Clunes’s performance.

13. You’ve Got Mail (1998)

When people think of a film with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan they immediately think about Sleepless in Seattle. But in my opinion a far better film involving the two of them is You’ve Got Mail.

Based on and (whisper it….) far better than the early  James Stewart film The Shop Around The Corner, the twist on this romantic comedy is that it’s about two people who seem to hate each other in real life but fall in love together under the anonymity of e-mail.

Yes, this is a film made when e-mail was a new and exciting thing. It’s like watching a Columbo where the plot hinges around newfangled answering machines or CCTV systems.

Meg Ryan’s character owns a small bookshop in New York while Tom Hanks owns a new Borders-style massive book shop a few streets away putting Ryan’s business in jeopardy. So while they fight each other by day, they end up falling in love e-mailing each other anonymously at night.

Naturally at they end they realise who they’ve been e-mailing and fall in love properly.

Yes, it’s a mushy romantic comedy, but it’s a nice film to watch, capped off by great performances by Ryan and Hanks. As rom-c0ms go, it’s the best one in my opinion, and well worth your time.

14. In Good Company (2004)

I’m not exactly sure how to describe In Good Company. Is it a drama? Is it a romance film? Is it a comedy? It’s a mish-mash of all three really.

The film is about an advertising executive (Dennis Quade) who is replaced as sales manager of a sports magazine by a high-flying ‘golden child’ half his age (Topher Grace). Tensions are raised further when Grace ends up dating Quade’s 18-year-old daughter (Scarlett Johansson).

The movie mainly explores the relationship between Quade and Grace and how Grace quickly learns that he doesn’t know it all, despite what he initially thought.

I think the best way to describe the movie is pleasant. It flew under the radar when it was released but I know that anyone who has seen it has enjoyed it.

And I’m sure you will too.

15. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954)

To round off the list I go back once again to Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart with one of my favourite films of all time.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart, his wife (Doris Day) and son are on holiday in Marrakesh where they accidentally get involved in a conspiracy to murder a world leader. When a secret agent lies mortally wounded in the street he whispers some vital information in Stewart’s ear with his dying breath, and as a result of this the next thing Stewart knows his son has been kidnapped.

The action moves to London where there are fantastically tense scenes, not least the long one in the Royal Albert Hall during an orchestral concert. In that scene there’s no dialogue whatsoever, but the viewer knows that the visiting world leader is set to be murdered when the concert reaches its climax (the gunshot will be hidden by the crashing of the symbols).

It’s a testament to Hitchcock that he directs the film totally differently to Rope yet makes it even more tense.

Other things to look out for in this film include Doris Day’s song ‘Que Se Ra’ (this is the film that the song came from, so if ever that question comes up in a pub quiz you can thank me) and also a rather worrying scene in which Stewart (who plays a Doctor) sedates his wife before informing her of her son’s kidnap.

Conclusion

So there you have it. 15 of the most Under-Appreciated films of all time.

Have you seen any of them? If so, what do you think? And what films would you consider to be Under-Appreciated?

Coming Soon

A selection of the most Under-Appreciated TV shows