Television

Becoming Human – S1/Online

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This spin-off from Being Human was marketed as an “online-only exclusive”, and I confess that – having dutifully followed the bite-size instalments every week as released – I was a bit annoyed when the exclusivity went out the window and the whole thing – including the first showing of the final part – was suddenly scheduled for a BBC3 airing as a sort of post-Being Human care package for those viewers still traumatised by last week’s season finale. It felt like my “secret society” had suddenly thrown open its doors and become a tourist theme park. I’m still not sure whether the change is because the spin-off has been so successful and well-received that BBC bosses decided it needed a proper channel airing, or whether it was doing so badly that the only way to salvage anything from it was to seek the oxygen of broadcasting. I hope the former.

Still, enough about the production context; what about Becoming Human the show? Inevitably its original bite-size chunks (please excuse any vampire or werewolf unintended puns inherent in that phrase!) are evident when put together into one 55 minute program: despite the single through-story, the narrative clearly stops and starts every six or seven minutes by nature of the online format. It’s to the credit of the writers and the directors that this isn’t more annoying that it actually is, and the show more or less gets away with it – and even that some of the linking/segment start sequences are the nicest, most arty things in it.

It’s a bit difficult to know where this show is being pitched: it feels like a rather odd hybrid, and rather too easy to lose the audience in the gap. If Being Human is for mid-20-somethings then I guess Becoming Human would be for mid-teens, which explains its school setting and the age of its principle cast; and yet the show is a little too smart and stylish and intelligent to be really aimed at the Hollyoaks audience. There might not be nearly as much blood, guts and top-grade swearing as its parent show, but there’s still too much horror and general cursing for its supposed main demographic. Some of the dialogue relies (very wittily) on 80s pop-culture references, which again will be over the heads of a teen audience. In the other hand, would a grown-up audience really be that taken with a show whose main story is about being a teenager, the pains of surviving school-life, dealing with teachers – and bullying? In any case, who would be watching this spin-off if they hadn’t already been of an age to be fans of Being Human? If anything, this feels like a relaunch of the core series concept of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost meeting up and becoming friends – a return to the original Being Human series which was fun and light and happy to be occasionally insubstantial, before it became all Dark and Angsty and Meaningful. If you liked that first series of Being Human and miss its lightness of touch then Becoming Human could be the show for you.

All that said – if you’re willing to go with it, and are a 20- or 30-something still happy to go back to school in TV land, this is a terrific little gem of a show. The writing is wonderful, the show looks and sounds terrific for an online-only venture (until its broadcast airing I hadn’t properly appreciated the great soundtrack), and it’s just terrifically witty throughout with some great dialogue brought to life by a top-grade young cast. In particular it stars Craig Roberts, playing the young vampire Adam who debuted in an eponymous episode of Being Human, who manages to steal every scene by little looks, gestures and quirks that make his character spring off the screen. I would at this point be predicting a brilliant future for this actor, if only the little blighter hadn’t beaten me to it and be currently starring in Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine at the cinema right now, with both the film and Roberts’ lead performance getting rave reviews. Not that the other leads – Josh Brown as XXL-sized ghost Matt and Leila Mimmack as werewolf Christa – aren’t also excellent. Christa gets some of the best put downs, usually directed at Adam: “Seriously, do you not have an off-switch?” she barks at him after his latest inappropriate quip as the two continue their love-hate (mostly hate) screwball relationship.

As for the through-story – about who made Matt a ghost in the first place, and where his body is – it’s inevitably underdeveloped given only 55 minutes and that the online format was to fashion each instalment around confronting a new red herring suspect, but the writing is successful enough that the whodunnit reveal when it comes is one of those gloriously “out of the blue”/”why didn’t I see that coming” moments that many a more “serious” show would kill for.

On the whole, then, well worth catching. I doubt it will get picked up and developed further, but that’s a shame – this has real potential and genuine class.

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E17+18

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Over the course of the last nine weeks, The Killing has become one of my favourite TV shows – not just of the year but of all time. It’s as good as State of Play or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – but where those shows spun out perfection over six episodes, The Killing has managed to do it over an astonishing 20 hour-long instalments; and there hasn’t been an episode, a scene, a line that hasn’t been brilliantly done. It’s a quite astounding achievement, and I can’t remember the last time that I was so keen for a TV show to come around that I was literally counting down the hours till the next episode, and so emotionally involved while it was actually on that it hurt. While other shows can lose momentum and struggle to run to full length, this show hasn’t put a foot wrong and has sustained the mystery, intrigue and tension through a longer time than even most full length American TV seasons. The only disappointment is that it all comes to an end in a little under seven days, and Saturday nights are going to feel very odd and empty afterwards.

The show’s various individual strands – the anguished drama of a bereaved family, the political machinations of a campaign, the dark conspiracy arcs – are powerful in their own right and would fuel many a British TV series on their own, but here of course they’re all bound together by and in support of the whodunnit aspect which hones the series into a ruthlessly efficient and compelling mystery. If there were any justice in the world then “Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen” would be every bit as much a seminal television question as “Who shot JR?” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

Spoiler crime scene tape

The rest of this longer-than-usual post focuses on that question, as this penultimate week is my last chance to muse on some theories in public. Of course it can only do that by talking openly about the events to date right up to the end of episode 18, so if you’re not up to date with the series then look away now and read no further. (I have no spoilers from the final two episodes or any internet gossip to share, so you’re safe in that respect if you’re on the BBC4 schedule.)

Final chance! Look away now!

Right, still with us? Then let us begin.

Once again the series threw us some almighty curve-balls in these two episodes, which totally transformed the substance and nature of the investigation. The series has done it before (when car fuel logs suddenly focussed suspicion on city hall; then when a cold case and a belated video tape from Nanna transferred the focus back to Birk Larsen’s haulage company.) Now, as the series enters its end game, the producers seem determined to flip us into chaos once again – by making literally everything and everyone a suspect, and by resurrecting doubt in characters we long ago thought ‘cleared’. The key drivers in this final turn in the show have proved to be:

  1. Nanna’s passport was found in the basement of her family’s new home, putting suspicion back on the family. Since the passport was the object Nanna went to the principle crime scene to pick up, and because it has blood on it, this is the biggest piece of “first-degree” direct evidence that’s emerged. At the time of the murder, Nanna didn’t even know about the new house.
  2. Another body (from 15 years ago) has been found in the canal, seemingly confirming that Nanna’s murder is one of a series. Mette Hauge’s corpse was wrapped in a removal sheet from the defunct company Merkur, but is this purely circumstantial and a red herring? A search for the decedent’s possessions takes the police on a fatal visit to a derelict storage warehouse.
  3. A journalist has been asking some awfully good questions of politician Troels Hartmann: was the package containing a key piece of evidence sent from Hartmann’s office? If so, by whom? And why was his party’s flat – the main crime scene – not used for two weeks afterwards in a frantically busy pre-election period and able to stand untouched, soaked in blood? (I admit, I thought this “two weeks undiscovered” was the series script’s one poor lapse/oversight but instead it’s transformed into possibly the vital clue.)

