tisdag 13 februari 2018

Mad hype

Nope, I don’t get it. I’ve watched five episodes of the madly praised Mad Men without coming any closer to understanding what the fuss is about. And this is all the time I’m going to waste on it: I won’t make the same mistake as with The Collection and spend hours on a TV show that I don’t enjoy in the vain hope that it will get any better, just because there’s some slight improvement after the first one or two episodes.

It may sound harsh, but though I understand that television can be considered an art form of sorts, it still has to entertain. Theoretically, I can buy that one could read a book in order to improve one’s soul rather than be entertained, though it’s hardly something I tend to do – I read for pleasure. The pleasure factor is even more important when it comes to TV, though. No-one is going to give you kudos for watching something on the gogglebox, however much it’s been hyped.

And my goodness has Mad Men been hyped; it’s supposed to be the height of high-quality drama. When Downton was still airing, this was the kind of show it was compared unfavourably to – and if we Downtonites felt like sharpening our knives, our hostility was hampered by the fact that Julian Fellowes watched and admired Mad Men, too.

So what did I find when watching it? The first two episodes were downright clumsy. In episode two, one of the ad men suggests to the new girl in the office that they should “go to the zoo and see what the animals are up to”. This is exactly how this show feels: going to the zoo that is the US in the late Fifties and early Sixties and see what the human animals are up to. Look, how they drink and smoke! And how the men tell sexist jokes, and make a pass at everything in a skirt, and how the women have to bear it, and then there’s the casual racism… Oh, shocking, shocking.

One politically incorrect reviewer praised Mad Men because he thought (or pretended to) that it depicted the ideal life: lots of guilt-free smoking and hot babes. This was disingenuous, though. We are clearly meant to tut-tut in our enlightened way about all that was going on, and so close to our own age too. At the end of the second episode, I felt quite depressed at the thought of having to continue with it, but I've heard it said that the series picks up after three episodes, so I persevered.

It did pick up a little bit, and spent more time exploring the characters and less pointing out what horrible times they lived in. The problem is that the characters aren’t that worth exploring. Never mind not igniting my passionate engagement, as my favourite TV dramas do (especially when an intelligent villain’s happiness is on the line): Mad Men doesn’t even spark the mildly benign interest I take in the characters in Game of Thrones. While I still don’t care a lot about the GoT crowd, I don’t mind spending time in their company. A few episodes into season three, I even find myself kind of “shipping” a possible, unlikely romance. But no character in Mad Men is interesting or likeable enough to give a fig about even for a moment – and the depressing thing is that I think it’s deliberate. The men are all jerks. Don Draper, the protagonist, is a little more pensive and tormented jerk than the others, but that’s it. The women – whether “liberated” or “conventional” – are ciphers. We see a lot of the action through the eyes of Peggy, the new secretary, but I have no idea why we should root for her especially. She doesn’t seem to be that smart, considering that she sleeps with the baby-faced jerk Pete Campbell at the end of the first episode. Her worldly-wise colleague Joan looks like a million dollars, but what personality does she have apart from being worldly-wise? Heck if I know.

Hype really is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you might very well start watching a praised-to-the-skies series hoping you’ll dislike it, like I did with both Game of Thrones and Mad Men. On the other hand, you’ll most likely give it more time than you would a less well-known and less well-spoken-of series – because if even Julian Fellowes thinks it’s great, then there must be something to it, right?

Five episodes must be considered  giving a series a fair trial, however. I could see how it could possibly make decent-enough, meditative post-gym viewing (not a lot happens in each episode) – not that I’ll continue with it even for that. But a subtle and sophisticated masterpiece? I think not.

torsdag 1 februari 2018

Elinor, Marianne and their beaux

I'm now one book down in my Jane Austen Rereading Project, having finished Sense and Sensibility. At the beginning, I must admit I didn't like it much, but it got more enjoyable as the story went on. The first 60 pages cover a lot of ground - in no time, Elinor meets Edward at Norland, the girls and their mother decamp to Barton Cottage, the family gets to know the Middletons and Colonel Brandon and Marianne is romanced by Willoughby - but the characters don't come properly to life until more dialogue is included. Elinor's and Marianne's stay in London may take more time than it needs to, as does the winding-up of the happy endings (so as to make them seem as realistic as possible, I suppose). However, as the characters have more to say for themselves and the author has more to say about them, it is on the whole time pleasantly spent.

