Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (season four) – Review

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T. and I took a long break from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood once we got to the end of season three. While we really enjoyed the first two seasons, by the time the action moved to Fort Briggs it felt like things were getting more and more complicated, and – being unfamiliar with the manga – I worried that the show would end up losing its way and never resolve the central drama. Well, I’m glad to have given the fourth season a chance, because not only did it feel like a marked improvement on season three, but it moved the overarching story forward in a satisfying way and at a good old pace. I’m now excited to see how things wrap up in the fifth and final season.

This may sound strange, but one of the things that encouraged us to return to Brotherhood was the fact Netflix changed the way they listed the show from “64 episodes” to a proper season/episode listing. Knowing where you’re at in the narrative arc is quite important in long-form storytelling, and it really helped knowing we would be starting again at the beginning of the penultimate season: we had appopriate expectations for pacing, character development, and so on. Brotherhood’s third season had expanded the scope of the story considerably, so we were delighted (and, I must admit, surprised) to find that major mysteries were resolved quickly and in a satisfying way, and that the overall story was likewise allowed to make progress.

One of the good things about taking time to build a story and develop characters is that, if you do it right, the payoff can be epic, and make the whole wait worthwhile. The problem with this is that so many shows have failed to live up to their promise that audiences get burned out and lose faith in this kind of storytelling (this is known as the Chris Carter Effect, with reference to the X-Files; Lost is another good example). In contrast, Brotherhood’s fourth season is well-paced, and its lore manages to be both interesting and coherent, which is no mean feat.

If you’re not familiar with it, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a very well-regarded and successful anime adaptation of a manga, which follows the brothers Edward and Al Elric on their mission to recover their bodies after an experiment with alchemy went badly wrong. (Edward just lost a couple of limbs, but Al lost his entire body and now has to go about in an enormous suit of armour, which contains his soul.) They soon get pulled into a much larger conspiracy, and the show starts off dark in tone and quickly gets darker; but it also has a penchant for comedy, and some really heartwarming camaraderie as well. Confusingly, it’s actually the second anime adaptation of the manga, with the first being called simply Fullmetal Alchemist, without the subtitle. Brotherhood is widely regarded as being much better. The first “adaptation” was done before the original manga was finished – a bit like Game of Thrones!

Brotherhood has a strong central cast of characters and there is great chemistry between the likes of Edward, Al, and Winry, and Mustang and Hawkeye. It’s testament to the potential of long-form storytelling that, by season four, Brotherhood has put together a whole stable of lead characters, any one of whom could carry a lesser anime (Al in particular is a real hero); but there are half a dozen stand-out leads in this one show. Even the supporting cast of Homunculi and Chimeras get their chance to shine here, too. I think it helped our enjoyment that we decided to watch this season in the English dub, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles. Although I’ve always tried to watch anime series with the Japanese voice track (because it’s more “authentic”), I can’t understand the language, and in Brotherhood I get the impression the English voice script is different (and superior) to the English subtitles. You also benefit from some characterful performances from great voice actors like Caitlin Glass and Troy Baker.

Fingers crossed that season five will prove to be as entertaining and satisfying as Brotherhood’s fourth season. If so, it will definitely go down as one of my favourite anime series.

9/10

Castlevania (season one) – Review

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Castlevania fans have had a hard time in recent years, as the venerable game series has been left to gather dust by owner Konami. Thus news of a Netflix-produced animated series stoked excitement, particularly once it became clear the show was intended for “mature” audiences and would not hold back on blood and gore. Castlevania’s subject matter has tried-and-tested appeal, and the successful blueprint for atmospheric gothic anime has been well-established by films like Vampire Hunter D. What could possibly go wrong?

First impressions are promising: Castlevania looks really, really good. The characters and settings are well-designed and animated, and if the aesthetic is somewhat hackneyed, that can be forgiven considering that it’s paying homage not just to a game series but to an entire genre. That said, much of the season’s four episodes are set in a generic medieval town, which is a bit disappointing considering that most Castlevania games are set in some version or other of Dracula’s castle. Indeed, apart from the names of the characters, and Trevor Belmont’s whip, I didn’t find there was much here to distinguish this as a Castlevania series: if they changed the names it would have been a pretty generic anime horror.

