Monday, June 5, 2017

The Heart Guy

Rodger Corser as Hugh Knight.
With a lifestyle built around drugs, alcohol, and sex, it's not surprisingly that hot shot heart specialist Dr. Hugh Knight is banned from performing surgery. Amazingly, he's allowed to keep his medical license on the condition that he stay clean for a year and practice medicine in a rural community far from the temptations of big city life in Sydney.

That rural community turns out to be his hometown of Whyhope, where Hugh becomes a general practitioner at a small clinic. Initially, the clinic's administrator is the only person who knows the real reason for the prodigal son's return.

Hugh's new life gets off to a rocky start when old wounds start to fester. His former flame (Nicole de Silva) is now married to his brother (Ryan Johnson), but may still harbor feelings for Hugh. He and his father are barely on speaking terms. His mother still dotes on her "genius son" at the expense of Hugh's brothers (one of whom was adopted). It's going to be a tough twelve months....
Nicole de Silva, Ryan Johnson, and Rodger Corser.
The premise may sound similar to Doc Martin, since both lead characters are first-rate surgeons relegated to general practice in scenic small towns with colorful characters. However, the comparisons end there. The predominant theme in The Heart Guy is one of atonement and, though it's clear that Hugh is trying, it's fascinating to watch him struggle to reach his goal of practicing surgery again.

In the first episode, Hugh wants to celebrate after saving a man's life. When he finds each member of his family otherwise engaged, he decides to party with a young nurse. It's a quick relapse that almost costs him his medical license. It's a telling scene that shows that Hugh finds satisfaction in his medical work--he truly wants to save lives. It also shows that he has a long journey ahead in terms of making making responsible decisions outside his medical practice.

Tina Bursill as Hugh's mom.
Handsome Rodger Corser, best known in the U.S. for crime-themed dramas like The Doctor Blake Mysteries, portrays Hugh with a combination of arrogance and vulnerability (with an emphasis on the former). The most interesting supporting character is his mother, played by veteran Aussie actress Tina Bursill, who accept bribes from local contractors for the good of the town. (The fact that she buries the money in her backyard is another matter.)

Titled Doctor, Doctor in Australia, the series became an immediate hit when it debuted in 2016. A second season was commissioned after the second episode. It finished its first season as one of the ten most watched television series in Australia.

American viewers can check out The Heart Guy when it debuts today on the streaming service Acorn TV.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Decline and Fall

On a wild night of campus partying, naive theology scholar Paul Pennyfeather runs into a group of boisterous students who strip his clothes off for a gag. The next day, Paul (Jack Whitehall) is the one kicked out of Scone College, Oxford. With his future dashed, Paul seeks employment and learns that the only acceptable profession for expelled collegians is teaching.

Luckily, there's a position available at the Llanabba boarding school for young men in Wales. It's not a prestigious institution of learning, as the job counselor explains: "We class our schools into four grades here: leading schools, first-rate schools, good schools, and schools.The status of this school is 'school.' And 'school' is pretty bad." To make matters worse, Paul is supposed to teach German, play cricket, and give organ lessons--and he can do none of those things.

Jack Whitehall, Douglas Hodge, and David Suchet.
At Llanabba, Paul meets five  people that will play a major role in his life: the budget-minded headmaster Dr. Fagan; Grimes, a bigamous fellow teacher who is constantly "in the soup"; Prendergast, a colleague who hates teaching; Philbrick, the school's porter who may be a kidnapper and/or murderer; and Peter, an intelligent student whose beautiful, wealthy mother becomes the object of Paul's affections.

Over the course of three one-hour episodes, Decline and Fall traces Paul Pennyfeather's journey from the filthy halls of Llanabba to life among the rich on a plush country estate to hard labor in prison. This dryly amusing tale was adapted from the 1928 satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh. Best known stateside for Brideshead Revisited, Waugh based part of Decline and Fall on his own brief teaching experiences. He lost his scholarship at Oxford due to poor grades and, needing a job, secured a position at a preparatory school for young men in northern Wales. Hopefully, it was a better school than Llanabba!

Casting the lead role is key in a miniseries in which the protagonist is on the screen almost the entire time. Fortunately for Decline and Fall, former stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall is up to the challenge and gives a wonderfully droll performance as the innocent Pennyfeather. The standout among the fine supporting cast is Douglas Hodge (The Night Manager) as the rascally and resourceful Grimes (who agrees to a horrible marriage and then fakes his drowning on his wedding night).

Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde.
Of course, it's always a delight to see David Suchet (Poirot), who sports blonde hair as Dr. Fagin. Eva Longoria may seem like an odd choice for Paul's love interest, but she pulls off the humorous role capably.

Decline and Fall debuted on the BBC in March 2017. It's currently streaming in the U.S. on Acorn TV. If you're looking for a funny, intelligent show to watch this summer, then we enthusiastically recommend this one.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Fine Romance

Judi Dench and Michael Williams in A Fine Romance.
Made eleven years before the better-known As Time Goes By, the 1981-84 TV series A Fine Romance shares many similarities with the latter show: star Judi Dench, creator-writer Bob Larbey, and a storyline that chronicles the evolving romance between two people who no longer expect to find love.

As Time Goes By focuses on a middle-aged couple who rekindle the love they experienced as young people. In contrast, A Fine Romance features two independent people--fast approaching the age of 40--who stumble their way through an unlikely courtship. As anyone knows, it's easier to rekindle a burning ember than to start a flame from scratch!

Dench with Susan Penhaligon.
Dench plays Laura, a linguist who translates books on subjects such as urinary infections. Her happily married sister Helen (Susan Penhaligon) has tried on numerous occasions to find an acceptable suitor for Laura. On the day of a party, Helen's latest "selection" bails at the last minute and Helen's husband invites a "nice bloke" named Mike (Michael Williams).

Mike is a landscape gardener who is equally unlucky in love. There are no sparks when he and Laura are introduced. But when he's forced out of a bathroom (where he was occupied with the crossword puzzle toilet paper), he seeks refuge in a bedroom. It turns out to be the same room where Laura has been hiding from a obnoxious guest that wants to engage in an intellectual discussion on death. Thrown together by their shared awkwardness, Laura and Mike find a little common ground.

Laura looking for the contact lens.
The subsequent episodes trace their slow, sometimes halting romance. A Fine Romance is a character-driven comedy in the best British tradition. So, don't expect a lot of plot. One amusing episode takes place almost entirely at a restaurant in which Laura loses a contact lens.

Dench and Williams are a delightful duo and it's no wonder. They were married in real life for 30 years until his death in 2001 at age 65. They are also marvelous actors, conveying the loneliness, frustrations, and independence that come with being single for a long time. Their discovery of their need for each other makes for charming, heartfelt, and funny television.

Interestingly, creator Bob Larbey tried to launch a U.S. television version of A Fine Romance in 1983. The pilot starred Julie Kavner (Airplane!) as Laura and Leo Burmester as Mike. It's sounds like a remarkably accurate remake of the British series first episode. CBS did not pick up the pilot, though it received a good review in The New York Times: "A Fine Romance is far closer to awkward reality than to escapist fantasy. The show manages to be remarkably sensitive about its comedy."


A Fine Romance is currently being streamed on Acorn TV.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Detectorists

Toby Jones as Lance and Mackenzie Crook as Andy.
Who would have thought the world of metal detecting could be so entertaining? Yet, Detectorists—the title is the proper term for one who detects metals—is an addictive TV series brimming with wit and endearing characters.

The shows focuses on two detectorists: Lance, a middle-aged “fruit and veg” man, and his younger friend Andy, who does odd jobs for a temp agency. Andy (Mackenzie Crook) lives with his cynical girlfriend Becky, while Lance (Toby Jones) still pines for his ex-wife Maggie. Their lives, though, are centered around their shared passion for roaming fields with their metal detectors. Their dream is to discover a buried Saxon ship, but a typical day is filled with finding ring-pulls and miniature cars—and then going to the pub for a couple of pints.

The Danebury Metal Detecting Club.
Lance and Andy belong to the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, better known as the DMDC, whose members are an eccentric group of lovable detectorists. Still, as Lance points out, metal detecting can be dangerous and competition is fierce. That is certainly the case with a rival club known as the Antiquisearchers, which has the advantage of being affiliated with a local museum. Two Antiquisearchers, in particular, pop up occasionally to challenge Lance and Andy and exchange verbal jabs (Lance dubs them Simon & Garfunkel for their resemblance to the singing duo).

"Simon and Garfunkel."
There are many plots weaved throughout the two seasons of Detectorists (e.g., the arrival of a pretty archaeology student, a World War II plane crash, a secret from Lance’s past). However, this is a character-driven comedy and some of the best scenes just feature Lance and Andy taking a break from detecting and discussing the previous night’s quiz show.

Toby Jones has brought to life to a number of memorable characters during his long acting career, to include a stellar turn in the recent Witness for the Prosecution (2016). He’s at the top of his game in Detectorists, creating a quick-witted character that’s sometimes pompous (especially when discussing metal detector models), sometimes vulnerable, but always a sincere and loyal friend.

