New British TV Show Reviews

December 10, 2010

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The Accused (12/10)
Jimmy McGovern's (The Lakes) new anthology series is about ordinary Britons on trial.  But it's no law-and-order type series, virtually none of it takes place in the courtroom except for the verdict.  Instead, using flashbacks that lead up to the case, The Accused comes across more like "Lost" than "Perry Mason."  In the first story, Christopher Eccleston plays Willy Houlihan, a freelance plumber who plans to leave his wife and family and go off with his girlfriend. But things get complicated.  Really complicated.  As he's about to announce the bombshell to his wife, his daughter suddenly announces her engagement.  Willy offers to pay for the entire wedding but then discovers a £22,000 payment for a job has bounced and he's broke.  Willy is all mouth and refuses to consider letting his future rich in-laws pick up the tab.  He's between a rock and a hard place and adding to his indignity, his truck breaks down next to a church.  He goes in looking for a miracle and the very perceptive priest tells him he'll have to leave his mistress. And would you believe it, Willy's luck changes when he finds £20,000 in the back of a mini-cab.  His problems are solved, right? He even manages to double it in a bet so he can return the original amount before gangsters get involved.  Willy can pay for the wedding, still dump his wife and leave town with his lover.  But, oh, it turns out the money was forged, and the police come calling for Willy on the day of his daughter's wedding.  Is this God's vengeance for Willy breaking his promise or justice?  The audience is left to decide for themselves.  As usual, Eccleston is note perfect, a part he was born to play, the angry working class bloke overwhelmed by the drama in his life.  Jimmy McGovern delivers his trademark show, short concise stories that introduce us to the characters and then put them through the emotion wringer. Other stars who showed up in later stories include Mackenzie Crook, Marc Warren, Andy Serkis, Juliet Stephenson and Peter Capaldi.

Any Human Heart (12/10)
This sprawling four part mini-series for Channel 4 is based on the book by William Boyd who also wrote the script.  Jim Broadbent ostensibly is the star, he plays Logan Mountstuaart, a man near the end of the his life who looks back at his career and loves throughout the 20th Century.  Three other actors play Logan at different stages of his life, as a boy, a young man in his 20s and then middle aged. His name may sound posh but Logan comes from humble stock, his dad was in the meat business and his mother was from Uruguay.  Dad wants Logan to join the family business after university but Logan has different ideas, especially once he manages to lose his virginity.  He meets Land, a politically active young woman who tells him to grow up and write something that will make people think and change the world.  He does write a successful novel and soon finds himself hobnobbing with Hemingway and Fleming in the years between the wars.  He even manages to marry into the aristocracy but then begins an affair with a beautiful BBC journalist.  I really like Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Logan in middle age.  He looks a bit like Brendan Frasier but with a British accent. In the present day, we see Broadbent as a lonely figure, remembering past glories and putting mementos from each different relationship into separate piles.  William Boyd, the writer, also wrote the screenplay for "Chaplin" and knows his way around biopic that takes us through the life of a person and their encounters with celebrities.  Here, Boyd uses the device of the fictional life of Mountstuaart to comment on life and Britons, particularly the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Tom Hollander and a nearly unrecognizable Gillian Anderson), that is, Edward and Mrs. Simpson.  Though Logan's life is filled with tragic moments, he is a flawed hero whose personal choices (particularly when it comes to women) are what undo him.

