Narc de triomphe

Here is the latest Zelig-style shot of me standing next to some famous people. Actually, you probably don’t recognise them, although the gentlemen on the right was in Betty Blue, among many other French films. He is the urbane Jean-Hughes Anglade, one of the four principals in smash hit French cop drama Braquo, whose second season begins on French cable channel Canal+ in November, and whose first season premieres here on FX from October 30. I’ve seen the first four episodes. It’s fantastic. I’m in. And on Friday, I hosted a Q&A about the show at London’s Soho Hotel for the British media, with three of the cast, plus executive producer Claude Chelli, who is on the left. The other gentleman, whose impressive head is why many commentators are already calling it “the French Shield“, is Joseph Malerba. Here is his head, in character, alongside Anglade’s moustache. Their co-stars are Nicholas Duvauchelle (who wasn’t in London for the Q&A) and Karole Rocher (who didn’t hang around at the reception afterwards).

Critic Stephen Armstrong, who was also on the panel on Friday, wrote a very good introductory piece about Braquo for the Sunday TimesCulture, which is not much use to you here, as it will be hidden behind the Times‘ paywall. So this is all you need to know in advance:

Braquo will also, inevitably, be compared to The Wire – a comparison underwritten by the fact that Canal+, effectively France’s “fourth TV channel”, seems to have been forged in the image of HBO, with its strong adult fare and subscription base. It bears some similarity: it’s gritty and handheld and exposes the dark underbelly of a large city, in this instance Paris; its central quartet of cops are prone to “crossing the line” in order to bring justice to scumbags, and their maverick methodology means they rub up against their chiefs on a regular basis. What makes it different from The Wire is that it is not especially interested in the criminals. So let’s put a stop to the Wire comparisons. Although, having said that, Braquo‘s creator, writer and predominant season-one director Olivier Marchal, was once a cop, so he has that in common with The Wire‘s co-creator Ed Burns. Oh, and it also employs novelists as writers.

I shall warn you now, it’s violent. In the opening scene of the first episode of eight, it sets out its stall. This is strong stuff. As it’s subtitled, we must hope we are getting the full impact of the writing, which is sexually frank and full of expletives. It was odd to watch this episode on the big screen before the Q&A with the French-speaking cast and producer, who were watching it with the English translation. Of the four, Chelli was the most fluent English speaker, and he said he was satisfied with the way it had been subtitled. (It’s been done for a British audience – we get “bog” for toilet, for instance.) The cinematically dingy warehouse that seems to pass as a police station in the suburbs of Paris is an atmospheric, tactile base for our rogue cops; it even has its own bar – which, it turns out, is not a wishful fantasy. So this is a glimpse into the world of French urban policing that has its own attractions for a foreign audience.

All cops shows genuflect to American culture, and it’s there in Braquo, but it’s peculiarly Gallic, too, very moody and a touch existential. There are few laughs. There is little banter. It’s incredibly dark, and if the first four episodes are anything to go by, Eddy (Anglade), Theo (Duvauchelle), Roxanne (Rocher) and Walter (Malerba), these four have a habit of making things worse with their reckless procedural ways. And demons? They’ve got ‘em!

What I like is that FX are getting into the imported foreign-language drama groove. BBC4 have made it their trademark with The Killing and Spiral (whose Law & Order-style equal emphasis on the legal system makes it much more officey than Braquo, so the pair can be watched as companions to one another), and SkyArts are currently following suit with the Italian Romanzo Criminale, a period mafia origins story set in Rome whose first episode I enjoyed. I say, the more subtitled dramas the merrier. Who would have guessed five or ten years ago that the boutique channels would be fighting over imports with writing at the bottom of the screen? Let they fight. We, the viewers, are the winner.

