Tag Archive: BritBox


Review by C.J. Bunce

If you’ve been watching Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up Series from its first installments, you know each new chapter in the real-life time travel journey makes the viewer feel like he or she has also reached some kind of achievement with the arrival of the new episode.  But the series of documentaries is not for the faint-hearted, filled with gut-wrenching views into participants’ lives, participants who feel like family after watching them over 56 years since their first appearance.  So compelling and personal is Apted’s look at this select group of fourteen English boys and girls turned men and women, revisiting them every seven years of their lives since 1964, the documentary series is practically an interactive experience.  With Apted passing away since the UK premiere last year, and the U.S. arrival of the latest installment–the eagerly awaited 63 Up arriving on BritBox via Amazon Prime this weekend–the question is whether this ninth installment is the last.  Key members of the crew since 28 Up have expressed an interest in continuing the series in 2027, but until then expect this to be a bittersweet end for the series, which Roger Ebert called the noblest project in cinema history and among the ten best films ever made.

At last Apted addresses the thesis of the show to each participant, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and asks whether they agree after decades participating in this unique social experiment.  Apted was a researcher when working on director Paul Almond’s Seven Up! in 1964.  Seven years later the well-known director of Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorky Park, was just out of university, and at 22 he revisited the original Seven Up! project.  He would go on to direct the subsequent eight episodes over 56 years.  The idea was to get a glimpse of England in the future year 2000 when these kids, the future leaders of England, were only seven years old.  It is difficult to surpass the jolts and surprises of 42 Up, but 63 Up holds its own, although sadly viewers will say goodbye to one participant who has died, another is seriously ill, and another decided not to participate.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

In an age where television shows continue to be stretched into a bloated ten episodes, it’s refreshing to to find a six-episode series without the filler.  One of those is the Scottish crime series Traces, a tightly, cleverly written story following a team of college forensic professors, scientists, and anthropologists and their work with the local Dundee, Scotland detective branch to solve crimes.  The first season is a fictional account centered on the case of a woman who went missing during the real-life Tall Ships festival in Dundee in August 2001, whose body was later found in a shallow grave.  The plot closely follows some of the more realistic and mysterious bits of any number of episodes of the true crime series Forensic Files, while working in some well-developed characters–enough to make for a compelling ongoing series.  Fans of television from Great Britain are also near guaranteed to find several familiar faces from some of your favorite genre films and TV series along the way.

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Today we move from the big screen to the small screen with the Best TV Series of 2020.  If you missed it, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2020 here and the best Kick-Ass Heroines of 2020 here.  We watch a lot of television, and probably love a good series even more than a great movie.  We preview hundreds of series, but outside big franchise content you want to know about, we only review what we recommend–the best genre content we’re watching.  The theory?  If we like it, we think you may like it.  The best shows have a compelling story, a full range of emotions, great characters, tremendous action, a sharp use of humor, and all kinds of well-executed genre elements that satisfy and leave viewers feeling inspired.  Even better if we see richly detailed sets and costumes.

Without further ado, this year’s Best in Television:

Best Borg SeriesAltered Carbon (Netflix).  Showing life in a world well past the merger of the organic and inorganic via stacks placed in human individuals’ vertebrae in the back of the neck, the second season of the series further revealed the dark side of being able to live forever.  What parts of life have the most value in a cybernetic world?  What crimes emerge when body and mind can be separated and re-shuffled?  Honorable mention: Star Trek: Picard (CBD All Access)–revisiting Star Trek’s old nemeses The Borg and introducing the cyborg-like nonbiological humanoids called Synths, the same term used in the BBC’s Humans.

Best TV Borg, Best TV VillainDarth Maul (played by Sam Witwer and Ray Park), Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Disney+).  The athletic performer Ray Park provided the best-ever lightsaber duel scenes in his co-starring performance in The Phantom Menace.  Watching the animated series this year it was clear Darth Maul wasn’t just another animated character.  Add another great duel to the books–Park’s motion capture abilities live on and continue to set the bar for Star Wars action sequences, and Witwer voices a character we never want to see go away again.  Honorable mention for Best TV Villain: Grand Moff Gideon, Giancarlo Esposito, The Mandalorian (Disney+).

Best Sci-fi TV Series, Best TV Fantasy, Best Western TV SeriesThe Mandalorian (Disney+).  Not a lot needs explaining with this series, which continues to be compared to the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back more than anything with the Star Wars label on it since.  The Western motif is still alive, not all that hidden here in space fantasy garb.  And we won’t get started on the impact of The Child (aka Baby Yoda) now called Grogu, on the genre-loving world and beyond.  Credit Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau’s visible enthusiasm and love for the original movies for a series that only gets better with each episode, despite their short lengths.  Honorable mention for Best Sci-Fi TV Series: Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access).

