Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Mummy by Kurtzman, Koepp, McQuarrie

To say that I wasn't a fan of the previous (highly successful) Mummy franchise, created by writer-director Stephen Sommers, would be to put it mildly. 

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiss were terrific, but the movies themselves were junk. Overblown, incoherent, with no narrative armature or emotional core. 

They dumped a ton of CGI on the audience instead of bothering with niceties like empathy or story or characterisation.

So it's sad to report that the new reboot of the series falls into exactly the same trap. And it really didn't need to. The cast is even stronger this time, and the movie begins really well...

Nick (Tom Cruise) and Chris (Jake Johnson) are theoretically attached to the US Army in Iraq, but basically they're there to loot antiquities. 

Beautiful archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis, from Peaky Blinders) has a map of unique treasure site, given her to by the mysterious and powerful Henry (Russell Crowe).

Nick and Chris steal the map and are the first to arrive at the site. And given the title of the movie, there's no prizes for guessing what they find there...

This whole section of the movie is very effective and culminates in Nick, Chris and Jenny flying back with a sarcophagus in a military transport plane, which breaks apart over England in a scene which — while far from original — is thrilling fun.

The rest of the movie takes place in England, and mostly in London. If the plane crash was reminiscent of Monster Squad, much else — such as the running gag of Nick's now dead friend Chris popping up all over the place — calls to mind An American Werewolf in London.

On the other hand, the Mummy (played by the striking Sofia Boutella, who was so great in Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond) has the power to summon masses of rats and other vermin in a manner which is reminiscent of Dracula.

This actually makes a lot of sense, when you consider the true, uncredited, source of all the Mummy movies is probably Dracula's creator, Bram Stoker, in the shape of his novel The Jewel of Seven Stars.

But where The Mummy goes fatally off the rails is when it drags in the work of another great Victorian Gothic novelist. Because the 'Henry' whom Russell Crowe portrays turns out to be Dr Henry Jeckyll — yes, that's right, as in Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. 

This just makes no sense at all. It's a wild lurch into the territory of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Penny Dreadful, but the movie doesn't pull it off, and never recovers from it. The descent into boring, silly and meaningless action is precipitous and irreversible.

The characters, and the audience, are soon buried under a numbing avalanche of dull CGI. 

What a pity. This was so nearly a really good summer popcorn movie.

(Image credits: All the posters are from good old reliable old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Unlocked by Peter O'Brien

I love a good thriller, and this is a great thriller. It is set in London, and concerns an American agent who is forced to go rogue because she is menaced from all sides and doesn't know who to trust. 

In these respects it is reminiscent of another excellent espionage adventure, Survivor, written by Philip Selby.

Unlocked is the work of Peter O'Brien. It is his first screenplay but, as the saying goes, judging by this it certainly won't be his last. 

If O'Brien is a newcomer then the film's director Michael Apted is an old hand. His many credits in a long and distingushed career include a Bond film, The World is Not Enough.

Unlocked is gripping, suspenseful and it kept me guessing. I was pleasurably surprised more than once by sudden twists in the plot. 

The only real flaw it has is in following a very hoary cliché. Cynical viewers would guess from the beginning that the heroine's black friend is marked for death. 

As soon as we see his happy home life, and watch him playing with his beloved infant daughter, we know his fate is sealed...

Other than that, though, full marks for a great script. Well researched, fast moving and very hard-edged. In its ruthlessness it reminded me a little of the spy thrillers by Trevanian like The Eiger Sanction.

Unlocked has a particularly spectacular cast. Noomi Rapace is perfect in the lead role, but the support includes Michael Douglas and John Malkovich as CIA chiefs, Toni Collette as a senior British spook and, best of all, Orlando Bloom as an ex-soldier turned burglar.

For years I had a theory that Bloom was only viable in movies where he could swordfight with the bad guys. Here he proves me comprehensively wrong. He's achieved a new maturity and seriousness.

Unlocked is a first rate action movie. Don't miss it.

(Image credits: The posters are from good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

"There is So Much Here that Doesn't Make Sense." Alien: Covenant

I did not have high hopes for Alien: Covenant. It's a sequel to the Alien prequel Prometheus, and Prometheus is a film which, to put it mildly, I hold in low esteem. 

Some of my best friends thought Prometheus was a great movie. Personally, I thought it was Plan 9 from Outer Space with a large budget. And some Erich von Däniken gibberish thrown in.

