Our War: Goodbye Afghanistan

November 25, 2014 by  
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The critically acclaimed Our War returns with a look at the lives of the young British soldiers on the frontline in Afghanistan. This special episode titled Goodbye Afghanistan retraces the steps of those young men, from their lives inside the war zone to their lives after arriving home.

For those unfamiliar with the series, all the footage used was shot by the soldiers themselves during their time as part of the so-called “Taliban Hunting Club”. Goodbye Afghanistan is a rather effective depiction of the difficulty of returning home after ten years as an occupying force. The use of archive footage brings focus and depth to the whole episode, resulting in a rather intimate but domineering insight into the adventures of young soldiers becoming adults in the midst of a war zone.

Raw and psychologically violent at times, Goodbye Afghanistan shows a side of war that we rarely get to see on television and could easily be compared to Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. Like Wright’s book, Our War shows us an equally realistic vision of the emotional depth of such an adventure. And hearing it all through the mouths of the protagonists only makes it more meaningful and educational to watch.

Goodbye Afghanistan is entertaining without falling prey to the pomposity of many documentaries with academic ambitions, and Our War remains compellingly watchable.

Our War: Goodbye Afghanistan will be broadcast on BBC Three on December 6.

New Girl (Series 3)

November 20, 2014 by  
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New Girl: the current court of actress, musician and reigning Hipster Queen Zooey Deschanel. A media phenomenon and “adorkable” progenitor that I have managed to avoid, until now.

Sitting down at the weekend, tasked with the daunting task of watching the 23 episode third series of the Fox comedy I had no preconceptions, just a vague knowledge that the show, like its star was very popular.

Set in Los Angeles, New Girl follows the not so unpleasant trials and tribulations of upbeat and bubbly Jess Davies, a kooky school teacher of perpetually wide, non-blinking eyes, shining happy smile, and killer bangs (or fringe, if like me you’re sensitive to the insidious encroachment of American English into our nation’s lexicon). As someone wary of jumping into an ongoing show without any prior plot knowledge, a quick scan of Wikipedia can be very helpful in these circumstances, but from previous experiences with other series, even after reading outlines for every episode I am generally still confused by what is going on.

Not so ‘New Girl’. After just five minutes I was introduced to a familiar set of characters, seemingly constructed from the chopped up corpses of the cast of ‘Friends’ and then stitched back together in random combinations to create “new” and “unique” personalities. This process is somewhat akin to William Burroughs’s ‘cut-up’ writing technique, but without the imagination, drugs or resulting tasty Mugwump jism.

We have, Jess of course, pretty much a straight up ‘Rachel’ archetype. Jake a perennial loveable slacker and everyman mash up of Joey and Mike (Phoebe’s eventual husband) to add a dash of bland manliness. Then there’s Schmidt, a nightmare combo of Chandler and Monica; the formerly obese but now hot, slightly effeminate man child. I could go on but I would spoil the “fun” of recognising the glaringly obvious.

Stereotypical characters, well-trodden Seinfeld-esque plot lines about feuds with restaurant owners and Frasier style farce, could all add up to be a recipe for a brilliant comedy.

But ‘New Girl’ just isn’t funny. The lack of laughs make the well served themes and characterisation appear lazy and generic. Unlike that other hipster comedy, the sadly cancelled ‘Bored to Death’ whose attempts at originality got you through the sometimes hit and miss writing.

Ultimately ‘New Girl’, is nothing more than a light hearted and cheesy soap opera, even the people I know who watch it don’t think it’s particularly good. It’s just sort of nothing. No doubt it will run and run.

New Girl is available to own on Blu-ray and DVD now

Secret Sex Lives: Supersized Sex

November 20, 2014 by  
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Gigantomastia anyone? Nope, me neither. Well, not without the help of a thesaurus. Feederism? Mmm, food must be involved, but nope, thesaurus again. Giantish fetish? Well, that’s pretty straight forward – a predilection for giants, surely? In the first episode of Secret Sex Lives: Supersized Sex, we follow the lives of four people, where size does matter and size is everything.

