Shows Worth Watching: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Image from BBC America

Magic has returned to England in the 1800’s. Mr. Norrell, a reclusive magician, has been discovered by a group of magic scholars, who search him out and request that he bring his talents to London. At first Mr. Norrell is reluctant to share his magic, along with his precious books, with anyone. Eventually Mr. Norrell agrees to make the trip to London. While there, he uses magic to bring the beautiful Lady Pole back from the dead.  Doing this has ramifications he never imagined, or wanted.

At the same time another magician is coming forth, the naturally talented and charming Jonathan Strange. Jonathan is torn between his love of magic and his love for the fetching Arabella. While trying to secure his union with Arabella, Jonathan comes across a street magician who proclaims Jonathan is destined to become a great magician. Jonathan eventually meets the reclusive and stubborn Mr. Norrell. The older magician reluctantly agrees to take Jonathan on as his apprentice. The two start out as student and teacher and have a fairly level relationship. Johnathan wants to learn more and practice more of the old, dark ways of magicians. This desire eventually pits the two magicians against each other. The battle between the two has ramifications for all of England, and the future of magic.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, aired on BBC America in the states and was a thoroughly entertaining, compelling, and enjoying, limited series to watch. I wish it would have been longer!

The Gentleman and Arabella

Whats good: So much! Lets start with spot on casting. Jonathan Strange is played by the charismatic and charming Bertie Carvel and Mr. Norrell is played by the brilliantly subdued and subtle Eddie Marsan. I can’t imagine two more perfectly cast actors.  Each actor bringing the character’s nuances to the forefront and the interaction between the two is wonderful to watch. Marsan and Carvel were very convincing in their roles and they also played well off of other cast members. Marc Warren plays The Gentleman with creepy perfection. The Gentleman is summoned with dark magic and is from the kingdom of Lost Hope. He is possessed with a great amount of magic and his desire for beautiful companions sets up heartbreak for many. Charlotte Riley as Arabella, Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, and Alice Englert as Lady Pole are just a few of the other stellar cast members. Each role is played with authenticity, making for a well-rounded cast.

Jonathan Strange and The Gentleman

Special Effects: Special effects can make or break a show or movie. This show kills it by finding the right balance. From the big effects of Jonathan gripping the sand to make the phenomenal sand horses to upright a sinking ship, to the subtle effect of candles and the smoke emitted from them. For a show heavily based on magic, the effects are another star. They don’t distract, which is how all special effects should be.

Tone and color: The setting is England in the 1800’s, with a lot of time taking place during mostly winter. The subdued greens, grays, blues, blacks, etc., help to set the feel and look of the show. Most scenes are the darker side and low lit, giving an air of seriousness to the show. This also allows the actors to shine through since the viewer isn’t distracted by the setting. Rather the setting allows the viewer to be absorbed into the action.

The Story: The overall story is very interesting and I found myself rooting for both magicians, even though I wanted to punch Mr. Norrell at times. The plot involving Childermass was compelling and would have loved it if more about him and his background was offered.

What’s not so good: The show is based on the massive book by Susana Clark (which I have not read but have purchased and I plan to read). Given the massive size of the book, cramming the story into seven episodes made it seemed a bit rushed at times. Maybe one more episode would have made the mini-series that much better. The quick run also didn’t leave room to flesh out some characters that viewers might have liked to learn more about.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, while not a serialized over a few seasons show, is a wonderful and terrific program to watch. Stellar acting, solid special effects, characters viewers can be invested in, and a compelling story, combine to make a very watchable t.v. show. Even if you aren’t a fan of magic, the focus on relationships and what others will do to keep those relationships in tact, make for terrific viewing. I highly suggest you take the time to view this show.  You won’t be disappointed. Check out BBC America or BBC One to find out how to view this show.

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Shows Worth Watching: Grimm

Image from Wikipedia

This month’s Shows Worth Watching is all about NBC’s Grimm.  The very basic premise of Grimm is it’s a cop show with a slight twist to it.  The twist being that Nick Burkhardt, a Portland homicide detective, is what is known as a Grimm – a line of hunters who fight supernatural forces and beings.  Inspiration for the series is mainly taken from the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, a collection of stories from the early 1800’s that, during that time, were fairly scary children’s stories (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, & Cinderella are some of the more popular Grimm stories).

Nick discovers he’s a Grimm after his aunt comes to visit him because she is dying.  She ends up dying while fighting a Wesen – the group of humans who have a second identity that only Grimm’s can see at all times, or Wesen can choose to let a human see it’s “creature” form – and that causes Nick’s Grimmness to rise to the surface (being a Grimm is a family trait and usually passes on when a family member dies).  The first episode featured a Wesen known as a Blutbot (played by Silas Weir Mitchell and known as Monroe) whom Nick befriends.  This is odd due to Grimm’s usually killing Wesen whenever they can.  The balance of Nick being a detective vs. being a Grimm plays a big part in this series and allows Nick to become friends with several Wesen.

What makes this show enjoyable is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  The writers are self-aware that the concept of this show can come off as ridiculous. Viewers see the writers self-awareness via the humor that appears in the show or some of the dialog of the cast.  Another good aspect of Grimm is keeping good characters around.  The character of Monroe is a key point to this.  Being featured in the first episode, making him and Nick become friends, having Monroe be in on investigations, and the overall character development of Monroe were all integral to making this show fun.  Monroe has been fleshed out a lot more over the past seasons and expanding on his story-line adds to the show. The writers do a good job of being able to balance between creature of the week and ongoing plot lines as well.  In a lot of shows, a “… of the week” aspect can get played out and take over a series.  With Grimm, the creature of the week tends to be a fun episode that reminds the viewer Nick is a detective.  The show has used small aspects of the “… of the week” feature in the ongoing plots here and there, tying things together in a not too complicated way.

