Category: TV


The other day at work, a colleague casually mentioned that he’d rewatched the 1972 schlock masterpiece Frogs. That got my attention. I, too, had watched the so-bad-it’s-good horror flick just a few days earlier.

“Did you see it on Svengoolie?” I asked.

His eyes lit up. Of course he had.



Svengoolie, for the uninitiated, is the name of a long-running, Chicago-based syndicated show that airs Saturday nights on MeTV. My colleague and I are fans. I suspect we have lots of company.

Once a week, a mustachioed, portly vampire with dark circles under his eyes hosts a two-hour retrospective, mostly of B-movies from the 1950s-1970s with an emphasis on science fiction and/or horror. The schlockier the movie, the better.

Svengoolie introduces the films and, during breaks, peppers the show with skits, parody songs, and viewer letters. And puns. Lots of puns. There are occasional guest stars, some of whom you might even recognize:



The show is aimed at kids, so you won’t find I Spit on Your Grave here. You will, however, find movies like It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Them! and, as I said, Frogs.

Kids come for the funny costumes, the skits, the songs, and the corny puns. But the, ahem, “viewers of a certain age” stay for the trivia. At some point in each episode, Sven provides amusing background on the featured movie’s cast and crew. Last week, during a screening of It! The Terror from Beyond Space, we learned that nearly every member of the cast had guest starred on Perry Mason. (If they didn’t appear on Mason, you can be sure they were on Gunsmoke.)

That might not interest you (or the kids), but it’s catnip to we, ahem, viewers of a certain age.

In the screencap below from Frogs, for example, do you recognize the handsome young man pictured at left?



Here he is again in a recent photo:



When my work colleague and I were kids, we didn’t have Svengoolie, or even Elvira. We did, on the other hand, have this magazine:



Svengoolie preserves the spirit of Famous Monsters of Filmland. I propose we give a hand (literally or not) to Rich Koz, the man behind Svengoolie’s mask. Koz (pictured below) writes every show and performs most, if not all, of the voices. He’s been doing it since 1979.



Check it out. If you like what you see, you can comment live on Twitter during Saturday night episodes.

And you can even buy a t-shirt. But no personal checks.



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On the surface, there are few good reasons to recommend Mindhunter, the new ten-part series on Netflix. In this golden age of television, with its hundreds of channels and scores of new series, it often feels like half of these shows are serial-killer cop procedurals. Alas, Mindhunter is yet one more.

There is also a glut of serial-killer feature films, but a handful of them stand out. I am thinking of The Silence of the Lambs. I am also thinking Mindhunter stands apart. Here are a few reasons why:


1)  It’s a David Fincher project. Fincher, the director responsible for Zodiac and Se7en, executive produces and directs four of Mindhunter’s episodes (the first two and the last two). The man knows how to inject flair and originality into a tired genre.


Left to right: Groff, Torv, and McCallany 


2)  The show is exceptionally well cast. Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv play FBI agents who comprise the vanguard of serial-killer profiling in the late 1970s. I wasn’t familiar with any of these actors, but I am now.

Groff in particular is a pleasant surprise. Early on, I was afraid his bland agent Ford was as colorless as his omnipresent business suits, but I quickly got over that. Groff and sharp writers add unexpected dimensions to this deceptively boyish-looking profiler.

3) Ford’s jail-room encounters with various serial killers – all of them based on real-life murderers – are riveting. It’s like Clarice Starling having weekly shrink sessions with variations of Hannibal Lecter. You are not likely to soon forget hulking actor Cameron Britton (pictured at top) as the notorious “coed killer” Ed Kemper.

If there is a downside to Mindhunter, it would be its drawn-out expository scenes, in which everyone seems quite impressed by the FBI team’s “revelations” about the criminal mindset. The show’s writers hope to convince us that serial-killer profiling was more revolutionary than it actually was, and that 1970s law enforcement and the general public were, apparently, quite the credulous bunch. 