So is Elinor a stick in the mud, and Marianne a complete flake, as one would have reason to fear from the setup of the book? Well, no, not entirely. At first, the novel does seem to be something of a "compare and contrast" exercise, but fortunately it's not quite as simple as that. I must admit that Elinor sometimes got on my nerves. It is very hard to imagine any nineteen-year-old in love behaving as she does and hiding her feelings as much as she can simply in order to spare her family worry. Also, there is a certain smugness about her - she's well aware that she's behaving more nobly than Marianne, and at one time even hopes that her greater fortitude will act as an inspiration to her sister. Add to this that I didn't always think her behaviour was as admirable as all that, and that the "sensibleness" of it carries its own risks. Granted that it's maybe not necessary to make such a meal out of one's broken heart as Marianne does in front of her concerned family, but to hide your heartbreak altogether means depriving your loved ones of any chance to comfort you. When Elinor takes such pains to hide her feelings for Edward from Marianne and her mother, can she really blame them when they end up with the impression that he's not that important to her after all? Elinor has better manners than Marianne - I feel a bit guilty now for stating that the novel's Marianne is "a great deal" more polite than the film's, because she can be very rude - but that doesn't necessarily mean that Elinor appreciates, say, the kindness of Mrs Jennings, more than Marianne does for the better part of the book; she's just better at hiding her sense of superiority. Both Dashwood girls think of themselves as a cut above the whole Middleton family. In one instance, Elinor's politeness (unsupported by any real warmth of feeling) is downright counterproductive: while Marianne distances herself from the Miss Steeles, Elinor suffers their company while despising them, which gives Lucy Steele the chance to make an unwilling confidante out of her.

At the end of the day, though, the sisters' real affection for each other makes them both likeable, and Elinor is not annoyingly sensible all of the time. She believes at one point on scant evidence that Edward is carrying a ring with a lock of her hair (which she never gave to him), and she does some endearing pining after him. For instance, she is pleased that she doesn't like Mr Palmer better than she does, even if he improves on acquaintance, because it enables her to compare him unfavourably with Edward.

The sisters' love interests are a little more problematic than the girls themselves. The providers of the happy endings long remain scantily characterised. We learn little more of Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon when they are first introduced than that they are "not handsome" and do not fulfil Marianne's romantic notions of how a man should be. It's small wonder that adapters have seen fit to ignore the "not handsome" tag for these suitors, especially in the cases of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in the film and Dan Stevens (albeit with an unbecoming haircut) as Edward in the BBC adaptation. Of Brandon, we learn that he has a grave disposition, and he seems particularly unsuited to the lively Marianne. Even as we learn more of him - and his tragic past does much to make him more interesting as a potential suitor - he still appears as a better match for Elinor than for Marianne. I'm with Mrs Jennings and the mercenary John Dashwood on this one: Elinor and the Colonel would have made a fine couple. As for Edward, yes, he does reveal himself to be gently and self-deprecatingly amusing on topics such as admiration of nature, but it's still not entirely easy to see why Elinor should be so very much in love with him.

And as for the supposedly seductive Willoughby - I had forgotten just how awful his attempt at self-justification is, and it's made even more so by Elinor showing so much sympathy with him. From beginning to end, he is full of self-pity, and his only self-reproaches are of the dramatic "oh, what a fool I was to let this lovely woman go" kind. He has little real regret - certainly not when it comes to seducing the 15-year-old Eliza and leaving her pregnant - and is keen to blame any cruel behaviour towards Marianne on his wife. That the sensible Elinor should be so taken in by what this whining puppy has to say for himself is more than a little strange, even if she gradually comes to realise just how selfish his behaviour is. I stand by what I've implied earlier: the film did Willoughby a favour by cutting this scene.