Chekhov: Comedy Shorts (12/10)
Digital channel Sky Arts 2 in conjunction with Steve Coogan's Baby Cow productions filmed a number of one-act plays written around 1889 by Anton Chekhov. These are all one-set productions, in fact if you watch them back-to-back like I did, you will notice it's all shot on the same set just dressed differently for each production. But the main reason for watching Chehov: Comedy Shorts is the very familiar actors from British TV performing each part.  "A Reluctant Tragic Hero" stars Mackenzie Crook and Johnny Vegas, "The Bear" has Julia Davis (Nighty Night), Julian Barratt, and Reece Shearsmith; "The Dangers of Tobacco," a monologue with Steve Coogan; and "The Proposal" with Mathew Horne, Sheridan Smith and Philip Jackson.  If none of those names mean anything to you, then Chekhov: Comedy Shorts is not for you.  Johnny Vegas in particular is very good, his rant about how terrible his life is practically becomes a monologue and means Mackenzie Crook just sits and reacts.  The Bear is the name given by Julia Davis's recently widowed character to a bill collector played by her real-life boyfriend Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh. Coogan's monologue about the dangers of tobacco drifts more into a description of his overbearing wife.  And in "The Proposal," Gavin & Stacey's Mathew Horne attempts to ask the hand of his beautiful neighbor (Smith) but gets easily sidetracked along the way. You can see the appeal this material had for the producers at Baby Cow with somewhat exaggerated comic characters each living their own personal part of hell.  Whether a 21st Century audience is ready to laugh out loud at 19th Century comedy might be beside the point, it's nice to dust off old plays and make them accessible to modern audiences using actors we are already comfortable watching.  Sky is increasing the amount of money they are pouring into original productions, both dramas, comedies and arts fare like Chekhov Comedy Shorts that in the past would have been on BBC2 or these days BBC4. For viewers, it's good to see the digital TV landscape isn't completely littered with repeats, reality shows, and cheap imports, but some honest-to-god homegrown drama.  Even if it was originally Russian.

DOA (12/10)
Kris Marshall (My Family) plays Tom Lassiter, a surgeon who's lost his medical license because a patient died.  Now he's a paramedic working for a surreal ambulance company in this BBC3 comedy pilot. Karen Taylor plays Julie, his co-worker who also sells marital aids when they aren't out on calls.  Meanwhile Tom's Doctor girlfriend Lucy takes his loss of status, and possible impending legal problems, to reconsider their relationship.  All in all, things aren't going too well.  This certainly isn't the first comedy to try to mine laughs from ambulance drivers, and if Tom's choice in lawyers is any sign, perhaps many of the choices that have lead him to this point are his fault.  Julie's ongoing battles with their dispatcher over the radio, and the other ambulance crews absurd down-time activities add to the craziness.  British TV commissioners are forever searching for the magic bullet work place comedy that will be as successful as The Office was. 

The First Men In The Moon (12/10)
Mark Gatiss, a busy fellow these days (SherlockDoctor Who) found the time to adapt and star this BBC4 version of HG Well's 1901 novel of the same name.  Gatiss uses a framing device with the story starting out on July 20, 1969 as a young British boy visiting a carnival is excited about the impending moon landing.  He discovers an old man in a tent with films he has shot who proceeds to tell how he in fact was the first man in the moon.  Gatiss plays Professor Cavor, a scientist who had recently discovered the gravity repealing Cavorite.  Along with Bedford (Rory Kinnear) they build a spacecraft and travel to the moon.  Once they land they discover both an atmosphere and intelligent life.  Cavor calls the creatures Selenites and they are achieved with passable but not quite cinema-grade computer animation.  Held prisoner by the Selenites and unable to communicate with them, Bedford and Cavor are separated and Bedford is forced to use their spaceship to escape alone before the lunar night freezes everything.  After many days he manages to land back on earth and encounters Lee Ingleby playing a helpful passerby with a ridiculous moustache who helps himself to the spaceship and flies off.  Penniless and with movies nobody believes are authentic, Bedford receives a radio message from Cavor that explains what ultimately happened to the moon's atmosphere. The framing device of the real moon landing really hit home for me, I was about the same age as the boy in the movie and I recall that day 41 years ago like it was yesterday.  Gatiss however would only have been two years old, far too young to remember the Apollo 11 mission first-hand.  But it creates a nice old-timey feel that movies used to have starting in a more familiar setting and then taking us back via narration to the incredible events on screen.  For the most part, The First Men in the Moon is a two-hander, with Gatiss and Kinnear in nearly every scene opposite each other.  Gatiss's Professor Cavor is very much in the mold of stereotypical eccentric British scientists who don't always see the real-world application of the discoveries they make.  Wells, like Gatiss, use the rather fantastical plot to make some rather pointed commentary on the human condition right here.  It seems a shame after mounting this entire 88 minute production that it was put out on BBC4.  In the multi-channel universe, it's easy to overlook a unique project like this.

