New year, new TV series – and not just new seasons of existing shows, but this last weekend it turned out that I was also able to try out three completely new programmes…
The Musketeers (BBC One)
The most heavily publicised and hyped of these was undoubtedly BBC One’s The Musketeers, the latest reworking of Alexandre Dumas’ classic swashbuckling tale set in 17th century France. On the surface this seems like another example of the tediously uncreative production line of BBC family drama revivals that extends all the way back to the successful Doctor Who revival which led on to Merlin and Robin Hood and culminated in last September’s Atlantis – the latter being one that I personally found artificial and souless, a programme instigated purely by unimaginative television executives and endless focus groups all playing safe.
So does The Musketeers continue the trajectory of steeply diminishing returns? Surprise, surprise – no, it doesn’t. I confess I enjoyed it rather more than I expected to. True it’s still a rather obvious subject for the latest BBC revival but this one has been done with enough style, verve and panache to make it feel new and interesting again. It looked great (a terrific use of unfamiliar Czech Republic locations by talented director Toby Haynes) while writer Adrian Hodges (Primeval) managed to provide a sensibly short, straightforward main plotline (about the framing of one of the musketeers for crimes he did not commit) to allow sufficient time to introduce the show’s general format and full cast of characters. Better yet, the show managed to do this without tipping its entire hand in the way that US TV pilots have recently taken to forcing every last detail down our throats as quickly and artlessly as possible.
Sure, the musketeers themselves are rather broadly drawn at this point: Athos (Tom Burke) is the moody one haunted by a lost love; Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) is the romantic lover; Porthos (Howard Charles) the joker and card cheat; and D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) the young action lead, initially determined to have revenge on Athos whom he wrongly believes responsible for his father’s murder. Even so, after just one hour the foursome are drawn as well as they ever were in any of the previous feature film versions – and there’s still plenty of time (nine more instalments in the first series) to flesh them out properly.
There was well-staged action, some humour that actually worked, and some mild sauce to cater to all tastes, as well as a surprisingly interesting backdrop of palace intrigue which includes a young inexperienced king (Ryan Gage) being manipulated by his chief advisor Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi) who is well matched by the viciously conniving Milady de Winter (Maimie McCoy). The characters and some of the initial scenarios are lifted direct from Dumas’ novel and not far removed from the 1970s brace of Musketeer films starring Michael York and Oliver Reed, which likely for nostalgic reasons I credit with being the hitherto best screen versions of the Musketeers. Not that there’s much competition: Disney’s anodyne 1993 version suffered badly from miscasting and over-the-top playing, while Paul WS Anderson’s 2011 steampunk version was the very definition of a disastrously overcooked modern CGI blockbuster misfire. If anything, the only version that comes close to being similarly successful (if you happen to be the right age) is the 1980s cartoon serial Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds – make of that what you will.
I think part of the reason for The Musketeers relative success is that it veers off from trying to be another ‘all things to all people’ Saturday night family show, and aims instead at the older teenager market (putting it simplistically: boys will like the action while girls will find at last one lead to swoon over) along with the grown-ups like me who fondly remember the 1970s films. That said, while it’s undoubtedly dirtier, sexier and slightly more grim than the its Merlin, Robin Hood and Atlantis forebears it’s still hard to see the end result meriting a post-watershed slot, at least on the evidence of the first episode. If the BBC really think that this sort of thing constitutes proper adult entertainment in the action end of the drama spectrum then I suggest it looks again at the current state of the industry and how Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Broadwalk Empire leave this still looking very much at the kids end of the spectrum.
That said, I’m still keen to tune in again for episode two and see how things develops. My one concern is that at this point so much of the show’s appeal is invested in watching Peter Capaldi’s Machiavellian, murderous machinations that I fear for how it will cope when he bows out at the end of the first season to take up his new position as Doctor Who (which he learned he’d won when he took a phone call in Prague during the filming of this show.)
Mob City (Fox)
Also this weekend, Fox aired the first episode of TNT’s six-part miniseries Mob City, created by Frank Darabont from the book “LA Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” by John Buntin. As a devotee of the noir genre and a great admirer of Darabont’s work (he developed The Walking Dead for television and also directed The Mist, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption from Stephen King stories) I had high hopes that this would be my new favourite thing of all time.