But I was around in the 1970s and I remember the era well. Criminal psychology had been an object of fascination for a long time by then. If you don’t believe that, check out the final scene of Psycho.   Grade: A-



Creator: Joe Penhall  Cast: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Hannah Gross, Anna Torv, Cotter Smith, Sonny Valicenti, Stacey Roca, Cameron Britton, Joe Tuttle, Happy Anderson  Premiere: 2017




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Synopsis: The first season of Netflix’s lavish drama about England’s royal family focuses on Elizabeth II, from her childhood through the 1950s.


When you watch any movie, you have to engage a suspension of disbelief. I consider Jaws a fairly realistic adventure film, but if you stop to think about it, is it really likely that a gigantic shark would menace three men in a boat for days on end? Similarly, docudramas that claim to be based on true stories take liberties to make the story more entertaining; watching Woodward and Bernstein sit at typewriters for hours and hours might be factual but, well ….




And then there are shows like Netflix’s The Crown, a new series about Britain’s royal family. There’s no question that it’s well-produced (the budget is Netflix’s priciest ever), well-shot, well-acted, and well-written. It’s an absorbing piece of showmanship – but man, do you ever have to suspend disbelief. Or maybe that’s the wrong kind of suspension: You have to suppress your politics. At least I did.

The Crown asks you to forget that the soap opera you are watching is about people who have problems that are alien to the vast majority of viewers. If your neighbor’s love affair runs into insurmountable obstacles, she cannot console herself by throwing lavish parties for herself at a remote castle in Scotland. If my significant other cheats on me, I am not allowed to mope in perpetuity, because I still have to feed myself and pay the bills.

On the other hand, if you are royal family and have your every physical need and want catered to, at public expense, don’t expect much sympathy when your personal life doesn’t go exactly as planned.

There. That was my obligatory American rant.


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If you can suspend your politics – something that might come easier to Brits than to their country cousins across the pond — The Crown will likely suck you in. The sets are spectacular, the attention to period detail is impressive, and it’s near-impossible to resist watching John Lithgow sputter and bellow as an elderly Winston Churchill.

Being a member of the British monarchy is such an odd, unnatural way to go through life – gilded slavery, at times – that it can’t help but be compelling fantasy. Especially for us commoners.   Grade: B+



Creator: Peter Morgan  Cast: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Jeremy Northam, John Lithgow, Victoria Hamilton, James Hillier, Rip Torrens, Ben Miles, Jared Harris  Premiere: 2016




Watch Trailers (click here)




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There are way too many zombie shows. The genre felt fresh when it was reinvigorated about a dozen years ago, but the onslaught of sluggish clodhoppers should have been shot in the brains long ago. The Walking Dead? It’s a tedious, talky soap opera with lame zombies.

It’s next to impossible to find a zombie horror-comedy that’s either horrific or comedic, much less horrific and comedic. Shaun of the Dead successfully combined the two elements. So does Dead Set, a five-part miniseries from 2008 about the cast and crew of England’s Big Brother waging war with the undead, now showing on Netflix.




The Plot:


Anyone who watches Big Brother, either as a fan or because a significant other is holding a gun to your head, has fantasized about annoying “houseguests” having their faces torn off or their intestines slowly devoured. Or maybe that’s just me.

In Dead Set a sudden, unexplained zombie outbreak wreaks havoc in Britain — with the exception of the clueless hamsters who are isolated in the Big Brother house. Will these idiots, our heroes, overcome their bickering, narcissism, and general ineptitude long enough to stave off Armageddon?

The surprising thing about Dead Set is that it’s not simply amusing, not just a satire of reality TV and those who consume it; there are also some genuinely scary scenes. Or maybe it’s not surprising, given that the miniseries was written by Charlie Brooker, the twisted genius responsible for Black Mirror. Fans of HBO’s The Night Of will also recognize rising star Riz Ahmed among the ensemble cast. 


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Random Notes:


Zombie purists, assuming there are such animals, might quibble about this collection of the undead, which are fast and strong but unable to deal with simple obstacles like fences and pools of water. But dumb as they are, these zombies are often terrifying. And, unlike the knuckleheads stuck in the house, they seem to have a purpose.




