Watched #40
One thing I’m certain about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, from Friday) is that’s a killer theme tune. We’re just on the other side of the whole Songify – umm – craze1, but – to nearly quote Walter Bankston – dammit, it’s alive! The kind of silly, funny, tuneful opening that sets off a drip-feed of dopamine in your brain. It’s designed (by the Gregory Brothers) to be an earworm, and worm it does.

So do elements of this comedy. Someone on my timeline, apropos of nothing, tweeting just yesterday: “Troll the respawn Jeremy.” Bits wriggling free.

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it feels right that it’s sat on a server, 13 episodes waiting to turn viral, rather than air weekly on NBC (which was the original plan). At the time of writing, I’ve sat through nine of them and I’m not sure how much I like it.  That’s weird, because nine episodes in a week should be an indication of devotion. But, instead, for me, it’s more a testimonial to the form. Short US half-hours, which are there immediately on my telly or tablet. Designed to fill in the gaps between other things.

How can I quantify my regard? Well, I feel assured there’ll be at least one good line per episode2 and it doesn’t go too heavy on that current trend in US comedy – a set-up which pays off with a snappy flashback to some surreal happening. Also, I like the cast well enough. But I like the whole package less than its obvious comparison point, 30 Rock. Where that had a kind of anything-goes mentality with members of the wider ensemble you’d be hanging on to see (specifically, Dr Spaceman) this is more contained. A more left leftfield premise, but relatively conservatively realised.

That said, I’ll be there through to the end of the 13 – and the next too. There’s story development which I really didn’t expect (certain characters who seem created as off-screen foils then joining the story) and, it remains, short, likeable, accessible. Ask me again in a year, and I’ll probably be nuts for the whole thing. That’s gonna be, uh, a you know, uh, a fascinating transition.

Much of my life is spent thinking about MasterChef (BBC1 Tuesday, 9pm – continuing Wednesday, Thursday) so forgive me as I zero straight in on the details as the show returns for its 11th run. What are the tweaks? As ever, tiny, but it’s like julienning a carrot; these are deft and meticulous cuts. After having John Torode conduct last series in his chef whites, he’s back in civvies. That visual demarcation between he and Gregg Wallace is apparently no longer important. As it mostly hasn’t been over the last decade.

But loose chat! Between rounds, right from the off, we’re privy to contestants’ conversations on the shop floor. It may sound patrician, but I don’t want to hear from the folks yet – not until they’ve earned my regard. Right now, I see them as troops, and they should bear that with dignity. Yes, Olivia, we can see that all you’ve managed to get up is a green stripe on a plate, but face front and continue with the competition. Don’t share that stress with Robert or Tony or whomever 3. Of course, this is actually a production choice, not a reflection of a new more voluble intake. Like Robert considering his meeting of minds between cranachan and panna cotta, one should always be given leeway to “riff”, so let’s allow it this year but hope it’ll be put in a cupboard alongside John’s uniform and the (at last!) canned edit suite trick of dropping a clunk of a knife into the soundtrack as a moment of percussion.

It’s because I adore MasterChef I can be mean like this. I’ve still never missed an episode of it or its variants. On the Wednesday , John said, “Let’s rock!” and later on he and Gregg fist-bumped and I didn’t hate it.

The first indication was that something could come of this. An early moment in Boy George and Culture Club: Karma to Calamity (BBC4 Friday, 9pm) saw the quartet reunite in George’s North London kitchen, all becoming animated about his juicer. But when the work began, it became clear why they don’t work. George seemingly more focused on delineating his separateness from the group (as implied by his billing in the title of Mike Nicholls’ exemplary film) then truly participating. As they began to riff – a phrase I employ here in its rare non-culinary form – George thumbed and thumbed and thumbed through his iPhone. Mikey, Roy and Jon left. “I’ve just had to spray chakra spray on myself,” sighed George, mustering up the most damning indictment imaginable.