Mackenzie Crook in The Office.
Mackenzie Crook (Game of Thrones) proves to be the perfect complement as Andy, whose lack of ambition gets throttled with a life-changing event that occurs near the end of season 1. Crook, who first gained fame in the British version of The Office TV series, also created and wrote Detectorists. His scripts feature some laugh-out-loud moments, but much of the humor is derived from the characters and situations. (One of my favorite characters is a mentally-unbalanced farmer who may have murdered his wife and believes he has a pack of invisible dogs--who keep running away.)

The impressive CTX 3030!
It’s unfortunate that Detectorists consists of just two six-episode seasons and a Christmas special. Thankfully, though, more episodes are on the way! Crook announced on March 31st that he had agreed to a third and final season that will be filmed in 2017 and possibly air by the end of the year. While I was hoping for a few more seasons, I’m still excited about the opportunity to spend more time with the members of the DMDC. It’s enough to make me think about purchasing my own Minelab CTX 3030….

Acorn TV is streaming Detectorists in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Trivia

David Pearse as Lawrence.
Lawrence doesn't just play trivia with his mates at the Blue Swan. He lives for it.

His goal is for The Team With No Name to be crowned trivia night champs for 52 consecutive weeks. That lofty ambition is in sight when we first meet Lawrence and his three teammates: his friend Adam (who owns the pub), Cathy (who recently lost her job), and Tony (the pub's chef). However, things become suddenly unsettled when Lawrence "fires" Tony for missing a sports question. Never mind that Lawrence answers 90% of the questions; his expectation is for his mates to know the few answers that he doesn't.

Janet Moran as Molly.
With the team in need of a fourth player, Cathy brings her friend Molly, a single mother whose boyfriend was literally eaten by a shark. To Lawrence's surprise, Molly is his equal when it comes to trivia. Admiration soon turns into something more. Could it be that the socially awkward Lawrence has become smitten with Molly?

Part comedy, part character study, Trivia is an addicting half-hour Irish TV series that aired in 2011-2012. There are other plotlines during the stellar first season, such as Cathy's crush on Adam--which is obvious to everyone but Adam. However, most of the six episodes focus on Lawrence, an intelligent young man with low self-esteem and social challenges that almost rival Doc Martin. Lawrence lives with his parents (who constantly compare him to his "successful" brother) and works as the sole clerk at The Flick Shack (which is almost always empty). His joy at winning trivia night is short-lived; as soon as he gets home, he starts studying again for the next game.

Keith McErlean as Adam.
David Pearse brings Lawrence to life, making him compelling, sympathetic, and cringe-worthy all at the same time. His greatest accomplishment is that he makes the audience root for this shaggy-dog character. Damien Owens' strong writing helps immensely, of course, especially his brilliant idea to forge a bond between Lawrence and Molly's daughter Aisling.

The first season ends on a high note with an unexpected, but very satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, it sets too high a bar for the second season, which deviates from the weekly trivia contests and eliminates Cathy (who was winningly played by Olivia Caffrey). The series struggles to find its way for the first three episodes, but starts to improve during the latter half of its short season. The second season concludes with a cliffhanger that is never resolved--since the show was cancelled. (Writer Owens has stated it was intended to be a three-season series.)

It's a shame that Trivia lasted for just 12 episodes, but sometimes it's better to leave fans wanting more than for a show to overstay its welcome. Besides, I can just imagine Lawrence answering this question on trivia night: What was the name of the short-lived Irish comedy that took place at a pub called the Blue Swan?


Trivia can be streamed on Acorn TV and Hulu.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

One of the frightening Kabane.
Set during the Industrial Age in Japan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress presents a dark world in which a virus has transformed corpses into human-devouring creatures known as the Kabane. The unaffected humans have built fortresses that are connected by steam-powered trains. Periodically, the Kabane, who may be growing more intelligent, mount attacks. They are difficult to kill with conventional weapons, for their only vulnerable area--their glowing hearts--are protected by a layer of iron. Ikoma, a young steamsmith, invents an iron-piercing gun and uses it to kill one of the Kabane during an attack.

The young hero Ikoma.
He is still bitten, though, which means he's destined to transform into one of the creatures. Desperate to prevent the virus from spreading through his body to his brain, he nearly chokes himself to death with a metal collar around his neck. However, he does stop the virus from total infection and unknowingly becomes a Kabaneri--who is half-human and half-Kabane.