But Prometheus's really fatal error was including a clip from Lawrence of Arabia, thereby reminding us of what a real film, indeed a masterpiece, looked like. In a way, Alien: Covenant makes an even more devastating mistake. 

In a sequence where the spunky heroine (Katherine Waterston as Daniels) jams a nail into the evil android's face, as he attacks her, the evil android jovially comments, "That's the spirit!"

This is of course a quote from Blade Runner. In which Roy Batty, the evil android played by Rutger Hauer says exactly the same thing to Harrison Ford's cop during a similar battle. 

Whatever possessed Ridley Scott to allow this? Because, again, we're are reminded of how much better that earlier film was than the one at hand. 
And, in this case, they're both Ridley Scott films.

The evil android in Alien: Covenant is played by Michael Fassbender, and my heart sank when he appeared. Because, although Fassbender is a tremendous actor, that damned android was pretty much the worst thing in Prometheus. And here he is again.

But Fassbender's android is far from the worst thing in Alien: Covenant. The worst thing in Alien: Covenant is the behaviour of the space crew. They land on an alien planet and, just because there's an Earth-like atmosphere, they dispense with space suits and biohazard gear.

Why would they use such stuff? Because there is the danger of being infected, for example, by some lethal spores that are going to put vicious alien parasites in your body. Which is indeed exactly what promptly happens to two of the landing party. 

When one of these chumps begins to develop symptoms of a dramatic infection, the pilot of the landing craft very sensibly locks him in isolation in the medical bay. But when the symptoms intensify to full chest-burster status, what does she do? She unlocks the door and charges in with a shotgun...

The results are not happy.

In their utter disregard for contamination protocols, and indeed just plain lack of common sense, the protagonists of Alien: Covenant are eerily similar to the characters in the recent SF/horror movie Life

But scientists and technicians simply don't behave like this. And when you make the heroes of your movie do so, you lose all sense of reality and any sympathy the audience might have for those characters.

There are many things wrong with Alien: Covenant, but this is the worst. Its protagonists are so utterly stupid that, to be blunt, they deserve to die.

Alien Covenant is vastly better than Prometheus. But it is still really, really bad.

(Image credits: The posters are all from Imp Awards. The one which simply says "Run" actually offers useful advice to the prospective viewer.)

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Nerve-End Night: All These Condemned by John D. MacDonald

In some previous posts I've suggested that the crime novelist John D. MacDonald really began to hit his stride around the early 1960s. So it's salutary to read this small masterpiece, published in 1954, and discover not only that MacDonald is really cooking, but that he's already at the top of his game. 

Over the next few decades he would develop further in scope and depth, and perhaps pare down his story-telling technique, but his writing genius is already on display here, intact and complete. In fact, he's scarily good.

The title All These Condemned is taken from a quotation by Juvenal, from his 12th satire. Later MacDonald cheerfully confessed to faking this — there are only 10 satires by Juvenal. It is a multi-viewpoint novel, something of a speciality for the author.

It is a splintered collection of first person narratives with an ingenious, neat symmetry.  The characters are all wonderfully evoked — and impressively diverse. Two chapters are devoted to each, one chapter before and one after...

Before and after what? I hear you ask. The death of Wilma Ferris. Wilma is a ruthless tycoon. She has built an empire selling cosmetic products and she is a tough cookie, with "all the vulnerability of a meat axe."  Each of the people in the book is dependent on Wilma in some way or other — financially or emotionally. Sometimes both. 

All of them have been invited out to a weekend party in Wilma's cabin — it's actually more like a mansion in the woods — beside a lake. The book begins with the local authorities dragging the lake for Wilma's body. The small boats with their outboard motors are "rattling their tin thunder off the dawn mountains," using "grappling irons and hooks, looking like medieval torments." 

Wilma's body is soon found, and we  learn that her death is not an accidental drowning but murder. And we're off the to races.

MacDonald is sympathetic and scrupulous in the painstaking way he fleshes out his characters — even stupid little Mavis Dockerty (nee Mary Gort), who is besotted with Wilma, and easily manipulated by her. Mavis is brilliantly evoked, with MacDonald effortlessly slipping into her skin...

Mavis says things like "I would have been mortified to death" and "chew my nails right down to the hilt." She thinks her poor, hardworking husband has "got about as much romance as a toad in the grass." Wilma Ferris is using her as a weapon against her husband, but Mavis is too dim to see this.

