There is nothing I can write to tie these three shows together, other than that they were the last three shows I watched beginning to end. So…we’ll just get to it, shall we? Let’s go in order of quality, and, keep in mind, the chasm between the Blinders and Knightfall is positively Grand Canyon-esque!
“Peaky Blinders” (Season 5 – Netflix)
Created by Steven Knight
“Peaky Blinders” has made a fantastic living taking an old formula (the rise of a criminal organization) and imbuing it with an uber-modern production, incredibly fresh scripts and breathtaking performances. Sometimes maddeningly over-the-top, but usually mesmerizing, “Peaky Blinders” first four seasons, with some exceptions (looking at you, Adrien Brody – that whole plot-line, actually), has won a spot in my Top Ten shows of the decade with ease. But the fifth season features a fairly massive shift in the direction of the show. For the first time, the series revolves around the internal machinations of our hero’s mind (his ghosts, demons, and insecurities) and how they inform his decisions and movements. In the first four seasons, it was a combo platter of his post-war desire for power, unyielding ambition and external obstacles that shaped Thomas Shelby’s subsequent actions. I’m not entirely sure this shift is successful, but the acting and production values are so good, who gives a you-know-what? And by the time we get to the final moments of episode six, you’ll be so invested, you’ll inhale with your hand over your mouth…or howl with anger…or both. (Oh! And whatever you do, DO NOT LOOK AT THE IMDB PAGE for this season. It’s main photo for episode six gives away one of the best surprises of the season.)
One thing that has changed significantly for the better is the amount of screen-time given to the women of the Blinder’s Birmingham, UK. While the show has always featured a fair amount of the brilliant Helen McCrory’s, Aunt Polly (who is even more intriguing now that the Shelby’s are flush), I’m glad to say Lizzie (Natasha O’Keefe) and Linda Shelby (Kate Phillips) are finally major players. O’Keefe, especially, is simply brilliant as she straddles the line between her former self and her new status as Tommy’s wife. She delivers a line in the season’s penultimate episode that is quite simply an acting masterclass.
As for the men, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, I’m sorry to say. Cillian Murphy is so interesting, I’d watch him smoke a cigarette as Thomas Shelby for an hour. But there is no doubt that the script doesn’t move forward in the same way it has in past seasons, and that diminishes his ability to be the Tommy we’ve grown used to. As for my favorite actor on the show, Paul Anderson, the new take hurts him the most. They’ve given us an Arthur that is far more dependent and obliging than we’ve ever seen him. As a result his crazy turns of emotion sometimes seem out of nowhere, whereas, in the past, they were perfectly placed. Still, you can’t stop watching him. The rest of the men are fine. Sam Claflin does a fine job inhabiting real life political mover, Oswald Mosley. It’s a bit two-dimensional, but then again, so was Mosley. And, lo and behold, for the first time ever, I can say I actually enjoyed a performance by Aiden Gillen. I loathed him (for the wrong reasons) as the “what-accent-am-I-using-now” Littlefinger, on “Game of Thrones”, and have never liked him on this show. But this season they actually gave him stake in the season’s path…and as a result, it all makes sense…finally.
But, let’s be clear, this show is at least fifty percent amazing due to its production values and its dialogue. And I believe Anthony Byrne, who directs every episode this season, should bear a hefty amount of the credit. Given the new turn creator and writer, Steven Knight, has taken this season, Byrne could’ve been forgiven for either going too far or not going far enough. But the balance between the internal and external seems like a plot of its own. Balancing that with a political tale, and the usual gangster stuff, is a Herculean task – and success. At his side, there resides the amazing work of Nicole Northridge (production design), Dean McLeod (art direction) and the , unbelievable imagery of cinematographer, Si Bell. The show has never looked better. I don’t think I’ve seen a show that makes better use of contrasting colors in such a brilliantly emotive way, and on a 65″ 4K TV…wow. And, let’s never forget that this is the only period show you’ll see that features music from Radiohead, Joy Division, Black Sabbath, and Richard Hawley(!), among others. It’s not a gimmick, it always feels true to the story.
“Peaky Blinders” remains appointment streaming. Even when it strays a step too far, it’s still one of the most unique, intriguing and well-made shows. And this fifth season is no exception.
“Carnival Row” (Amazon – Season 1)
Created by Rene Echeverria & Travis Beacham
Not nearly as successful, this very adult fantasy tale about immigration and the “other”, is still worth a gander. It starts out with incredible aspirations, amazing production values, and a fantastical world you believe in. Alas, by episode ten, you are so immersed in this world, that the surprises are gone, and all that’s left is a story that’s doesn’t come close to matching the visual aspects. In other words, at eight episodes, it easily wears out its welcome and would’ve been much better suited for six…or five, even.
But, to be clear, the dreadfully simple, and often dull, story line is almost completely overcome by the world Echeverria and Beacham have constructed. Gorgeous, lush and appropriately other-worldly, it manages (granted, with a far higher budget), to make “The Alienist”, “Ripper Street” and “The Last Kingdom” look like bargain-bin offerings in comparison. There are way too many artists involved to give credit, but it’s… well… magical. And the non-human species who inhabit this version of London as refugees attempting to assimilate, look and seem real. No really.
It helps that the corps cast is made up of an assemblage of many brilliant British actors. Well, mostly brilliant. Our lead female character, Vignette, is played by supermodel, Cara Jocelyn Delevingne. She tries like hell to keep up with the work of her closest cohorts, Orlando Bloom and longtime Brit TV vet, Karla Crome, and she sometimes does just that. But the script asks too much of her, both emotionally and in the way it demands she bear the weight of the story. That said, she is stunning and you easily believe she is both a warrior and a romantic…with wings.