He teams with up with another teenager, a girl known only as Mumei ("nameless"), and they help Princess Ayame and other survivors escape from the fallen fortress. They travel by train to other destinations, seeking help and answers.

The mysterious Mumei.
This 12-episode anime series debuted in the U.S. in 2016 on Amazon Prime's streaming service. It's an exceptionally intelligent, well-written series in which each episode reveals new insight about the characters and their motives. We learn, for example, that Mumei became a Kabaneri in a very different way from Ikoma.

The series, written by Japanese author and screenwriter Ichirō Ōkouchi, also benefits from strong relationships among the characters. Initially, the humans distrust the Kabaneri, who must consume blood to survive. But their understanding of them evolves through a series of adventures to the point where some of the humans willingly donate blood to keep Ikoma and Mumei alive.

Fireworks during a moment of peace.
Director Tetsurō Araki paces the half-hours extremely well. The animation is not very fluid, but the color palette is breathtaking and creates a vivid atmosphere. Araki was also responsible for the popular manga-inspired 2013 anime series Attack on Titan, which shares some plot similarities with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.

The title song for Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is performed by a duo known as Egoist. They released the song as a single and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart.

A release for season two of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress has not yet been announced.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Place to Call Home

Marta Dusseldorp as Sarah.
Mislabeled by one critic as "Australia's answer to Downton Abbey," this 1950s-based drama has an altogether different vibe. Whereas Downton was an ensemble affair, A Place to Call Home is centered around one character: an independent-minded nurse named Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp). That's not to say that other characters don't figure prominently. There's the wealthy Bligh family, a ruggedly handsome physician, a lovesick young Italian, and the colorful residents of Inverness (which include a gossip and a bully).

In the opening episode, Sarah meets George Bligh (Brett Climo) on an ocean liner when his mother requires medical attention. There's an instant attraction between Sarah and George and his mother Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst) doesn't like it. Elizabeth's dislike of Sarah grows when the latter discovers a secret involving George's adult son James.

Noni Hazlehurst as Elizabeth Bligh.
Sarah reveals that the purpose of her journey from England is to care for her ailing mother. Alas, her reconciliation with her mother does not go well. When Sarah refuses to renounce her Jewish faith, her mother rejects her. With nowhere to go, Sarah accepts George Bligh's job offer to work at a hospital in the rural town of Inverness.

Initially, Sarah finds it hard to fit in, but her pluck and nursing skills help her gain acceptance--with everyone except Elizabeth Bligh. Meanwhile, George's daughter Anna gets serious with a young blue-collar worker named Gino, son James tries to keep a big secret from his wife, and the sister of George's deceased wife pops up unexpectedly to cause trouble.

A Place to Call Home is an engrossing drama, with much of the credit going to Bevan Lee. He created the show and penned many of the plot-packed scripts. His greatest gift, though, is how he gradually reveals pertinent details about his characters' pasts. For example, it's evident that Sarah is a woman of strength and perseverance from the moment she's introduced. However, Lee takes several episodes to unveil the incidents from her past that made her that way. Likewise, the viewer gains insight--over time--as to why other characters, such as Elizabeth and her estranged daughter Carolyn, act the way they do.

Brett Climo as George Bligh.
The setting and time period may also appeal to American viewers (like me) who know little about Australian history. Like another Aussie TV series, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, the wounds of World War II are still fresh for many of the characters in A Place to Call Home. Physician Jack Duncan lives with memories of being tortured in a Japanese POW camp, while George's wife Elaine died in a bombing raid. Thus, there is plenty of friction when Japanese businessmen visit Inverness during a season one episode.

A strong cast is grounded by Marta Dusseldorp as Sarah Adams and Noni Hazlehurst as Elizabeth Bligh. Dusseldorp may be the better known of the two for most viewers, having starred as a barrister in The Crownies (2011) and as the title character in its spinoff Janet King (2014-2016). Hazlehurst, who reminds me mightily of Kathy Bates, hosted a popular home and garden show in Australia for many years.

Jenni Baird as the nasty Regina.
Among the rest of the cast, acting honors go to Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood and Jenni Baird. Parkes-Lockwood, who plays James Bligh's bride Olivia, transforms her character from a timid mouse to a fierce woman who stands up for her husband when his life crumbles around him. Baird joins the series midway through season one and spices up the proceedings as a bigoted villain who wants to discredit Sarah and claim George for herself.

A Place to Call Home has run for four seasons, a total of 45 episodes, since its debut in 2013. It's available on DVD in the U.S. and can be streamed on Acorn TV.