“Talent” from the actual British Big Brother make cameo appearances. The English equivalent of CBS’s Julie Chen, presenter Davina McCall, meets a fate worse than cancellation.




If they gave awards for shows like this (the “Zommies”?), I’d nominate Andy Nyman, who is hilarious as the show’s producer, a foul-mouthed Ricky Gervais-type who doesn’t suffer fools — or anyone, for that matter — gladly.




Dead Set’s ending is great. Why can’t more shows end like this? 

Grade: B+


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Director: Yann Demange  Writer: Charlie Brooker  Cast: Jaime Winstone, Andy Nyman, Riz Ahmed, Warren Brown, Liz May Brice, Beth Cordingly, Adam Deacon, Kevin Eldon, Kathleen McDermott, Davina McCall, Chizzy Akudolu, Raj Ghatak  Release: 2008




Watch trailers (click here or here)




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My niece was a big fan of the TV show Lost.  She was convinced that I’d love ABC’s science-fiction hit, as well, and urged me to watch the series, start to finish.



Once upon a time, a friend would give you a book for Christmas, or recommend a good movie.  The expectation was that you would enjoy the book or film, and afterward you two would have something to discuss.  But a movie takes no more than a couple of hours to watch, and you can knock off a 300-page novel in a week or two.

But Lost?  That show ran for six years and comprised 121 episodes.  My niece, bless her heart, was basically saying to me:  “You should watch this show.  It will take you months to get through it, provided you don’t take breaks to watch anything else.  And say goodbye to your social life (assuming you have one).”

And that brings me to Breaking Bad, the AMC drama that every Joe and his brother have proclaimed “One of the Greatest Shows of All Time.”  Unlike Lost, Breaking Bad aired just 62 episodes.  I decided I could manage that.  I caved, and I “binge-watched” the saga of Walter White, high school chemistry teacher turned drug lord.  My impressions:






Lots of shows are unpredictable.  A scene will surprise you and you’ll think, “Wow.”  But moments later, you’ll also think, “That could never happen in real life.”  What makes Bad so good is that it’s both surprising and logical.  It catches you off guard, but the shocks almost always make dramatic sense.




Anna Gunn, the actress who portrays protagonist Walter White’s wife, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times about the stream of online vitriol directed at her character and, by extension, at Gunn herself.  Apparently, Skyler White was viewed by many fans as a drag on Walt’s ambitions.  This hostility makes little sense to me.  Gunn’s performance was superb and her character, Skyler, was no “ball and chain,” no whining shrew.  If anything, Skyler gave wayward Walt more support than he deserved.  In fact, by the end of the show, she was the more sympathetic spouse.  My conclusion about the online Skyler/Gunn haters:  There are a lot of idiots out there.




Producers originally considered filming the series in California but moved it to New Mexico for budget reasons.  That was a great decision for a couple of reasons:   1)  The desert scenery is often spectacular, and 2)  I, for one, am sick to death of shows set in Southern California.  It’s a big, gorgeous country, is America; must every other TV show be set in Orange County?



Bad routinely accomplishes something I used to think only big-screen features could pull off:  It generates genuinely thrilling action sequences — often.  This is a tribute to the writers and the production team, especially the editors and directors.




Critical praise for Breaking Bad seemed to build each year, so that by the time the series ended after five seasons, it was hailed as one of the best TV dramas of all time.  I don’t disagree with that, but to me the show’s first three years are its best three years, when Walter and young Jesse are climbing (or descending) the criminal ladder.  Season four had plenty of great moments, but I thought the cat-and-mouse war between drug kingpin Gus and Walt/Jesse went on a bit long, and the story at times was a bit predictable, a bit repetitive.