What new light do these latest developments and other events from E17 and 18 shed on the suspects in the case? Many of them could be red herrings and are circumstantial at best, so we have to start with with the one incontrovertible bit of direct evidence – the passport. It could only have been put in the basement of the new house after Nanna’s death, and almost certainly by the killer.

That seems to cast suspicion back on the family, and it’s interesting how the father, Theis Birk Larsen, is now being filmed and acted in a markedly more sinister way in these episodes; the way his impassive face looms at the back of shot, the way his calm demeanour only grows agitated when he finds police inside the house (and moreover in the basement) for the first time, and demanded they leave; the way he shut the door on the basement at the end of E18 … Guilty signs, or just a man pushed beyond his limit? Even his wife Pernille Birk Larsen, whose anguish over her daughter’s death has been so strikingly portrayed, is suddenly unnaturally calm and distanced. The scene where she and Theis faced down their previously trusted live-in friend, employee and lodger Vagn was actually quite chilling and cold blooded. But can either of them really be suspects? We saw their reactions in the first episode when Nanna was missing and they seemed totally genuine – the mounting panic and grief as worst nightmares were confirmed. Theis’ search for Nanna, his rage and his bid for violent revenge against the then-prime suspect teacher are hard to reconcile with being guilty of his daughter’s murder; and surely both have alibis, being at a country cottage on the key weekend? That it’s one or both of them is not quite entirely impossible – the grief could have been guilt over a tragic situation that got out of hand, for example – but it feels a stretch.

A more likely family suspect is the aforementioned Vagn Skaerbaek. Right now he’s the prime suspect: he had access to the house, it’s unclear where he was or what he was doing at the weekend, the police did a lengthy job of demolishing his alibi and proving he had opportunity, and he worked for the old Merkur company. As an employee of Birk Larsen’s haulage company he could also be the person Nanna’s boyfriend Amir thought had overheard them making their plans to elope, a critical aspect with regard to the opportunity to commit the crime (as well as a possible motive, if the killer had a sexual fixation on Nanna and was feeling betrayed by her plans to leave.) The smart money right now has to be on Vagn, and the fact that at the moment people are behaving as if Vagn’s been cleared with everyone apologising for ever unfairly suspecting him almost adds to the sense of sleight-of-hand and misdirection. Vagn’s no longer in the crosshairs only because the police have been distracted by the emergence of Leon Frevert, a co-worker of Vagn’s who also worked at Merkur and had the same access, opportunity and haziness of motive. Leon was also moonlighting as a taxi driver and had previously been questioned as the last known man to see Nanna alive; he has sold off his furniture, got tickets for a flight to Vietnam, and has a creepy serial killer-esque collection of press clippings of the murder case stuck to his wall. In real life this is exactly the sort of person who would be revealed as the killer. Short of a big neon arrow saying “I’m the killer” pointing at his head, he couldn’t be making it any more obvious for them – which is why he’s surely a red herring? Perhaps most significantly of all is why he phoned the detective (the wonderful Sarah Lund, played by the incomparable Sofie Gråbøl) and told her, when asked why he had kept his connection to Nanna a secret: “You have no idea”. That seems a tantalising link to an altogether different conspiracy mystery rather than an admission from a killer. He’s running to Vietnam because he’s scared.

If not the family, and with the school friends and teachers not seen since episode 10, we have to look elsewhere for people who have been in that house. What about the police for example? Lund herself is beyond suspicion – the show wouldn’t work if there was any chance of it being her, or any doubt about her. I confess I was keeping an eye on her rude and arrogant partner Jan Meyer – the murder happened just days after he had arrived in town after all, and where was he 15 years ago? Being a cop is a great cover. But even paying close attention to him there seemed nothing untoward, and with his relationship with Lund developing as it did it seemed less and less likely that he was under any suspicion. Instead, I’d rather come to fear that he wouldn’t be getting out of the show alive – I just didn’t expect it to happen in episode 18 as it did.

Their superior, Lennart Brix, is an obvious dark and evil suspect – almost laughably so in a pantomime-villain way, which is why I tend not to think it’ll be him. He’s the front man for some conspiracy no doubt, just not murder – not least because he only came into the series midway through and has had no detail given to his character. He seems to be there mainly to be an obstacle for Lund’s work, this week by pulling her off a crucial raid that gives the prime suspect the chance to escape or, more likely, be inconveniently shot dead in the raid by Brix’s more trusted personnel. He is too obvious, too underdeveloped for it to be him as the killer, but he’s clearly playing a major role in some grand plot.

Which leaves us with the political strand, and here we’re overflowing with suspects – the problem is that none of them have a connection to the Birk Larsen basement. They do have access to the party flat/crime scene, however, and a major question right now is why that flat was untouched for two weeks. Mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann was a prime suspect for several episodes and even arrested and charged, having admitted being in the flat just minutes before Nanna was known to have arrived and been assaulted there. Charges against Troels were dropped when suspicion fell on one of Troels’ opposing party leaders, Jens Holck, who looked and acted incredibly guilty and ended up being shot dead by Meyer but who has been posthumously cleared by airport CCTV footage. Does that mean the investigation of Troels was distracted and derailed but that he’s still the guilty man? He had all the access he needed, and he’s been pressing the police very hard for updates about the investigation to allow him to stay one step ahead. His ‘alibi’, that he went to a country cottage and tried to kill himself, could well have been remorse at what he had done; and his loyal campaign manager Morten Weber could have been an accomplice, clearing up after him (and been the “shorter” man at the flat window that an eyewitness saw.) In fact, Morten could be the killer in his own right – he has the aura of being a man who has been exonerated from the investigation, but in actuality that was because he was reinstated after being briefly fired having been unjustly framed as a political “mole”. Despite the off-hand revelation that he has driven the car in which the body was found, and some increasingly suspicious snooping round the office and being busy casting doubt on others, Morten has oddly escaped any serious suspicion for the entire series …

Troels’ assistant and lover Rie Skovgaard has also not been suspected of the crime, although Morten’s suggestions in response to a journalist’s enquiries about who sent the key piece of evidence from the office and who cancelled a toilet repair at the flat that would have caused the crime scene to be discovered immediately, seem designed to make her emerge as a suspect now (while they could just as equally apply to Morten – or to Troels.) Rie appears cunning and opportunistic, her affair with Troels suddenly back on after a frosty couple of days while simultaneously suspicions fly around that she’s been getting her valuable secret intel by sleeping with the mayor’s top aide Phillip Dessau who was briefly presented as a possible suspect in the murder itself. And yet despite them being nasty, double-dealing, two-faced political operatives, it’s hard to really see either of them resorting to murder. Rie might kill Nanna if she mistook her for a rival for Troels’ affections or a threat to the campaign, but murder – and in the party flat – seem grossly ill judged and unsubtle, totally out of character for her, while in other ways she’s too obviously hard and nasty to give us the ‘jolt’ we need when the murderer is unmasked.