Annie, aka fantasy model Norma Stitz, suffers from giantosmastia, her breasts weighing a combined eighty-five pounds. She’s on an eternal quest to find a bra that fits her bountiful bosom since her previous bra manufacturer went, er, bust. Actor and writer Jonah, possesses the world’s largest penis and hasn’t had a serious relationship in fourteen years. His mighty member brings welcome female attention despite the risk of injury when they, er, bump uglies. Donna weighs six hundred pounds and shares a condition with her boyfriend, Phillipe known as feederism. They have an insatiable desire to feed one another. Phillipe encourages Donna to achieve her ambition to gain a further 400 pounds, rendering her defenceless to him. And Matt has an obsession with giant women, namely Stephanie – high priestess of the giantess video. Matt believes his fascination with all things gigantic stems from a childhood love of Godzilla and experiences intense pleasure when male actors are perilously crushed.

If you were in any doubt that these sizeable conditions actually exist and the programme is not just a gratuitous insight into the sex lives of the elephantine classes, then fear not. The programme employs a plethora of psychologists and sex therapists to give authenticity to the various fetishes and mastias under scrutiny. So while we may struggle to comprehend how Annie, Jonah, Donna and Matt navigate the sexual obstacles of their bulk, Secret Sex Lives leaves us with graphic certainty. Mass is more and these couples are having a lot of pleasurable sex.

Yet there is a cynical undercurrent running through the programme. Despite the couples embracing their over exaggerated frames for supposed mutual sexual pleasure, you cannot help but feel it is male sexual pleasure that is at the forefront in the relationships. Granted, while Annie enjoys the trappings of celebrity and Stephanie gets lucratively paid for crushing dwarfs, it does appear the male partners relish the notoriety of freakdom foremost rather than any inherent emotional connection with their largesse ladies. Donna’s willingness to tip her scales over the thousand pound mark to enhance Philippe’s gratification undergoes no real psychiatric commentary to the obvious risks to her physical and mental health.

The public reaction is predictably divided. Men reinforce the freak show attraction, finding big fascinating and pleasurable. Women are just simply repulsed. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, the programme does make for compelling viewing. It does call into question our perception of beauty and sexual attraction and what is one person’s Aphrodite can be another’s Centaur. Judge for yourself. You may feel these women are portly pawns in men’s fetishes and fantasies or you may view them as strong, strident women who emphatically reject the contemporary size zero culture. As Norma Stitz herself declares, ‘Why fix something that just ain’t broken’?

Secret Sex Lives: Supersized Sex will be broadcast on TLC on 4 December

Remember Me

November 14, 2014 by  
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Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat here – Remember Me is something a bit special. It does play on ghost story tropes and it’s a bit predictable at points, but it’s a highly enjoyable and delicately crafted show that you’d be a fool of a Took to miss.

Remember Me is a supernatural thriller starring Michael Palin as Tom Parfitt, an old Yorkshireman whose admittance to a nursing home triggers a series of inexplicable events. To the credit of writer Gwyneth Hughes these inexplicable events don’t feel out of place, and the series feels very much grounded in reality. It’s also down to the superb direction of Ashley Pearce, who effectively establishes a despondent mood from the get-go through a dark, filmic filter that is nicely supplemented by some pathetic fallacy. The white rose county looks bleak even without the filter, but with it there isn’t a moment when Yorkshire doesn’t look eerie. Now I’m no Beethoven (I’m more Mozart) but the score is also worthy of mention, because it really heightens the tension in Remember Me’s more claustrophobic moments. It’s nothing short of chilling (the haunted sort, rather than the “Help! I’m stuck in a refrigerator!” sort).

Remember Me also stars Mark Addy, known for his roles in Game of Thrones and The Full Monty (no link to Monty Python here, bar a snake of sorts) joining the main cast as detective Rob Fairholme. Also in a leading role is newcomer Jodie Comer who portrays Hannah, and who shares impressive chemistry with her co-stars. But it’s the Monty Python star who steals the show here. Tom Parfitt is disrespectful, antisocial and downright mean spirited at times, yet Palin still manages to make him likeable. The comic charm from his Python days is still there, but his dramatic chops really shine in this more mature role. The rest of the cast bring great depth to their characters too, even Addy, who doesn’t feature heavily in the first episode, evokes sympathy for Fairholme’s unfortunate circumstances, while Hannah’s turbulent relationship with her mother is something that many teenagers will be able to relate to. The plot hasn’t been discussed much here so as to avoid spoilers, but rest assured that you have a fantastic character-driven detective story that rewards those who pay attention to the finer details.