I can understand why there are those who are disappointed in Marianne's fate; it is a little unfair to have her marry Colonel Brandon at a time when she's not yet in love with him and only feels "strong esteem and lively friendship" towards him. But she does grow to love him, and one thing's for certain - she didn't miss out in not becoming Mrs Willoughby.   

onsdag 24 januari 2018

The BBC Sense and Sensibility - a respectable achievement

As a way of bolstering my pleasure in reading, I've started a Jane Austen Rereading Project. It's been a while since I've read most of her books; I'm actually far more familiar with the TV and film adaptations. Rereading the novels will be a pleasure in itself and will give me some decent blog-post subjects, both on the novels directly and on how well adaptations work when compared directly to the novel (I'm more used to comparing them to each other).

Sense and Sensibility - the first of Austen's novels I've decided on rereading, as it's the one I feel least familiar with - is a case in point. I've watched the 2008 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility penned by Andrew Davies more than once, and each time I've struggled to see the point of it. It's perfectly good in its way, but there's hardly a thing in it that the marvellous 1995 film with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet didn't do better. Also, the BBC version more or less courts comparison with the film by handling some things in exactly the same way. Notably, the characterisation of Margaret, Elinor's and Marianne's younger sister, is lifted directly from the film. In the book, she hardly has a character to speak of, but instead of coming up with a new way of filling the part with some purpose, Davies borrows the lovable moppet version of Margaret created by Thompson (who wrote the script for the film) wholesale. She even hides under a table in Norland Park's library, and Edward Ferrars endears himself to Elinor by being kind to her, as in the film. None of this is in the book.

If I compare the BBC version directly with the novel, however, it fares rather better. I'm halfway through the novel, and so far the adaptation has proven faithful as far as plot and character are concerned. The dialogue could be more elegant at times; on the other hand it is refreshing that Davies does not try a faux-Austenesque style (I remember one Persuasion adaptation where the characters kept saying "Indeed" when meaning "Yes", which is typical costume-drama speak). David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon, though cutting a perfectly respectable figure, may not be Alan Rickman - but then from what I've seen of the novel's Colonel Brandon so far, he's not exactly Alan Rickman either. Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings are more toned down than in the film, and though I really enjoyed watching Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs letting rip, there's an argument to be made for a less extreme interpretation of these characters - they may be vulgar, but they're not quite strangers to polite society. It was also a nice touch that the BBC versions clung to the fashions of their respective youth, looking more in style with the 18th century than with the Regency.

Of all the adaptations I've seen (besides the film and this one, there's a somewhat crusty one from the 1980s) this is the most favourable to Marianne. Charity Wakefield is charming and pretty in the right, bright-eyed way. She is a little more polite than Marianne in the novel, who in her turn is a great deal more polite than Kate Winslet's Marianne. In particular, though she has her private doubts concerning the depth of Elinor's feelings for Edward, Marianne in the novel is always respectful and affectionate towards her sister and shows a great deal of interest in the subject of her future happiness. In view of this, perhaps it is fair that we get an adaptation where Marianne is not seen as such a selfish brat as all that.

The casting is good on the whole - Hattie Morahan's "sensible voice" as Elinor reminded me a little too much of Emma Thompson's, but she is the right type for Elinor, and closer to the novel's version of the character seeing that Elinor is only nineteen at the start of Sense and Sensibility. Janet McTeer is great as the girls' mother - a little more down to earth than she appears in the book - and we see a welcome glimpse of Jean Marsh aka Rose in Upstairs Downstairs as Edward's dragon of a mother. The only real miscasting is Willoughby. Dominic Cooper is a good actor; I remember him valiantly making the most of things as the daughter's fiancé in Mamma Mia. However, ungallant as it may be to say it (if you can be ungallant about a man), he's not dashing enough for Willoughby. Willoughby is the only one of the girls' love interests that is described as handsome in the novel, so he must be good-looking in an obvious and generally acknowledged way, especially as he has very little else to recommend him. I may have scoffed at Marianne's cheap taste in the film in preferring Greg Wise's Willoughby to the delectable Rickman, but I could see how it happened - Wise has exactly the right kind of film-star looks for the part.