That’s just some of the suspects. With two hours of drama still to go, the show could still pull a suspect “out of plain sight” that we hadn’t considered before just as Leon the taxi driver was. What about Lund’s boyfriend Bengt? Seems unlikely as he was the one who triggered the police to seek out previous cold cases. Maybe her odious ex-husband? Surely too coincidental and contrived. One of the detectives who’ve been handing Lund and Meyer files – or in particular, the detective who ‘searched’ the Birk Larsen’s basement just before the bloody passport was discovered? Talk about opportunity. Hell, I’d even suspect the Birk Larsen’s little boys, one of which – Anton – found Nanna’s bloody passport and then oddly just threw it back where he found it and wandered off without a reaction. If only the boys were old and tall enough to drive a car! Very strange. Let’s put that one down to wooden juvenile acting and an attempt to generate more tension and false leads!

And finally …

But there comes a point where I have to present some idea, some theory about it all, and here it is. It’s not perfect and I’m really not sure about it, but what the hell, right?

From the above analysis I’d have to say that the leading suspects must surely be Vagn (if the political aspects can be explained away by other conspiracies) or Morten (if there’s a convincing reason why he would have ended up in the Birk Larsen basement.) These are the suspects that my head says are the most logical and rational.

But without a doubt, the character I’ve been most irrationally suspicious about since midway through the series has been the incumbent mayor, Poul Bremer – for no good reason, I have to say. Just a feeling. His purpose in the series – as Troel’s scheming political opponent – has been clear, and he’s been overtly lying and deceiving everyone in sight, most recently manufacturing a couple of witnesses to escape a charge of political malfeasance and obstructing the police by withholding evidence because it gave him an electoral advantage. But the closest he’s come to being suspected of involvement with the murder was when a civil servant, Olav Christensen, confronted Bremer and said he’d procured the party flat (the crime scene) for the mayor in the past. Bremer denied it, and minutes later Olav was dead after being run down by Jens Holck.

And while we’re on that: just what was Holck’s involvement in all of this? The investigation into him went cold when he was shot and assumed to be the killer; if he wasn’t, then why did he do what he did and practically confess all to Lund before dying? Holck was suspected because he was on a particular foreign junket some months ago – with Bremer, it was pointed out, although no one attached any significance to this; Holck was also Bremer’s lapdog, and you have to consider whether his apparent affair with Nanna wasn’t actually just him setting up meetings for Bremer all the time instead. Rather than Holck buying her gifts, were they in fact from an even bigger political fish?

Bremer’s certainly got all the information he needs to carry out the crimes – he frequently knows developments before anyone else, even the police: he knew who was paying Olav for access to the party flat months ago, despite his look of bafflement and denial when confronted by Olav. If he’d been having an affair with Nanna months ago and needed to hush it up, then how clever to use the flat to frame Troels and gain unbeatable political advantage out of a potential career-ending scandal over an affair with a schoolgirl?

Bremer being the guilty party would explain much, and would tie up the various strands into one tight cohesive whole in a dramatic context. And yet for all that, there are major problems with the theory of it being Bremer. Can we seriously see the elderly mayor managing to climb through a broken window into the storage warehouse? (Although the slow, deliberate way the killer stepped toward a prostrate Meyer could easily have been someone of Bremer’s age …) Or of outrunning Nanna in the woods by the airport in the opening scenes of the series? Like all those from the political side, how could he have ended up leaving Nanna’s passport in the basement of the Birk Larsen house? Moreover, the detectives seem very convinced that the killer is in his/her 30s-40s and that the link between the killer and his victims is through removal hauliers – are they simply wrong on both counts? The Merkur sheet could certainly be a red herring (it might have simply been to hand when the killer murdered Mette Hauge, who had just employed the company to move house 15 years ago) but the idea that the killer meets his victims and gets to know where they live through this ruse is a compelling one and simply can’t apply to Bremer.

The Killing‘s greatest trick is to present us with such a large cast of realistic, beautifully-drawn characters, all of whom we suspect and yet none of which ultimately make complete sense as the killer. It could well be that we’re talking about at least two different culprits in the end – Bremer perhaps is guilty of something (the mention of Vietnam put the idea of a child paedophile ring in my head from out of nowhere, for example) and his cover-up conspiracy may have massively affected the murder investigation because of some overlapping factor; but the killer might be someone else entirely, such as Vagn or Morten. Or even Troels after all …

Safe to say, I can’t wait till next Saturday to find out. And yet at the same time, I dread finding out because that means the end of this superb show. I suspect that when the end comes, I’ll want to go back and rewatch the series from the start and see whether I can get it right second time around and see all the small signs and clues that I’ve missed that would have made this article so much more accurate if only I’d been paying attention at the time …

If you do comment on this story – and please do! – then speculate to your heart’s content but please don’t put in any known spoilers from E19 and 20 until those stories have aired in the UK on BBC4 on March 26. Thanks!

Being Human S3 Ep7/8 – Though the Heavens Fall/The Wolf-Shaped Bullet

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Toby Whithouse’s show started as a one-off pilot play about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a flatshare, but once it was picked up (and substantially recast) it took on a whole new life of its own. With a US spin-off/remake and three popular and successful series under its belt, it’s been one of the BBC’s few unequivocal genre successes outside of the venerable flagpole Doctor Who franchise (for which Whithouse has also written.)

I thought the first season was a triumph, a blend of genuine sitcom fun with serious drama and outright moments of horror. For my money it lost that ability to ‘balance’ so well in season 2 which was heavily weighted toward the darker and bleaker aspects, and there’s been a notable attempt in season 3 to set time aside for the lighter things in life which has been much to its strength, although sometimes it’s felt that those more fun moments have been wedged in somewhat awkwardly, such as a out-of-place “zombie” episode or werewolf George’s bottle show to visit his dead father’s grave. Perhaps the show’s increasingly complicated relationships and mythology gets in the way of the central part of the show reconnecting with that lighter elements. Of course, by the time of the big season finale two-parter there was no longer any time for the fun things and it was all-action and very, very heavy and dramatic.