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Review by C.J. Bunce

BritBox may not be the #1 streaming service around, but thanks to the pandemic its subscriptions have reportedly doubled this year.  And you’d think that would give a series like Wild Bill the possibility of a second chance.  Wild Bill was a 2019 British series in the great tradition of police procedurals featuring coppers with attitude starring the unlikely lead in a British series, Rob Lowe.  It’s probably Rob Lowe’s best personal performance to date, and certainly his most mature role, yet the series was canceled by production company ITV after the first season.  And that was a scrawny British season of six episodes, not 10 or 13 like we’d find on this side of the pond, which makes it doubly unfortunate to lose a series with so much promise.  Since American viewership has brought a new life to all things British TV, you’d think that might mean something, but apparently British television studios don’t like making money over here.

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Sam and Gene

My name is Sam Tyler.  I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973.  Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?  Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.

First off, it’s really going to rile some people when you pronounce something the greatest ever.  But we’re talking here about the British television series Life on Mars.  And not just Life on Mars, but The Empire Strikes Back of television series, Ashes to Ashes.  You can quibble with M*A*S*H or Law and Order or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Twilight Zone, or engage you people over there shouting Firefly and Supernatural and the others over there fighting over the best Star Trek series–but we’re talking about Life on Mars here.  And if you’ve watched its two seasons in 2006 and 2007, or the three seasons of Ashes to Ashes from 2008 to 2010, then the news that another chapter of the series is in the works is the kind of happy news that can actually distract you from the real world right now.

Yet it’s true.  Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham confirmed it all yesterday as part of a Twitter “watch-along” of the first episode of the genre-bending series for the UK audience.  Graham first hinted at the possibility in a Tweet he posted Tuesday promoting the event, and he provided more details after the show.  Just like over the past 15 years, Brits posted how much they loved the series, how they believe it to be the best series ever made.  The series follows John Simm (Doctor Who, State of Play) as Sam Tyler, a British cop in 2006 who is working on a case when he is hit by a car.  He awakens in the same police station 33 years earlier, in the year 1973.  He knows he’s unstuck in time, but unsure how he got there.  Is he in a coma?  Did something supernatural take over?  Is this what death is like?  This is where the genre-bending begins.  Until you’ve watched all five years of episodes, you won’t really know what is the true genre behind the genres hinted at in the series.  Tyler befriends and shares his situation only with co-worker Annie Cartwright, played by Liz White (Doctor Who, The Woman in Black).  He finds he is now working under the cantankerous Detective Police Inspector Gene Hunt, played by Philip Glenister (Cranford, Horatio Hornblower), one of my picks of the greatest characters of all time (seriously, I wrote about it here eight years ago).  DCI Hunt becomes the centerpiece of this strange world, continuing past the second season of Life on Mars to co-star in the same role in Ashes to Ashes along with Keeley Hawes (Doctor Who, The Bank Job), a police officer named Alex Drake who is shot in 2008 and wakes up in 1981.  Life on Mars continued with Ashes to Ashes much like The Closer continued with the series Major Crimes for U.S. audiences, swapping out the lead roles, but continuing with the rest of the cast.  Here that included two other cops, played by Dean Andrews (Father Brown, Marchlands) and Marshall Lancaster (Doctor Who, Casualty) who appeared in all five seasons.

Ashes

During yesterday’s watch-along, Graham peppered Twitter with glimpses at what lies ahead in what he called, The Final Chapter.  Although he didn’t say if any actors had confirmed returning, it seems impossible anyone would make this announcement without buy-in from Glenister, Simm, Hawes, White, Andrews, and Lancaster.  To that point he said, “we intend to get as many back (across both decades) as we can.  So when you wonder who will be coming back for The Final Chapter – think Avengers Assemble!”  He specifically referenced wanting Annie (Liz White) back, and Hunt’s boss DCI Litton.  Graham mentioned the series will be set in Manchester and London, partially in the 1970s, partially in the 1980s, but mostly in an alternate now, all running for four or five episodes.  “I’d like to tell you that in The Final Chapter there will be a TV show WITHIN our TV show.  TYLER: MURDER DIVISION,” adding, “We would never make another Mars unless we really had something to say and could push the envelope all over again.  Finally we have something.”  While watching a classic scene in the first episode, co-creator Ashley Pharoah Tweeted, “I wonder if Phil and John could jump over that desk now?  I guess we’ll find out”.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Call it Scotland Noir or Nordic Noir, in its fifth season the BBC’s Shetland just keeps getting better.  Just as viewers were treated to a satisfying wrap-up to this year’s six-part mystery of human trafficking, murders, blackmail, dead bodies in the ocean, and cheating hearts, Shetland may have pulled off its best scene of all in the final minutes of Tuesday’s season finale.  Airing for the first time in the U.S. as a weekly series on streaming service BritBox, the series is a rarity: a police procedural with a following in the States that survived five seasons.  It’s telling that the series has been renewed for a sixth season, which should air in the UK in the first half of next year, and a few months later in the U.S.

