The year is almost halfway done. Let’s take a look at what worked on TV so far, what didn’t, and what fell somewhere in between. And let’s wonder why the Brits are kicking the Yanks’ ass in the TV department…
The Shadow Line (BBC) – A drug kingpin is mysteriously granted a pardon and released from prison… and on his way home he’s shot and killed. This series is about how both sides – the police and the underworld – investigate the crime, and how neither side can claim the moral high ground. This series is already generating comparisons to The Wire, and for good reason: it has a gigantic cast of morally realistic characters in which the police aren’t necessarily “good” and the gangsters not necessarily “bad”. Early episodes have a lot of nice touches. There’s one scene where a pair of police officers have a conversation about the murder at a police station whilst a pair of gangsters simultaneously have a similar conversation at their hideout. The scene is edited so that the police ask a question and the gangsters answer it, or vice versa. It’s not unique, but the length of the scene allows the viewer to learn a great deal of information in a short time, and it’s not too long to be annoying, like an SNL skit. And the cast is full of heavy hitters like Christopher Eccleston (who plays a reluctant successor to the murdered man), Stephen Rea (as “Gatehouse”, a mysterious man behind the scenes) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as DI Jonah Gabriel, a cop who developed amnesia thanks to a gunshot to the head, and who may not be the “good” cop he thinks he is). Highly recommended.
Silk (BBC) – For a British lawyer, there are few honors higher than becoming Queen’s Council. Having the initials “QC” after your name means you can get a job in almost any law firm in the realm, and you’ll probably even be able to pick and choose your clients or causes at will. “Taking silk”, from the distinctive silk robes QCs wear in court, is British legal slang for becoming a QC. This show features two attorneys – Martha Costello (Maxine Peake) and Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones) – fighting to become QCs. There’s also a “case of the week”, as well as lots of gameplaying and backstabbing from other members of the firm, including their respective interns, Nick Slade (Tom Hughes) and Niamh Cranitch (Natalie Dormer, with her natural blonde hair!). The show was created by Peter Moffat, a former barrister and creator of other classic Brit legal dramas like Kavanagh QC, North Square and Criminal Justice. It’s a serious drama that’s also great fun and, according to experts, is quite realistic… except that the actors are generally “too young and pretty” for the average British law firm.
Mad Dogs (Sky) – Four high school friends – John Simm and Philip Glenister from Life on Mars, Marc Warren (Band of Brothers) and Max Beesley (Hotel Babylon, Survivors) – take a trip to Spain to celebrate the early retirement of a fifth friend, Alvo (Ben Chaplin). But all is not what it seems. Alvo is coy about his line of work, and takes a few heated phone calls from his “associates”. When Alvo winds up dead, it’s up to the other four to figure out what’s happened. As the series goes on, the friends become ever more paranoid about Alvo’s “associates” and corrupt local cops.. and you can almost feel the tension coming through your TV set. I almost wanted to hide behind something while watching the last two episodes! And Alvo’s murder scene is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen on TV! The series ends abruptly on a cliffhanger… but fear not: season 2 is coming in 2012.
Shameless (Showtime) – I’ve never seen the original British show this is based on, mostly because it had already debuted by the time I discovered Internet TV (I don’t like jumping in to shows already in progress). So I can’t compare the two. And, as if it weren’t obvious enough in my posts, I’m really growing tired of premium cable shows that revel in people behaving badly. But I just can’t help myself – I like this show. That’s mainly due to the performances of William H. Macy, Joan Cusack and Emmy Rossum, Yes the weekly storylines get old – “dysfunctional family pulls together to solve the problem of the week” – but still… I think the show has remarkable depth and heart, even given how screwed up everyone is. Oh, and it’s funny, too!
Zen (BBC) – Zen is a series of three 90-minute shows based on a series of novels by British crime author Michael Dibdin. Aurelio Zen is an detective with a long career in the state police in his native Italy. He’s constantly juggling his career, his girlfriend and his aging mother, and he often takes cases just to escape his domestic struggles. He’s often put in difficult positions by his superiors, and sometimes has to resort to barely legal methods to get results. So even though he might appear crooked at times, it’s only because his boss has forced him to act that way. The series is sometimes difficult for me to watch, because the mixed cast of British and Italian actors are all supposed to be Italian. While I can accept a show where all the characters have British accents (HBO’s Rome, for example), having an Italian lead actress who barely speaks English next to the great Rufus Sewell is just confusing. In any case, this show (which is entirely self-contained, by the way) was cancelled back in February because BBC boss Danny Cohen said that “there were already enough male crime-fighters on TV”. It’s thought that another network might pick up the series, though, so keep your eyes peeled.