For one thing we had the return of ‘evil’ version Herrick, after several episodes of the vampire being locked in the attic with his memory and sanity distant acquaintances. This sounds like a really interesting idea, but while well-written and excellently played by a superb Jason Watkins this somehow wasn’t as satisfying as it sounded on paper, and this was underlined by how wonderful it was to have the out-and-out monster Herrick return for the season finale. Also excellent in the supporting cast were Erin Richards as a dogged detective Nancy (I genuinely didn’t see the twist coming about her shouty boss) and ex-EastEnders star Lacey Turner as ghost Lia, plus Spooks star Nicola Walker hysterically funny in a one-episode cameo as a social worker and George Gently‘s Lee Ingleby as a late addition “Old One” stealing several scenes in the final 20 minutes. The biggest guest star name was undoubtedly Robson Green, and he was faultless as hardened werewolf McNair.

In the main cast, Sinead Keenan has really come into her own as George’s werewolf girlfriend Nina and finally made to be a strong addition to the core cast; meanwhile Lenora Crichlow’s ghostly Annie finally got some strong storylines that really drove the series rather than just end up being a comedy B-plot off to one side. If there was a character who had become slightly sidelined in this series it was George, played by the wonderful Russell Tovey, which might explain the need for that “dead dad” bottle story; but he certainly came back in strength for the final episode where the resolution revolved around his relationship with his vampire best friend Mitchell, played by Aidan Turner.

If there’s one person who has been made a star by this show, it’s Aidan Turner. Since the start of Being Human he’s already been the lead in Desperate Romantics and had a major role in BBC4’s Hattie, and now he’s been cast in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming The Hobbit films. His influence on the show is such that the US remake of the series even rechristened the Mitchell character ‘Aidan’. And he certainly dominates the season, with his downwardly-spiralling Mitchell consumed by guilt over dark deeds driving the series forward. His romantic scenes with Crichlow have been both touching and comic, while the look on his face as he arranged for detective Nancy to visit “Uncle Billy” in the attic was a shocking look of dark, evil cunning.

Look away now if you haven’t seen the end of the series and want to avoid spoilers

The problem with the season is that Mitchell’s downwards spiral had left him irredeemable and beyond the point of no return. His fate was inevitable from early on, and while the final scene is nicely played it still ends the only way it can given the season arc – with Mitchell staked and dead. It’s the right ending for the season, but it’s also the right ending for the show which has always been about his and George’s friendship more than anything else (and guess who gets to do the staking?) It’s where the show should finish, which makes the news that a fourth season has been commissioned all the more surprising.

Of course, being dead in a genre series does not need to be final, or even much of an obstacle. But Turner’s presumably now spending a year or more on Hobbit duty in New Zealand which is a bigger, more practical problem for the show: without Mitchell’s dark presence the series loses a lot of its dark core and narrative drive. Who really wants to see a show about a well-adjusted werewolf couple with their once-a-month problem and their ghost lodger, without the ever-present danger of the bloodsucker flatmate and the vampire clans? On a purely commercial level, these days a series that doesn’t have a ‘vampire’ on its cast roll loses a huge amount of marquee pulling power. Most of all, Being Human without Mitchell is just … wrong. It wouldn’t work, nor would pulling in some “Mitchell substitute” to fill the vampire-shaped hole in the dynamic (although Craig Robert’s teenage vampire Adam who appeared in one eponymous episode before being spun out to a digital-only mini-series could be a possibility.)

There have been times during this season where my attention has wandered and I’ve had to force myself to pay attention to it – not a good sign. That certainly doesn’t apply to the riveting two-part finale, and the season as a whole has had some impressive high points, but while the slaying of Mitchell is undoubtedly a dramatic coup per excellence to end the show with I’m not sure I’m minded to return for another series if he stays staked – or that willing to forgive them a “beyond the stake resurrection” either, come to that. Whithouse may just have written a cliffhanger from which Being Human can’t be saved.

JAG S8 E20/21 – Ice Queen/Meltdown

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I’m feeling under the weather this week, which might explain why I’m taking refuge in some old TV viewing while sniffling and sneezing my way through the day. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s review of the pilot episode of the ultimate comfort viewing series Murder, She Wrote comes another US pilot – that for NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service (as it is officially known), currently the top-rated drama series on American TV amazingly enough.

As opposed to a traditional stand-alone pilot project, this actually appeared as a two-part instalment in a different series called JAG: we’re more used to seeing this today, with the CSI franchise launching spin-offs with a story in the parent series used to set up the new series, and Criminal Minds has recently done the same – as has NCIS itself with its new LA-set offspring. JAG itself never really made much of an impact here in the UK (although it circulates through on cable channels such as Hallmark/Universal, so at least the episodes do air occasionally as part of the normal run of episodes as opposed to the rarely-aired Murder, She Wrote pilot) partly because it was always very militaristic and then after 9/11 cranked up the ultra right-wing patriotism to full-on bombast which played very poorly outside the American heartland. Fortunately NCIS reigned this sort of thing in, although in this pilot there’s still some whooping and hollering by the series regulars at a display of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in action and some interrogation involving keeping a prisoner naked and chained, which is uncomfortably fascist.

The two episodes are very strange indeed as instalments of JAG: despite being in the episode credits as usual, that series’ regulars barely appear in the first episode, which instead follows the NCIS investigation of the death of a pregnant naval lawyer. The first of the two parts is almost exactly how NCIS was formatted when it started to air in its own right, and most of the characters are present and correct from the start: David McCallum’s Ducky is a little creepier and more of a skirt-chaser than the amiable eccentric uncle he would become; Pauley Perrette’s Abby is toned down and less confident; Michael Weatherly’s DiNozzo is younger, more casual and less of a smart-ass. But Mark Harmon’s Gibbs arrives fully formed and lends credence to the idea that the series was always a vehicle specifically created for him after his popular turn as Secret Service agent Simon Donovan in the 2002 season of The West Wing the preceding year. The pilot also includes Alan Dale as the NCIS director, indicating that his role in the eventual series was expected to be rather larger than it proved to be.

The one character that really, really doesn’t work is Robyn Lively’s former FBI agent Vivian Blackadder, who is humourless and grates badly not to mention screwing up a vital mission. No wonder she wasn’t invited back and got replaced by Sasha Alexander’s much warmer Secret Service Agent Todd (until she too was replaced by Cote de Pablo as Ziva.) The other major change is that the “corpse-eye view” sequences depicted in a 60s psychedelic false colour – which are really odd and off-putting – are fortunately dropped before NCIS went to series.

After the first episode of the two-parter, Ice Queen, which ends in the arrest of JAG series lead character Harmon Rabb for the murder, the story then defocuses from the NCIS team and takes time to establish the lawyers for Rabb’s trial – the OCD defence attorney played by Alicia Coppola and the laid-back, disorganised prosecutor played by Michael Muhney. Its odd that these two get such screen time which is already bursting at the seams trying to fit in both JAG and NCIS cast and makes you think that maybe the original idea for NCIS had more of a “law/investigation” and “order/trial” format in mind. (Coppola’s character did indeed make three appearances in NCIS.) And even then, the trial is wrapped up with 10 minutes to spare to allow the NCIS team to retake centre stage for an overseas anti-terrorism raid in Tunisia which suggests that this sort of guns-blazing undercover strand was intended to be a big part of the NCIS series (instead of having to wait for the LA spin-off to pick this action thread up in any depth.)