Binge watching Breaking Bad – I have mixed emotions.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful to watch a series start to finish without commercials, without week-long interruptions.  However … there is a lot of violence and the tone is often relentlessly intense.  So intense, that maybe breaks from Breaking Bad aren’t so bad.        Grade:  A




Creator:  Vince Gilligan  Cast:  Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Laura Fraser  Aired:  2008 – 2013


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I love me some Facebook.  And some Twitter, and some YouTube, and the comments sections of any number of Web sites.  I like the exercise of free speech, and I also like the anonymity.  If I want to, I can try to make Ryan Seacrest’s life a living hell … just kidding.  (But somebody really ought to.)

But all of that free speech and anonymous trolling comes with a price, and Charlie Brooker’s brilliant anthology, Black Mirror, demonstrates the downside of modern technology with six short stories that resemble tweets from George Orwell.

Black Mirror has been compared to The Twilight Zone, and it’s true that both series are morality tales, but twist endings aren’t the draw in Mirror; the entire premise is a twist.  The stories take place in the near future, but some of those futures are disturbingly familiar.



Fifteen Million Merits


The first episode (and I think the best), “The National Anthem,” could take place today.  When a British princess is abducted, a ransom demand is issued and the unfortunate prime minister comes under intense public pressure to … well, I can’t say without giving away too much.  Brooker presents this audacious situation in such a realistic manner that you won’t question its inherent preposterousness until long after it ends.

This episode and the others don’t indict technology per se, but rather its frightening ability to alter human behavior, in particular the mob mentality.  You might not think of “likes” and “followers” in quite the same way after witnessing flash mobs from hell in Black Mirror.



The National Anthem


The other episodes aren’t quite as good as “Anthem” (they lack its crushing suspense), but they are all well done and thought-provoking.  Rod Serling, were he still with us, would no doubt fire up a cigarette and smile – until an Internet-fueled mob of anti-smokers tracked him down.



White Bear


The National Anthem:  A

Fifteen Million Merits:  A-

The Entire History of You:  B+


Mirror5  Mirror6

                         White Bear                                                       The Entire History of You


Be Right Back:  B

White Bear:  B+

The Waldo Moment:  B



Fifteen Million Merits


Creator:  Charlie Brooker   Cast:  Rory Kinnear, Lindsay Duncan, Daniel Kaluuya, Jessica Brown-Findlay, Toby Kebbell, Jodie Whittaker, Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Lenora Crichlow, Daniel Rigby  Airing:  2011-present (first two seasons are available on Netflix)




Fifteen Million Merits



White Bear


Official Site (click here)



Be Right Back



The National Anthem


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A Penny for Your Thoughts


I had misgivings about Showtime’s Penny Dreadful when it premiered earlier this year.  The eight-part miniseries was promoted as a horror mash-up of Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Dracula, and that kind of thing reeks of gimmick.

The first episode did little to allay my doubts.  Although the setting, the fog-shrouded streets of 1891 London, was suitably atmospheric, and the actors, especially Timothy Dalton and Eva Green, were suitably grave, the whole episode played out like one tedious set-up for one clichéd vampire attack.

But then I watched the rest of the series.   And now I think that Penny Dreadful is one of the best shows of the year.




The plot:   Mysterious explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) enlists the aid of the even more mysterious Vanessa Ives (Green), American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) to rescue his daughter from the clutches of … well, something evil.


More thoughts:

  • Creator John Logan has love and respect for Victorian horror literature – and it shows.  He doesn’t so much exploit the sagas of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dorian Gray as he reinvigorates them, skillfully weaving the tales together.  Logan knows that the old stories were about more than monsters; they were about human frailty and, perhaps above all, sadness.
  • The acting is uniformly good, but whoa … Eva Green is a sensation.  As the lone female in the quartet of vampire hunters, Green absolutely commands attention, whether she’s quietly appraising another character or in the throes of demonic possession.  I am still recovering from her performance in episode two.
  • The show’s strength is atmosphere, but the tone is so relentlessly grim that at times the series is a bit of an endurance test.  Best not to binge-watch Penny Dreadful; I’d recommend watching just one or two episodes per week.  You know, kind of like we used to do.
  • If I was asked to summarize season one in just two words, those words would be “loving care.”  The attention paid to detail – 19th-century settings and costumes, the musical score, poetic dialogue – is impressive.