Instead she hero-worships Wilma. Since they met she feels her life, "had kind of opened up. Like going down an alley for a long time and then coming out into a park." Indeed, although Mavis can't or won't see it, she has a powerful sexual crush on Wilma.

There is also the snobbish, inhibited Wallace Dorn, wearing "the disapproving expression of a master of hounds who has just seen a farmer shoot the fox." Or Randy Hess, Wilma's milksop of a financial advisor, who has made the fatal mistake of having an affair with his boss. He knows the weekend is going to be a catastrophe: "I undressed and lay in the darkness, feeling as if my nerves had poked out through my skin, waving in the night, sampling all the emotions that moved through the big house."

(It's passages like this which remind us that MacDonald was also a distinctive and able writer of science fiction.)

Then there's poor Paul Dockerty, husband of the dimwitted, besotted Mavis, who reflects on love: "it wasn't supposed to go away, like throwing away the pumpkins after Halloween." His view of Wilma Ferris is that "You've got to admire her. But sort of the way you admire a parade going by."

MacDonald was really flying when he did this book. He writes of the "dainty and absent-minded finesse" with which a preying mantis devours its mate; the "ponderous morality" of a dullard of a state trooper. Or how the obsequious Randy Hess has "the manner of a dog that... has made a mess on the rug and seeks to avoid punishment with hectic affability."

And then there's the virtuosic throw-away gags. Wilma "drives like a banshee with her hair on fire." The dance routine in a Hollywood musical has "sharp-shouldered chorus boys and a quarter ton of bare thighs." A cartoon safe falls out of a window on a cartoon passerby with "damp finality." 

Of course I won't give any hint of who the murderer turns out to be, but I will say the culprit is a Thomas Harris-style psychopath undergoing a "trial of strength" who talks of the killing as a "precise ritual". (Regular readers will know about my cherished theory that Harris is a big John D. MacDonald fan.) On the other hand, the juxtaposition of art and psychopathy is pure Charles Willeford.

But MacDonald really is in a league of his own, way above competitors or emulators. And this is a splendid, outstanding book.

I don't think it needed the last chapter, though,  with the good honest simple country cop (state trooper, actually — he of the ponderous morality). It spoils the symmetry (I'm starting to sound like the psychopath now!) and it reduces the quality of the book. But I sense the imposition of a banal editorial mind in this.

The penultimate chapter, what I think of as the real last chapter, is a striking anticipation of Robert Bloch's Psycho with the killer finally retreating unreachably into their own mind. Maybe the world, or at least America, wasn't ready for an ending like this yet.

(I'd like to acknowledge Steve Scott's excellent John D. MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold, which provided some valuable information. Image credits: the book cover art is from Good Reads, except for the 25 cent photographic cover and the early Gold Medal with a painting by James Meese, also 25 cents, which are from Lesbian Fun World, where the book has quite a profile, and the croquet balls cover, by William Schmidt, which is from Amazon and gives away the murder weapon. The stunning Robert McGinnis cover painting sans text is from Pinterest.)

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Vinyl Detective on Audio Books

Not long ago I caught a train to the English Midlands city of Leicester. There waiting for me was my friend Alan Ross. 

I hopped into his van and we set off, leaving the city behind and speeding for the countryside. 

Alan's van has a rather nice picture of John Coltrane on it. This is partly because, like me, Alan is a jazz nut. 

But, much more importantly, it's because he runs a superb record store in Leicester — Jazz House Records. It was an appropriate vehicle, because our mission today was very definitely vinyl related. (What's more, Alan actually appears as a character in Written in Dead Wax!)
We drove down winding sun-splashed country roads under the green canopies of trees until we reached a small village called Syston. 

Here we parked outside a pair of tall white buildings — sort of overgrown cottages — with a kind of Moorish courtyard between them. This was the headquarters of White House Sound.

After being greeted at reception we were led through a series of large rooms where men and women sat at desks, listening on headphones as they read through large stacks of print out. On each desk was a wooden spindle running through the central holes of a stack of silver discs — CDs.

Down carpeted corridors we went to a small room packed with recording gear and computer screens, attended by an affable sound engineer. In an adjoining booth a large window allowed us to see walls covered with acoustic-baffle foam panels, a hanging microphone, and a dedicated actor intently reading the words of my novel.

