With Robot Wars coming to a fantastic and genuinely moving ending on Sunday – even if you’re not a 12-year-old you will love it, it was such good brainless television – it’s time for me to watch some more of the television that I’ve been missing for the last few years, and see what I can watch this week in TV Land. And so, off I headed to Netflix.
Netflix gets an undue level of hate from certain parts of the media, and I think that may be more out of jealousy and fear than any creative criticism. This is not to say that Netflix is perfect, far from it, some of the content they produce is shockingly terrible, and they have a habit of taking my favourite films from their service – Clue, you will be sorely missed. But for every utter clanger there is a show that redeems them in my eyes. Their first major success was the American adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ political epic ‘House of Cards’, which, although inferior to the brilliant BBC version from the early ’90s featuring the sublimely ominous Ian Richardson, was a very well made and tightly scripted show that is only now ruined because the lead actor seems to possibly be a bit of a sexual offender.
Netflix’ other real big success has been the adventure/ horror/ coming of age story ‘Stranger Things’ which is now two seasons long and is utterly captivating. Set in the early ’80s, it’s the story of 4 pre-teen boy nerds who accidentally find themselves in the middle of a horror story featuring government research into alternative dimensions, a young girl called Eleven (El) who, as a result of medical experimentation, has immense telekinetic ability, and the bullies from their school who are out to get them. And they have all this to deal with while making sure that they don’t lose their place in their Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The ’80s setting means not only do we get some timeless pop-culture references scattered carefully throughout, but we have terrible fashion and great music to enjoy, with some very well composed ‘outrun’ style synth to enjoy for the tense moments.
Season one was universally adored and rightly so. From the very moment that one of the boys is taken by a monstrous creature from the “upside down” dimension, lovingly named the Demogorgon after a demi-demon from DnD (incidentally one that killed a character I was playing as), and the other three have to try and get him back with the help of their new friendly psychic, you’re completely hooked. The performances from the child actors go against every child actor trope going – mainly, because these guys can act. The supporting cast, from Winona Rider as the ever-stressed mother whose son goes missing and is feared dead, to David Harbour’s “tough guy with a heart of gold” sheriff of the town, just trying to get through the day and keep his townspeople alive and happy.
Now season two is here, well it’s been here for a while and I’m just a terrible person, and it’s gone an extra step. The characters are being developed another level, the writing is pulling at every heart string all while creating a sense of dread and foreboding, for all is not right in this little town. Harbour has been given more of a starring role, and his performance as a man desperately trying to cling on to some semblance of control over his town and personal life is captivating. The only negative I’ve found this season is that one of the child actors, Will played by Noah Schnapp, has been cursed by such a weak character. Will is the boy who is taken to the “upside down” in season one, and is now a conduit between the two worlds, having terrifying visions of an incoming storm in the form of a terrible monster. His performance is solid, but the lines he’s made to speak are so one dimensional. The others in his group are all now fleshed out characters with motives, secrets and ambitions, Will is still just “that kid who’s a seer” with no real substance. But hopefully this will improve with season 3 that was announced earlier this week, and the ’80s can keep on going on.
Speaking of a good blast of the past, I have finally gotten around to watch the Channel 4 reboot of The Crystal Maze, the cult ’90s television show that was originally fronted by the slightly insane Richard O’Brien, donning a leopard skin jacket and a wit so sharp you’d need a license to carry it in public. Last year, Channel 4 produced a one-off celebrity special as a quasi-pilot, with the polished dome of Stephen Merchant acting as the maze master, but for this full 20-episode series the reins were passed over to the mightily dry Richard Ayoade. The games format hasn’t really changed, nor has the show’s appearance, which is more a testament to how well designed the original sets were, than the quality of the new one. Peter Gordon, who was the original designed, has returned for this and you can tell, as the spirit of the classic seasons definitely lives on in the challenges that the contestants have to put themselves through, from large crawling mazes, to having to answer riddles from a disembodied Adam Buxton head – which works surprisingly well.
As with the original series, the success depends on the quality of The Maze Master. When O’Brien left the show for series 5, the producers brought in Ed Tudor-Pole which was nice, I suppose? He tried to be O’Brien for one series, and for the final episodes was just plainly being himself and looked like her was really enjoying it, but he missed the manic energy that only the man behind the Rocky Horror Show could deliver. Richard Ayoade falls somewhere between the two. His dry humour is genuinely enjoyable, and his rapport with the contestants is warm and natural, but he lacks the energy and pizazz, less running around the sets and more playfully sauntering. His “cutting” remarks when the contestants fail or struggle are nowhere near as enjoyable as when it was O’Brien making them, nor are his quiet moments to camera as funny.
It’s a good reboot, and it is full of charm, but it lacks the natural warmth and energy of the original. Worth a watch, but I wouldn’t binge watch them on YouTube like you can with the O’Brien era. In fact, I’ll do that now.