Pilots are always interesting to see “where it all began” and also what worked right away and what didn’t. Plenty about NCIS exists right from the first scenes but there’s enough distractions around the periphery to make you think that it could very easily have gone off in totally the wrong direction if they hadn’t been careful – or at least lucky.

Murder, She Wrote Pilot – “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”

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I cheerfully admit a weakness for cosy whodunnit crime books, and this Angela Lansbury series was surely the cosiest and one of the longest running of the genre on television. It’s my idea of comfort viewing – the televisual equivalent of apple pie and custard, which works thanks to its familiarly formulaic structure and the warm presence of Lansbury at the centre. The series is endlessly repeated on BBC Daytime and on UK Alibi, but curiously the feature-length first/pilot episode is rarely aired these days so I was keen to go back and see “where it all began.”

In many ways this was Lansbury’s ‘retirement plan’ after a lifetime of film and stage success in much higher quality but less well paying roles. But she certainly works for it: for the vast majority of the series’ 12 years she’s the only recurring character and in virtually every scene. Compare that to the way modern stars complain about the work they have in an ensemble drama where the work load is shared by up to a dozen regulars and you’ll have some appreciation of Lansbury’s work ethic despite being almost 60 even when the series began. Her star power certainly gave the producers access to big Hollywood names they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the pilot duly features Brian Keith, Arthur Hill, Anne Francis and Ned Beatty – and Anne Ramsey in a cameo as a bus bag lady on the eve of her late-life movie stardom in The Goonies and Throw Momma From The Train.

Created by William Link and Richard Levinson who had previously devised the Colombo series, the pilot hits the ground running with Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher suddenly finding her book published and a bestseller, throwing her into a trip to the Big City on a publicity junket, and so it’s very much the story of how she copes being out of her depth – by melting even hardened New Yorkers with her small town charm and homemade recipes for curing corns. As the series went on the character would become more assured (as her literary fame grew) but here Lansbury plays a good many scenes for laughs with a lot of scuttling around and gurning for the camera revealing her old fashioned stage roots at this point, making it interesting to see how much even an old pro has to learn in a new medium. At one point she seems to be intentionally channelling Magaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple (Lansbury had just ‘aged up’ to play Marple in a recent big screen version of The Mirror Crack’d before creating this original American version of Christie’s sleuth.)

As a result you catch her ‘acting’ more in this pilot than in most of the series where she became so natural and at ease many viewers felt she wasn’t even acting but just being herself (the curse of many a star of a long-running show.) The pilot actually gives her more to do than the typical series instalment, with a romantic interest touchingly played by her and Hill, and an outcome that is presented as truly heart-breaking for the character despite the preceding light comedy. The pilot doesn’t quite play fair with the whodunnit aspect, relying on a literary reference that only makes sense when some background facts are introduced right at the denouement; the series when it got underway would learn how to put all the facts in evidence during the show, rather as Agatha Christie was always scrupulously careful to do in her novels. It doesn’t hurt the pilot but it’s a little annoying and means it’s all but impossible to guess who the murderer is, with most of the running time given over to a red herring theft plot.

It’s not world-changing TV, it’s not edgy or different. But Murder, She Wrote is the ultimate in professional, well-put together and thoroughly enjoyable light drama entertainment which is easy to watch and to appreciate, and Angela Lansbury shines as one of the true stars of her generation.

Doctor Who S19 E9-12 – Kinda

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Kinda is one of the original Doctor Who serials to be very well regarded – indeed, its stock has risen considerably in the intervening years since its first airing in 1982. Coming at a point of a major renaissance of the show following the departure of Tom Baker and the arrival of Peter Davison in the title role, it mixes themes of colonialism with some very deep Buddhist teachings and is very unlike most Doctor Who serials of its age – although in another sense it was following on from a pattern laid down in the previous season of the series with Warrior’s Gate in having one surreal, abstract story in among the more normal alien invasion/science fiction/pseudo-historical fare.

Children who watched it at the time would have been fairly lost by the highly philosophical concepts and disappointed by the lack of any action, fights, guns or even a clear bad guy. The dominant figure is that of security officer Hindle, played by subsequent The Bill regular Simon Rouse, and I remember as a child being perplexed and rather put off by his erratic, hysterical behaviour. In fact, if truth be told, I found the way he was reduced to an infantile state as the serial progressed to be profoundly unsettling without really understanding why; instead, I dismissed it as “I don’t like it.” Being older and marginally wiser now, watching Rouse’s performance as the mentally disintegrating Hindle left me gob-smacked and deeply in awe as one of the more honest, accurate and raw portrayals of a man having a complete nervous breakdown that I can remember seeing on television – which makes it still as profoundly unsettling as it was when I was a kid, although at least now I understand why. How Rouse then ended up stuck in a police soap for 20 years is a mystery and a waste.

The strength of this serial is in the stunningly big name supporting cast: as well as Rouse, there’s also Richard Todd – yes, the star of Hollywood films and The Dam Busters; Nerys Hughes, who was one of the biggest TV stars around at the time; and also the brilliant Mary Morris as an old, blind wise woman. All of them are excellent and well suited to the characters, and by no means evidence of the “stunt casting” which became tiresomely routine in later years. The DVD also reveals another future star is in the show: one of the child extras brought in during the third episode is a seven-year-old Jonny Lee Miller.

Watching the story with the optional information subtitles, it was fascinating to read just how much at odds the writer (Christopher Bailey) and director (series stalwart Peter Grimwade) were in their vision for the story – Grimwade was trying to wrestle it into a more ‘normal’ Who structure while Bailey found this to be undermining and dumbing down the story’s point. Bailey shouldn’t take it personally, as Grimwade was apparently falling out with everyone – Davison describes the on-set atmosphere as somewhere between mutinous and homicidal toward the end. In fact this is one of the occasions when the friction probably proved a creative advantage and the eventual balance achieved is for the best, because in its ‘pure’ state Bailey’s script had some big problems, not least the fact that no one seemed to have told him that Tom Baker was no longer the Doctor, or that there were three companions to write for. One has to be parked back “asleep” in the Tardis for the whole story, another hardly appears for one episode, and only the oft-derided Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has a constant presence. Instead, the Doctor takes up with colonial scientist Todd (Hughes’ character) as his main companion figure, seemingly to allow for the chance of a spark of romantic interest. As a whole, it all feels very unlike a Who story with the Doctor almost shoe-horned in as an observer into a stand-alone tale, which may be a weakness for some viewers but it allows the story and the guest characters to really blossom into a full-realised, realistic and fascinating environment.