All the words of my novel. W.F. Howes, the company that is doing the Vinyl Detective audio books, prides itself on recording unabridged versions. In fact, they go under the name Whole Story Audio Books.

That's what those men and women were doing with their headphones — those stacks of paper were the entire text of the books which had been recorded. They were diligently checking that every single word had been accurately captured.

I'm a lucky fellow to have my Vinyl Detective novels being produced by these guys. The first one, Written in Dead Wax was narrated by Ben Allen, the second, The Run-Out Groove has just been completed with Finlay Robertson doing the narration. Ben was a terrific choice, Finlay better still.

Written in Dead Wax on audio is available here in the UK and here in the US. The Run Out Groove will be unleashed on the world in ten days time, available here and here.

Thank you for listening.

(Image credits: The CD covers for the audio books are from Whole Story Audio Books for Written in Dead Wax, and Amazon for The Run Out Groove. The shots of White House Sound are from their website. The pic of Alan and his trusty van is by me.)

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Run-Out Groove by Andrew Cartmel

This week saw publication of my second Vinyl Detective novel, The Run-Out Groove. Normally I would have been far too modest to blog about it, but my friend, who just happens to be a bestselling novelist, insisted I should. So, since he knows his stuff.

In case you haven't read my first book, this series follows the adventures of a record collector turned sleuth. (And be warned, this post contains spoilers about Written in Dead Wax.) If you have read the first one, there are a couple of differences this time around...

For a start, the previous adventure recounted the search for a rare jazz record, so it was immersed in that particular musical world. This time around it's rock music, in particular the British psychedelic or "prog" (for progressive) rock of the 1960s.

In fact, when I began working on The Run-Out Groove I had a very specific inspiration in mind from that scene. The brilliant and ill-fated Syd Barrett, a founder member of Pink Floyd. Barrett was a fascinating and tragic figure and I knew this was potentially powerful material.

So I reached for the biography of Syd Barrett I'd had knocking around the house for several years... and realised I'd donated it to a charity shop just the previous week. Ah well.

This was no bad thing. The notion of a musical genius who became an acid casualty was all I really needed. It was enough of a seed for that element of the story.

But the really big difference between The Run-Out Groove and Written in Dead Wax is that Nevada, the fun loving femme fatale from the first book, has now moved in with our hero and they are an item.

Was this a risk? Changing the Vinyl Detective from an archetypical loner shamus to half of a detective duo? Not really, I knew this could work because I was following in the footsteps of giants. Specifically the footsteps of the wonderful Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett was one of the greatest crime novelists of them all. And among his finest creations are the urbane Nick and Nora Charles, a husband and wife mystery-solving team. They featured in Hammett's 1934 novel The Thin Man and thereafter in an enduring and wildly popular series of movies.

Let's hope the Vinyl Detective and Nevada have some of that longevity and durability...

Oh, and since my friend is insisting I promote my new book, you can buy it here if you're in the USA, or here if you're in the UK. 

Or, indeed, if you'd like a signed copy, leave a message for me in the comment section of this post and we'll see if we can work something out.

Happy reading.

(Image credits: The rather lovely and elegant Thin Man cover is from a little known internet book seller called Amazon. All the other images are from my own collection. The gorgeously gaudy pink and blue creations were commissioned by me from a very talented designer called James King before I got my book deal with Titan, and was toying with the idea of self-publishing.)

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Elle by Verhoeven, Birke & Dijan

Paul Verhoven’s latest movie is a very strange affair. I like Verhoven's work a great deal. Indeed, to my mind, he is one of our greatest living directors. 

It's a great shame that his career stalled with Showgirls, a film that could have been a hit if only he and his screenwriter Joe Eszterhas — one of the most talented writers in the industry — had bothered to make us care about their characters.

But they didn't, and Showgirls pretty much put paid to their careers, at least in America. After some years of decline, both men found work in European films, though Verhoeven has very much had the best of it, with his excellent World War 2 drama Black Book (2006).

Now Verhoven is back with a film made in France called Elle. It is written for the screen by the American David Birke, based on the novel by Philippe Dijan — who also wrote the book on which Betty Blue was based.

As I said, Elle is a curious item. I have become used to defending Verhoven against the critical establishment who loathe his mainstream films like Basic Instinct, Robocop (masterpieces), Total Recall (a near masterpiece masterpiece) and Starship Troopers (hilarious and audacious).