Laid. (Australian Broadcasting Company) – Roo McVie is in her late 20s and has a dead-end job at a market research firm. She’s cute and quirky but doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. And then all the men she’s slept with start dying under mysterious circumstances. It doesn’t sound like a comedy, but it is. And it’s quite funny, actually. Alison Bell is as cute as a button as Roo. Celia Pacquola, plays Roo’s best friend and roomate EJ, cracks me up when the two turn in to American-style detectives, complete with a corkboard full of “suspects” and their connections. Thankfully, season 2 has been greenlit, so we’ll see more of this show soon!
Twenty Twelve (BBC) – This is a comedic mockumentary about the “Olympic Deliverance Commission” for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Hugh Bonneville plays Ian Fletcher, the competent head of the organization. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by some of the most incompetent people imaginable. For example, Kay Hope (Amelia Bullmore) is the basketcase “Head of Sustainability”, and wants to turn everything “green” even it means throwing a wrench into everyone else’s plans. Graham Hitchins (Karl Theobald) is the painfully awful “Head of Infrastructure” who can’t even give a bus driver correct directions to a hotel. Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) is “Head of Brand”; she works for an ad agency and speaks almost exclusively in marketing speak. She also would prefer to have Robbie Williams or Cheryl Cole light the torch in the opening ceremonies instead of the Queen or Prime Minister because Williams or Cole “scores better with the demographics”. It’s a testament to Hynes acting skills that I want to punch her square in the face every time I see her! Nick Jowett (Vincent Franklin) is “Head of Contracts” and the only other competent person in the office aside from Fletcher and Fletcher’s secretary Sally (Olivia Colman). It’s a funny show, and it even reflects real life, too! The day after the first episode aired (in which Sharpe hires a “cutting edge” artist to design a countdown clock which actually counts down in reverse, to the say the clock was unveiled) the real-life countdown clock in Trafalgar Square stopped working! heh.
Endgame (Showcase Canada) – Arkady Balagan (Shawn Doyle) is a Russian chess champion who came to Vancouver to play in a chess tournament. His fiancee, Rosemary, was killed by a car bomb right outside the hotel. As a result, Arkady develops agoraphobia and refuses to leave the hotel. Hotel management, considerate at first, eventually demand that he pay his bill. With no other way to come up with the money, Arkady begins solving crimes from within the hotel. He’s assisted by Sam Besht (Torrance Coombs), a college student and chess fanatic who does most of Arkady’s legwork. Alcina (Carmen Aguirre), a hotel maid, Danni (the uberhot Katharine Isabelle), the hotel bartender, and Pippa (Melanie Papalia), Rosemary’s younger sister, who wants to know who killed her, also help him out. Sometimes Arkady’s “logic visions” are a stretch, but the show’s pretty entertaining, especially when the bumbling house detective, Hugo (Patrick Gallagher) gets involved. Sadly, Showcase has cancelled this show, but there’s an energetic online movement to get them to change their minds.
Monroe (ITV) – James Nesbitt stars as Gabriel Monroe, a brilliant neurosurgeon who is haunted by the death of his young daughter from a brain tumor. His depression over her death causes his marriage to fall apart, and his bitterly sarcastic style makes him unpopular with his colleagues. But his brilliance always manages to save the day. If it sounds a lot like House MD, well, that’s because it is. Writer Peter Bowker has never claimed otherwise. But whereas House seems to focus on a brilliant man succeeding in spite of himself, we’re sure that Monroe will succeed professionally.. but just might fall apart personally. It’s a haunting and well-made series.
Scott & Bailey (ITV) – Many folks don’t care for this show, which is about two female detectives in Manchester. I think that’s because the show isn’t about crimes, it’s about the detectives, and all the trials and tribulations of their personal lives. It’s true that the crimes the two investigate aren’t especially interesting, and are often quite predictable. But that’s not the real story here. It’s about DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) and DC Rachel Bailey (the strangely hot Suranne Jones). Once you grasp this, the show gets much better. After all, no one watched Cagney & Lacey for the crime bits – it was all about the two detectives.
