Friday, 30 March 2012

A Quiet Word - Upstairs Downstairs, White Heat, Homeland, Mad Men

Not that these dramas have a whole lot in common (though Claire Foy appears in two and would have to join the cast of 'EastEnders' to be beamed onscreen in the UK more frequently than she is currently).

'Upstairs...' finished last weekend, with a Nazi spy who happened to be Lady Agnes's sister, and Lady Agnes's husband's lover - keep up! - tipping herself over the balcony to splat onto the front hall floor as the world descended into the maelstrom of WWII.  A bit like the end of the first series of Downton, but one war later, and very dishonorable stuff afoot.  At least Fellowes has the decency to keep pure villainy largely below stairs, harrumph!  Much to like in the series, not least butler Mr. Pritchard, cook Mrs. Thack, and the believable and hesitant romance between chauffeur Spargo and nursemaid/housemaid Beryl.  And is it us or does Laura Haddock look like a young Lesley-Ann Down?  They missed a trick not casting her as a Bellamy relative.  Things upstairs were a little forced, though.  Neither Hallam nor Agnes, as Master and Mistress of 165 Eaton Place, are sympathetic enough to drag viewers upstairs through the green baize door....

Meanwhile 'White Heat' stretches credulity week by week, in the way that 'Friends' did.  By the 1970s they hadn't moved on?  Not saying they wouldn't still meet, but... no other friends, no partners from outside?  And why would they still entertain the obnoxious, privileged, drug-addicted Jack when they had moved on from his 'social experiment' student house and got jobs and, presumably, lives?  His sole function at mealtimes seemed to be to offend someone.

'Homeland' is following 'White Heat's lead, only having more episodes, it has much, much further to stretch.  Imagine you're an agent who is absolutely obsessed with the idea that a returned prisoner of war marine is now a terrorist.  You think you've finally got him by making him take a polygraph test to prove he gave a razor blade to a fellow terrorist in custody, so that he could kill himself.  What's the last thing you would do?  Get steaming drunk and sleep with him, maybe?  This terrorist who represents everything you fear and loathe?  Of-course, now that you've done this, when he passes the polygraph test, you try to prove that he was cheating by having him asked whether he's been unfaithful to his wife.  He obligingly lies, without a flicker on the graph, but... you can't say how you know he's cheating!  Duh!  Well-made hokum, but hokum for all that.

'Mad Men' is a more subtle drama, and it's back after a long break.  Season 5 is only on Sky (Ali resists, Dan grudgingly adds to the Murdoch empire) and now it's 1967.  All the previous elements are there, yes all, and that means that nothing much has moved on in almost 2 years.  Joan's baby looks younger than most TV newborns, and while Don has married his secretary and turned her into a 'creative', the agency is still staffed by the same chiefs and the same lack of Indians.  Dan knows a thing or two about ad agencies and their history, and this scenario is about as likely as a Labour landslide in Kensington.  Part of 'Mad Men's fascination is in pondering what it is that's so fascinating, when so little happens in each episode.  Is it the sharpness?  The script and the suits are only offset by the hourglass curves of the ladies.  Maybe we'll work it out by the end of this series, but then we've said that the last 4 times.

Titanic (Drownton on Sea)

All credit to Alison Graham of the Radio Times for the moniker above.  The fact that the whole of this drama is slightly longer than the actual sinking, yet crams in the design, building, negotiations, pre-voyage, voyage, iceberg and sinking, and no doubt some of the aftermath, says it all.  Episode one dashed through the mechanics of the wrecking with all attention on Fellowes's favourite preoccupation: class divisions.  Like Downton, this has romance, frills, grand settings and painfully obvious dialogue.  Unlike Downton, we know the ending, but at least this is actually covering the same events in each episode, rather than just feeling like watching the same episode over and over.

The stars were out when the iceberg loomed up ahead, and the stars were out queuing for the lifeboats, having flocked to the wildly successful Downton creator's new show.  There can't be a single UK agent whose coffers are empty of 'Titanic' money with the huge cast, who play their roles with varying success (Celia Imrie, where are you supposed to be from?!)  Undeniably a Titanorak's wet or worst dream, depending on which geek feature appeals, but for the general public, this goes nowhere an old British film, a big-budget but dismally cliched Cameron effort and a real ship with a couple of thousand souls hasn't gone before.  Maybe we should let it rest in its watery grave now?