One thing that has been a slight take away from Grimm is Nick’s girlfriend Juliette.  Juliette is a vet and it first seemed the writers would find a way to work this into Nick’s Wesen world.  Turned out that they didn’t quite know what to do with her.  Juliette more often ended up being a damsel in distress or a convenient plot device, which weakened her character.  However, the current fourth season really turned things around and has given Juliette a much more purposeful story.  I’m not the biggest fan of her current development, but at least she finally got something substantial.  Another thing that seems to get a little complicated is the back-story of the Royals – Wesens who are members of the seven royal families who keep the Wesen world in line.  The mythology of this gets a bit convoluted, making it hard to determine who is who and what side they really are on.  Sometimes it feels as if the mythology of Grimm isn’t known to even the writers.

Grimm will be on its fifth season next year and the most surprising thing about that is it has kept its original cast in tact.  Nick’s partner, Hank, has been a consistent presence since the first episode and has been given his own story-lines rather than be known as “the partner.”  Monroe has been a shining aspect of the show and if he ever left, the show would be seriously hindered.  The show has even managed to add to the cast and provide them with fairly integral roles, with the occasional misses here and there.

Overall Grimm is a fun show to watch and has improved with each season.  The current fourth season being the best so far. This show airs on Friday nights, which for some programs is the death-blow.  However, the Friday night slot works in Grimm’s favor.  It’s nice to be able to tune into a program on a Friday night that seems simplistic on the surface, but really gives the viewers what they want – good old enjoyment.  I highly recommend catching an episode of Grimm.  It’s fun and enjoyable and something to look forward to on Friday nights.

Shows Worth Watching: Vikings

Image from history.com

Television today is littered with reality shows.  A finite number of those reality shows are good, and the rest are either mindless, guilty pleasures or utter crap.  One channel that is awash with the latter is the History channel.  A quick glance at their “shows” page lists at least fifteen reality shows. Fifteen.  For a channel named the History channel, this is baffling to say the least.  Thankfully someone at History got a clue and decided to give a shot on a scripted show based on historical people. And it’s actually good.  That show is Vikings.

Image from history.com Lagertha, Ragnar, and Rollo

Vikings is inspired on a mythological Norse hero named Ragnar Lothbrok and the show portrays his journey from farmer to leader via successful raids on English soil, as well as Ragnar’s seemingly complicated family dynamics.  One thing that makes this show work so well is the casting.  The actors selected to play the characters seems to be spot on. Ragnar is played by the insanely good-looking Travis Fimmel, Lagertha, Ragnar’s first wife, is played by the stunning Katheryn Winnick,  Ragnar’s brother Rollo is played by the massive Clive Standen, Ragnar’s close friend and genius shipbuilder is played by the amazing Gustaf Skarsgard, and Athelstan is played by the subdued George Blagden.  The other members of the cast are very good as well, and the aforementioned are ones that stand out to me due to their strong presence whenever they are on the screen as well as the chemistry between the actors themselves.

Another item that makes this show successful is that is does a lot without saying a lot.  Many scenes have limited dialogue, leaving thoughts or feelings left unsaid.  Thoughts or feelings are instead played out by looks conveyed by the actors or glances shared between cast members.  Sometimes the unspoken word is best portrayed by silence and Vikings has found a way to say so much by saying so little.  The production value of the show seems to be fairly good as well.  It’s no Game of Thrones, but for the History channel, its superior to many of its other shows.  One scene from I believe, the second season (I watched the first two seasons in a two-week span so I get a little mixed up on things), was shot so beautifully: Ragnar and his crew were leaving the village for another raid.  The residents of the village were all up on the hilltop watching the ships leave.  No dialogue, just music, images of the villages, Ragnar and his crew sailing away, and even images of grass blowing in the wind.  It was extremely moving and done so well.

An epic scene from season two titled “Blood Eagle” is another example of the excellent production value of this show. Blood eagle is a gruesome way of executing someone.  Essentially, cutting someone’s lungs out and placing them on their back so it looks like blood-stained wings.  When the show has this execution performed it was done in a way to make it seem respectful and beautiful at the same time.  A nighttime shoot, lit with torches and a cast member dressed in white with the villagers watching.  Rather than hear the tortured cries, the show relied on tone, color, and music to convey the scene.  The fact that I find an execution scene beautiful says a lot about the end result.

image from history.com Ragnar and Athelstan

Ragnar’s family dynamics plays a big part in this show as well. Rollo’s constant struggle to be seen as more than Rangar’s brother, Lagertha’s desire to be seen as more than a shield maiden and Ragnar’s wife, and Ragnar’s relationship with his children are all on-going stories throughout the first two seasons.  When Ragnar takes Athelstan the monk back to the village as his prisoner, it sets up a relationship between these two men that allows both to grow and learn from one another.  The interaction between these two is one of value.  They are able to see things in a different light and understand a different system of beliefs that are very foreign to their own.

I’m not an expert on the facts from the time-frame this show takes place in but from what I’ve read, History does a decent job of keeping things accurate.  Given it’s a scripted show, some things will need to be embellished, changed, or even not be as strong of a focus as it may have actually been, but I’m Okay with that since everything else is done with such high quality.  Ragnar’s ambition to do more and be more drives the show. The casting has been chosen well and the characters are allowed to grow and most are well-developed. Season three of Vikings premieres February 19th and previous episodes are available online.  If you haven’t watched it you should give it a try.  If you have watched it, what do you like best about this show? Are you looking forward to season three and where it will take Ragnar and his crew?