This adaptation included the scene where Willoughby shows up while Marianne is ill and tries to justify himself to Elinor. I was always glad that this scene was not in the film, as Willoughby does such a poor job of defending himself, but I saw another review of this TV series which pointed out that this is precisely the point of the scene - not to make us sympathise with Willoughby, but to make us even more certain that Marianne is well rid of him. Viewed in that light, it certainly works well. When it comes to secondary characters included here but not in the film, you can see why they weren't in the film as they serve little purpose for the plot. But the elder, beau-obsessed Miss Steele is amusing, and though Lady Middleton is a personality-free zone (as she is in the book, where she only serves as a vehicle for barbs against over-indulgent mothers) it makes sense that there should be a Lady Middleton, with children. If Sir John was a childless widower, it would be a little remarkable that he should be so merry, and that his match-making mother-in-law should make no attempt to set him up. He would in that case be in need of an heir.

I still don't view the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility as entirely necessary, and if you only watch one screen version of the book, I would still recommend the film rather than the TV series. Even so, I think I can understand why Davies wanted to have a crack at it, and it is far from badly done.

onsdag 10 januari 2018

Is The Crown sitting a little askew?

Most of the time, reading background articles about TV shows you're following is highly satisfying. However, there are exceptions. Before embarking on The Crown season two, I read an article where among others the creator of the series, Peter Morgan, was interviewed. It turned out he was a bit of a republican and all-round "progressive" - which is fair enough, as long as he can convincingly enter into the mindset of the Queen and her set, something I did think he pulled off well not only in The Crown season one but also in The Queen and The Audience. Maybe, though, that article is colouring my judgement subconsciously. Five episodes into season two, I imagine myself detecting a certain patronising tone that I never noticed in season one.

In many respects, The Crown season two is more of the same thing that we got in season one. It is still well-crafted, the acting is still great, the pace still a little to stately for my liking. But whereas in season one I bought into the idea that real events could actually have happened along the lines imagined by Morgan, this time around the illusion of authenticity doesn't hold up as well. I'm suddenly more aware that I'm watching a fictional version of Elizabeth II and the other "real-life" characters, and that they sometimes act in a certain way merely because it makes for better TV drama.

To tell the truth, I feel a little manipulated at times. Tory politicians, as depicted in this series, are all fusty and hidebound, the PMs especially: we see Eden holding a smug speech at Eton just before the Suez crisis. The courtiers representing a traditional viewpoint are always wrong, and those in favour of change are always right. What’s more, they become more an embodiment of the categories “traditional courtier” and “progressive courtier” than persons in their own right. In one episode, Charteris – the man that the royal couple wanted to have as their private secretary, according to season one, but weren’t allowed to hire in that capacity – visits the office of Michael Adeane, who did get the job, in order to discuss a possibly unfortunate wording of a planned speech for the Queen. Who should be sitting there, though, but tough-as-nails Tommy Lascelles, the former private secretary of George VI? He immediately shuts down Charteris’s concerns. I didn’t believe in this scene for a second, but because Lascelles is a traditional hard-liner and good at it he must needs be the one who symbolises the Bad Old Ways of the Old Court at every opportunity, whereas Charteris, because he wasn’t picked as private secretary, must be a good egg.

There are other scenes that don’t convince: a peer and owner of a small periodical is a warm and idealistic supporter of Change. He tries to discuss such weighty matters as the EC with his staff, but they’re much more interested in the home-made toffee which one of them has brought to the office. If this had been only a small skit, it would have been believable – who wouldn’t rather discuss home-made toffee than politics at the workplace? – but the scene goes on for far too long and makes its point far too heavy-handedly. Elsewhere, Prince Philip is usually cast as the voice of reason within the Royal Family – reason in this case meaning that they must move with the times etc. But old Prince Philip put the case for less people-pandering in The Queen, and quite well too. I’m aware that several decades had passed by then, but it’s still hard to believe that this is supposed to be the same man.

I’m quite content with The Crown not being too perfect. Small gripes keep me more alert than if everything had flown smoothly – especially since this is still not the most action-packed TV drama out there. Too transparent attempts to make me side with one faction against the other do, however, have the opposite effect on me, as per usual. Let’s hear it for ball-breaking Tommy.

lördag 30 december 2017

New Year’s resolution: to read more (or better) books

“Ooh, look, she’s reading a book, isn’t that nice”, a mother cooed to her toddler on the bus the other month, when same toddler was intrepid enough to take an interest in my reading self. It was a heartening comment as it shows how books (real ones made of paper) are still generally considered to be A Good Thing. At the same time, I felt a bit of a fraud. 2017 has not been a great reading year for me. Increasingly, I have been so little engaged in the book I’ve had on the go that I’ve preferred spending spare moments trawling the net or partaking of mood-lifting villain clips on Youtube.

