Watched #21
In a hedging my bets kind of way, two weeks ago I inferred the second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) might not be quite so good as the first. I recant. The show is different, but it’s still terrific. My fear was that opening up the story was bringing in too many other elements – specifically a quasi-religious cult and a nascent political party. In a small way, my worries were exactly the kind of thing this series parodies. I didn’t want the drama’s fictional town of Roarton to change.

Granted, some of those parodies aren’t very subtle. Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers made to work unpaid for the community in a ‘Give Back’ scheme? Distrust being sown about those who depend upon the welfare state? An MP from a single issue party making capital with popular fears? You don’t have to scratch too hard to see the real-world parables. But there’s no reason why satire shouldn’t be overt. What makes In The Flesh particularly effective is the way so much else is brilliantly understated.

It’s an undead drama set in an aggregate-rendered world. Where PDS sufferers have to wear high-visibility jackets with ‘I’m PDS and I’m giving back’ written in the jolly Casual font on the back, or where undead Freddie camps out at his ex-wife’s “next door in the guest bedroom with [her new husband’s] vinyl collection”. This approach – a domestication of horror – is best summed up by B&B owner Sandra. “Last thing we need is a Second Rising,” she sniffs. “We had enough trouble with the first”.

The other thing that strikes me about the show is very few of the characters feel like the kind of archetypes who would be useful in a zombie drama. Okay, Simon Monroe1, one of the 12 disciples of the Undead Prophet, is probably the most geared up, talking in a fairly declamatory fashion and specifically on a mission to freak people out. Then there’s Amy who, with her one-liners and Violet Elizabeth Bott dresses, feels like the writer and wardrobe department are a little too taken with her. However, look at Kieren’s parents, particularly his dad Steve. They’re  forever, and somewhat powerlessly, trying to put a sunny spin on things (Steve, passing the local paper over, reads out the headline: “‘The Give Back scheme – a winner’!”). In a similar vein there’s Philip, always destined to be someone else’s lieutenant, and cursed with enough self-awareness to know he’s lacking the kind of charisma he needs to fulfil his ambitions. And of course, Kieren himself. Our leading man is mostly on the back foot, allowing himself to be buffeted by events. By the end of this week’s episode he is finally taking the initiative, but he’s been a slow starter.

So I’m going to stop worrying about changes in Roarton, because in fact all of the new arrivals have been good for the show. In The Flesh has just won a Bafta, but BBC3 as we currently know it, will soon be gone. I’m sure at least one of them will rise again.

If A Poet in New York (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) is an accurate reflection, Dylan Thomas – played here by Tom Hollander – died from over-indulgence. He over-indulged in booze, while those around him saw his genius as reason to be over-indulgent of his excesses. This film, which cannily composited our man on 21st century Welsh balconies into 1950s uptown New York, tested my patience. In fact, it made me bilious. I didn’t like a single character in the production and as the self-pitying, self-important Thomas poured another drink and intoned another weighty truth about life, I got the sweats.

It’s probably an indication of how shallow I am that I found far more to enjoy in the pronouncements of the fictional Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic Tuesday, 9pm). Some of his lines were peaches: “Do not be amazed at anything you see.” And: “To save her, I would murder the world.” The latter was in reference to his missing daughter, Mina. And with that piece in place, you can take a stab (which happens a lot in this) at the game the show is playing. Like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic-book series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, it’s a pea souper of a tale mixing together out of copyright characters from Victorian fiction. I enjoyed it a lot. Although, in reality, a lot of chasing and fighting, it was earnestly done. Some subverted religious iconography, eloquent dialogue and a turn from Simon Russell Beale flattered our intellect. That and the fact everything was in burgundy, the short-hand colour for quality and richness. I’m buying.

Which leads us rather too neatly into Four Rooms (Channel 4 Sunday, 7pm), back for a fourth series. Its stock of dealers has changed over the years, beginning with four, 12 last time around and now settling upon eight. We meet half of their number this week: Gordon Watson, Celia Sawyer, Alex Proud and David Sonnenthal. The game continues, that little drum roll upon every cash offer and the pun-filled narration (“Will the colour of Alex’s money match John’s palette?”). Fastidious Gordon is my favourite, and I like the bit where he asks a man flogging a Joshua Reynolds’, “Would £30,000 make you less crazy?” David, meanwhile, is painted as more of a bruiser. “Don’t really know much about baroque angel wings,” he says, possibly speaking for us all, “but I like ’em and I want ’em.”

  • I’m taking a fortnight off reviewing TV shows, but I’ve concocted a couple of ’emergency’ features which – if I know how to work this thing properly – will appear on the site over the next two Fridays. Here’s a peep at next week’s…

Re) Watched

  1. Who reminds me a lot of Brookside‘s own cult leader, the similarly named Simon Howe. Coincidence?
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Watched #19
A long, long time ago, I used to watch TJ Hooker. Despite the fact it was the 1980s and, apparently, we were all less sophisticated, my brother and I still noticed how everything that went right in the show had to be credited to Hooker. There was one episode where, at the end, William Shatner was busy elsewhere so Heather Locklear threw her nightstick at an escaping perp. Thwwp! It spun through the air, then roundhoused into the guy’s legs, bringing him down. Adrian Zmed was understandably impressed by the move. “Hooker taught me,” she said.