The Killing (AMC) – This show can’t seem to win with the viewers. On one hand, you have people who enjoy the slow, deliberate pace of the series, who think that the show is about the journey, not the destination. To them, the series is much like Twin Peaks in that isn’t about the murder of Rosie Larsen, it’s about the people left in her wake. But then you have the impatient folks who think the whole mystery could have been solved in three episodes, and often belittle the police work of the main characters. Count me in the first group: I’m an adult, and I don’t need instant gratification in my TV shows (although the impatient bunch do have a point about how much of what Linden and Holder have discovered has fallen in to their laps instead of being the result of good police work). Still, it’s an engaging show and mostly worth the time. It’s certainly a love or hate affair.
Chaos (CBS) – I don’t know why this show, about a renegade group of spies within the CIA, didn’t work. It was as funny and action-packed as Burn Notice or Covert Affairs. It was certainly no worse than any other show on one of the Big 4 networks this time of year. But it just never clicked with viewers, even with Kurtwood Smith as the the wise-ass (and much smarter than he looks) director of the CIA.
The Borgias (Showtime) – Showtime’s big follow-up to The Tudors nearly missed the mark. I often felt tempted to call it The Bore-gias, as the show seemed to really drag on and on in the middle episodes. But it picked up towards the end, and ended on a mostly satisfying note. I can’t wait to see if next season moves a little faster than this one. I think this is one of those shows that (nudity and violence excepted) might actually be better on broadcast TV with 10-12 minutes cut from most episodes.
Franklin and Bash (TNT) – This show, about two renegade lawyers who still live as though they were in college, just tries too hard. There are too many over-the-top pop culture references, and the stunts they pull in the courtroom would have gotten any real lawyer disbarred several cases ago. It’s not awful by any means, especially with such a talented cast. But it’s telling that TNT debuted it in May, when there was absolutely nothing else to watch on American airwaves.
King (Showcase) – King is a perfectly adequate cop show from Canada. The lead, Amy Price-Francis, is perfectly adequate in her looks and acting abilities (think of her as a poor man’s Kate Walsh). The other actors are perfectly adequate. The storylines are perfectly adequate. It’s all good, especially the theme song, which was heavily influenced by 70s cop shows. But there’s just not a lot that’s interesting about this show. Like Franklin and Bash, had this show come out in the fall, I’d watch one episode and forget about it.
Jon Benjamin has a Van (Comedy Central) – I love Jon Benjamin. He was my favorite part of Home Movies and is a huge part of what makes Archer so damn funny. But while this sketch comedy show displays flashes of brilliance, the skits tend to just go on and on and on, sucking the funny right out of it. I enjoyed the “Little Little Italy” sketch at first, but my jaw hit the floor when they returned from commercial and kept it going (it already seemed several minutes too long before they went to break). With tighter writing and editing, this show could be awesome. But as it is now, it’s a pass.
Camelot (Starz) – It’s about King Arthur! It has Eva Green, Claire Forlani and Tamsin Egerton getting naked! Frequently! But that’s just not enough to save this series. Joseph Fiennes really is an awful actor, and his portrayal as Merlin is perhaps the worst in his corpus. And while I get that Arthur wasn’t supposed to be wise and imposing from the start, I just don’t see how Jamie Campbell Bower, cute though he might be, could ever develop the gravitas needed for the role. Worse yet, this show felt really cheap. Watching it, one felt like he was watching a cheap imitation of something from HBO or Showtime, or one of those direct-to-DVD knockoffs like Snakes on a Train.
Outcasts (BBC) – The writers for this series suffered from a disease I like to call “Galacticaitis”. It was supposed to be a sci-fi series about a group of humans setting up on a new planet now that Earth has been “exhausted”. But, like Battlestar Galactica, the series became more of a soap opera in space than sci-fi. Worse, the writers couldn’t seem to make up their minds about which direction they wanted the show to go. Just when it seemed like they’d had enough of impromptu love affairs and women crying over lost babies, they’d fall back in to it with some other (rambling) plotline that never went anywhere. Sadly, the cast (which includes Liam Cunningham, Hermione Norris, Amy Manson, Daniel Mays and Jamie Bamber) deserved better. With even the worst BBC series, I normally think “well, at least it’s better than Criminal Minds or Two and a Half Men“… but in this case, no.
Game of Thrones (HBO) – I can see the hate mail coming in already. I’ll admit that fantasy isn’t my favorite genre, but I thought with HBO and author George R. R. Martin behind it, it might be good. And in many ways it is. But it’s just too big and moves too fast for those of us who haven’t read the novels to keep up with. And don’t act like I’m the only one saying this: even hardcore fans of the books have been talking on message boards about how rushed the whole story feels. They also dislike the cheapness of the series (we get that battle scenes are expensive, but the show could sorely use them). I’ll watch the rest of season 1, or until Emilia Clarke’s character is killed, whichever comes first. Amusing aside: comedian Amy Poehler is a fan of the show, and had this exchange with Martin. Poehler: “I like the blondie!” Martin: “She’s straight out of drama school.” Poehler: “You can tell. I think she left all her shirts and bras at drama school.”