It was fun to host a Q&A whose panel were not English, and one of whom, Rocher, spoke through a translator. (I’m hoping that watching Braquo will help me with my French, which is schoolboy at best, and hasn’t been tried out in the field since 2005 when I last went to Paris.) I discovered that US imports are all over French TV, and that, less predictably, the biggest bought-in shows out there are The Mentalist, and CSI in all its forms. As for British shows, Chelli was a big fan of The Shadow Line, which hasn’t been shown in France, and Red Riding, which has. I was interested to find out that one of the key influences on Marchal in terms of style and story was the lesser-known American cop drama, Joe Carnahan’s Narc from 2002, starring Ray Liotta, which I must admit I loved, as it seemed to hark back to 70s classics like The French Connection, which is nice, as there really is a French connection now. (Before the Q&A we had a lively discussion about how the best American cinema was influenced by the French New Wave, and yet, this grew out of a bunch of French critics’ love of classic Hollywood directors like Hawks and Hitchcock, so the give-and-take between the two cultures has always been potent.)

Anyway, looks out for Braquo, if you have access to FX. They’re about to start work on Season Three in France. And no, Monsieur Anglade didn’t really want to talk about Betty Blue. I tried.

King Alan

Sorry I haven’t posted all week. I’ve been ridiculously busy. Here is one of the things I have been busy doing: the second Telly Addict TV review column for the Guardian. In it, I review Made In Chelsea, The Apprentice, Two Greedy Italians and the pirates episode of Doctor Who. Unfortunately, they have added a comments section at the bottom this week, which they didn’t do last week. On doctor’s orders, I am going to use all my willpower not to read the Guardian comments, as they can be crueler and more dismissive than anything you’ll read under articles on the Mail or Telegraph websites, and my mental health must be preserved. I’m all for dialogue and debate and interaction, but I mustn’t get dragged in. Hope you enjoy the new column. I am enjoying doing it. One day, I’ll successfully embed it. But not yet.

My face, your computer

It can be revealed. For the last month, I have been piloting with the Guardian – a newspaper I have “taken”, near-exclusively, for the entirety of my adult, newspaper-reading life, but have pretty much continually failed to get a job with – a brand new TV review column. Except not a column in the newspaper. Get with it, Granddad. This will be a column that you actually watch, with your eyes, and listen to, with your ears. It is called Telly Addict. Naturally, at this early stage, I appear to be unable to embed it, so you’ll have to use this link for now.

The idea is, every Friday (or Saturday morning, as they will load it up at midnight), you will get a new one, right there on your screen, and my little face will move its mouth about and words of wit and wisdom will come out of it. And the words will be about three or four programmes that have been on the telly, and which I have watched, on the telly. Our aim is for me to talk about those programmes which have been on, and which you might have seen, rather than watch advance tapes or DVDs from the needy broadcasters. I already watch a lot of telly, so this should not present a problem.

These are some grabs from one of the three, yes three, full pilots we have already made in the run-up to today’s actual launch. (They are produced in the Guardian‘s actual TV studios, and are made by Matt and Andy.) You must pilot, so that you can make mistakes away from the public gaze, and we fiddled with the chair, and the angle, and the crop, and the zoom, and we seem to be satisfied with the one that is displayed in the embedded film above. I hope you are too.

Having been stung by the vitriolic mania of the Guardian comments sections before, I fear what may be left there by crotchety human beings, so I might just stay here, and take your considered comments onboard instead. It’s just a man talking about telly. You are encouraged to disagree, but don’t – as the visitors to the Guardian website will – leave cruel comments about my face. I can’t really do much about my face.

Everybody happy?

I read a fascinating quote from Christopher Eccleston in the Observer magazine yesterday: “The staples of drama are not people who have been happy. Nobody wants to watch a drama about a happy person.” Let’s just run that past again: Nobody wants to watch a drama about a happy person. I really like Christopher Eccleston; he’s my third favourite Doctor and I was lucky enough to interview him for Elizabeth and he turned out to be exactly as I wanted him to be: earnest, serious, but not above self-lacerating honesty and good humour. So, I take what he says seriously. Especially about acting and drama. And this quote has been churning around in my mind ever since. (Probably because I’ve been painting; stuff churns in your mind when you’re doing DIY.)