The more sensational, violent scenes, such as the aforementioned vampire attack, are actually a bit of a letdown.  Logan and company are more interested in exploring the deeper themes introduced by Stoker, Shelley and Wilde, and rightfully so.  That said, there is no shortage of straight-up horror for straight-up horror lovers.    Grade:  A-




Creator:  John Logan   Cast:  Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Reeve Carney, Rory Kinnear, Billie Piper, Danny Sapani, Simon Russell Beale, Helen McCrory  Premiere:  2014 






Watch Trailers and Clips (click here)




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Happy Valley is a pretty good six-hour miniseries.  It’s also a nearly perfect four-hour miniseries.

I make a distinction because Valley is terrific television for four hours, up to and including the nail-biting conclusion of episode four.  But after that hair-raising segment, the final two episodes are a bit, well, anticlimactic.

You might have noticed that I just used two dreaded clichés:  “nail-biting” and “hair-raising.”  Movies and TV shows do not ordinarily have me gnawing my cuticles, nor is it likely that my greying mane has ever, literally, stood on end as I watched a piece of fiction.  But man … I couldn’t swear that I wasn’t both chewing and sprouting during some of the more riveting moments of Happy Valley.




Ah, yes, the show.  Valley is yet another cop drama, but instead of the omnipresent grizzled, male detective, a curmudgeon who is often divorced, alcoholic, and/or disgraced, in this BBC production we get an honest-to-goodness, middle-aged female as the hero.  Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood does not resemble a supermodel; she is fleshed out – in more ways than one – as a complex, flawed, and compelling character.  She is also a grandmother.

Cawood (played by an unforgettable Sarah Lancashire; don’t the British ever run out of talented actors?) has personal problems – lord, does she ever – but it’s refreshing to empathize with the struggles of an embattled grandma-cop, as opposed to the usual crap afflicting most male-cop protagonists.  Cawood’s family dramas are nearly as gripping as her investigation of a kidnapping.

Ah, yes, the kidnapping.  The plot, centering on the abduction of a businessman’s daughter that coincides with the prison release of a long-time Cawood nemesis, isn’t simply a matter of good guys versus bad guys.  There is a third party involved in this dangerous triangle:  timid, in-over-his-head accountant Kevin (Steve Pemberton), who puts the plot in motion by making a foolish decision when his boss declines his request for a raise.




From that point on, there are three suspenseful plot threads – the cops racing to find the kidnapped girl, the villains working to pull off their scheme, and the dilemma of poor Kevin, who vacillates between a desire to extricate himself from involvement with the crime and the faint hope that his foolhardy scheme might actually succeed.

My only complaint is that I think this stellar series (available on Netflix) should have wrapped up with four episodes.  It builds beautifully to episode four, but once the kidnapping is resolved, the emphasis shifts to Cawood family dramas — intriguing stuff, yes, but also anticlimactic.     Grade:  A-


Happy5 Capture


Written by:  Sally Wainwright  Cast:  Sarah Lancashire, George Costigan, James Norton, Charlie Murphy, Siobhan Finneran, Joe Armstrong, Steve Pemberton, Adam Long, Derek Riddell, Sophie Rundle   Premiere:  2014   




Watch the Trailer  (click here)




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I’ll have to say this about Chloe Sevigny:  As an actress, she certainly has balls.  Or, in the case of this unusual, surprisingly moving British series, a prosthetic penis.

Sevigny has never shied away from controversial roles.  In 2003, she startled audiences by performing unsimulated fellatio on her director/co-star, Vincent Gallo, in The Brown Bunny (said the New York Times: “She [Sevigny] may be nuts, but she’s also unforgettable.”).  More recently, she’s appeared as a legless amputee on American Horror Story and as one of three wives in a polygamist marriage on HBO’s Big Love.  So I imagine that when Sevigny read the script for Hit & Miss, in which she would play a transgendered contract killer suddenly charged with raising four children, she didn’t blink.