How can they keep coming up with such good police drama in such a small and desolate setting?  Credit for another good twisty mystery should be split between the writers, Shetland regulars David Kane and Paul Logue, the five cast members that have carried the series since the first episode back in 2013. and the stark natural beauty of the Shetland backdrop.  Better storytelling is difficult to find on TV, but the series knows how to juggle the murders, kidnappings, local and political leaders with deadly secrets, and the surprising interplay of international crime syndicates in Glasgow, Norway, and Africa.  Douglas Henshall continues to lead the series as the driven detective inspector Jimmy Perez, and this season he solidified his defining theme: Everyone is a suspect.  Often that nagging reality wedges its way into frustrating his most personal relationships.  Is there a better way to empathize with your hero than seeing him stuck looking into the eyes of someone he cares about, forced to question them about their honesty and possible participation in a murder?

The ongoing relationship between Perez and his step-daughter’s father Duncan only gets more complicated and interesting.  Mark Bonnar′s ability to portray Duncan as part sap, bungler, buffoon, sad sack, perpetual guy in the wrong place, and well-meaning everyman continues to cement Henshall and Bonnar as the best pairing and blend of buddy movie magic and chemistry since the Odd Couple.  For fans who can’t get enough of Alison O’Donnell′s curious, determined, savvy, and lovable detective sergeant Alison “Tosh” MacIntosh, season five was a welcome change for the character, getting her back in control of her life and rounding out a multi-season story arc with a new love interest and the next too-cute TV couple.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The three 90-minute episode television series is one of those staples of the BBC that is both refreshing and infuriating.  It’s refreshing because it avoids all the padding that is so commonplace among those direct-to-binge, 10-episode shows premiering regularly now on Netflix and other streaming providers.  But it’s infuriating to find a series that is so well written and produced, you love the characters and wish there was more.  Much like another great 4.5 hour series we loved, BBC’s 2011 series Zen starring Rufus Sewell (reviewed here at borg), in BBC’s Quirke, Gabriel Byrne inhabits his lead character in one of his best performances, leaving viewers wishing the series would have continued for a few more seasons.  First airing in the UK in 2014, Quirke is now available on the BritBox streaming service, along with Zen.

Byrne (Vikings, Assault on Precinct 13, The Usual Suspects) plays Dr. Quirke, the chief pathologist of the Dublin city morgue in the 1950s.  He has an affinity for alcohol, his brother’s wife, and solving murders, partnering on- and off-the-books with the local police inspector played by Stanley Townsend (Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, Zen, Galavant).  In what feels like three gritty Irish noir movies, we learn about the doctor’s family struggles as his past and future collide, as he investigates an orphanage siphoning babies from Ireland to Boston, as he connects the deaths of two women found dead from suicides, and as he tracks down the whereabouts of a missing friend of his daughter.

The focus of Dr. Quirke’s life is the well-being of his niece, played by Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones, Vera), who is really his biological daughter, raised by his step-brother and his wife when the girl’s birth resulted in the death of Quirke’s wife 20 years ago.  Quirke was adopted into his family, and years later his father (played by Michael Gambon (Harry Potter series, Doctor Who, Cranford)) continues to treat him with disdain, but he hides his own secrets.  Along with the Professor Dumbledore actor, look for the actress behind Harry Potter’s mother (Geraldine Somerville) as Quirke’s sister-in-law, and the actress behind Batman’s mother in Batman Begins (Sara Stewart).  Other genre actors include Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story’s General Dodonna (Ian McElhinney) as an influential politico, Ella Enchanted and Mr. Selfridge’s Aidan McArdle as the politico’s nephew, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Life on Mars, and Master and Commander’s Lee Ingleby as one of the men attracted to Quirke’s daughter, and Merlin, Doctor Who, and Humans’ Colin Morgan as a journalist.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It aired in the UK in February and March, and it had been reported for several weeks that its fifth season was going to arrive on BritBox in April in the U.S.  The BBC′s unique crime series Shetland made it in the nick of time, with BritBox releasing the first episode yesterday.  Unfortunately BritBox didn’t drop all six Season 5 episodes, opting to air the series the old-fashioned way, with new episodes arriving every Tuesday.  It’s the kind of series to savor, so why not?