Mr. Bloom, is, well, fine. Again, every time you think the script is going to go somewhere, it simply sits there, and unfortunately there’s only so much one can do with that. This is true of almost every male actor in the show. David Gyasi, who represents the most symbolic and thus, important character, is, alas, extremely two-dimensional, even though it is clear he is acting as hard as he can. And Andrew Gower (who you’ll know as Prince Edward from “Outlander” – yes, a guilty pleasure of mine – don’t judge) is all bluster and very little subtle. Both of the above just more victims of an underdeveloped script, and overly simple dialogue you see coming a mile away. Only Jared Harris (yes, he’s in this show), manages to make his terrible scenes interesting. Oh, and longtime character actor, Jamie Harris (and son of Richard Harris – not Jared) is one of the few who can take the maudlin and turn them in to something fresh and exciting.
The women on the show fare only slightly better. Ms. Crome is actually terrific. Fully dimensional, interesting and a welcome sight each time she appears on screen, you long for her whenever they go elsewhere. Alice Krige, as a witch(?), has also done wonders with what she was given. And although her attitude and actions within the show seem ridiculously out of place, Caroline Ford is easy to watch and believable in her wickedness. Alas, Indira Varma is merely a couple steps above dreadful. Mostly not her fault, the story utterly lets her down after a hopeful start…and, as we saw in “Thrones”, she really can’t overcome bad writing. Finally, Tamzin Merchant is fine. Just fine. Again, more a victim of the writing than her surroundings.
Listen, it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be, but given how glorious it looks, you would’ve expected a much better story than this. If you like fantasy, or ever read the book, then you’ll find a whole lot to love. Otherwise, watch it for the world-building, the attention to visual detail, and the extremely hot, inter-species sex scenes. (oh, did I forget to mention that?)
“Knightfall” (Netflix – Season 2)
Created by Don Handfield & Richard Raynor
The guiltiest of guilty pleasures (more so, even, than “Outlander” or “Agents of SHIELD”), Knightfall is simply a terrible soap opera period-piece with copious amounts of blood-letting, poorly staged battle scenes and almost no romantic passion (granted, it is a History Channel presentation). Oh, I almost forgot… Mark Hamill is in the second season…and is actually very, very good!
There is so much to crush when discussing this show, that it would take up more of your time than is fair to expect. Just know the production values, while much better in the second season, are comical, the scenarios are utterly ridiculous, and, worst of all, it’s obvious they found out they weren’t being renewed while they were filming the last episode. Thus they finished it off in perhaps the MOST ridiculously haphazard way I’ve ever seen a show end. Upon its completion, you can’t help but sit there in silence, shaking your head and thinking, “wait…why didn’t he just do this AGES ago”. Ridiculous.
However, it’s worth it for some of the dialogue. Entertaining for both its brutal creakiness and its strict attention to the higher purpose of its characters (this is a show about the Knights Templar, after all), there’s much to gain from either laughing at it, or staring in disbelief at the effort the actors put in to its historical aspects, religious rigidity and absurd plot. Add to that performances which sway wildly between the pretty good and the unbelievably terrible. In fact, you can’t help but feel that the many actors who are merely picking up a paycheck probably sit at a very different table than those who actually give a shit during lunch on set. Leading the latter is our lead, the impossibly good looking, Tom Cullen. He is a terrific actor (as evidenced by just how different he is here than he was as Lord Gillingham in “Downton Abbey”) and his commitment to the character is unmistakable. Cullen deserved a MUCH better show for all the effort he puts out. In the first season, Olivia Ross, as Queen Joan of France, was, likewise, invested and worthy of your empathy. Alas, she doesn’t feature in the second season. Clementine Nicholson, a newcomer, is terrific in her few turns on screen. In fact, a show revolving around her Queen Margaret would have been much more enjoyable. A couple of the other knights are fine, most notably Simon Merells and Padraic Delaney. But best of all is the set-burning ferocity of Mark Hamill’s crotchety warrior, Talus. Spit, vinegar, makeup and gravel-throated eye-rolling make him more than enough reason to watch.
Well, that and the simply BRUTAL performance of Mr. Carson, Jim Carter, as the Pope. All I can say is…wow. Equally terrible is, ironically, the actor who played Charles Blake (otherwise known as the above-mentioned Lord Gillingham’s rival for Lady Mary’s hand on “Abbey”), Julian Ovendon. With the most ridiculous hair style/wig ever placed on a person in any show, he’s a hot mess. Now, listen, he’s a terrific actor, and it would be utterly unfair to blame him, but still…oy vey. Finally, there’s King George, played with gusto by Ed Stoppard. Looking exactly like Prince Humperdinck from “The Princess Bride”, he’s so unbearably two-dimensional, that it goes beyond giggle-inducing and lands squarely in the “huh?” zone.
So…alas, it’s not quite bad enough to be worth it for the laughs, nor is it nearly good enough to watch because you should. HOWEVER, if you want to see Mark Hamill having a blast, a repeat performance by Prince Humperdinck, and a whole bunch of “Downton Abbey” actors, then this is definitely for you. How’s that for a recommendation?!
“Peaky Blinders” Season 5 Trailer (no spoilers):
“Carnival Row” Trailer (minor spoilers – and nonsensical background music):
“Knightfall” Season 1 Trailer (to avoid season two spoilers..actually, who cares?):