I've had a chance to watch a bit more television than usual recently. Here are my reviews of You, Manhunt: Unabomber, Behind Her Eyes, the Queen's Gambit and Peaky Blinders.
People say that You has Dexter vibes, but I've only seen one episode of Dexter so I can't really comment. What I can say, though, is that You is bloody brilliant. Told from the perspective of your stereotypical Nice Guy, Joe Goldberg is a bookstore manager who develops obsessions with women over very little indeed, then worms his way into their life by stalking them and preying upon their needs and insecurities as he tries to be their 'perfect' partner. As his obsessions grow, people he sees as threats to the object of his perversion become increasingly endangered, and Goldberg stops at nothing in order to keep his obsessions 'safe.' What sounds a dark and disturbing series on the surface is surprisingly humorous and touching, and you find yourself rooting for Goldberg in his attempts to protect the vulnerable children in his life. The true genius of the programme, however, is how it gets you sympathising with and supporting Goldberg in his attempts to escape from the various predicaments he gets himself in, and wishing for his happiness at several points in the series. I can't give this programme enough praise; it's a fantastic dark comedy/thriller that you will not be able to stop watching. It's on Netflix and it's absolutely must-see, even if it leaves you feeling a little dirty afterwards when you remember how awful Goldberg is.
I first watched this programme a few years ago, on the recommendation of a friend. It's a dramatization of the true story of Ted Kaczynski, the prodigious mathematics professor who transformed into a terrorist known as the Unabomber. Over a seventeen-year period, he used bombs to protest against modern technology and the destruction of the environment, and also published a manifesto outlining his political and sociological beliefs. Manhunt: Unabomber is a ten-episode series that focuses on both Kaczynski and the police force trying to capture him. How true-to-life it is, I don't know, but this programme is outstanding drama. You find yourself sympathising with Kaczynski's beliefs, if not his actions, while also being absorbed in the police efforts to capture him. These efforts focus on one particular profiler and his new technique of using linguistic analysis of Kaczynski's messages to narrow the search down. If it was fiction, the story would be dramatic enough; knowing it was real-life, and the manifesto is still available for anyone to read and analyse, gives it an added edge of excitement. It's a programme that demands you watch just one more episode, and will leave you thinking about the issues raised long after the credits roll. Fantastic stuff.
Behind Her Eyes
Behind Her Eyes came out a couple of months ago amidst much hype; indeed, had I not seen so many people discussing it on social media, I probably would have overlooked it myself. It's a pretty standard story, in the sense that 'the powerful man has an affair with his receptionist' is a common trope, but as the six episodes progress and more is revealed about the psychiatrist and his mentally-ill wife - who may or may not have committed murder - it veers from the standardised love-triangle storyline to reveal something much more intriguing. After a slow opening episode-and-a-half, I was truly hooked by the end of the second episode, but as the story neared its conclusion I found myself disappointed with how it resolved the thread of the wife's knowledge of the affair. It felt very deus ex machina and, rather than having my mind blown, it just felt very cheap. It's hard to talk about how the story explained the wife's knowledge without giving away major spoilers, so please excuse my being vague. Once that revelation had passed, the closing of the series was very good, but I couldn't help feeling conned with how a very good, gritty drama turned into something else altogether, despite the storytelling leading to a good conclusion. I feel, had the tone of the programme stayed the same throughout, Behind Her Eyes would've gone down as excellent, rather than merely being above-average. I do wonder if a re-watch would be more intriguing, knowing how it ends, but I have no desire to watch it again.
The Queen's Gambit
I'm a big fan of television and film about intelligent characters, so the story of The Queen's Gambit, following the rise of a chess prodigy from the orphanage to the world stage, intrigued me from the synopsis. Watching Beth Harmon go from a shy, awkward, drug-addicted kid, who found solace in playing chess in the basement with the janitor, to a shy, awkward, drug-addicted phenomenon who struggled to handle her immense talent and growing fame was fascinating. In many ways, it was similar to Almost Famous as a coming-of-age story, except Harmon gives in to her vices rather than observes those of others, and it's about chess rather than rock 'n' roll. I enjoyed how it was about a female lead who had a defined, fully-developed character and who was breaking boundaries, yet that message was almost secondary - it wasn't that she was great because she was a woman, she was great because she was great, and the ground-breaking aspects of it, while obviously present, were secondary to her ability. It never felt like it was hammering home a socio-political message, rather, it was a story that any outcast who has been dismissed for reasons beyond their ability can relate to. What I liked most about it, though, was how well-told the story of a flawed genius was. I don't know if there'll be a second season, but I hope there is, because The Queen's Gambit is a very good programme and well worth your time.
I mentioned the sad death of Helen McCrory, who plays the domineering Aunt Polly in this programme, to my partner, who said she had never seen Peaky Blinders before. What an opportunity that was to introduce her to the best television programme of recent years. We've only watched the first season so far, but it's even better than I remember. Every scene matters, every bit of dialogue deepens the characters or develops the story, and the characterisation of the main players is marvellous. The atmosphere of the world draws you in, the deep and engaging story keeps you there, and the air of menace that permeates every second of screen time entrances you. It feels like every character is giving the performance of their life, and we've not even met the incredible Alfie Solomons yet, a contender for greatest supporting television character ever. The way the programme has permeated popular culture can irritate, but there's a reason the hairstyles and flat caps featured have become so mainstream - the programme is that damn good. However good you thought it was the first time, go back and watch it again and realise it's surpasses your memory. If this show gets its ending right - and plenty of programmes have shown how difficult that is, not least Game of Thrones - then this could well go down as one of the best television dramas of all time. Peaky Blinders is England's answer to the Sopranos. Magnificent.
So those are my reviews of the television I've been watching recently. If I was to rank them, I'd have Behind Her Eyes fifth, The Queen's Gambit fourth, Manhunt: Unabomber third, You second and Peaky Blinders first, though there's very little between fourth and second, and that order could easily change depending upon my mood. I'd say they are all worth watching except for Behind Her Eyes, and I'd say the top three are essential viewing.
"One of the most insightful works I've read on mental health problems in men ... very well-written and a real page-turner. I would recommend it to anyone.
Dancing With Disorder
"It communicates a deep understanding of troubled individuals who suffer from the challenges of mental disorders ... Courageous, wise, humorous and thought-provoking ... an easy-to-read, surprising and subtly moving chronicle.
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