Giles and Sue Live The Good Life (12/10)
Giles Coren and Sue Perkins have teamed up previously for The Supersizers wherein they would recreate a period in history for an entire week by living the lives and eating the food, however disgusting, from the time.  They're back in this new series that attempts to recreate the self-sufficiency movement of the 1970s that was epitomized by the sitcom The Good Life.  I thought they would just make an off-hand reference to the old series and move on, but no, this show is filled with clips--badly cropped for widescreen--and Giles and Sue dress up as characters in the show, even the haughty neighbors.  Of course it also shows the practical reality of turning a suburban backyard into a self-sustaining farm including building a chicken coop, getting some goats and even a pig. 

The Indian Doctor (12/10)
Sandjeev Bhaskar (Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars At No. 42) stars this this mini-series as an immigrant doctor in a small Welsh village in 1963 that was serialized over five days one week in the afternoon on BBC1.  I still don't quite understand the BBC's logic in hiding under a rock quality dramas like The Indian Doctor (and Moving On in previous weeks) when most viewers are still at work.  Perhaps iPlayer has so changed the TV environment that it doesn't really matter when a series goes out figuring most people can catch it On Demand afterwards.  In any event, I enjoyed The Indian Doctor whose premise might sound a bit like "Northern Exposure": a big city doctor stuck in a town of eccentrics in the middle of nowhere.  But Prem Sharma, the eponymous character played by Bhaskar, is married to Kamini, an intelligent but ambitious woman who doesn't take too well to their posting to south Wales.  But Prem takes to his new job and more or less makes a good impression on the villagers of Trefelin (not to mock the Welsh but it sounds a bit like a Doctor Who monster).  Some of the dramas include Prem's cute receptionist and her budding romance with a local boy who wants to be a singer, and the English couple who run the colliery who think they run the village and have a secret they hope Doctor Sharma won't uncover.  Kamini, played by Ayesha Dharker, is the most interesting character.  Used to a life of luxury back in India (they had 10 servants and hobnobbed with the Mountbattens), wants the best for her husband and herself, which to her means living in London.  But at the same time, she is a perceptive woman who forms a bond with a local truant boy and tries to teach him to read.  Aside from the Asian immigrant angle, The Indian Doctor will remind you of other similar period dramas like Heartbeat and Born and Bred but the good cast,  beautiful Welsh countryside and gentle humor make it an entertaining series despite its crummy timeslot.

Luther (12/10)
John Luther (Idris Elba), a London police detective, is first seen in pursuit of a pedophile whom he allows to fall from a platform and end up in a coma.  Luther suffers a mental breakdown for several months but then resumes work back at the Met.  On the job, he is a combination of Cracker and Columbo and his first case back pits him against Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a woman who may have killed her parents in cold blood.  Alice, a seductive redhead, plays mindgames with Luther because she knows he can't prove her guilt.  But Luther is no superman, his personal life is marred by his estrangement with his wife who has a new lover (Paul McGann).  Though I'm getting tired of the "maverick-who-goes-it-alone" style police procedural, it's the interplay between Luther and Alice that makes this series stand out. 

Misfits (12/10)
This E4 superhero series has become a cult show in Britain (and to fans in-the-know in the USA). It is a very gritty, urban series with challenging other words, about 180 degrees from anything that would get made in the United States. The premise sounds a bit like "Heroes": a group of ordinary people who suddenly discover they have superpowers and how they cope with them.  (Old TV addicts such as myself might also recall a Courtney Cox series called "Misfits of Science" about another set of teens with extraordinary abilities.) None of them are like Misfits.  At first look, it appears like it was shot on a housing estate with a budget of about £10.  It is neither glossy nor slick, in fact it takes place in an environment I'm sure we'd all prefer not to live in. The five main characters are all young offenders, that is, criminals who've been sentenced to doing community service in hideous orange jumpsuits. A strange storm strikes one day out of the blue and suddenly they realize they've all each gained a new ability (mind reading, invisibility, time turning). Except for Nathan (Robert Sheehan, who is hilarious) who during most of the first season doesn't seem to have any powers, but eventually discovers he's immortal. But they aren't the only ones with powers and each episode they encounter someone who also does, not usually for the better.  For the most part, despite their lack of opportunities, the misfits gang are fairly smart.  In one episode a shape shifter wreaks havoc by impersonating each of them and they are clever enough to realize what is going on fairly quickly.  However, a bit later they're in pursuit of the shapeshifter when the lazy scriptwriter's friend "Split up!" crops up, which means another whole round of not trusting one another.  If only they'd stuck together.  That aside, Misfits is a compelling show if you are prepared for something a bit different.