Last night I eagerly sat down to watch one of four new homegrown TV programmes starting this week: Exile on BBC1. (There’s also Vera, Case Sensitive and The Shadow Line.) Inevitably, it’s in three parts, but those three parts play out over consecutive nights because today’s terrestrial TV schedulers think we’ll forget everything in seven days. Ironically, Exile is about a man who forgets more than just what happened in a TV programme. In fact, what it is, is TV’s first Alzheimer’s thriller. As tricky as that may seem, creator Paul Abbott and his star protegee Danny Brocklehurst have welded two genres to create a third, and for that, you must applaud their guts and determination. And BBC1’s.

Exile began last night with John Simm’s lad-mag writer losing his job and his girlfriend (somebody else’s wife, naturally), and heading North, in the driving rain, to somewhere suburban in Lancashire to rehabilitate. (He’s also a coke-snorter, so it’s literal as well as emotional.) He returns to the family home, where his dad, Jim Broadbent, a former campaining journalist, is in the throes of Alzheimer’s, looked after, round the clock, by saintly daughter and Simm’s older sister Olivia Coleman. Although, well-written, she’s not saintly in the beyond-belief sense, just less selfish than John Simm, who hasn’t been back for years. The house is brilliantly grey and gloomy – as who’s got time to redecorate? – which means it is frozen in time, just like Broadbent, and its ghosts are still in the walls, which makes Exile about the past, and about reconnecting with it. It’s also an acting gift for Simm and Broadbent, who get to do two-handers about fathers and sons, and inevitably rise to the occasion. Apart from the heinous crime of having Simm call Coleman “Sis” when they first speak – in case we are too stupid to work out that a man and a woman who know each other and have the same dad are brother and sister – Brocklehurst does his best to sidestep the usual drama cliches, and instead layers on the reality of the frankly unbearable situation with subtlety and wit.

The thriller begins to emerge towards the end of part one, when a memory sparked by being back in the old house reignites Simm’s curiosity about a story his dad was working on before he started to lose his mind. The audacity of drawing a conspiracy thriller out of what feels like a traditional family chamber piece with a box-ticking “issue” at its core is head-spinning. But don’t come here looking for glamour or flashy thrills. It’s clearly going to be a depressing ride. Episode one ground lovelessly from failure and despondence to family tragedy and unsavoury symptomatic detail to rushed sex and a spin round the Co-Op with admirable commitment to the dreary and everyday that are the hallmarks of Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott’s work. Except it’s Abbott that has carved thrillers out of this morass, and you detect his hand here.

Brocklehurst has proved his licks on Shameless and Clocking Off, and we’re in able company here, but we go back to Eccleston’s theory: Nobody wants to watch a drama about a happy person. Let’s hope not, or nobody’s going to watch Exile. In this country we do gloom and grit so well. I loved it when Simm re-entered his teenage bedroom, now stripped of all posters, but still with the “same curtains.” It was like something out of Tim Burton: all wonky angles and tiny window and a headboard from Hell. Just making sure nobody thought Exile was a light drawing room comedy. Let’s see where it goes next.

Oh, and some of you will have spotted this already, if you’ve been reading: I have just created a drama, or a comedy drama, about a happy person. Still, I don’t expect anybody to watch it, as it’s on the radio.

A jazz thing

The Sopranos ended in 2007, The Wire in 2008. So, what did HBO do next? Well, it gave the creators of those two epic, HBO-defining shows free range to do whatever the hell they wanted. David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, went off with writer-producer Eric Overmeyer to New Orleans and made Treme, which premiered way back in April 2010 on HBO, and has finally reached our shores via Sky Atlantic. David Chase, who created The Sopranos, is currently developing a miniseries for HBO about the birth of cinema called The Ribbon Of Dreams; meanwhile, the core writers and producers of The Sopranos have spread out to form a quality drama platoon, Matthew Weiner defecting to Showtime to produce the magnificent Mad Men, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess creating the contemporary NYPD family procedural Blue Bloods for CBS, and Terence Winter sticking around to create Boardwalk Empire.