Now I find that the critical establishment is embracing Verhoven and celebrating him for a film which I loathe. The situation is almost surreal. But I went to see my Elle anticipating that it would be something terrific, and it was a staggering disappointment. 

The film is being touted as an Hitchcockian thriller but really it’s a badly judged black comedy with a heavy line in sexual violence.  It’s dull, it’s pointless, and it goes on forever. I felt ashamed of myself for wasting my time in a darkened cinema. And it was a beautiful day, too… 

There is a really lovely grey cat in it, though, called Marty. But even Marty can’t rescue this.

(Image credits: Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Crossroads by John D. MacDonald

Well, this 1959 novel from John D. MacDonald sees one of my favourite writers near the top of his game. It's a human drama which rapidly develops into a crime thriller. By human drama, I guess I'm talking about what would more pejoratively be called a soap opera.

Indeed, British readers will be amused to know that the Crossroads of the title is a motel. Because Crossroads was also the title of a long running (1964-88) and low-rent British TV serial about a motel. Now that really was a soap opera. 

But this is very different territory. John D. MacDonald makes the working of his motel operation entirely fascinating and he peoples it with complex, troubled and appealing characters.  The book is utterly addictive and tremendously riveting and, as I've indicated elsewhere and at length, this guy can really write.

MacDonald memorably evokes the setting of the motel with the "pulsing insistence" of its endless passing traffic, and the big parked trucks outside the diner are "patient as elephants" in the floodlights. And he is bracingly cynical about America's automotive culture and the consequences of frail human beings in their hurtling cars in that endless traffic stream: "Of all the young families a remarkably small percentage, statistically speaking, were crunched into bloody ruin."

Small, random details constantly bring the narrative to life — a woman wears a "cinnamon cardigan" as she sits in her tiny apartment, "with the wind whining outside and intermittent gusts of sleet rattling against a window." A man stands in the bathroom of a cheap motel — not the one of the title, belonging to our heroes — under the "drizzling shower."  Elsewhere, outside, it's a "thunderous Sunday, a day of storms."

Internal landscapes are evoked just as vividly, like the hallucinating alcoholic who commits suicide to escape "the imaginary monsters who sat tall around his bed, staring at him." Or a woman, also destroyed by alcohol, with the "slow thoughts moving in her head."

The book concerns a robbery, and the tense buildup to it. It has some interesting resemblances to MacDonald's The Last One Left (1967). Here again is the use of sexual manipulation to set up a fallguy for the heist, though in The Crossroads it's a male psychopath who is the puppet master, and the fallguy is a hardened young thug rather than an innocent teenager.

As with The Last One Left, the cops turn up very late in the story — inevitably, I guess, since it's not a procedural and the viewpoint characters are not police. And once more the killer is faked out so as to get them to confess. But I think the police are more authentically depicted in The Crossroads. They talk about who they "like" for the crime, and MacDonald unforgettably describes the "pure delicious triumph" the cops feel when they nail the bad guy.

The suspense in this book is considerable; you dread what's going to happen and can hardly bear to go on, but nothing could induce me to stop reading — and after I was finished I immediately wanted more.

(Image credits: The Robert McGinnis cover with all those lovely green trees is from EbookBike. The Pan cover is from Pinterest. The Crest Book original is from another Pinterest page. The Inner Sanctum Mystery hardcover is from AntiqBook. The Fawcett Gold Medal second paperback issue is from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Free Fire by Wheatley and Jump

Sometimes I regard this blog as a forum for public-health style warnings, so it's somewhat in that spirit that I'm writing about Free Fire, the latest feature film directed by British wunderkind Ben Wheatley and written by his long time partner (writing and otherwise) Amy Jump.

It's regrettable that I'm going out of my way to advise you to dodge this movie. At one time — after the release of Kill List — Wheatley appeared to be a film maker of impressive talent and originality. But Free Fire is an abjectly feeble and very dull film. It's sub-Quentin Tarantino and sub-sub-sub Martin Scorsese (unbelievably, Scorsese is a producer on it).

Free Fire tells the simple (far too simple) tale of an arms deal gone wrong. Some IRA men (played by Cillian Murphy, late of Peaky Blinders, and Michael Smiley) are in the States, in Boston, in 1979  to buy automatic rifles from American crooks. 