As aforementioned, the usual genre tropes are present with a scene that’s reminiscent of 2012’s The Woman in Black, but Remember Me uses these scenes effectively and sparingly. I actually jumped at a scene transition. A scene change. Pearce creates this omnipresent sense of unease that never leaves you, and if you haven’t already, I highly recommend you invest in a pillow to hide behind. Remember Me may not be a reinvention of the genre, but it has real heart and character. This is not so much a ghost story as a human story of love, loss and acceptance. Remember Me is some brilliant storytelling just screaming out to be remembered. I know I certainly will.

Remember Me will broadcast on BBC One on Sunday 23 November at 9pm.

The Fall Series 2

November 13, 2014 by  
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Not long into the recap of series one, it’s clear why The Fall probably shouldn’t work. There’s the incredulous plot, for starters, which asks viewers to believe that a loving father, working in the compassionate role of bereavement counsellor and living happily with his wife and two children, has a secret life as Belfast’s foremost murderer of attractive, professional young women.

Then there’s the fact that the killer is played by the impossibly good-looking Jamie Dornan. So ridiculously handsome – all dark, piercing eyes, cheekbones and on-trend hipster beard – in fact, that he’s the one Hollywood has chosen to fulfill a thousand housewives’ fantasies as Christian Grey incarnate.

Then the recap subsides into the start of series two proper, and you’re instantly reminded why The Fall was one of the best dramas on telly last year. Here’s icy cool DSI Stella Gibson, played by the unimpeachably fantastic Gillian Anderson, interviewing the lone survivor of the killer’s spree, instructing her two use mild pain by snapping a hairband on her wrist when the memories become overwhelming. And there’s Dornan’s Paul Spector (yes: Spector/spectre – another clunky device that really should count against the show), now cutting a solitary figure in a far-flung remote Scottish location, on the phone with the daughter who really wants her dollies back.

The scene is set for our two main protagonists, all through the familiar ‘Nordic Noir’ filter that accentuates the frame’s greens and blacks for added murk factor. And then something utterly remarkable happens – the episode goes for a full three minutes without a word of dialogue and virtually no kinetic action on screen. Instead, just a low, ambient score accompanies a sequence that’s intercut between Gibson and Spector methodically plotting their next steps. This may well have confounded the idiots who splurged out tweets of disgust when the triumphant vision of Gibson placing Spector in handcuffs wasn’t proferred at the end of season one. But then The Fall isn’t a show that’s interested in living up to conventional expectations.

Sure, there is the odd slip when it momentarily falls back on the tropes of crime drama. The sight of Spector sleeping next to a doll he’s tied with ligatures around its neck and ankles is only one step removed from the disappointingly clichéd serial killer that True Detective’s villain turned out to be. Then we get the outrageous scene with Spector travelling back to Belfast on the train, which toys with those very same tropes, and all is forgiven.

What other show would sit a potential victim in front of its killer, his photofit adorning the front page of her paper, then watch as he pencils in that on-trend hipster beard to make it even more obvious…then twist the knife even further by having said potential victim reveal  she matches the profile of every other women he’s killed, via ID that shows her address, all thanks to the unassuming charm Dornan invests in his character’s public persona?

The other reason The Fall is so marvelous is that, especially in a society where an appalling number of people still think the likes of Dapper Laughs and Ched Evans have been hard done by, it continues to place women in control at the heart of a world beset by terribly flawed men. It also subverts the aggressive male/submissive female gender roles quite brilliantly. Witness the moment Gibson, surrounded by six heavies, stares down the ringleader and emasculates him with the slightest of feints. Or the confrontation between Spector and schoolgirl Katie. Just as he looks to have her cornered and cowered (again toying with his real identity as a killer), a kiss that draws blood reverses the balance of power, leaving his threats hollow and ineffectual.

Of course, Spector still gets to go back to his old stalking ways. In a skin-crawling final scene, we see the dissonance between Spector as caring father figure and psychosexual killer combined, proving why he is one of the most fascinating characters television – on either side of the Atlantic – has come up with for years. Come 10pm every Thursday for the next five weeks, one thing’s for sure: you will be moving meticulously around the house checking every door and window is locked and bolted.