“Back in the day we did everything 25 per cent,” he said, referring to royalties. “That ain’t going to happen now.” But over the course of the documentary, it became clear George was still, in truth, on a one quarter-share. The geezerish three men (Jon: “The word ‘styling’ when you’re over 50 can wreak fear in your soul”) making a solid 75 against his minority share (George: “When I’m dressed up it seems to bother them”). Although the chameleon saw himself – and probably rightfully – as the senior partner, every interaction strained with that tension. He’d walk out of conversations and photo shoots seemingly so he’d somehow ‘won’. “It’s not about you, it’s about them,” he moaned in reference to fans requesting selfies. It’s easy to criticise, but then one feels George wants it.

When he’d succeeded in fragmenting Culture Club once more, and their comeback tour had been cancelled, he went to a fish restaurant in Hampstead with some devotees who’d come far for the gig. It was a very sweet thing for him to do. Not that he’d want you to think that. Winding up the evening, he bustled out and turned to camera: “It really got on my nerves, I just want you to know”. Then he jigged off up the road.

Sex, Lies & Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story (BBC4 Tuesday, 9pm), presented by The Guardian‘s Philippa Perry was full of commonsense. “Good advice is what you know anyway,” and that’s true. An industry that seems genuinely founded on solid intention, its best embodiment was surely Claire Rayner. Son Jay (also seen on Thursday’s MasterChef demanding a pud to appeal to his “greedy inner child”) leafed through her ‘standards manual’. Under ‘C’: “Circumcision, contraception, climax, crabs, cross-dressing…” I didn’t know Graham Norton practiced the art too, for The Telegraph. Did he always offer his counsel solemnly? “Sometimes. But sometimes I don’t, because who cares, really?”

  1. Was it a craze, or does that make me sound like a very old man?
  2. From the first: “It’s Buckley’s birthday tomorrow so you’ll need to make a cake that’s cute and also Paleo”
  3. I forget, because at this stage I have no interest in them as people

Watched #13
I can’t say a word against MasterChef (BBC1, Wednesday, 9pm – continuing Thursday and Friday). I’m devoted to it. I’ve seen every single episode of every branch of the UK franchise since the thing returned in 2005 (yes, even Junior). There is sometimes provocative talk of the Australian version being the best  – but I won’t hear of that. For me, John Torode and Gregg Wallace host the mother sauce of TV cookery competitions. Everything else – from The Taste to Food Glorious Food – is  a derivation, with needless extra seasoning in the hope some new flavour will emerge.

And so here we are again with a new series, the 10th, and the programme back to determinedly do what it does. Knocking out enjoyable, satisfying episodes time after time. [Hopefully, you’ll have heard that sentence as if read out by voiceover woman India Fisher]. Aside from a slightly ill-advised grapple with an ‘open audition’ format some years back, MasterChef doesn’t ever shake it up too much. The audio cues, in particular, remain as fixtures (hello, tracks from Music for Sport – Uplifting Strings and Beats), as does the edit suite trick of slotting in the clunk of a knife as a moment of percussion. Oh, and while we’re at it, those shots of people walking slowly in formation around the corner that leads into MasterChef HQ; they’ll never stop either.

But there are always some slight refinements. The opening episode of this series strings together a ‘signature dish’ kind of task (now named the Calling Card round) with The Invention Test and – yes! – a critics segment, albeit one in which former MC champs and finalists pass judgement. I’m not doubting these challenges are legitimate ways to test someone’s culinary prowess, but they’re also, let me tell you, fan favourites. Over the years, there have presumably been post-series debriefs. Discussions that led to the production team ditching the bit where the hopefuls go shopping in Borough Market, and the subsequent chopping of the ‘is it chervil or parsley?’ ingredients recognition bit. Now, more than ever,  the show is about the cooking. This is where the tension and adventure lies. “I’m fearing at the moment he’s not going to get his ravioli done,” frets John. “I wouldn’t ever try and deconstruct a beef wellington,” scowls Gregg.