Mind you, I haven’t completely neglected the reading part of life this year. I started on some of my impulse buys from this and previous years and managed to finish at least some of them. Tainted by Brooke Morgan (an impulse buy from the Strand, no less) proved to be well and evocatively written, though the genre – domestic chiller – isn’t really my cup of tea. With the irresistibly named If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio it was the other way around. I found the prose style a little precious, but the genre and setting was exactly the kind of thing I enjoy: the novel followed a group of drama students at a prestigious, seemingly idyllic College for the Creative Arts in Illinois. I’ve been stage struck since childhood and I love stories taking place in a theatre/drama school setting; it didn’t hurt that the College specialised in teaching its drama students nothing but Shakespeare. (It’s a little unlikely, though: surely, a successful drama education needs a bit of range?) The novel owes a heavy debt to The Secret History as we see a group of talented but not necessarily wise group of young students grapple with collective guilt. Fortunately, though, they don’t let the guilt get in the way of a lot of Shakespearean acting scenes.

Another impulse buy was the promising-looking family saga Roses by Leila Meacham – however, I’m ashamed to say I gave up on this one. My shame stems from the fact that it was written in a very enjoyable, page-turning style, so quality-wise there was no excuse not to finish it. The problem was I just couldn’t get behind the story, which seemed to follow the old pattern of “tough female neglects what really matters (family, love of her life) in favour of something that matters less in the great scheme of things (her family’s plantation)”. If you have no problem with this storyline and would like to try a doorstopper that’s unusually well-written, this could well be worth a look. For my part, I just thought the heroine’s family and love interest were tiresome and felt full sympathy with her for prioritising the plantation.       

Truth be told, there have been few novels this year that I’ve felt like losing myself in. This is irksome. I want to be the lady on the bus who reads a nice, old-fashioned book; being bookish is part of my identity. Steps will have to be taken in 2018: the question is, which ones?

At the end of the year, I always feel full of ambition regarding the cultural consumption of the year ahead: there’s so much to explore and whole new worlds to be discovered. Once the new year gets started, though, my ambitions tend to shrink very fast. I have a theory that this could be connected to sleep, and the lack of it: it’s always easier to set yourself life-expanding goals after a good lie-in. Also, once you get started, it’s discouraging if you happen to read more than one book in a row by authors you’ve not tried yet and find them disappointing. Much as I’d like to make new discoveries, perhaps I should be more open this year to re-reading classics from favourite 19th-century authors and reading more Ambitious Book Projects by the few high-prestige authors I’ve already tried and liked. It may not be the most innovative way to go, but it could be a way to get properly into the reading habit again.

There’s no denying that my Once Upon A Time obsession has got in the way of reading a bit, more than Downton Abbey ever did. Downton at least had the saving grace from a book point of view of making me interested in family sagas (admittedly, my search for the perfect family saga was not a great success). So maybe 2018 will be the year when I discover fantasy?       

torsdag 7 december 2017

Class: A curate's egg of a Doctor Who spin-off

Doctor Who spin-offs are a bit of mixed bunch. For my own part, I gave up on Torchwood about half-way in the first series, as I didn't care for its grim tone or outlook (I'm a fan of Captain Jack whenever he's in real Doctor Who, though). The Sarah Jane Adventures was a great series, however, and a pleasant surprise. The only thing I found strange about it was the level of scariness. Judging by the age of Sarah Jane's sidekicks, this series was supposed to be suitable for kids slightly younger than Doctor Who's target audience, yet several of the adventures were actually more frightening than the average episode of the parent show. True, nothing beats the Doctor Who double episode"The Impossible Planet" in terms of scariness, but I do think The Sarah Jane Adventures managed to trump "The Silence in the Library" when it comes to nightmare scenarios which tap specifically into childhood fears. Heck, it even has a nightmare-themed episode, which certainly frightened me. For the nerdy adult Doctor Who fan, though, The Sarah Jane Adventures was a delight.