So, three of the four major post-Sopranos shows are period pieces. Interesting. The Wire‘s David Simon, meanwhile, a man of the streets, is too interested in the drama around him to go backwards, which is why Treme, though set three months after Katrina in 2005, is all about now. Treme and Boardwalk are defining shows for Sky Atlantic, now airing on Friday and Saturday night, respectively. We’re a number of episodes in, so worth assessing where we’re at.

Treme is, in many ways, nothing like The Wire. But it gets under the skin of New Orleans just like Simon’s previous show did with Baltimore. Treme, or Tremé, is a district not totally decimated by the hurricane, but predominantly black, and serves as a capsule for the themes that run through the city like wire. The main theme, though, is music. I’ve never visited New Orleans but I know loads of people who have – or certainly did, before Katrina – and they all say the same thing: wherever you go, there is music. Although Simon is a writer fixated on people, and against institutions (we saw them all ticked off in The Wire), he and Overmeyer have allowed music to be the heart and soul of the piece. It opens with music, it ends with music, and what’s been most thrilling about the first two episodes, is that it stops to let us listen to music. Real musicians from the district play themselves – and play, themselves – and if a sense of reality is something you require from your fiction, Treme delivers.

Fictional threads arise from the constant soundtrack (which is to say, an actual soundtrack that emanates from the story, rather than a soundtrack that is layered on afterwards), but these seem to operate at the same pace as the jazz and blues. The fine cast plays as a band, but individual actors get solos: Clarke Peters – sage-like cool customer Lester Freamon in The Wire – as a father and Mardi Gras Indian rebuilding his life in the water-damaged city; Wendell Pierce – Bunk in The Wire, although a New Orleans-based musician before that, who appeared “as himself”, a wise talking head, in Spike Lee’s epochal When The Levees Broke – as the definitive no-good wandering minstrel; Khandi Alexander – junkie Fran in Simon’s The Corner – as a bar owner in search of her brother; Steve Zahn as a white Trustafarian DJ whose love of indigenous culture seems entirely sincere (he’s seen encouraging live voodoo chicken sacrifice on the air!); John Goodman and Melissa Leo as the middle class white liberals, a teacher and a civil rights lawyer … all human life is here, going about its business, not always providing high-wire, or high-Wire, thrills, but that’s not in the nature of the beast. Profound truths about family and roots and social engineering are still told.

Some have been critical of Treme‘s pacing and lack of incident. But not all drama can be packed with events. I thought drama arose from the decisions of characters when faced with events, not from the events themselves. If so, Treme is pure drama. The event happened three months ago; these people are acting accordingly. The music interludes even give you time to think. Two episodes in, and I’m in.

Boardwalk is much more traditional and less jazzy, even though it is set in the jazz age. That Martin Scorsese is an executive producer, and directed the pilot, is apt, as each episode feels like a little movie. Not that little, actually. Again, not all critical reaction has been positive. Many find it beautifully assembled, but derivative, and calculated. It is, but who can resist returning to it, to find out what happens next?

Apparently Steve Buscemi – not a leading man by birth, but hey, guess what, one with Sopranos form (they look after their own in this universe) – is not that much like the Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Johnson his Nucky Thompson is based on, but nor, you have to assume, is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Henry VIII an exact copy of the real king in The Tudors. It’s not important. As long as the stories are good. And the unfolding  twin-engine plotline of Prohibition-led, politically-exploited gangsterism and the seeds of romance in among the stony ground of sexual cruelty and opportunism (itself shaded by the suffragette and temperance movements) is enough to be going along with. Buscemi’s let’s-say unconventional allure to all women is partly explained away by power, but it’s more of a stretch to understand why Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret would have any time for him, despite an early kindness afforded her. That’s a bigger leap of faith for the viewer than the obviously computer-generated seafront. (Actually, echoing the food-poisoning “dream” episodes of The Sopranos, it does give the show an aesthetically pleasing unreality, a bit like the compound in Big Love.)