Unfortunately it fell someway short, despite some high quality writing and directing of the pilot episode by Darabont himself. The show looks great and undoubtedly cost a pile of money, with heavy use of CGI required for the period recreation of course and some lovely props, costumes and motor cars to enhance the 1940s atmosphere. There’s also an impressive cast, with Jon Bernthal and Jeffrey DeMunn recruited from The Walking Dead and joined by the likes of Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes), Neal McDonough, Alexa Davalos, Robert Knepper, Gregory Itzin and Edward Burns as Bugsy Siegel, with Simon Pegg also guest starring in a key role for the first episode.
The problem is that the episode faithfully adheres to all the conventions of the noir genre – morally conflicted characters, corruption, shocking twist, no one to be trusted, no one saying what they really mean. On the one hand that certainly means that the show avoids the aforementioned curse of the US TV pilot by ensuring that we aren’t force fed everything in the first 20 minutes; on the other it perhaps goes too far in the other direction and becomes painfully obtuse with pretty much everything left unexplained or elliptically implied.
That would be fine, but Mob City’s critical flaw is that it doesn’t really bring anything new to the party: it’s an authentic noir recreation right enough, but we’ve seen that sort of thing done many times and at least as well in the past. We only have to look back to 2013’s Gangster Squad to see an example of what might be almost a spin-off instalment of the show, including some of the same characters who include real life figures such as Mickey Cohen and police chief Bill Parker.
It’s a strange thing to come away from the first episode of a brand new series with such a strong sense of déjà vu and a feeling that I’d seen it all before, but I did. Unlike his terrific genre-redefining work with The Walking Dead, Darabont just hasn’t seem to have found any new ideas to inject life into this show and ends up with a piece of noir that is sadly inert, lifelessly preserved as an example of the genre like a specimen trapped in amber in a museum. As a result I have only a mild interest in seeing what happens next and it’s touch-and-go whether I’ll remember to tune in for more or simply let this one slide away.
Hinterland (BBC One Wales)
Technically Hinterland is not a new show aired this weekend: the Welsh language version Y Gwyll was originally broadcast in October and November on the the S4C channel, while the English/Welsh version began its run on BBC One Wales on January 4. However neither version has yet been officially aired in England (although it’s possible to get both Welsh channels on satellite and cable platforms) and so I missed this and only finally caught up with it yesterday when I tracked down the first 93-minute episode on the BBC’s iPlayer on-demand/catch-up service.
Essentially another police procedural, this has been heavily influenced by the stylings of Nordic Noir – so much so that it’s slated for an eventual nationwide showing later in 2014 in the Saturday night BBC4 slot usually reserved for the likes of The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing. It follows newly appointed DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) on his first day in Aberystwyth which begins with the bloody aftermath of a home invasion and the disappearance of the elderly homeowner, who used to run a nearby children’s home which has since closed and become a guest house.
Despite being well played by Harrington, Mathias is a fairly standard-issue morose character with a clearly haunted and tragic past that seems to have involved the loss of his own family and sees him now living alone in a rundown seaside caravan. His deputy DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries) seems to take an immediately resentful and antagonistic line on this outsider coming in and taking over, although that has subtly and skilfully shifted by the end of the first case. The other detectives have yet to really stand out or distinguish themselves and indeed everyone seems to be going out of their way to simply fit in and not stand out, unlike the Nordic thrillers with their compelling and unique characters; even the suspects in this first case really do no more than the rather slender and over-stretched storyline requires them to.
That said, the atmosphere of the piece is truly captivating and beguiling, and the way that the cinematography captures the Welsh landscape is truly exceptional especially as it’s given the time it needs to weave its spell and record every small little detail. It certainly makes this worth sticking with and is one of the classier productions I’ve seen from a UK broadcaster in recent months, which makes it only more irksome that this didn’t get a proper BBC network roll-out in prime time rather than having to wait for a niche spot down the road. It clearly deserves much better.
The Musketeers airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 24 March 2014; Mob City airs on Fox at 9pm on Fridays; and Hinterland is currently airing on BBC One Wales at 9pm on Mondays, and is available on BBC iPlayer nationally.