As advertised since last year, the multiple BAFTA-winning series’ key cast returns, with Shetland supercop/investigator DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) partnering again with DS Alison “Tosh” McIntosh (Alison O’Donnell) and DC Sandy Wilson (Steven Robertson), this time to investigate the murder of a young man whose body parts have been found washed ashore around the island.  Welsh actress Rakie Ayola (Dredd, Doctor Who, Sea of Souls, Black Mirror) steps into the series as the season’s guest star, playing the boy’s estranged mother.  The first episode of the season does not disappoint, laying out the first of the clues that will lead DI Perez–and the audience–to find the killer before the series wraps with its sixth episode June 4.

Anglophiles wanting another reason to catch up with Shetland will find former and current cast on the series from both Doctor Who (Peter Capaldi, Steven Robertson, Mark Bonnar, Gemma Chan, Brian Cox, James Greene, Anthony Flanagan, Benjamin Cawley, and Susan Vidler) and Game of Thrones (Clive Russell, Ciarán Hinds, Jamie Michie, John Stahl, James Cosmo, and Chris Reilly).  Struan Rodger can boast roles on all three series.  The fourth season knocked out several great shows to be borg′s Best British/UK series of 2018.

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First airing in March 2013, BBC’s police procedural Shetland is part mystery, part action, part suspense drama set in the stark and beautiful Shetland Isles.  It follows detective inspector Jimmy Perez, played by Douglas Henshall, as he and detective sergeant “Tosh” MacIntosh (Alison O’Donnell) and detective constable Sandy Wilson (Steven Robertson) solve unusual crimes in a rural part of the world that has its own set of rules.  Season 5 has begun on the BBC in the UK, and it will be coming to the U.S. delayed by only a few weeks, arriving this April.

The series is loosely based on characters and stories from a set of novels by Ann Cleeves.  We named season four of the series the best British/UK series of 2018 in our year-end wrap-up here at borg.  Take a look at our review of season four here.

BBC released a preview for the series’ next season.  After a gruesome discovery, Perez and his team track the murderer in a complex investigation.  Here’s the trailer for season 5 of Shetland:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is now available for streaming in the U.S. on Amazon Prime.  Christie is renowned for the cozy mystery novel, but the 2017 three-part BBC series upends the cozy qualities of Christie’s trademark storytelling with the seemingly obligatory modernizing of the classics through a dark and grotesque filter.  If you’re revisiting Christie through the lens of something like Edgar Allan Poe, then it might make sense to you to swap out your familiar vision of the enduring detective hero Hercule Poirot for someone known for his whispering, creepy, and pretentious characters.  Someone like John Malkovich.  If you’re lucky, as was director Alex Gabassi (The Frankenstein Chronicles) and screenwriter Sarah Phelps (EastEnders), you might find Malkovich in one of his finer performances.

Malkovich, in a most reserved and dialed back performance, is perfect as Poirot at the end of his career, disgraced, derided, and reviled, shunned instead of adored in a time when the native Belgian was reviled in England in a wave of anti-immigrant hatred.  He is dark, moody, uncertain, nearly off his game as he begins to receive in his batch of daily love and hate mail a single set of letters from an unknown sender with violent intentions.  Now retired (this is Poirot in 1933) he seeks the aid of Scotland Yard, always helpful in the old days, to find one Inspector Crome, a twenty-something inspector played by 29-year-old Rupert Grint.  Poirot is out and Crome is in, until Crome realizes Poirot’s warnings of a killer taunting Poirot with murder victims and towns following laid out alphabetically were all spot on.  At last Grint makes his move into a mature role, and he does it believably well, holding his own opposite the incomparable mystique of Malkovich.  Joining Grint from the Harry Potter films is Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle) as the vile landlady of a creepy young man whose initials are A.B.C., played by Eamon Farren (Winchester, Twin Peaks), and who the story follows in parallel to Poirot’s pursuit.

Unfortunately the potentially interesting switch-up to the Modern is mired in unnecessary irrelevancies, including attempts at ambience at the expense of furthering the plot.  So prepare for overlong frames of lurid, exaggerated, repulsive, and vulgar wallowing in fluids, leering at every fathomable excess, regurgitations too numerous to count, an odd sex torture scene, tasteless dwelling on spilled urine and worse.  It becomes difficult to look over and around these additions to try to hone in on the point of the whole thing, the part that works: Christie’s clever mystery story.  Not surprisingly none of the excesses were in Christie’s original mystery.  The distractions are unfortunate, because Grint shows promise as a classic British character type he could possibly bank on for future roles, and Malkovich gives a good effort at an updated take on the character, complete with an acceptable mix of accents.

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