Having announced a Castlevania ‘series’, I think a few eyebrows were raised when the show was released and it turned out to be four episodes long, clocking in at about 100 minutes total. That’s really more the length of a movie, and the ‘episodic’ structure felt a bit phony. In particular, episodes two and three naturally segue into each other, and the ending of episode two felt rather abrupt. More problematic is that the ‘season’ finishes in an unsatisfying way, as the ‘conclusion’ is anything but and just sets the stage for future episodes. Netflix has inevitably announced that Castlevania has been ‘renewed’ for a second season, but it all feels completely pre-planned, and fundamentally cynical. If there was ever any doubt about a second season (clue: there wasn’t), it wouldn’t have ended as it did. Netflix knew there would be a lot of hype about the show because of the name alone, so they served up a laughably short first ‘season’, enabling them to spread a wafer-thin story over twelve episodes, when one feature-length movie would have sufficed.

But what really condemns Castlevania is its awful script. Set in a fictionalized C15th Europe, Dracula’s human wife is burnt as a witch by evil Christians, so he decides to wipe out the local population in retaliation. The only person who can stop him is Trevor Belmont, a cynical young outcast aristocrat and the last surviving member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan. Trevor is an unappealing lead, not motivated by anything other than alcohol, and constantly complaining about having to rescue ungrateful peasants. Most of the inhabitants of Wallachia are portrayed unsympathetically, either as cringing cowards or as perverts who have sex with farm animals. It’s a singularly charmless script, and one that’s devoid of any humour, wit or passion.

This is made even worse by the voice acting, which ranges from indifferent to downright awful. More than one character suffers from dreadful mumbling, to the point that we had to turn on the subtitles to follow what people were saying. It’s not limited to one character, which suggests it was a technical problem or a production decision; if the latter, god knows what they were trying to achieve. Belmont’s voice acting is infuriating, as he rushes through sentences, fails to enunciate his words properly, and tails off inaudibly. But the worst of all is the villainous Bishop of Gresit. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with his voice, but it doesn’t work at all. You can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. Considering how much work goes into creating the visuals for something like this, it beggars belief that the audio would be so incompetently directed and edited.

It used to be the case that licensed video games were guaranteed to be terrible. Cynical publishers would acquire a well-known license and use it to market a crap game, relying on name recognition to get people to buy a shitty product. Here that dynamic is reversed. Visuals aside, Castlevania is a pathetically lazy, cynical and low-effort attempt by Netflix to use a well-regarded video game franchise to generate interest among a certain demographic. Don’t encourage them. Do yourself a favour, and give it a miss.

3/10

Vikings (season four, part two) – Review

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Fuck off, Ivar.

The ending of the first half of Vikings’ fourth season strongly hinted that the story was about to focus on Ivar the Boneless, one of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. Sure enough, Ivar is the dominant figure across these ten episodes, and the show suffers for it. That Ragnar had five sons should have meant there was lots of potential for different storylines showing them working together and competing for power and prestige. But this opportunity is wasted as most of the sons just serve as tools to put over Ivar in one of the most egregious cases of character shilling I’ve seen.

Ivar’s ingenuity and ruthlessness are constantly referred to by characters throughout the season, but his genius is largely an informed attribute. One of the golden rules of storytelling is show, don’t tell; but Viking’s writers apparently aren’t capable of showing us Ivar’s brilliance, and instead make people say it over and over in the hope that we’ll come to believe it. His ruthlessness is manifest only in temper tantrums and the kind of reckless violence that befits a pampered mummy’s boy, which is what he is. The idea that someone could get away with the kind of nonsense Ivar does in this season stretches credulity. As one of Ragnar’s sons, clearly Ivar would get a pass up to a point, but it’s tiresome to see him get away with murder (literally and figuratively) time and again simply because of his disability, when people would have queued up to kill an able-bodied person behaving the same way. The character is badly written, but it doesn’t help that the actor who portrays Ivar is dreadfully limited, capable only of a wretched smirk to communicate sneering sarcasm, or a sulky teenager’s teeth-grinding pout to show rage. Ivar is an awful character and his presence was enough to ruin my enjoyment of this season.

