Wednesday, 5 August 2015

TV Show Review: Banished Season 1 (2015) [Spoilers]


© BBC Two | Source: change.org


UK, Australia; 7 episodes; history, drama, period
Channel: BBC Two
Creator: Jimmy McGovern
Cast: Orla Brady, Ewen Bremner, MyAnna Buring, Ryan Corr, Brooke Harman, David Dawson, Ned Dennehy, Cal MacAninch, Rory McCann, Joseph Millson, Nick Moss, Adam Nagaitis, Genevieve O'Reilly, Jordan Patrick Smith, Russel Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Joanna Vanderham, David Walmsley, David Wenham

Sin all you like but do not ask it of me. I am on this earth only to gain the Kingdom of Heaven for my immortal soul. I cannot do that by watching people eat each other.”  – Reverend Johnson

And with this uplifting quote, welcome to a special edition of our regular TV Show Review segment. You might wonder, why-oh-why is there a need for a special edition, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And it is, indeed, a desperate time for Jimmy McGovern's Banished: It has been announced that the TV series will not be back for a second season, despite exceptionally high ratings for its home channel BBC Two.

The show sounds like a dream for fans of historic fiction, drama and beautiful Aussie coastal shots. Set in 1788, it deals with the first British penal colony established in New South Wales, Australia. The story revolves around the convicts as well as the officers and soldiers in charge of maintaining order within the involuntary community. It revolves around convict women who are meant to serve as sexual entertainment for the soldiers to keep the men's spirits up. It revolves around the logistical challenges that come with organising a settlement in the middle of nowhere, with not enough food, no infrastructure or places to demand help from. And, last but not least, it revolves around men and women who were pushed off to a foreign continent, for no plausible reason at all, to live there under degrading circumstances and at the mercy of those who are in charge.

Banished fell flat with critics, though. Sam Wollaston from The Guardian ridiculed the show by giving it the tagline "18th century Australia or I’m a Convict Get Me Out of Here?", and Ceri Radford from The Telegraph saw it as "a cross between Lost and the 'before' part of an advert for Aussie hair conditioner". Not really a shower of praise and enthusiasm, right? Although I can't help but applaud the creativity of these comparisons. Well done, Sam and Ceri.

Anyway, there may be some truth to all of the above, but I still can’t help feeling an urge within me to stand up for this little UK-Australian co-production. So, for this review, allow me to join the ranks of those who have tried their best to make Banished return to our tellies, either by showing support in a specially founded Facebook group, or by filing a petition asking for the renewal of the series. I, for my part, now intend to give you five reasons to #BringBackBanished.       

© BBC Two | Source: YouTube screenshot

Reason 1: Oh-the-Potential.
Banished deals with the British settlement of Australia. It is, of course, an uncomfortable topic within Brit history, and the show has been criticised for its neglect of indigenous characters so far. It is true, the colony seems like a teeny-weeny microcosm, completely unaware of its surroundings. We merely hear about 'savages' endangering the settlers, and that protection against those 'wild ones' is needed, but we never actually encounter native Australians within the show. To be honest, I think that leaving out the indigenous people in the first season is a clever writing choice. This way, we're presented with the ignorant and prejudiced nature of the settlers, and how they go about taking over the land like they have every right to. The absence of a native voice within the plot just goes to show the absence of a native voice within the minds of the British settlers.

Jimmy McGovern, who also is the writer of the series, has indicated that he does not want to use native characters as a mere plot devise, he wants them to be represented fairly. Now that the British view has been established, season 2 is the perfect time to bring in some fleshed-out indigenous characters to establish a different view on British colonisation. Television usually has a hard time putting native characters and their views into focus. Banished has the opportunity to offer marginalised perspectives. TV can only profit from this.

© BBC Two | Source: The Guardian


Reason 2: Why So Serious?
There sometimes is a discrepancy between the look and the feel of the show. I enjoy how the crew manages to give the characters a dirty and dishevelled exterior. It's easy to sense the labour executed in tropical heat, and I even imagine that I can smell the sweat in the air from hard work as well as the salt water on people's skin after they've taken a refreshing dip in the Pacific. In this sense Ceri Radford is right, the whole thing does appear like an ad for a hair conditioner. But anybody who has ever been to Oz knows what the heat of the sun, constant bathing in salty water and the lack of a comb can do to your flowing mane. You're bound to look like Shock-headed Peter who just came out of a broken hood drier. So, yes, I'd say that Banished does a good job depicting the outward conditions of those characters, all set against the romantically beautiful backdrop of the Australian nature.

The tone of the first season is not quite as fixed yet. It's drenched with melodrama, exaggerated shouting and tears to fill the whole of Lake Macquarie with. And to this I say: So what? People seem to assume, since Banished can easily be categorised as a period drama, that the show is meant to be straight forward in its approach, leaving no room for fooling around or downright chewing the scenery. I admit, I was also irritated at first, but once I had accepted that the show was more a soap than a historically accurate educational program, I continued to enjoy the heck out of Banished. I'm not quite sure if McGovern and his team really wanted me to laugh every time I did, but I did it anyway. Convict Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt) repeatedly shouting "Are you an informer?" at his devastated best friend James Freeman (Russell Tovey), because he suspects him of having turned into a snitch for the guards and officers, is just so very over-the-top that not smiling over this kitsch fest would count as a wasted opportunity.

TV doesn't have to be serious all the time – even if it acts under the pretence that it is. I love myself some cheesy, involuntary ridiculousness. Whatever entertains, right? And Banished has managed to create, in midst of all its social criticism, an atmosphere which walks the line between serious character conflict and a hoot set somewhere at world's end. It's weird, really. A wild mélange of heartfelt sympathy for the characters and a whirlwind spiral of laughable what-the-heck moments, but it's good fun – and certainly never boring.