The Fall continues on BBC Two every Thursday at 9pm.

Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids

High Maintenance

November 13, 2014 by  
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Classic silent movie charisma is the big eyes and expressive face of someone like Steve Buscemi. A non-judgemental innocence that indulges the characters he’s cast amongst and slows the tempo to a speed at which good vibes are more easily attainable. It’s a level of charm that High Maintenance’s co-creator Ben Sinclair – playing an unassuming weed delivery guy – dispenses liberally. He’s the only recurring character but to call him the protagonist would be inaccurate. More of a linking reference point between vignettes of low stakes creative class drama. Summoned in the manner of any other outsourced lifestyle requirement and referred to universally as “The Guy”, Sinclair is the show’s irenic rock.

Perceptions of stoner cinema often start with the presumption that a certain level of intoxication is required to enjoy them. Or that it only extends as far as the psychedelic or the “so bad it’s good”. A brush which doesn’t tar far more acceptable intoxicants like alcohol or tobacco. In fact the show’s marijuana consumption is almost insidious in it’s normality. There are no overindulgers giving the rest of them a bad reputation. Just recognisable individuals looking to avoid sober spectatorship until they can motivate themselves to undertake equally meaningless but society approved tasks.

Not a conventional comedy, High Maintenance is amusing in the style of other observationally accurate dramas. Namely the comedic schadenfreude of your foibles performed by another. Or, less frequently, when a character nails a line without the l’esprit d’escalier that haunts those without a writer’s room chaperone. However this is only part of what makes it so compulsively watchable.

When Nathan Rabin first coined the term “manic pixie dream girl”, one of the key elements was that these characters were said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness. A trope which also has easy comparisons to the “Magical Negro” who provided spiritual or mystical help to people of an earlier era. Yet this doesn’t undermine “The Guy”. In one episode a customer asks about the wedding ring he wears. It turns out there isn’t a “Mrs Guy”, he just does it to make himself look more trustworthy. In another, a mature female client makes a very plausible play for some physical intimacy but “The Guy” deflects without rejecting and proceeds to set her up with another client. He is, in many ways, the ideal barman that lost souls seek when they open a tab seeking solace from their oblivion.

The parameters of High Maintenance are modest and it’s often at it’s best when it’s at its most unassuming. A character half-caught through a door frame, the subtitled argument of a mute couple or the icebreaker that sinks an obnoxious kid’s titanic ego.

Sinclair along with his co-creator and wife, Katja Blichfeld, have created something which more than justifies the acclaim it has received.

High Maintenance is available to watch on Vimeo or at www.HighMaintenance.tv

Ripper Street (Series 3)

November 12, 2014 by  
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After its uncertain future following season two, the Victorian crime drama will be returning for a third season. But this time with more blood, violence and Cockney accents than an Eastenders Christmas special.

When the BBC cancelled Ripper Street, the show’s global fanbase were vocal in their outrage. Shortly afterwards, Amazon Prime came to the rescue by providing a new home for its third season. What’s great about this is that more than just providing a green light for it’s production, the lack of watershed and network restrictions appear to have given the show’s creators more freedom, as the new season offers even more special effects and bloody carnage than ever before.

The first episode, “Whitechapel Terminus”, sees the cast reunited four years later, and their lives have drastically changed. This leaves the episode struggling slightly, as it tries to build a bridge between seasons two and three, and at times there is slightly too much exposition rather than simply jumping into the story. The first 15 minutes of the show have a very pensive tone, but it’s worth staying tuned for the explosive event that brings all the characters back together again, forcing them to live and work alongside each other despite the clear tension.

Having reintroduced each character and firmly established their new lives, episode two, “The Beating of Her Wings”, appears to be the beginning of the overall story arc within season three, which will once again surround Reid’s personal life, with an old storyline re-surfacing. Matthew Macfadyen’s and Jerome Flynn’s sincere performances are what really carry this episode along, as the pair are reunited on a murder case. With Jackson called in too, it often feels like old times between the trio, particularly with Jackson’s one liners scattered gingerly throughout. It’s fair to say that the writers haven’t lost their skill for dark, witty humour.