That said, the character of Ivar is really just symptomatic of a general decline in the quality of Viking’s script. This is an ambitious show but the writing hasn’t been able to keep pace with the broader horizons brought about by the viking expansion. These ten episodes take in Britain, France, and Spain as well as Scandinavia, and they cover some momentous events. The scale and sweep of the story makes up somewhat for the unsatisfying character drama, and the set pieces and battles are very impressive. But season four cashes out some pretty big characters to maintain your attention, in a way that is not sustainable, particularly considering how unappealing most of the new cast are.

Thankfully, Lagertha figures quite prominently in the series, which is a positive, although the writers have decided to make her bisexual in a charmless effort to sex things up. Her new lover, Astrid, endears herself to us by hitting on both Lagertha’s son Bjorn and her ex-husband Ragnar, and serves no discernible purpose beyond titillation. Other than Bjorn and Ivar, the sons of Ragnar are very generic, and the writers can’t think of anything for them to do other than all bonking the same slave-girl in between talking about how much they fear their youngest brother, Ivar. If they’re so scared of him why don’t they just kill him? He’s only a threat because they allow him to be. Meanwhile, Harald Finehair and his staring brother continue to loom large, devoid of any charisma or personality, plotting to become kings of Norway in a plot nobody cares about.

A particular low point for me across these episodes saw Helga “adopt” a teenaged Muslim girl following a Viking raid on Spain. It’s always irritating when writers turn a previously sensible character into a deluded idiot overnight. Helga’s absurd plan to raise the girl as her daughter fails to come across as the tragedy the writers probably intended, and instead just felt like a transparent and tasteless attempt at emotional manipulation.

I’m sorry to see Vikings reduced to this state, as the first few seasons were really good. But seeing the way things are poised at the end of season four, I have no interest in following the story any further,

5/10

 

The Sopranos (season five) – Review

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T. and I approached season five of The Sopranos with some trepidation. The show’s writing started to tank after season two and I thought season four was pretty awful. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the first few episodes of season five, wondering if perhaps the show had turned a corner. The season begins with an injection of new blood, as several mobsters get released from jail around the same time, so there are several new faces. These include Steve Buscemi as Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Tony Blundetto (known as Tony B.). The new characters give the show a bit of oomph, and it also helps that Tony and Carmela are no longer together. We’re therefore spared the inane family melodrama that dominated seasons three and four… for a while, anyway.

Season five initially sees a renewed focus on the FBI and their efforts to take down the various Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. This storyline drives much of the season’s better action, just because it’s interesting to see how the federal police plan and execute operations like this. Other shows have since done this sort of thing much, much better – think of The Wire, or even Sons of Anarchy – but nevertheless, The Sopranos’ fifth season has some good moments early on. Unfortunately, the season’s early momentum comes to a screaming halt by the time of episode six, “Sentimental Education”. This is one of the first Sopranos episodes written by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men – not a favourite show in these parts), and it marks a new low for a show that had already served up some pretty poor episodes. From this point onwards, narrative complexity is largely abandoned in favour of a straightforward story centred around Tony’s personal neuroses.

I’ll admit that for a while I thought Tony’s psychological problems provided an interesting frame to view the goings-on of the Soprano crime syndicate. But they are not enough to sustain a drama for this length of time. By this stage, Tony’s psyche and personality are as overexposed and repellent as his corpulent physical form. Just as Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi go nowhere and cover the same ground ad nauseam, so too does the storyline repeat itself; simply with new characters performing the same narrative function as the likes of Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto before them. Side characters are never given any time to develop, merely being used as triggers for Tony’s rage or depression, and the show relies on a procession of “star power” to maintain any interest in its cast. Like with Tony, series regulars such as Carmela and Chris Moltisanti are so one-dimensional and over-familiar that you just don’t want to see them on your screen any more.

