Wednesday, 19 July 2017

What's wrong with Riviera?

Unless you go around with your eyes closed you can't have missed the many billboards advertising Riviera on Sky Atlantic. Given the channel's previous choice of programming, including personal favourites Mad Men and The Affair (not to mention Game of Thrones, which isn't my thing, sorry), I thought I would give it a shot.

The first few episodes were pretty good, setting the story of American newly-wed Georgina (Julia Stiles) living in Monaco when her professional life in the art world is brutally interrupted by the death of her husband, banking magnate Constantine (Antony LaPaglia).

Sadly since the first few episodes the programme has stalled, for many reasons that I will detail below.

1) Weak Characters

Now there is every possibility that I'm not paying close enough attention, but Georgina and Constantine are the only characters I know by name. There's the ex-wife, the stereotypical rich kid laying waste to the family inheritance, the slightly more sensitive son, the self-harming/always high daughter. Outside the family there's Georgina's obviously British male friend who nobody questions the presence of (which seems odd when she's just been widowed, surely someone would be bothered by this?), but I don't know his name either. There's the driven policeman who seems to have something about him, and guess what? Yes, I don't know who he is either.

These are just the characters I care about. There are a plethora of other characters here, there and everywhere around Monaco who add practically nothing to the show. That's poor. Mad Men were always careful to drip-feed characters into place, while The Affair started with an incredibly small core cast and only added other characters slowly. There are lessons to be learned there. And if characters are going to be added, try to give them a profile that is a bit more original than the one provided to the prodigal son here. Personally part of the appeal of Mad Men was frequently seeing good and bad from the very same characters, there is no such subtlety here.

2) Subject Matter

My wife and I had a rather odd thing happen during episode 3 of Riviera. Instead of sitting with me my wife got up, started ironing and generally getting on with things. At the end of the episode I pointed out how she had been busy, and asked if she wanted me to keep the episode on our Sky+ box for her to watch later. At that point she admitted that she didn't like it.

I thought about it for a while and realised that this isn't a show for everyone. Mad Men threw power, sexism, affairs, broken families and nostalgia for the 1960s into their mix. The Affair threw a compelling lead character with a troubled past, consequences upon all the characters from the actual affair. Going a bit further back Prison Break had the underlying theme of family loyalty and fighting injustice, while Homeland explored national loyalty, self-belief and betrayal (of all kinds). I'd say they're pretty universal themes. Throw those up against international banking and the art world. Hmm... not really comparable.

(In a nice irony for a show that I think is trying too hard to make a clever point about dodgy financing there is a line towards the end of the credits which points out that the production receives tax breaks for filming in France, which personally I quite enjoy.)

3) "We speak English over 'ere"

No, I'm not being completely ignorant. For a show based in Monaco I would expect characters to speak French. If you're going to dumb it down for the audience and people like myself who can't speak French, then have everyone speak English. Not the odd line in French, but then have them speaking in English again a moment later annoys me absolutely no end. This was the precise reason why Marie Calvet was my least favourite character in Mad Men, due to her random switching between speaking French and English.

4) Sudden and Extreme Violence

Self-harming daughter with a pair or scissors sticking out of her arm? Check. Girl being solicited in a car suddenly stabbing someone in the eye? Check. That isn't for me. Ever. I'm just not a big fan of violence, I'm especially not so when it comes out of nowhere. There's nothing wrong with bad things being merely implied instead of brutally shown.

There are some things that Riviera does well. I think Julia Stiles holds the show together as well as possible, the ex-wife/matriarch makes things a bit interesting (I do wonder somewhat what would have happened if they had made her the axis of the show instead), and the setting is fantastic. However overall there are too many avenues that appear to lead nowhere. I'm probably going to stick with the show for the remainder of series one as I'm halfway through it now, but I hope that they choose to wrap it up cleanly. I think one series of this will be sufficient unless something significant changes.

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