Despite season two’s rather ambiguous ending, it seems the show won’t be tying up old ends, which is great as it allows for full focus on the new lives the writers have created. Although, what is certain is that with Joseph Mawle not featuring at all in season three, that the Jedediah Shine story is dead and buried. Or at least for now.

The biggest clue for future storylines was given at the end of season two, when Long Susan freed herself from the restraints of Silas Duggan. After orchestrating his death, with the help of Jackson, the most important information garnered was that she inherited his vast fortune and extensive property portfolio. Long Susan has always been an interesting character, struggling to remain independent despite the pressures of being a woman within the Victorian era. This season sees her character developing more than ever before, as she is given the power and opportunity to really make a change within London’s East End.

Everything about the show, from the acting, to the storylines, and the outstanding production design, keeps Ripper Street firmly grounded as a quality crime drama, that provides a much needed niche among the innumerable cop dramas.

Amazon Prime may have brought Ripper Street back for another season, but it’s the stellar performances and the reliable writing that will keep the fans coming back for more.

Season three of Ripper Street will be available for Amazon Prime Instant Video members at 9pm on Friday 14th November

Babylon

November 11, 2014 by  
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Babylon

Though the pilot first aired in February, this Wednesdayth, Babylon the hour-long police dramedy from Academy Award Winner, Danny Boyle, finally has its official series premiere on Channel Four. The show follows the Metropolitan Police, as you haven’t seen them before. Described by Boyle as a “cop show without detectives,” Babylon splits its’ time between lesser-known and underappreciated departments within Scotland Yard. Most notably amongst the overlooked is the Office of Communications, otherwise recognised as public relations, which is run by a consummate outsider, an American by the name of Liz Garvey, played by Sundance Film Festival favourite Brit Marling.

Headlined by Marling and the immensely talented James Nesbitt, who leads this band of crazy as the cheeky-but-tough Commissioner Miller, the show boasts a massive ensemble of sixteen named characters, of which all are put to use throughout the show’s hour-long time slot. Babylon is an anomaly not only because of its carefully executed balance of comedy and drama, but also because it brings comedy back to the one hour format, something that hasn’t existed on television since the likes of Desperate Housewives and Pushing Daisies graced the airwaves.

Boyle, who directs the pilot episode and serves as a series creator, proves to be the right man for the job, as his experience directing films like Trainspotting enable him to successfully toe the line between hilarity and drama. This battle of contrasts proves prevalent throughout the show, as it constantly asks the audience to question its motives. The show makes this obvious, as a Private Security Officer and a Deputy Police Commissioner struggle to decide if, “it’s a riot or a disturbance,” when talking about a skirmish breaking out inside one of the prison facilities. It’s impossible to categorise and that’s what makes Babylon so damn fun. At the end of the day, it never reveals if it’s a comedy or a drama, if it’s political or apolitical, or if it’s about the police or about public relations.

The first episode bounces between narratives, with independent departments dealing with separate crises, from the aforementioned prison “riots” to the challenges of ordering pizza as a group. But it seems to move seamlessly from story to story, filling its one-hour run time with relative ease. The one misstep for the show may be in sexualising the relationship between Nesbitt’s Commissioner Miller and Marling’s Liz Garvey. Babylon is bound to offer every eligible man in its ensemble the chance to win the affections of the beautiful Garvey; it doesn’t need her boss to make a pass as well.

The struggle for Babylon may prove to be in its design. The fate of this series will ultimately rely on the writer’s and director’s ability to maintain the sometimes-difficult tone, as finding the right balance may prove tough to sustain. But the show has a talented cast from top to bottom and promises to never ever be boring. It’s worth a watch.

Babylon premieres November 13th on Channel Four.

Great Continental Railway Journeys

November 10, 2014 by  
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Great British Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo

Ahh the return of Michael Portillo. A phrase that used to chill the blood back when he was a vocal proponent of the Poll Tax and hired Alexandra Palace to celebrate his first decade in politics. Now it just triggers a warm sense of cosy anticipation for the return of his rather delightful series, ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys’, on the best channel on earth, BBC4.