A show like The Sopranos has such an aura around it that people explain away things that would elsewhere be called out as downright bad or incompetent. Season five fails to maintain a basic level of storyline continuity and credibility. In the space of a few minutes, Tony B. inexplicably abandons his deeply-felt plans to “go straight” which had been built up over six hour-long episodes. Halfway through the season a ranking member of Tony’s crew is caught sucking off another man in a car park; nothing more is said about it. Another character accidentally sets themselves on fire making a sandwich. Then there are the editorial decisions that only the most over-indulged show can get away with, such as Tony’s interminable surreal dream sequence; a laughable reminiscence montage when Tony is thinking about a childhood friend; or a “mic drop” freeze frame after Carmela dumps someone that would have felt cheap on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. None of this is helped by the fact that Tony’s main rival for much of the season is the singularly dull, unthreatening and effete mafia “boss” Johnny Sack. As unconvincing mobsters go, he rivals even Andy Garcia’s cringeworthy performance in Rob the Mob. How did we go from Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, to this?

The last couple of episodes of season five see some basic competence restored to the storytelling, albeit brought about in an abrupt and contrived manner via the police acting as a deus ex machina to move events forward. The sections of the show which follow the police tend to be the more interesting, as are the all too rare occasions when we see how the mafia try to cover themselves or, you know, actually conduct their business. As countless police procedurals and historical dramas have shown, the ways people operate in the world tend to be of wider and more lasting interest to viewers than summoning forth the obscure goings-on from inside someone’s mind. For all that its first two seasons were very, very good, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. Not least the way it helps legitimize this kind of introspective claptrap as a form of serious entertainment.

4/10

Cheers (seasons five and six) – Review

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Warning – this post contains spoilers about Cheers season five.

Although I’m sure the pay and celebrity help make up for it, it must be hard work to write a sitcom for hundreds of episodes without it going to crap after a while. The first few seasons of Cheers were generally very good, often excellent, and had a winning formula; but nothing lasts forever. Either the show would end, or something would have to change. It seems like Shelley Long, the actress who played Diane Chambers, felt the same way, as she decided to leave at the end of season five. There are various explanations and theories about why she left – creative differences, ambition, worries that the show would become stale – but ultimately, a major change like that would have been necessary at some point.

So, Cheers’ fifth and sixth seasons are significant as the last to feature Diane, and the first without her. The relationship between Sam and Diane is, of course, the driving force of season five, and for the most part it’s handled well. The two constantly fight their feelings for one other; and although they can be alternately maddening (Diane) or sleazy and boorish (Sam), as with most good relationships they round the corners off each other, and make one another better and more likable people. That said, I felt there was a slight tendency to paint Diane as a more and more eccentric and unsympathetic version of herself, possibly in preparation for her exit. It’s not quite Vince McMahon turning Bret Hart heel before packing him off to WCW, but at times it has that sort of feel to it.

Most people watching today will know that Diane leaves and that, in the end, her and Sam don’t make it as a couple. Cheers was very popular during its run, and I wonder how people felt about this. For all her pretentiousness and fragility, Diane is a hugely endearing and sympathetic character, the sort of person who radiates a warmth and light which helps those around her live more fully and feel better about themselves and the world. I can only imagine it must have made a lot of people very sad to find out her story wouldn’t have a happy ending. The final episode of season five ends on a note of real pathos, showing what could have been between Sam and Diane, and it’s a beautiful sequence which surely ranks among the most poignant moments in television history: a painful but not unfitting end to one of TV’s greatest romances.

In a way, it would have been preferable for Cheers to finish at the end of season five, but with a happy ending instead of the one we got. However, that’s not the way these things work: Cheers was a lucrative property and there was much more money to be made. So, the show continued into a sixth season, albeit with a few changes. The main change was the arrival of Rebecca Howe (played by Kirstie Alley) as the new manager of Cheers. Not only has Diane left, but the show contrives a way for Sam to lose the bar, and he returns as a mere bartender. For some reason, Cheers has been bought by a large corporation, and Rebecca is employed as the manager. I wasn’t expecting it, but the season hits the ground running, and Rebecca is an immediately engaging and likeable character, different enough to Diane not to invite unfavourable comparisons. Initially, Rebecca comes across as a confident and assertive businesswoman, very much in the ’80s style, and she’s invested with personality and considerable sex appeal by the remarkable Kirstie Alley. Shelley Long was a bit before my time when I was growing up, but I do remember admiring Kirstie Alley, in particular her incredible voice (she even gives Kathleen Turner a run for her money). Against the odds, season six does everything right to get off to a good start.