We’re six episodes into Boardwalk, so I have a more confident handle on it than I do as yet with Treme – my appreciation of which is at gut level – but I can feel the tensions rising. It’s totally HBO, in that its violence is unflinching (the vandalism of Jimmy’s girl with ambitions to become a starlet a particularly nasty moment), and its sex is raw and full-frontal, albeit usually between an ugly, immobile grunting man and a beautiful, shapely, composed woman – do the men who make these films feel more comfortable with the soft-porn exploitation of actresses’ bodies if the men are always presented in less than pretty form? That said, the interrelationships and intrigues and historical and social context would sit easily after 9pm on a terrestrial channel. I wonder if HBO programmes use the word “cunt” and flash their reproductive organs because they can?

This has not been an advertisement for Sky Atlantic. DVD box sets and illegal downloading are or will be available. (Treme is out in the UK in April; Boardwalk not yet listed.)

Don, don!

So, Mad Men Season 4 began last night – watched, one imagines, by hundreds on BBC4. For those of us who’ve been with it from the start (and I don’t mean that to sound superior; I’m very rarely in at the ground floor with the best US imports, as you’ll know from past experience with The Wire, Battlestar, Curb, 30 Rock and, most conspicuously, House), the current media hoo-hah seems a little after the event. In fact, if I’d been watching it for the very first time last night, not having seen it before, I might even have wondered what the fuss was all about. Sure, it looks pretty, and the 60s setting is interesting and the suits well cut, but who are these people with rods up their arses, and why should I care if they win this account or lose that one? Well, rare indeed is the TV show that can live up its own hype. For my money, and I speak as an early investor, the first episode of S4 was dazzlingly clever. My heart was in my mouth on more than one occasion, and if it hadn’t been so late, and I didn’t have that stupid Derren Brown hoax to watch, I could easily have watched it all over again. They’re so finely polished these episodes, it would be a shame to delete them. They go on giving.

In breaking up the old Sterling Cooper, gradually, throughout S3, and re-established them at the bottom of the food chain, in an office with only a fabled second floor, the creators have been able to a) position Don Draper at the very apex of the business, where he always belonged, with his own “D” in the company initials (as Peggy said, those who jumped ship with him, did so because they love him), and b) cut away some of the dead wood. I’m sure we’ll see Sal and Kinsey again, but for now, it’s nice to have the sprawling cast cut back. Joan, so central to the hype – or at least Christina Hendricks has been – barely spoke in this episode. Not that her presence was reduced. The look on her face when Don sent the “two-piece” clients packing spoke volumes. But again, if I’d believed the hype, I might have assumed that the statuesque Joan was the star of Mad Men. She’s not. Never was. But she always felt like an essential internal organ, and, like so many of the supporting characters, has been fleshed out immeasurably over three seasons. Oh, and she has much bigger breasts than most women on telly. Don’t know if that’s been coyly referred to at all? Oh.

God, to hack through the think-pieces that have proliferated in the run-up to this season premiere! My own Radio Times had Kirsty Lang sounding the horn for women’s lib, as promoted by Mad Men’s pivotal role in both compartmentalising and patronising its secretarial class, while the wives and typists sought to unshackle themselves from the hob and the ribbon; no less than David Hare took the angle in the Guardian that if this is indeed a “fancy soap”, it’s one whose “governing metaphor” is authenticity (“Mad Men, at its most basic, plugs into the theme of class which powers so much great American art”); Melanie Philips fed her own bloated ego by devoting an entire column to the fact that she likes Mad Men in the mad Mail, as if this is news enough to power a page of text – oh, and she gets in a dig at modern society’s political correctness and its “hollow heart”, and dreamily retro-fetishises the smoking, drinking and “rampant predatory sexism, racism and other prejudices.”