Bob’s Burgers (Fox) – As I said earlier, I’m a huge fan of H. Jon Benjamin. But can someone explain the appeal of this show? Aside from Bob, all the characters are lame, unfunny stereotypes. Heck, this show makes Seth MacFarlane shows seem funny in comparison!
Teen Wolf (MTV) – Yeah, I know I’m not in MTV’s demographic for this show. But it still sucks. I know that it was shot in Atlanta, and that Russell Mulcahy (of Duran Duran videos fame) directed the pilot. And I know that it basically shares only a name with the 1985 Michael J. Fox film. I get all that. But it still sucks. The problems of pretty teenagers don’t interest me in the least. To its credit, however, Teen Wolf is significantly better than any other show on MTV these days, so there’s that.
The Chicago Code (Fox) – Never was so much talent wasted. Fox needs to stop making shows that are a mile long and an inch deep.
Episodes (Showtime) – Sean and Beverly Lincoln are a couple who are writers for a successful British TV show called Lyman’s Boys. They’re called to Los Angeles to direct an American version of the show, which is a disaster, not only professionally, but for their marriage as well (surprise, surprise). I like all the actors involved in the show, but I just didn’t find it all that funny. If you really like the premise of the show, check out the similar (and much funnier) 2006 film The TV Set, in which David Duchovny plays a writer trying to get his show on the air.
The Cape (NBC) – When you try to watch a show five times and fall asleep every single time (including once during daytime), you know a show just isn’t good.
Martina Cole’s The Runaway (Sky) – British author Martina Cole has made a career out of writing crime novels set in East London. I didn’t care for the last adaptation of her work – Martina Cole’s The Take – just because I felt skeevy after watching it, as if I needed to take a shower or something. This one is much better. It’s about the fatal attraction of Cathy Connor (Joanna Vanderham) and Eamonn Docherty (Jack O’Connell). Although they are not blood related, they are brought up and brother and sister, but have been in love with each other for years. One shocking event tears them apart, and the rest of the series is about them trying to get back together again. Alan Cumming shines as transvestite Desrae, who takes Cathy in and introduces her to the sleazy world of 1960s Soho.
Exile (BBC) – Life on Mars’ John Simm stars as Tom Ronstadt, a journalist who has let women, drink and cocaine go to his head. Fired from his job, he goes back to his family home where his sister Nancy (Olivia Colman) cares for their aging, Alzheimer’s-affected father Samuel (Jim Broadbent). Samuel and Tom have a complicated relationship. Samuel was once an award-winning journalist, and that’s what inspired Tom to get in the business. But Samuel was also a tyrant around the house, and Tom can’t forget one day when Samuel beat him senseless as he was going through some of his dad’s papers. Determined to find out why his father beat him that day, he begins digging… not just through papers and files, but through his dad’s confused brain as well. It seems Samuel’s mind holds evidence of a dark (dark!) conspiracy. Broadbent is simply amazing as an often confused Alzheimer’s sufferer. It’s worth watching for his performance alone.
Marchlands (ITV) – This psychological thriller tells the story of a little girl who died in 1967. The story is told by way of three different families who lived in the same house over the years. There are the Bowens, who lived in the house in the 60s (and who include Ruth, grieving mother of the dead girl). Then there are the Maynards, who lived in the house in 1987. Lastly we have Mark Ashburn and Nisha Parekh, and unmarried (but pregnant) couple who have returned to Mark’s hometown to raise the baby away from the city.We find out the truth throughout the five episodes as the story weaves back and forth between the three generations. I especially loved the tension between 80s couple Eddie and Helen Maynard (Dean Andrews and Alex Kingston). When their daughter seems to communicate with the dead, Helen assumes that their daughter has a psychological problem and sends her to a doctor. Eddie wants to believe his daughter, and is eventually proven correct in doing so. This is an adult horror series – although it’s a ghost story at heart, there’s not a lot of cheap CGI. It’s much deeper than that.
Case Histories (BBC) – Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Brotherhood) stars as Jackson Brodie, a former police detective who has gone private. Based on three novels by Kate Atkinson, the series is definitely worth a viewing!