Unfortunately, things start to go downhill rather quickly. With Diane gone, Sam regresses to sleazeball mode, and begins a campaign of weapons-grade sexual harassment against Rebecca which lasts throughout the season. Cheers is a show that, on the whole, has aged pretty well, but the incessant nature of Sam’s sexual overtures towards an obviously reluctant Rebecca are guaranteed to make most contemporary viewers uncomfortable. Rebecca’s characterization also tends to collapse over the course of the season, her initial self-confidence evaporating. This is in no small part due to professional sabotage by Sam, who is spiteful at having lost the bar and constantly being rejected. Finally, Rebecca is turned into an object of ridicule due to her comedic inability to convey her unrequited love for her own boss, Evan Drake, played by a moonlighting Tom Skerritt (of Alien and Top Gun fame). The cumulative effect is distasteful, and more than a bit misogynistic.

Season six is not helped by the fact it drags on far too long: 25 episodes is too much weight to bear for a season that lacks a single compelling, well-written arc. With the main cast failing to carry the load, the season relies heavily, but not enough, on Frasier and his partner Lilith. Frasier and Lilith have solid chemistry, are often hilarious, and their interactions go a long way towards redeeming things, but as secondary characters there is only so much they can contribute. Woody (Woody Harrelson) is entertaining and likable as ever, but receives little development. Instead, many of the episodes tend to focus on Norm and Cliff, but their screwball humour and “massive loser” schtick has worn thin by this stage. Carla’s character again sees no development and continues to stink out the show, and what’s worse is that two of her nightmarish teenage children start to make semi-regular appearances.

Cheers has eleven seasons in total, so I’m now just over halfway through the entire run. It’s starting to feel like the golden period is over, and I can only hope season seven shows some improvement against six. But with most of the major cast and storylines now in place, and with Diane gone, I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation.

Season five: 7/10

Season six: 6/10

Vikings (Season Four, Part One) – Review

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The first seasons of Vikings reminded me strongly of Sons of Anarchy. Not just because leading man Travis Fimmel bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Hunnam, but because of the shared themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and independence. Sons writer Kurt Sutter tried to make his show feel authentic by learning from and working with people involved in the world he was writing about. It’s of course quite different when you’re writing about people who lived over a thousand years ago, but nevertheless Vikings writer Michael Hirst has generally seemed concerned with making Vikings feel like a historically grounded and serious-minded drama. It was therefore regrettable to discover that this first half of Vikings’ fourth season reminded me of nothing other than Game of Thrones. I never cared for George Martin’s overrated fantasy series, but sadly Vikings’ showrunners seem to have decided that treacly pacing, betrayal, and incest are what the viewing public wants, because much of these episodes consist of just that.

Each season of Vikings has seen its scope expand, and by season four the action isn’t limited to the homelands of the Norse marauders: significant parts of the story are now set in England and France. They say success is a double-edged sword, and the critical and commercial success of Vikings means we now have 20-episode seasons, released in two parts. The beginning of season four sees the Vikings return home after a costly adventure to Paris; they won a military victory and acquired lots of treasure, but at the loss of many lives, and king Ragnar Lothbrok (Fimmel) is himself at death’s door. In his stead his son Bjorn Ironside is forced to make some executive decisions which prove that, well-intentioned and forceful though he is, he is no politician.

Much of the season sees the Vikings prepare for another attack on Paris. Irritatingly, once he recovers Ragnar continues to behave in the reckless manner that characterized him in season three, and he spends several episodes wrapped up in a quasi-romance with a Chinese slave who gets him addicted to opium. Otherwise the vikings mainly spin their wheels while waiting for Ragnar to give the order to attack Paris again. His relationship with Aslaug is increasingly one of mutual disdain, and Aslaug becomes more and more emotionally dependent on her crippled son, Ivar the Boneless. Aslaug also tries to repeat her dalliance with the mysterious Harbard. This mainly felt like an excuse to get more naked flesh on screen as Harbard shags his way through Kattegat while all the men are away in Paris.