24: Live Another Day (Sky1, Monday and Wednesday) brought this memory thudding back. As it ever was, Jack Bauer’s sheer righteousness must prevail. In the opening episode (first one back after four years, now in London, but you know all this) his character was set up as legend. The man himself didn’t even need to speak for half an hour. Instead, Yvonne Strahovski’s Kate Morgan was presented as his analogue – a CIA agent at odds with the organisation, whose last-minute hunches are destined to be both correct and unheeded by the suits. Although the story places her at odds with Bauer, mark my words, there will come a point where she will defect to his side. And another point where she’ll pull off a nifty manoeuvre of a ‘Hooker taught me’ ilk.

That all sounds like criticism, and it is. But it’s not major criticism. I should make it clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of this new series, much as I’ve enjoyed (nearly1) every preceding instalment. The real-time element and split-screen stuff be damned, there’s nothing particularly fancy about 24. It’s just super-solid, value-for-money entertainment, each edition straining to offer up as many thrills and twists as possible. As a result, Jack himself speaks almost nothing but plot – “Take me to her now,” is his first line – meaning those few moments when he offers something of his character are usually quite affecting. So it was towards the end of the first hour, Kiefer Sutherland blinking, head drooping: “I don’t have any friends”. I could have wept.

I don’t care either way about this series’ themes exploring the morality of “free information” or America’s use of military drones. They’re a completely ancillary element – as if someone were to comment on the font this review is written in. What I care about is the reliability of 24. That’s what will keep me here for the duration. There was a great bit where we were given a glimpse on a computer screen of Jack’s record, or more specifically his list of kills over the years. Someone on the Fox staff has lovingly compiled this; that or there’s a website. Ah, those names! Andre Drazen, Victor Drazen. At number 18, Nina Myers! More to follow…

TV is good, at the moment, for taciturn, bloody-minded men. Look at all the hunks in the picture I’ve bodged together above. Prey (ITV Monday, 9pm) aired its second episode this week. I came to the show late, deciding only to watch the first on Sunday. It was enough to secure my return the next day. Kind of like 24, there’s nothing fundamentally high-concept about this drama, following John Simm’s wrongly-accused DS Marcus Farrow as he attempts to find the person who murdered his wife and son. But, unlike 24, there’s a mass of added-value in the details. The fact that show is – and I don’t mean this unkindly – unglamorous and middle-aged. Rosie Cavaliero is given a brilliantly real character in Susan Reinhart, someone who, unlike CIA: London’s Kate Morgan, isn’t gifted with super intuition. Or masses of wit. Or anything other then a bit of determination to do her job properly. The additional layer revealing she’s obsessed with her ex, Tony, and does silly, slightly intense things like show up at his house with pastries or mess with his Facebook, really fill her out.

There are also little feints in the plotting that confound our expectations. The aggressive mob on the bus never deliver on the threat their presence promises, and Marcus doesn’t work out what the password is on Sean’s computer. There’s real verisimilitude in that and the dialogue which, rarely for a thriller, sounds like the kind of things people actually say: “He brought one down from, the attic but it didn’t have a USB or anything.” It means that when the show does shift gears, like the twist at the end of this second episode, it’s quite thrilling. Marcus is betrayed and into the soundtrack drifts Radiohead’s Karma Police: “This is what you get when you mess with us”.

Here’s Bear: “Twenty-first century man has come a long way from our hunter-gather origins…” Cut to beardy bloke: “Can I have a latte?” Bear again: “I wanna find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his very existence”. This is the pretext for The Island With Bear Grylls (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm), a five-part series in which 13 ‘ordinary’ men are dropped off on an island and left to get on with it. Bear’s role in all of this is simply to squat down in places on the mainland and deliver the odd bit of commentary. Otherwise, it’s all about the fellas, who aren’t nearly so gung ho as we might have feared. Tony, 71, missed his mum, Agnes, 91. Plus there was a lot of fretting about wee. “I’m not pissing on my own face,” declared Sam, after being stung on the cheek by a jellyfish. “My piss was the colour of Guinness,” shared Rupert, later. We got to see it in a pail. Why he was going in a pail, I’m not sure.

This show, it’s… it’s okay, but Bear’s Bond villain ambitions don’t really lend it sufficient impetus. It feels like Survivor without the game play, leaving us with aimless men trying to make fire and piss in and on things.

The second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) already seems like a less contained piece than the first. Silly comment, perhaps. This run is going to be six episodes, twice as long as before. But the small-town element is what has worked best about the show and that feeling the whole thing could have been based on a Barry Hines novel. I’m not so sure about the inclusion of a quasi-religious cult, a further element of heightened reality that could potentially capsize this well-judged zombie drama. But we’ll see.

If I hadn’t come to the show with those kind of worries, expectations preloaded by its brilliant debut, then I would have been more obviously impressed – because this is still a terrific programme. Its greatest quality is found in leading man Kieren (Luke Newberry) who doesn’t actually conform to this week’s theme of goal-orientated alpha males. Instead he’s a gentle portrait of a young guy who isn’t the hero of any kind of story, and nor does he want to be. He’s shambling through life. But, not like a zombie shambles.

  1. Obviously, the year with Jack’s letters-missing-brother Graem and non-Donald Sutherland dad, Phillip, was dreadful