The transaction is taking place in the abandoned factory beloved of film makers and, when it goes sour, the movie spends the rest of its duration in there with the characters shooting at each other.

The cast is strong, featuring such wonderful actors as the South African Sharlto Copley, who has portrayed memorable heavies in Old Boy and Elysium; Armie Hammer — The Social Network and Man from UNCLE; Brie Larson, who was magnificent in Room; and Sam Riley from SS GB

Hammer and Larson are among the few Americans in a cast which is either explicitly foreign or British actors passing. And one of the impressive aspects of this movie is that the whole thing is passing as American — it was actually shot in Britain, but I never would have guessed.

But that's about all I can say in favour of Free Fire. It's desperately boring and, at 90 minutes, feels more like three hours. Once we realise we're stuck in this abandoned factory for the rest of the film, our hearts just sink. 

Yes, these characters are shooting guns at each other, but since we care nothing about any of them, and nothing is at stake, none of it really matters. And it's a long, long slog to the end titles.

In a perceptive review in the April issue of Sight and Sound, Tony Rayns points out that one reason for the utter lack of suspense in Free Fire is that it's devoid of establishing shots. We don't know where the protagonists are in relation to each other and so we don't understand the overall situation. But unlike Tony Rayns, I don't think this is daring artistry. I think it's a fatal mistake.

Rayns also says "Wheatley obviously risks boring his audience stiff" and asks "So what keeps us watching?" To which I can only reply that Wheatley doesn't just risk it, he succeeds: and I wish I hadn't kept watching, but rather had walked out instead of losing an hour and a half of my life which I'll never get back.

However, to be scrupulously fair, there were people in the cinema who were chuckling at the dialogue, so maybe this film will appeal to some. Personally I'd advise you to steer well clear and spend 90 minutes doing something else.

And, although I have yet to see Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, I have seen his movies Sightseers and High Rise and, as far as I'm concerned, Free Fire represents his third strike. Regrettably I think this young British director is out.

(Image credits: Unbelievably, there's 28 posters for this slight film at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 16 April 2017

One for the Dog: Scandal by Shonda Rhimes

There used to be a joke about the god of Christianity: "And she's black." In a white male world this was considered unthinkable, and at one time the notion of a female African American television showrunner would have been equally extraordinary. But now Shonda Rhimes is one of the most potent and brilliant talents working in US TV.

Rhimes created Grey's Anatomy, which was a huge hit, and which I followed myself for a year or so before finally concluding that it was the My Little Pony of medical dramas. It's still a considerable success, in its 13th season (seven seasons are usually the maximum).

More importantly, Shonda Rhimes went on to develop other hit TV shows, and currently has four on the air: Grey's Anatomy, The Catch, How to Get Away with Murder...

And Scandal. I have to thank my friend Celeste for turning me on to Scandal. It was the double punch of Celeste's praise and the discovery a cheap boxed set of the first three seasons that got me watching this show after a long period of neglecting American television dramas.

Scandal is simply amazing. Essentially it's the story of a fixer — a lawyer who solves problems and makes deals, generally operating behind the scenes, rather than practising standard case law and going into court.

If you want a quick — and brilliant — introduction into the way a fixer operates, then watch the wonderful film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney and written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Scandal bears a fleeting resemblance to Michael Clayton, but rapidly moves into even darker and more troubled territory.

It has a Washington setting and politics are its meat and drink — both of them often poisoned. The central emotional engine of the series (so far; I'm still watching Season 2) is the fact that Olivia Pope (our fixer-in-chief, played by Kerry Washington) has had an affair with the new Republican president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and they are still deeply involved with each other.

Pope's firm is the usual crew of interesting and diverse characters — or at least, it first seems that way. But then it rapidly becomes clear that there's nothing "usual" about resident hacker and computer nerd Huck (Guillermo Díaz). He is ex-CIA black ops, and is the show's device for getting us into some extraordinary, and disturbing stories.

In short, Scandal is less like The West Wing and more like the Manchurian Candidate. I'm finding it riveting drama and I commend it to you. It starts off looking like a glossy, frothy soap (making great use of popular songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the Staples Singers) but soon turns out to be amazingly hard-hitting and daringly extreme.

Oh and in case there's any confusion about the title for this post, it quotes a memorable piece of dialogue from Series 2, listing how many bullets one of our heroes is going to put into an adversary, and why.

(Image credits: Good old Imp Awards. It turns out they do TV posters, too.)