At the end of season three, Ragnar’s unreliable brother Rollo was left behind in France in charge of the vikings who stayed behind. This has predictable consequences and Rollo is soon enmeshed in the French court. Most of the worst and most tiresome parts of the season happen in Paris, which plays host to the kind of political intriguing, backstabbing, incest and general depravity which one associates with the aristocracy. The situation in England is largely the same, the exception being that the charismatic King Ecbert (Linus Roache) invests the story with a sense of purpose and vision which is otherwise largely absent in these episodes.

I’m sorry to see the way Vikings go downhill like this. For some time I’ve been eagerly telling friends and family to watch this show, emphasizing that while it is enjoyable drama, it is also a thoughtful and responsible piece of historical fiction. In that regard the first couple of seasons felt like an antidote to the asinine titillation served up by Game of Thrones. It’s also strange that while much of the season meanders on with nothing much happening, the writers then decide to jump forward ten or more years at a stroke. Episode ten hints strongly that future episodes will revolve around Ragnar’s sons, and the writing team has a job on their hands to ensure a successful transition of the narrative from Ragnar to the next generation. At this point, as with Ragnar himself, I doubt they’re up to the job.

6/10

Cheers (season four) – Review

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Season four marks a return to form for Cheers, after an uneven third season. We witness the arrival of Woody Boyd, played by a youthful and blonde-haired Woody Harrelson, who replaces Coach as Sam’s bartender. Otherwise the main cast remains the same, and the storylines are largely similar too, although there are a few more ambitious multi-episode arcs which take us out of the bar as we see the characters a bit more involved in life outside the bar. But the eponymous bar, and the relations and sense of community it generates, continue to be the heart that drives the show’s action.

I have been a Woody Harrelson fan for many years. He’s a bald badass with effortless charm and charisma, and the right age to act as an unthreatening role model. But while I was always aware of his involvement in Cheers I’d never really seen any episodes that I could recall. So his appearance as a major character was very welcome, and I personally think Woody replacing Coach heralds a big improvement in the show’s quality. Woody plays a similar role to Coach, being a rather nice-but-dim barman who arrives in Cheers from rural Indiana where he had been Coach’s penpal. (They literally sent each other pens in the mail.) His involvement at first is mainly confined to the same kind of one-liners as Coach, often based around the same kind of misunderstandings, but it works better both because it fits with Woody’s “fresh off the farm” persona, and also because Harrelson’s acting and delivery is more in keeping with the generally modern feel of the show, without the kind of overacting Nicholas Colasanto was prone to.

As in season three, Carla’s character remains one of the weaker parts of the show. Although the other characters don’t necessarily show sophisticated development, they do at least display some variation over time, but Carla is always the same sneering cynic, motivated mainly by hostility to Diane – even after that character is put through the wringer on more than one occasion. I don’t have a major problem with this in theory, but in practice it starts to grate when you have such a high episode count. The episodes that centre around Carla are generally the weakest, but fortunately there aren’t that many.

Frasier is a major secondary character in season four and definitely one of the high points of the series, though he feels underused. That of course would eventually change, and I’m looking forward to watching Frasier (the series) again, this time with a better knowledge of the character’s history and backstory. Norm and Cliff are pretty much ever-present in this season, which is fine, and Cliff in particular sees to become more and more eccentric and deluded. Carla’s best moments generally consist of barbs directed at him.

As ever, Sam and Diane are the main characters, and I was pleased that the writers seem to find a way to keep Sam’s character in a sort of balance where he’s a dick but still likable enough never to fully lose the audience’s sympathy, which was a regular problem in seasons two and three. That said, the central dynamic around which the stories weave is starting to wear a little thin. I’m not sure exactly when things change, but I can certainly see there will eventually be a need to freshen things up.

Sometimes you really need some reliable TV to provide a comforting diversion and, as this show’s famous intro says, help you forget about your worries and troubles. Just as a friendly bar can provide, for a while, a haven of fellow feeling for people who are lonely or lost, so the best TV shows can help distract and console you when your mind needs a break. Most of the time, Cheers is just such a show. It’s fourth season is a welcome return to form that I wasn’t fully expecting, but for which I was very grateful.

9/10