© BBC Two | Source: YouTube screenshot

Reason 3: The Peeps Act Their Hearts Out.
Banished is an ensemble piece and, luckily, has gathered a group of actresses and actors who work very well together but also are up to their individual challenges. David Wenham as Captain Arthur Phillip, the 1st Governor of New South Wales, channels the necessary authority for his role. Joseph Millson as the power-hungry Major Robert Ross shows his villainous qualities while, at the same time, embracing a softer, more innocent approach to his character. The way in which he tries to steal the convict Katherine McVitie (Joanna Vanderham) away from her lover, Corporal MacDonald (Ryan Corr), is utterly despicable. And yet, Millson manages to also bring out the Major's vulnerable side, his longing for honest affection. It’s a twisted portrayal, really. David Dawson is severely underused in his role as Captain Collins, but I like how he continues to let his growing insecurities about ethical questions shine through.

Tovey, Rhind-Tudd and MyAnna Buring, who plays the latter's wife Elizabeth, find themselves in midst of most of the melodramatic action, and I like how they embrace the style. They unleash all they have: They scream loudly, cry hysterically, suffer deeply and battle their inner conflicts for the world to see. While those performances are anything but subtle, they definitely fit into the context of the show and feed its deliciously soapy nature.

Genevieve O'Reilly's Mary Johnson is the character I enjoy the most. While her husband Reverend Johnson (Ewen Bremner) is busy seeking the moral high ground and usually ends up providing some – intended – comicality, Mary delivers honest heartbreak. I feel for her grief over her stillborn babies and her desire to finally start a family. Her blossoming friendship with convict Anne Meredith (Orla Brady) and her husband's inability to fully comprehend her emotional distress make for an engaging storyline.
 

© | Source: BBC Two

Reason 4: After All the Exhausting To and Fro, We're Finally Good to Go!
Plot-wise Banished is a rollercoaster ride. It has its moments. The general concept of the show is to portray the troubles of colonial life and, from a British perspective, the series succeeds in doing so. I also enjoy how power structures are uncovered and the way in which the show demonstrates how life under absurd rules and constant threat of punishment forces people to take inhuman measures.

However, a detailed look at the individual storylines shows that things have gotten a bit out of hand. In all the seven episodes which form the first season either Barrett or Freeman are in danger of being hanged, and most often they manage to escape their fate. The way in which this story goes in circles is rather tiresome, especially since other main plots also are trapped in repetition. Major Ross' attempts to lure in McVitie go back and forth, as does Macdonald's jealousy. Now that Barrett has finally met his fate on the gallows and Ross has captured McVitie's heart (as horrendous as it is), the show is ready to wander into some exciting directions. Rather than to constantly wobble through the character's repetitive actions, there now is room to explore the consequences of those actions.

Additionally, there's room to tread onto new exciting paths to further enhance the story. The wilderness is ready to be explored. The focus can shift from Ross' love life to his power ambitions. Captain Collin's wish to do right by the convicts can be expanded upon. The Johnsons’ marriage can be put under further scrutiny, and life in the colony in the face of a lower and lower amount of supplies can be further looked into. There's still a lot to be discovered.
 

© BBC Two | Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Reason 5: What'll be the next Bushtucker Trial?
Season 1 ends openly. Nothing's settled, the characters are left in grim states. This cannot be it. Freeman has come to terms with the fact that he had to function as the executioner at his best friend Tommy's hanging. His mind is in turmoil and he basically has all the other convicts against him. What are his options? Flee into the wilderness? Remain at the colony, always fearing for his life? And what about Elizabeth? She has lost her beloved hubby at the hands of a very dear friend. Will she forgive? Will she have sweet revenge by plotting to take out everyone responsible for her loss?

What will be the main policy at camp now that Captain Collins, in an attempt to free the convicts of old burdens, has burnt all their criminal records? Will Captain Phillip turn into a tyrant because he's simply fed up with all those convicts doing as they please and stuff? Will his alcohol supply go down? Will he finally start dating his housekeeper? And will anybody still deny that this is a soap?

Will Major Ross once again try to overthrow Phillip and seize power? Who will be the next one to beat good-for-nothing, whiney Private Buckley (Adam Nagaitis) into a pulp? Will Reverend Johnson find somebody who'll build him a church, while there still aren't enough houses for everybody? Will there ever be a ship bringing new supplies, or was this whole colony thing only an attempt to rid Britain of that nasty, Grumpy-MacGrumpypants blacksmith who had it coming in episode 2?

But, most importantly: Can McGovern come up with a decent explanation why, all of a sudden, Kitty McVitie has fallen head-over-heels for Major Ross, the man who forced her to have sex with him and continued to pick on her former sweetheart MacDonald? I mean, seriously? A bit of chatter, a gift and some extra food can't have made her develop sincere feelings of love for her violator. Get a grip, McGovern! And get a grip, BBC Two! We need some closure here.


© BBC Two | Source: RadioTimes

Banished is far from being perfect – but then many shows aren’t, and they still continue to bring out new seasons. I won't deny that there is a huge amount of cheese and kitsch and plot stagnation going on but, despite all this, the series manages to entertain me both sincerely and involuntarily. The characters work well together and I'm definitely interested in their fate. The cast does a wonderful job bringing their respective roles to life, and, due to the temporal and spatial setting, Banished harbours the potential for fresh perspectives and stories that are seldom shown on television. I'd like to see the series continue, to see it improve and explore new ways and, yes, to be honest, provide some more soapy fun to my everyday life.

Please, BBC Two, reconsider your decision to end this show. Re-check your budget and other investments and give us the chance to travel back in time to witness the birth of a new nation. Let us be Banished, please.



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