So last year, when a new spin-off series was announced which was to take place in Coal Hill Academy (the school where Clara used to work, and before that two companions of the very first Doctor), I was optimistic. It seemed to be closer to Sarah Jane than Torchwood in its premise; also, unlike most people, I really enjoyed the Doctor Who episode where the Doctor goes undercover - very unconvincingly - as Coal Hill's caretaker in order to neutralise an admittedly lame alien threat. A school environment is mostly fun in a fictional context, and Class also promised to use the "cracks in time and space" gambit which my geeky self usually enjoys. Admittedly, even before watching it, you could see  a problem with the setup in the story: the series starts off with a guest appearance from the Doctor where he entrusts a bunch of teenagers to police the aforementioned cracks in time and space centering on Coal Hill. I know the Doctor is hardly Mr Responsible, but come on: these are teens! Why on earth would he put that amount of responsibility on their shoulders?

Regardless: I was prepared to buy into the whole teenagers-as-savers-of-the-world concept if the series turned out to be as good as Sarah Jane. Sadly, though, I was badly disappointed in the first episode. The kid protagonists were a bunch of stereotypes: the friendless good girl; the cool guy and football player i.e. jerk; the chippy prodigy; and the neat-looking uncool boy who turns out to be gay - and an alien prince. There was also something forced about the show's multicultural agenda. Doctor Who has as diverse a cast as they come, but it takes care to provide worthwhile, non-stereotypic parts all round; the characters' personalities aren't defined by their skin colour or sexuality for that matter. In Class, it felt as if the show was trying too hard to get the right-on mixture right and cared more for outer attributes than character content. Ram, The football-playing cool kid, is from a Sikh family; Tanya, the fourteen-year-old girl bright enough to take classes with the seventeen-year-olds, is black; and Charlie (his cover name), the gay extraterrestial, hooks up with a Polish boy. It felt a bit like one of those jokes with people of different nationalities: "There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman..." Tanya's chippy comments didn't improve matters. I know she's supposed to be a fourteen-year-old - albeit a bright one - but her two sneering references to "white people" in the space of one episode didn't exactly endear the character to me (and yes, one was in connection with Downton, but try to believe me when I say that this wasn't my main problem with it).

The Doctor, for his part, acted most un-Doctor-like, and not just because he left a handful of school children with a dangerous mission. What's more, he condoned the fact that the sarky Physics teacher Miss Quill, also an alien and a sworn enemy of Charlie's people, was kept as a slave to/protector of the young prince. She is hindered from causing any harm to him or to anyone by a worm-like creature operated into her head who would do damage to her brain if she tried anything. I don't care how belligerent the Quills as an alien race are, that's just barbaric - also, the fact that Miss Quill can't use a gun kind of makes it harder for her to help the kids fight alien threats.

The series did pick up, though, and the protagonists became fleshed out and less stereotypical. This has happened so much lately (see also Game of Thrones) that I just have to wonder: why start out with a stereotype at all? I know a character in a TV drama generally needs time to become interestingly layered. Nevertheless, why use something so unpromising as, say, a football-playing school bully as a starting point? If the characters can't be complex from the word go, can they at least be a little different?

Nonetheless, the characters shaped up, and by the end I could vaguely see the point of all of them. Good girl April was my favourite among the kids, especially as it turned out she had a dark side. But the highlight of the series was Katherine Kelly's acid Miss Quill, well deserving of the starting credits' "and" spot (if an actor's name comes last in the starting credits and is prefaced by "and", it basically means "if this person leaves the show we may as well cancel it"). There were some neat sci-fi ideas - for instance the "metaphysical engine" which could take you into different species' ideas of the afterlife and creation myths. The finale proved to be a mess, however: overly grim (come on, two parents of protagonists slaughtered just like that?) and too reliant on the prospect of a second series. As it turned out, Class was cancelled, and the story left up in the air.