This is series three of the gentle travelogue and it carries on in exactly the same way as before: with Mr Portillo travelling the railways of Europe using George Bradshaw’s ‘Continental Railway Guide’ from 1913 as a template for his meanderings.

Following on from his trips to the great European cities in the first two series, it is now the turn of Moscow, Tula and St Petersburg, where our garishly jacketed host (lemon yellow is a tough look for anyone, Michael) mooches along the scopious railways networks of Russia.

First off is Tula, where the author of ‘War and Peace’, Leo Tolstoy, was birthed and buried. Britain’s former Defence Secretary visits the great writer’s house in the old town, where we are given some background into his life as the ‘aristocrat who turned’, becoming the pre-eminent voice of peasants against the cruelties of Russia’s ruling classes. Portillo then takes us into his home and shows us the very desk where he wrote great masterpieces of literature such as ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. We also got to see Portillo pay homage to a large black sofa upon which Tolstoy was born.

From Tula we accompany our agreeable guide to Moscow and St Petersburg where he tours the Kremlin, takes on some menial work at the Bolshoi and most amusingly experiences a refreshing yet brutal Russian banya, Mother Russia’s version of a spa. Here, the erstwhile Tory MP for Kensington and Chelsea receives a good old fashioned birching, all in the name of getting “clean like a Russian”, entertainment and a touch of schadenfreude, of course.

‘Great Continental Railway Journeys’ is a tremendous little programme, and Michael Portillo is an amiable and likeable host. The show’s structure is such that it doesn’t overwhelm or under inform the viewer by smashing through as many locations and destinations as it can cram in. Instead it devotes a decent amount of time to each terminus, soaking up just enough of the ambience in each cultural hotspot.

Portillo is on a journey of discovery and is genuinely enthusiastic to chug along these historical railway tracks, meeting all manner of different characters and taking in sights of bona fide interest. Another little victory for the little engine that could. Well done BBC4.

Great Continental Railway Journeys is on BBC4 on Wednesdays at 9pm

The Amazing World of Gumball – Season One

November 6, 2014 by  
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This cartoon series could be described as a bit of a crossbreed for various reasons. The series is an Irish-British-American production, with the creator Ben Bocquelet being a French-born Englishman. The series also mixes a series of animated styles. There is 2D animation and 3D animation, interwoven with real-life images.

The series, set in the fictional city of Elmore, follows the odd adventures of a 12-year-old blue cat called Gumball (Logan Grove in this series – he is played by someone else in later series). He lives with his adoptive goldfish brother Darwin (Kwesi Boakye in this series) and together they get into constant trouble, often annoying the rest of their family, consisting of their workaholic mother Nicole (Teresa Gallagher, The Bill), unbelievably lazy rabbit father Richard (Dan Russell) and smart younger rabbit sister Anais (Kyla Rae Kowaleski). Apart from causing chaos Gumball is also in love with a girl in his school, a peanut with antlers called Penny Fitzgerald (Gallagher).

In this collection of 12 short episodes, Gumball makes a misguided vow to save a neighbour’s life; Gumball and Darwin are foolishly made babysitters for Anais; after having no clothes left to wear Gumball is forced to wear his mother’s wedding dress, leading Darwin to accidentally fall in love with him thinking he is a girl from Europe; Gumball and Darwin try to out-lazy their father Richard; and Gumball gets possessed by a fellow student who is a ghost, resulting in a gigantic eating binge.

There are several things to commend this cartoon. As mentioned above the animation style is really eye-grabbing. You have this mixture of 2D, 3D and superimposed live-action creating a slightly surreal experience. It would be more accurate to describe the appearance as 2.5D. The episodes are funny too. The mixture of characters in the family is nicely barmy. One of the best stories sees Gumball, Darwin and Richard trying to prank each other. At one point Gumball and Darwin’s pranks get so big it causes Richard to go into a seemingly insane prank rage which includes putting a bucket over a door that is full of cement.

It is also nice to see a series debuting in the USA which features many British voice actors. Aside from Gallagher there are also parts voiced by impressionist Lewis MacLeod, Rupert Degas, and Canadian-born London-based performer Kerry Shale.

The Amazing World of Gumball is a family friendly fun, creatively chaotic and sublimely silly.

Score: 4/5

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