These two work brilliantly. So much so, it’s easy not to notice anymore. John provides the grit, whether that’s counseling contestant Holly not to fidget with her food or tartly putting away another wannabe: “I do worry, James, it’s my job”. Gregg is emollient; chuckling, jigging and embarrassing everyone  by chanting Sumera’s name over and over. Together they form… well, with his crunchiness and his dairy charm, they form the show’s buttery biscuit base.

I’ve written enough about MasterChef. Too much! It’s back, and I’m delighted. I’ll be there for every instant John’s teeth clamp down on a morsel, through every massive pause prefiguring the revelation of “our second quarter-finalist”, and even to the dispiriting bit where someone paints a stripe of jus across an oblong plate. Time after time.

Rev. (BBC2 Monday, 10pm) returns for its final series. It’s a quality product – you can tell because there’s punctuation in the title. I tried Rev. for a few episodes during its first run, and while there was nothing that offended me, I didn’t laugh. But people are really, really pleased to see it, aren’t they? I’m still not getting it. Putting aside my facetious comments about that full-stop, I recognise there’s something of worth here. The fusion of urban squalor with the olde worlde fustiness of the church and a “diocesan secretary” is novel. I liked Alex Smallbone’s line about delaying her baby’s christening because “I’ve already lost you [Adam] to Him”. The performances are all great, plus there’s confidence in the underplayed humour. And yet. Still not getting it. There’s an assumption in the show that we’re invested in the characters, but I’m just not a believer.

Two documentaries to finish. The more I think about Storyville: Shooting Bigfoot: America’s Monster Hunters (BBC4 Monday, 9pm) the more deflated I become. It didn’t start out like that. Sure, for filmmaker Morgan Matthews, Bigfoot hunters in the American south were always going to provide easy, amusing, unselfconscious footage, and there’s tons of stuff to quote. In fact, let’s do that while we’re still enjoying ourselves: “We’re trying to educate the public about the probability of the Bigfoot existing. Which is 100 percent.” Then there’s the militaristic Tom Biscardi who, after falling out with Matthews on camera, storms off shouting, “Joan, get me a Snapple!” Or this exchange: “Can you get a qualification, Rick, on being a master tracker?”/”Can you can a qualification on being an ass-hole filmmaker?” It all seems like fortuitously cherishable stuff, as men in leisure wear jump into trucks festooned with decals and inadvertently let out the emptiness of their lives.

It all ends in the woods, Matthews merging together three hunts where skittish trackers hear and see Sasquatch with every leaf rustle and twig crack. Out of the darkness comes the creature itself, knocking down the filmmaker, and, indeed, the whole venture. This sequence is patently staged, either by Matthews or the aforementioned master tracker Ricky Dwyer, or perhaps by both. No context is given. This is playful, it’s maybe even challenging, but it undercuts everything All that good stuff? Was that equally concocted? It might be the intention to leave the viewer asking questions, but all I wanted to know was just what had I been watching? Could I take any of it at face value? Had I, in fact, been wasting my time?

A more meaningful hunt was examined in The Missing (Channel 4 Tuesday, 1opm) which followed three people searching for vanished loved ones. The feeling that a huge chunk had been taken out of each was brilliantly communicated. Terrie – whose husband Tim jumped in the car one morning while she was in the bathroom and never returned – talks about how he liked to mow straight lines into the lawn. Esra, meanwhile, makes regular trips to Ireland. “I hate putting these pictures up,” she says. “I see lampposts with missing dogs and cats…” and here she is, sellotaping on images of her sister Uyrun. And Steve? Everywhere he goes he’s keeping an eye out for his brother Mark. “You can’t not look.” For those who remain, their lives have been disappeared, lost by the need to find resolution.

Something of that does come for Steve. Mark is discovered sleeping rough and we hear him on the phone, placidly refusing offers of money but promising he’ll come home in a couple of days. He doesn’t. Mark wants to stay lost. We’ll never find out why.