I can understand why the powers that be didn't continue with this series. It was hard to see who the target audience was: would the kind of cool teens the show seemed to be hoping to attract tune into a Doctor Who spin-off in the first place, and if they did, how would they react to random alien killing of fond parents? From a nerdy adult perspective, I resented attempts to get down with the kids and a certain finger-wagging tendency. It wasn't as dour as Torchwood, though, and I enjoyed some of it - but it's not a patch on The Sarah Jane Adventures, not to mention Doctor Who.

torsdag 23 november 2017

Shape up, Littlefinger - or, on second thoughts, don't

My attempt to catch up with the Game of Thrones phenomenon is trundling along. I'm now half-way through season two, and I admit it's an improvement on season one, not least script-wise. It's sharper overall, and Tyrion's lines are funnier, so Peter Dinklage gets more to work with. Also, as this is the season where the actual "game of thrones" starts in earnest - a number of would-be kings are fighting each other for the throne, or more properly speaking two thrones - the stakes are higher. The characters are fleshed out and on the whole well-acted, not least because the series is full of British thesps for some reason (not all of them have very rewarding parts, though).

However, much remains the same. The script can still be ponderous, with enigmatic monologues that neither bring the story forward nor illuminate the characters to a great extent. The villains are still reassuringly, plot-functionally vile. Joffrey - now king - behaves predictably nastily in every single scene where he appears. Charles Dance in armour has shown up by now and looks a treat, but is no threat to my peace of mind so far. As Tywin, the head of the devious Lannister clan, he is introduced skinning an animal while talking about family honour, and then spends most of his time warlording. That's hardly shrewd villainy of the Tulkinghorn class - any thug can fight. In one episode I recently watched, Tywin did recognise at one glance that the disguised Arya Stark is actually a girl dressed as a boy. Now that's more like it. If, before long, he also twigs that she happens to be the lost sister of his enemy, he might still be going places villain-wise.

The one I should be rooting for most among the numerous GoT cast, though, is Lord Baelish, aka Littlefinger, who's not really that much more villainous than most of the rest of the characters. One pleasing feature of this series is that it doesn't put bravery and heroism above intelligence - Tyrion gets by on his wits, and he's easily one of the most likeable protagonists. Baelish, for his part, is a political survivor and schemer who'll ally himself with whoever lets him stay in power. Now, I truly love political schemers, but for the second time in a relatively short time period I find myself underwhelmed by a character who, on paper, looks tailor-made to be an object of my villain-loving affections. First, it was George the dishy banker in Poldark. Now it's Baelish, who somehow fails to gives me that "wow, he's like the Joseph Fouché of Westeros" feeling.

Maybe it's because I don't really get where they're going with this character, and it's not an enigma I find especially intriguing. Aiden Gillen certainly looks the part as Baelish - like Machiavelli, only handsomer - but I can't make out the way he underplays it. Now, I realise I'm spoiled at the moment in the villain-snarling department, but shouldn't a back-story monologue full of seething resentment be acted with a little bit of, well, seething resentment? Also, Baelish is saddled with one of those unrequited passions that have lasted a lifetime, where his loved one has never given him a word of encouragement. It's a ticklish motivation to carry off - if you've been stuck on one chick since boyhood without getting anywhere, even a villain-sympathetic audience like myself will sooner or later wish you could just get over it and find another girl - but Alan Rickman nailed it as Snape in the Harry Potter films. In contrast, Baelish's supposed devotion to Catelyn Stark never quite convinces. Honestly, you have to be able to do the Wounded Villain Heart Routine - if there were a Bachelor's programme in being a good villain, this would be second-semester stuff. Maybe my tastes are too unsubtle, but if Baelish is supposed to be a man who buries his bitterness beneath layers of bland courtesy I, for one, can only see the bland courtesy.

But that's fine. I confess that I still enjoy Game of Thrones partly because I don't care too much about the characters. Though more fully realised than in the first couple of episodes, they still retain a certain chess-piece quality, and I'm fully prepared for them to be taken off the board at any moment. Perhaps it's because I read reviews of the series beforehand; although, luckily, I don't remember who will die, I remember that a lot of the main characters are heading for the chop, and also that one character will eventually be castrated and kept as a slave. Most likely, it's some defence mechanism that keeps me from getting too attached to anyone that may be heading for a gruesome fate. So much for raising the drama stakes by throwing in random killings and maimings - but I'm not complaining, as long as my heart remains un-squeezed.