Moving On (12/10)
The BBC has been experimenting with original programming in the middle of weekday afternoons--anything to get "Diagnosis Murder" repeats off the air. Moving On, Jimmy McGovern's (The Lakes) latest anthology series, had 10 episodes total shown over a two week period.  Each one had a separate cast and story and takes us into the world of ordinary British people who are usually at a crossroads in their life--hence the title of the series.  In one, a woman (Susannah Harker) takes care of her mother (Anna Massey) with Alzheimers while her son is off backpacking across South America.  She'd like to have a normal life, go on dates, be able to leave the house, but she's trapped by her mother though she's loath to put her in a home.  In another episode, John Simm plays Moose, whose just gotten out of prison after serving eight years for armed robbery.  He wants to get back together with his wife and the daughter he hasn't seen since she was a baby, but his wife has a new partner whom the daughter considers as her dad. Simm is a clever bit of casting because we keep expecting him to explode or otherwise act out.  It would be simple for everyone if he just went back to prison for a parole violation, but Moving On isn't about easy answers.  Each episode puts its protagonists--and the audience--through emotional wringers but nearly always with an upbeat resolution at the end, a reward of sorts for all the suffering. I love these kind of shows because they are nice, compact first-rate dramas with familiar TV actors.  But I can see how they can be a hard sell to casual audiences more used to the familiarity an ongoing series with recurring characters TV typically provides. 

Thorne: Sleepyhead (12/10)
In this three-part Sky1 thriller based on the novels by Mark Billingham, David Morrissey plays (what else?) an intense but haunted police detective chasing a serial killer.  Someone is murdering young women but it turns out his real aim is to put them in comas unable to move their bodies.  It all has to do with a case Thorne had solved years earlier, although it turns out the killer's convenient suicide hides a secret Thorne wants to keep buried. His only confident is the gay forensics expert played by "The Wire's" Aidan Gillen.  David Morrissey is without a doubt one of the most watchable actors working on television today. From Holding On to State of Play, even pretending to be the Next Doctor in a Doctor Who Christmas special, he radiates utter believability when playing characters on the edge of breaking down.  That great baritone voice just dominates every scene he's in, you never want to take your eyes off him.  And yet, the most compelling character in Sleepyhead is the woman in the coma who can only communicate by blinking.  We the audience only can hear her thoughts and because of that, she becomes the most well-rounded and sympathetic person in the drama.  If you are picking up a negative vibe it's because I've gotten to the point where I want to just stick every police drama into Room 101 and never see another. Enough, already.

The Trip (12/10)
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play exaggerated versions of themselves in this mockumentary directed by the man who also gave us much the same in "Tristam Shandy," Michael Winterbottom.  Steve's been commissioned to travel to restaurants across the north and with his fictional girlfriend back in the United States, reluctantly asks Rob to accompany him.  Most of the series is a two-hander of the two of them talking, bickering, and eating fine food.  A lot of their time is spent arguing which of them does better celebrity impressions.  "The Trip" is all-talk and how much you can tolerate cartoon versions of Steve and Rob--in my case, quite a lot, I think they are hilarious.  Or just turn off the sound and look at all the delicious food that is being exquisitely prepared.  You'll want to go out to a two-star restaurant immediately, unless you happen to be a great chef.  The series was re-edited as a feature for international release.

Whitechapel (12/10)
An ITV police drama starring Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks) as a police detective trying to solve a series of murders.  Even the presence of comedy actors like Steve Pemberton and Peter Serafinowicz weren't enough to stop me crying out, "Enough of these police procedurals!"  There's just too much murder on TV (Thorne, Luther), far more than is justified by real life, and it's lazy TV making them just because they are popular and easily marketed.  I think TV would be much improved with all of them put into Room 101 along with all the glossy-floor reality shows like Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor

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Written and maintained by Ryan K. Johnson (
December 10, 2010