It’s not a perfect story: Adrian Mills (yes, him off of That’s Life) is weak in a key role; instead, series regular Janet Fielding is only allowed a couple of scenes as the “possessed” Tegan when her evil persona could and should have been the outright star of the show (her scenes in the surreal black “wherever” with another The Bill longtime regular Jeffrey Stewart are eerie and brilliant). The show is also totally studio-bound despite being set in a forest paradise with all the problems that implies; although actually I have a weakness for a good studio artificial forest set no matter how fake it looks, as I find the “unreality” works better for an alien world than going on location in a familiar English countryside, garden or the inevitable quarry setting.

But the biggest problem with the original serial was the FX of a giant snake at the climax, which looked like an inflatable bouncy castle and totally shattered any suspension of disbelief even for kids of the day. On the commentary track (which features Davison, Fielding, Waterhouse and Hughes) all four actors deride the bouncy snake and petition for the DVD creators to create new CGI FX for the sequence, which has subsequently been done. It’s one of the most effective bits of retro-FX work I’ve seen, and almost certainly the new CGI snake would have been too realistic and traumatic for the target audience at the time: it’s really quite startlingly chilling and a world away from bouncy castles. The commentary track as a whole is a delight and is the closest thing you’ll get to sitting down to watch a programme with a bunch of well-informed friends as you could hope to get, with all four participants getting on really well – even Matthew Waterhouse, who still sometimes comes over as being as potentially weird and sulky as his on-screen character Adric from 30 years ago. He takes the inevitable ribbing from the others good-naturedly when the old anecdote is trotted out about how he offered to ‘tutor” movie legend Richard Todd in the art of TV acting with all the benefit of his two years experience on the small screen.

But let’s finish off with some words of praise: first for Peter Howell, who despite working with very dated synthesiser sounds for much of the background music, does come up with some stunning sound design for windchimes, the “shriek” of the Mara, and the disturbing soundscape of the black “wherever” which Howell himself feared could be too much for children to handle. (Naturally, we loved it). And the story contains one of the most iconic visual shots I remember from the show – a zoom into the eye of Fielding’s character Tegan and into her black subconscious in one ‘take’ thanks to the loan to the show of then-revolutionary Quantel video effects equipment. It’s still a brilliant moment, augmented with another great bit of sound design from Howell as well.

Kinda has just been released on DVD as part of the Mara Tales boxset with Snakedance, the sequel to this story which is not quite as good and has less originality, but the two make a perfect pairing and one of the series’ stronger boxset offerings and well worth purchasing, with some excellent-as-ever special features. The video restoration for Kinda is once again outstanding, with the first two episodes given a depth and vibrancy of colour and contrast that makes it look far better than I remember it from the original broadcast (although for some reason the picture goes softer and flater in episode three.)

Marchlands: S1 E1-5

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So ITV’s Marchlands time-hopping ghostly mini-series came to an end this week, and left me … Puzzled. Not because the story wasn’t clear – in fact, quite the reverse. (Some mild spoilers ahoy, for those who haven’t seen all the episodes yet.)

But let’s start with the positives: how nice and refreshing to see a prime time series that isn’t about cops or docs, and which tries to do something different and does it at least reasonably successfully (as opposed to, say, the BBC’s Outcasts sci-fi flop: and even that still mostly concentrated on the cops on an alien world.) It’s the latest in a strong run of drama from ITV, something I had once given up all hope for in these days of continuing Britain’s-Got-X-Factor-on-ice tedium. Instead ITV should be praised for putting a huge amount of investment in drama, from Downton Abbey to franchised efforts like Law and Order: UK and for really delivering some class work along the way.

Marchlands was incredibly well directed and designed – the three time periods of the 1960s, 1980s and current day were impeccably recreated and evoked so there was no question of which era we were in at any time. The writing skilfully twisted the narrative of the three strands so that they connected and sparked themes across the years. And the acting was top notch all round, with reliably excellent turns from the likes of top pros Denis Lawson, Alex Kingston and Anne Reid as well as from new faces such as Jodie Whittaker and Jamie Thomas King, with some consistently good juvenile turns from all the child actors as well. If I were to single anyone out, then I was particularly struck by Dean Andrews – someone I never took to in Life on Mars but who was terrifically warm and natural here – and also Tessa Peake-Jones, once Del Boy’s cheery wife in Only Fools and Horses … but here expertly transformed into the absolute chilly essence of everyone’s nightmare of a 1960s mother-in-law.

So there was a lot to admire in this series. It’s just that, when it came down to it, I wasn’t entirely sure what the final result was, or what the series was trying to do. It was initially promoted as a ghost story chiller, but as the series wound on it seemed that the ghost was almost a red herring and a bit of an irrelevance, a way of generating some suspense and a cliffhanger when needed, a plot contrivance to link the years together but never really contributing to the substance of the story (or rather, stories.) There was the potential murder-mystery of the 60s Alice’s death, but this too turned out to have less to it than had been hinted at, the solution easily guessed and finally confirmed to be just a dreadful but straightforward tragic accident. And the cross-time narrative was simply a way of spicing up what proved, ultimately, to be three separate-but-linked family relationship dramas. It never had any real clever use for the multiple-time set-up and failed to cross-fertilise the time strands in any inventive or imaginative way that a writer like Steven Moffat, for example, would have devised.

In the end it proved to be a solid piece of work exceptionally well made, but less than the sum of its parts and rather a disappointing anti-climax after so much expert foreplay. I never really worked out what it was trying to be; and I suspect that the series itself never really quite knew either, or had the self-confidence to make the choice.

Perry Mason S1 E23 – The Case of the One-Eyed Witness

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And now after that little Oscar frenzy, back to what this blog should be about – quick reviews of things. You’ll be getting used to the idea that I really like vintage 50s and 60s TV dramas, and here’s further evidence of that with the selection of a 1957 episode of the all-time classic crime/lawyer show Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr as the legendary defence attorney who never loses a case.

These days, such shows are sadly deemed too old to air on TV anymore (there’s an idea – if I were a millionaire I could set up a cable station to air round-the-clock vintage TV shows) so most people today will only know the character through the series of formulaic, bland 1980s TV movie revivals starring an ailing Burr just before he died. If that’s the case it’s a shock to see these 50 minute gems – sharply written, with Burr a man of action able to outwit the opposition in some incredibly complex, twisting plots. Although filmed 5 years before UK television did The Avengers, the production values are head and shoulders better: where the British were still grappling with just how to film theatrical rep plays for the screen, the Americans simply diverted their B-movie machine with decades of screen experience toward the television medium instead, and the professionalism shines through at all levels.