The Syndicate

I, Ali, will come clean straightaway and say that the first fifteen minutes looked quite good - a bit soapy, with Tim Spall's lugubrious mug saying it all - but watchable.  After that... I fell asleep.  But I will watch the second episode and I hope I took in some of it while snoozing.  I WILL, I WILL.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

One Night

One Night is a new 4-parter on BBC1.  It's being shown over 4 nights, at the impossibly late start time of 10.35pm (for a school night), so before we'd seen any episodes we wondered whether the BBC was trying to bury it.  There are no details on IMDB, for example....

Against these expectations, it's actually really good.

The show follows the events of one night, with each episode following a different protagonist (like... 'Titanic'!).  It's set in London in an area where Lakemead, a large council estate, borders on some large, expensive, owner-occupied houses.  The first episode followed Ted (Douglas Hodge) who lives in one of the houses and got into a confrontation with some of the kids from the estate.  As the episode progressed to his barbeque dinner party the tone became slightly awkward - more Mike Leigh than Spike Lee - but overall it was a very convincing and well-acted drama.

The escalation of events was very plausible; in fact the only real TWNH was that the police would still have come quickly even if someone tried to cancel a 999 call: this is standard procedure, in case intimidation has taken place.

The big shame of this show is that it's on so late.  Maybe Danny Cohen just didn't like it  - perhaps it was commissioned before he became head of BBC1? - or maybe it tails off in later episodes.  We'll see.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Love Life

Joe (nasty footman from 'Downton') leaves Lucy (eager, tough sidekick from 'DCI Banks') when she starts getting broody.  He comes back a year later to find her heavily pregnant, no father in sight.  If this sounds like a slim concept, the script does little to fatten it up, and while the performers are likeable, it treads territory wearily familiar from soapland.

And it's one of the worst baby bumps we've seen in a long time.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

White Heat

TV producers, and presumably viewers, have a longstanding preoccupation with the love lives of groups of friends, a la 'Cold Feet' and 'This Life'.  Seemingly we love to see people form deep friendships and betray each other.  'White Heat' takes this format and adds a 'Big Chill' opening (the death of one of the group) and a big dose of social history straight from 'Our Friends in the North'.

First episodes are often awkward, bearing the burden of introducing everyone and generally setting the scene.  The scene looks prop-perfect and the performances are as good as anyone would expect from a classy cast, which provides a gloss over the unsubtleties.  It's an ok ride so far, but a slow one, with only marginally engaging characters.  The six flatmates are very PC for 1965: gender balance; the men a gay Asian, a Caribbean, and a Northener; the women an arty blonde, a brainy brunette and a poor overweight Catholic.  There are three initial attractions pointing to pairings that will of-course rearrange over time.  And just in case you forget which time they're all in, there's plenty of television and radio reminding you of events, and a soundtrack almost as intrusive as that of 'Heartbeat'.  Nothing by The Who and no mention of an ailing Churchill, however, can detract from anachronisms like telling a girl to take out her aggression in the gym.  Boxing gym?  She'd be waiting a long time for a Fitness First.

Comparisons to 'Our Friends...' are inevitable, and not discouraged by the BBC, but this may prove to be a double-edged sword.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Continuations: Homeland and Prisoners' Wives


We did at least get a belated explanation in the second episode about Carrie's condition: she gets medication off the record from her doctor sister's 'samples cupboard'.  Says a lot about the CIA.  As does the fact that the surveillance team have missed a blind spot - the garage - which just happens to be where Brody stashes his prayer mat.  When Grace is said at table, he is distinctly uncomfortable, and refuses alcohol, but they haven't yet picked up on his changed habits.

Elsewhere there is more gratuitous nudity, so no mainstream network restraints here, and a distinct lack of any kind of therapy for Brody.  In times when you can be diagnosed with PTSD after being shut in a lift for half an hour, it seems unlikely that he would be left unsupported.

The other problem is that there are still a trillion episodes to go.  While it's not boring, watching Carrie's clutching at straws is already beginning to tire us out, and the only plausible (as opposed to wildly implausible, so ruling nothing out here) truth is that Brody is either a terrorist agent, a double agent or a peaceful Muslim.  Which leaves at least half a trillion episodes devoted to painfully slow plot development or twists and turns that turn out to be red herrings.  Hmm.  We're clinging on for dear life, but we may yet give up the fight.

Prisoners' Wives

The penultimate episode this week was well-structured drama with some great ensemble acting from Polly Walker, Emma Rigby, Pippa Haywood and Natalie Gavin (so impressive in 'The Arbor' and equally good here).  Wonderful to have characters and plots that don't feel forced, and can't wait for the finale.  We hear there's no word on a second series.  C'mon Beeb, back your quality output!