The premise might sound outrageous, and it sort of is, but Hit & Miss is a fine example of what good writing, direction, and acting can accomplish.  As a viewer, you don’t subject the plot to too much scrutiny because you are hooked on everything else.

Sevigny plays Mia, formerly Ryan, who learns after the death of a former lover that she (he) and the woman had conceived a son, now 11 years old.  Mia returns to rural Yorkshire and, after an initial, hostile reception from the orphaned kids – especially teenagers Riley and Levi – the new-age clan learns that it’s easier to fight battles when family has your back.  The kids’ problems include not just the loss of their mother but also a brutish neighbor who owns and plans to sell their house.  Mia’s battles include … oh, where to begin?  A budding romance with a local stud who doesn’t know whether his new love is a girlfriend or a boyfriend?  An underworld boss who never runs out of candidates for Mia’s hit list, but who often runs out of patience?  The inherent trauma of an ongoing sex change?


Hit3  Hit4


Hit & Miss, with its “Waltons Meet Carlos the Jackal” sensibility, at times stretches credulity, but it’s often suspenseful and never less than compelling.  It is also, of all things, a touching family drama.          Grade:  A-




Cast:  Chloe Sevigny, Jonas Armstrong, Karla Crome, Reece Noi, Jorden Bennie, Vincent Regan, Peter Wight, Ben Crompton   Premiere:  2012  




Editor’s Note:  At press time, there were no plans for a second season of Hit & Miss.  The first season can be found at Netflix.




Official site  (click here)



Hit & Miss - Series 1Episode 6©Liam Daniel for Sky Atlantic HD


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In crime dramas the hero, often a cop, is usually the main attraction:  Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Hercule Poirot.  Occasionally, the bigger draw is a colorful villain:  Hannibal Lecter, or Gordon Gekko.  What’s rare and remarkable about BBC’s The Fall is that the hero and villain are equally riveting.

Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a seasoned detective recruited by Belfast police to track down an apparent serial killer.  (Yes, The Fall is yet another serial-killer procedural, but it’s much better than most.)  Stella and the killer have at least one similarity:  a cool detachment from most of the people they deal with.  Gibson has little use for convention, especially the male-centric sexual politics at Belfast police headquarters.




She affects scant interest in anything so retro as traditional family life, and when her hotel tryst with a stud cop accidentally becomes part of an investigation, she pounces on a nosy male colleague:  “That’s what really bothers you, isn’t it – the one-night stand?  ‘Man fucks woman’: Subject ‘man,’ verb ‘fucks,’ object ‘woman.’  That’s OK.  ‘Woman fucks man’: ‘Woman’ subject, ‘man’ object.  That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?”

On the surface, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is much more conventional than Stella.  A professional grief counselor, he is also a devoted father of two young children and a loving husband.  Paul puts a premium on people – unless the people happen to be sexy, professional females who live alone and who attract his attention.  Says Stella:  “The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores.”  That’s Paul’s philosophy, as well.  He wouldn’t dream of harming his wife or daughter.  But single, bar-hopping women?  Fair game.




Series creator Allan Cubitt deftly juxtaposes each episode (season two airs in 2014) between ice-queen Stella and “family man” Paul.  Stella’s workplace challenges are topical and provoking, and Paul’s nocturnal campaigns of terror are genuinely chilling.  

As Stella narrates her theory of the killer’s modus operandi, we watch as Paul indulges his dark fantasies, whether stalking a future victim or placing his latest kill (Laura Donnelly, below right) into a tub for a postmortem bath.  And we realize that when Stella and Paul eventually cross paths, the result will be delicious.     Grade:  A-




CreatorAllan Cubitt   Cast:  Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan, Sarah Beattie, John Lynch, Niamh McGrady, Siobhan McSweeney, Michael McElhatton, Ian McElhinney, Laura Donnelly, Aisling Franciosi   Premiere:  2013




                                         Watch the Trailer  (click here)




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