Here I am, adding to the chatter once again. If you watched the programme for the first time last night and wondered what all the fuss was about, then please do yourself a favour and get the first, second and third seasons somehow. Borrow them, whatever. Mad Men has earned what it’s doing in Season 4. But you have to appreciate the breakdown to understand and enjoy the rebirth. “Who is Don Draper?” is only a profound question if you think you already know the answer. But even those of us who think we do, we didn’t know he liked a bit of that, now, did we?

I’ve blogged about Mad Men here before, but only briefly. Once here, and another time here.

Exterminate them all!

MySuperSweet16

I sincerely hope you have never seen the television programme My Super Sweet 16. It’s on MTV and although it’s an American show – how could it not be? – it now exists in a xeroxed British version, called My Super Sweet 16 UK . If you haven’t stumbled upon it, please don’t seek it out unless you have a strong stomach. (If you do find it, please ensure you are not wearing shoes, as you may feel the urge to kick the television set in.)

MySuperSweet162

Here’s how it goes: a spoiled brat approaching their 16th birthday is corralled by the programme-makers into throwing a party to beat all previous parties. Now, who actually pays for all this is unclear. Certainly, the parents seem well off. The “narrative” of the show, which is typically murky for a “reality” format, involves the parents being ordered around by said brat, as preparations escalate, a dance routine is rehearsed and the centre of their universe becomes ever more demanding and appalling. If the programme is to be believed, 15-year-olds in America are all rich beyond their wildest dreams and interested only in designer labels, price tags and being “popular”, a quality that can be bought with the aforementioned designer labels. Now, fair enough, most of us are pretty shallow at 15, caught between childish urges and creeping hormonal discomfort, but then most of us don’t have access to blank cheques from daddy and an overinflated sense of our own importance. The Super Sweet 16 bash – heavily formulaic, if you watch more than one episode and you mustn’t - always involves a “theme”, a “performer” (ie. someone famous appearing to mime to a record and thus make the birthday boy/girl more popular with their squealing contemporaries), that dance routine, and a tantrum, when something fails to go right. Clearly, if you are going to organise a massive party, you don’t leave stuff to the last minute, but they always do, in order for the programme to introduce some jeopardy where there really is none. Omigod, the snow machine isn’t big enough! The Bollywood dance routine won’t fit on the stage! They can’t book Kayne West! (They all seem to want to book Kanye West.)

It’s trash telly, but it’s also deeply frightening that there are kids out there this materialistic and hollow, and parents out there so unable to provide love they substitute it with money, in the process creating a monster. I’m afraid I’ve seen a number of these things now, mostly the UK ones, and if someone told me that the whole thing was set up and that the parents and kids were played by actors, I wouldn’t be surprised. Charlie Brooker, whose Screenwipe shamefully brought the show to my attention, called it “an Al-Qaeda recruitment film,” and I can’t top that for accuracy. You stagger away from watching it with the cast-iron certainty that we are all going to hell.

Of course, it can be watched for morbid fun. Midway through, the party-thrower is helicoptered or chauffeured to a photogenic location, there to hand out the invites to a scrum of schoolfriends (and I use the word “friends” in the social networking sense). It is here that “reality” comes unmoored from reality. If there really are kids like this out there in the country I live in, I want them removed from the gene pool. This may sound harsh, but if these 15 year olds grow up thinking that wealth is everything, what are their eventual offspring going to grow up thinking? (A dimwit from Essex who conspired with her “friends” not to invite any “losers” or “ugly people” to her James Bond-themed party, to which a mercenary Akon turned up to mime his song, was given a bracelet that cost as much as a car.)

As ever, I blame the parents. I am reluctant to criticise parenting, not being one myself, but the cowed, unthinking, credit-card-swiping fools on this programme (all “new money”) have misunderstood what parenting actually is.