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness is a mid-first season instalment when the series was really finding its feet. It was adapting the original stories from Erle Stanley Gardner and so here you get a 240-page novella packed into a single episode and it moves at breathless pace, so much so that despite that fact the episode plays absolutely fair and leaves all the clues right there in plain sight, you still have to be going some to figure it out in time. It almost manages to sneak past one of those cardinal rule “don’t believe anything until you’ve seen the body” twists, and then audaciously parks the Big Reveal right there in public in the courtroom for a 10 minute scene that no one notices. Few modern shows would have that sort of patience or subtlety, or confidence that it could get away with it.

What makes the story so delicious is that absolutely everyone is lying, deceiving and plotting against everyone else – sometimes for good reasons, often not. Even Perry’s secretary Della Street (the classy Barbara Hale, one of the show’s real assets) is put in a situation where she had to hide facts from her boss, while meanwhile the DA and lead cop on the case are seen to commit what can only be described as blatant witness tampering. Even Perry’s hiding things from us: he seems to commit a blunder in court (asking a witness a question that leads to the direct implication of his client) before suddenly revealing that he was just laying a trap to which we were not privy in a bravura climax.

If you like 1930s and 1940s film noir films and B-movies then the Perry Mason series will be a little gold mine of treasures for you, and you could do a lot worse than start with this episode or the 4-5 that precede it. Or, to be honest, most of the episodes so far in season 1 – it really is great stuff.

Hawaii Five-O – all pumped up and nowhere to go

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Although I was too young to be interested in the original series of Hawaii Five-O, like everyone else the iconic theme and title sequence are seared into my memory and I was keen to see what they would do to it with this reboot helmed by many of the people behind the recent successful reinvention of the Star Trek franchise. Happily the theme tune is present and correct, nicely spruced up; and the title sequence has some similar nice updated touches where new shots of familiar tourist sights from the original series’ credits are to be seen; but sadly they botch the iconic “fast zoom” to the lead character standing on a tower block balcony, which is eviscerated and lost in otherwise clichéd hyperactive titles. And there’s no canoe.

The show’s undoubted strength is Hawaii itself, and the locations are gorgeously photographed; some scenes seem to exist just to fulfil an obligation to the Hawaiian tourist board, but what the heck when it looks this good. And there’s an impressive cast with strong cult credentials – Alex O’Loughlin (Midnight), Scott Caan (Ocean’s Trilogy), Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica) and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, 24, Crusade) – but unfortunately they’re rather lost in the programme’s bombast. This is a show with the volume constantly turned up to 11, with colleagues yelling at each other as fiercely as they scream at the criminals. The McGarrett/Danno relationship is meant to be a budding bromance but despite some genuinely funny lines (“What’s with aneurysm face?”, Danno asks his terminally constipated boss) the exchanges are shouted so humourlessly that it’s like being forced to watch a particularly acrimonious parental divorce. The plots, too, suffer from the same overdose of testosterone and gym time as the main characters and have ended up similarly pumped up and misshapen as the show trudges through an hour with much the same strange, lumbering gait as McGarrett and Danno use to galumph through scenes.

Overall, this is a show that resembles a compilation trailer of all those 80s actions films, but lasting a full hour. My brain starts to ache and my suspension of disbelief collapses after around 20 minutes, at which point I tend to wander off and do something else with the TV on in the background; I really don’t think I’ve missed anything important yet as a result.

Sky One have paired this up with NCIS:LA on Sunday nights, and it’s an interesting comparison. The NCIS spin off inhabits a similar all-action world of gunfights, explosions and chases and has its own line-up of bromance (and indeed another of budding romance); and yet here’s a show that knows how to do humour, how to vary the pace, how to create likeable characters that can bicker and argue and yet that you still feel like each other underneath. Most of all it’s a show with plots that are worth watching and even raise interesting issues (this week’s featured a secret Navy project to chemically ‘tag’ people with an isotope so they can be tracked from orbit – only to find it used on Americans by an expert convinced the US is soft on terror.) Hawaii Five-O could learn a lot from it if it wants to have a longevity anywhere near that of its illustrious predecessor (12 seasons, since you ask!)

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E9+10

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There was a moment at the end of episode 8 of this series where I suddenly started to fear that the surface of this perfect gem of a show had started to crack. It was when the show all-but-repeated the cliffhanger of two episodes previously where one character seemed on the verge of extracting bloody retribution on another. Surely, I thought, the show can’t have run out of steam and ideas already?

Fortunately episodes 9 and 10 didn’t disappoint and were the show’s best yet. Almost as if the frustrating dead end of both the previous episode and the stalling of the police investigation itself had pulled the pin on things, this week’s instalments catapulted the series off onto an entirely new trajectory. It was almost all down to the lead character Sarah Lund’s following up of a seeming bureaucratic anomaly in the evidence: suddenly we have a whole new set of main suspects, a whole new chronology for the crime – and at last, a primary crime scene. We also have a fundamentally altered view of the victim from developments in the heartbreakingly gripping strand featuring the bereaved family, and some fine political bloodletting going on in the city hall strand featuring the character of Troels Hartmann. And all of this came over as a natural progression of what had gone before, of plot strands knitting together, of seeds long sown coming to flower, rather than the ad hoc “make it up as you go along” feel of similar high-concept US shows like 24 and Lost.

The one potential problem with the new scenario is that it seems to be forcing Lund to become that hoary old Hollywood cliché, the lone maverick cop going rogue against her superiors’ wishes. The joy of the character to date has been her extraordinary ordinariness, so this is potentially a problem. Fortunately the show is playing it in an interesting way so far: instead of raging against the system, Lund seems merely to be ignoring it all and just carrying on with the same intensity as before, almost as if she hasn’t noticed. And that intensity, initially so admirable, is increasingly the source of her problems as the relationships all around her fall apart: I’m actually starting to feel sorry for the dislikeable partner, Jan Meyer, because of how poorly Lund is treating him now. I never expected that!

As episode 10 came to a close, there was a shot – not lingered on by the director – of a now-familiar item that had become ubiquitous to us over the course of the show to date: but this time, splattered with blood. The symbolism of it, and what it portends for characters in the second half of the series, genuinely sent chills down my spine.

(With apologies to returning to the subject of this show so soon after my initial short view.)

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E5+6

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A couple of years ago, BBC4 had an unexpected hit on its hands when it screened four episodes of the Swedish TV detective series Wallander as part of a “support package” for the launch of the British version on BBC1 starring Kenneth Branagh. It was so well received that the rest of the Swedish series was picked up and shown in its entirety; and continued to prove so popular that it was repeated again while the second season was snapped up and shown as soon as it was produced. Finally, BBC4 even went back to the older, original Swedish film adaptations of the Henning Mankell novels and showed those as well, even though they duplicated the Branagh productions.

But having mined the Wallander seam to extinction, BBC4 needed some new blood to fill its Saturday evening crime spot – and turned to Danish television’s International Emmy-nominated series The Killing (Forbrydelsen, in the original Danish), which follows the investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a schoolgirl. I decided to try it out, but I’ll admit that the last thing I wanted was another long-running (20 hour-long episodes shown over ten weeks) heavy series commitment to a subtitled show. Hopefully I would not like it all that much.

Unfortunately The Killing turned out to be utterly brilliant. I mean, utterly. I’ve said it on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: I reckon it’s the best drama on television at the moment. In fact quite possibly the best thing I’ve seen in years. It’s completely magnetic, utterly absorbing, a compelling mystery with edge-of-the-seat moments of suspense, political conspiracy and heart-wrenching depictions of domestic loss and bereavement.

It makes The Wire – which it resembles in the way it cross-cuts the various sectors of society with its intelligent strands of storytelling – seem rather ordinary by comparison, while the central character of Detective Sarah Lund who is intelligent, insightful, low-key and committed makes Wallander (in both British and Swedish guises) look a bit of a doddering old fool.

Strangely the show that The Killing most reminds me of time and again is Twin Peaks. Not, I hasten to add, the bizarrely quirky and humorous side of that show (such as David Duchovney as a transvestite FBI agent and director David Lynch on-screen as his stone-deaf boss) but those times when Twin Peaks was very, very dark and chilling, when there was real sense of terror about characters going into the woods: for example, the moment at the end of the pilot episode when a hand reaches out of the dark to unearth the just-buried necklace of the murdered girl made me jump out of my seat at the time.

The entire series had an atmosphere of doom and menace, which The Killing shares: in both shows much is implied but little is shown, compared with a great many modern detective shows that spare the audience nothing. There is also the way both series involve the investigation into the life of a popular schoolgirl who, as the layers are peeled back, is shown to have ever-darker secrets. The moment the cops find a hidden room in the school basement where the students went for sex reminded me strongly of the boxcar scenes in Twin Peaks – it’s just that now the students are recording it on phone cameras rather than the handheld video cameras of Twin Peak‘s day. The victim’s flight through the forest in her underwear with airplanes coming into land overhead evoked much of the cinematic Lynchian style of that 1990s show.

I hear that American cable channel AMC is producing a remake of this, but I’d be amazed if it is anywhere close to being as good as this quite brilliant original production, or that anyone can compete with the astonishing Sofie Gråbøl in the central role.

As you can tell, I can’t praise this show enough. Please don’t miss out – watch it on Saturdays at 9pm on BBC4. It’s not too late to start – all episodes to date are available on the BBC iPlayer through ‘series stacking’.

Outcasts S1 E2 – outlook improves

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I was, let’s be honest, not entirely complimentary about the BBC’s new science fiction drama series Outcasts after seeing the first episode on Monday, which seemed confusing, laden with unintelligible exposition, and poorly written, directed and played by almost all concerned.

Well, what a different 24 hours makes, because episode 2 started to get all those things right where episode 1 had got them so badly wrong.

There was, for example, much less world-building exposition, and what there was came in naturally as part of realistic discussions and situations. It didn’t feel the need to tell us the entire backstory in one infodump, but just what the characters needed to say for their own development in that scene and to move forward the immediate story. The story was also much stronger, being essentially an A-plot hostage crisis, and a B-plot introducing bad guy Julian Berger (Eric Mabius, whose American leading man looks and charm are too perfect for a British -produced series and therefore make him the perfect sinister presence for the show as their equivalent of Battlestar Galactica‘s Gaius Baltar) – all of which keeps it simple and allows the characters to register and start to grow.

In hindsight, I now realise that the biggest problem with episode 1 is that it was trying to pack too much in: establish the series, ram in the backstory, have a crisis with a freighter in trouble, and a character we don’t know apparently going psycho and killing other characters we don’t know for reasons that are screamed but not explained. No wonder that first episode left everyone confused and alienated. Ironically the series woud have been better to boil down the events of episode 1 to a five minute slam-bang FX teaser and then refer to the rest of it as backstory as needed. It would have made for a stronger opener if they had: how much more effective would “Mitchell” have been if both he and his death had been a budding myth, referred to but never seen for sure.

The show continues to plant some nice seeds for the future (a mystery virus; the moving child’s drawing on the President’s desk) but surprisingly it also throws away potential plots far too fast: the whole story of the true outcasts on Carpathia was thrown away in a few lines of exposition when a US drama series would have been able to milk the mystery for a good half a season, to great effect. Secrets won too easily are simply not valued so highly. The series could do with a little more subtlety and patience at times rather than making major plotlines so damned obvious: the Deep Brain Visualiser is threatened so often that it’s like the old axiom of “if you show a gun in Act 1, someone has to get shot in Act 3.”

Anyway, episode 2 certainly did enough to convert my “watch first two episodes out of duty” into a series pick-up, just to see where it goes. If nothing else then the South African locations are simply breathtakingly gorgeous; as are the opening credits, which is one of the most beautiful title sequences I’ve seen in a while.

The Avengers S2 E1 – Mr Teddy Bear

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(I wrote a longer piece about The Avengers on my main blog that you might like to read first. This is a short review of the most recent episode I’ve viewed from the Season 2 DVD boxset.)

The first episode of season 2 of the classic Avengers series, rebooting after the star (Ian Hendry) left and the production team were still getting up to speed with who to replace him with.

While many of the episodes produced around this time rely on hastily repurposed season 1 material and dumping the old star’s dialogue nearly unaltered into the new character’s mouths, this was an early example of a bespoke script carefully laying out the new ‘vision’ for the show as they saw it. Written quite late, it was rushed on air a month after being completed to make sure that viewers trying out the new season got a proper taste of what to expect.

The difference is immense – it’s immediately more like the show that the Avengers would become, with gadgets, a memorable “supervillain”, and quirky humour such as the villain taking meetings via a toy teddy bear with microphone and camera links. It’s also the first show to have Steed and Gale take equal roles in terms of air time, with Steed gloriously cheerful throughout despite being the target of an assassin (and suffering the indignity of having to strip to some very unglamorous white Y-fronts in a really scary scene!) Only the fact that Steed is quite clearly still ‘tutoring’ Cathy (both in judo lessons and talking her through key moments of action) shows that this is still an early episode, otherwise this could almost be a Diana Rigg story. The duo even clearly have a recognisable boss (in recurring character One Ten) that wouldn’t be the case again until the 1969 series with Mother.

And even the production values are better, with almost no technical mishaps at all and only the odd fluffed line, plus a couple of filmed inserts showing more advanced technique in a few minutes than half the rest of the season put together. No wonder this episode – despite being filmed only three weeks earlier – was rushed on air as the opening episode of season 2 to establish the new tone.