Catching up with the Masterchef final on BBC1 from last week this week on Telly Addict. Also, the quick death of Four Rooms on C4; Da Vinci’s Demons on Fox; a much more promising new US drama, Banshee, on Sky Atlantic; and two new sitcoms on ITV, Vicious and The Job Lot, one of which I’m sticking with. Due to the Bank Holiday, I hadn’t seen the final episode of The Village when I wrote this one, so I’ll catch up with it next week, as I understand it ended with a song and dance number.
Apologies to all Sky refuseniks, as this week, I am forced by professional obligation to cover three whole programmes on Telly Addict that are only available to subscribers to the $3.76bn-contributing eighth of News Corp that provides satellite television. At least you can see a few clips, eh? We’re talking about Sky Atlantic’s big Monday Night Is Comedy Night launch, which includes Alan Partridge: Welcome To The Places Of My Life, Sky Atlantic; Veep, Sky Atlantic; and Walking & Talking, Sky Atlantic. I’ve also subjected myself to Man V Food on Dave; and its new sequel Man V Food Nation on The Good Food Channel. However, terrestrially, we have the terrific new cop show Line Of Duty on BBC2, so stop complaining, and, if you refuse to give money to Sky, I hope you didn’t pay to see Prometheus, which also goes to Rupert Murdoch, because News Corp owns 20th Century Fox, which forms a $6.9bn-contributing sixth of his media empire.
Not the end of Telly Addict, thankfully, but the end of three big shows from the previous week: The Apprentice, Series 8, BBC1; The Voice UK, Series 1, BBC1; and Game Of Thrones, Season 2, Sky Atlantic. Clearly, if you’ve been avoiding finding out whose startup Lord Sugar invested £250,000 in, or who had the best “voice” according to that ragtag band of devotees still watching The Voice, don’t watch this week’s Telly Addict. (I’ve tried to steer clear of saying anything specific about Game Of Thrones, as many will see it on DVD, although the real fans have read the books anyway, and know everything. Whenever covering serials, especially those on Sky, to which many do not have access, I’ll always try to choose clips from early on in an episode.)
The new Telly Addict is available in the usual place, but in a new shirt (thanks). As an antidote to the Jubilee glut on television, I offer you: The Bafta Television Awards on BBC1; Panorama: Stadiums Of Hate on BBC1; How To Be England Manager on BBC3; Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic; and Hit & Miss on Sky Atlantic. (Sorry about the double dose of Sky Atlantic if you haven’t got Sky, but the former is really only a clip, featuring the great Peter Dinklage having his Henry V moment.) Send her victorious etc.
This week’s Telly Addict is up a day early due to it being Good Friday tomorrow. In it, I am assessing Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic; Words of Captain Scott on ITV1; Damien Hirst: First Look on C4; and Silent Witness, season 16(!) on BBC1.
It was lovely to see the Guardian put us on the main homepage last week, and with a nice new picture they took of me inside an old telly. I dig that.
Oh, and at the top is a shot I took this morning of what it looks like to be me, doing Telly Addict. Exclusive! Have a nice Easter, even if you are not a Christian.
This week’s Telly Addict, apparently flagged on the Guardian front page, which is nice, covers Mad Men on Sky Atlantic; The Voice on BBC1; Britain’s Got Talent on ITV1; and Titanic on ITV1. Hope you like it. Hey, be nice if you want to come and play in the comment playground, kids. (The Guardian took some photos of me today for a future byline picture. Only been doing this a year; maybe they’ve finally noticed me!)
Having emerged from the full-on, round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week flotation tank of Mr Blue Sky, I am now in the luxurious position – for the first time since Christmas – to occasionally write blog entries about films and telly for the simple pleasure of doing so, which I’m sure is something I used to do?
First, then, let us consider two US imports, both showing on Sky Atlantic (sorry about that, Sky refuseniks), one brand new, the other six years old, both linked by one defining fact. They make me interested in a world of sport that I have zero interest in.
The first is Luck, which comes from HBO, top-heavy with talent from the movies, and created by TV deity David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood – not that I’ve ever seen Deadwood; you may start ordering me to rectify this … now). I am not big on sport in general. I was obsessed by football as a kid, mainly in the 1970s, and could name every ground of every club in the first division, and draw its club badge from memory. I drifted away from it in the 80s, when films and post-punk music filled my head. I’ve never been that interested in other sports. And I’ve certainly never cared about horse racing. Luck, now at its fourth episode, is set in the world of horse racing, and in the subculture of gambling that emanates from it.
Not only do I not care about it as a sport, as an animal lover I am alarmed by the cruel way in which racehorses are treated, and dispatched when injured. I believe I am right in saying that five horses died at the recent Cheltenham Gold Cup? (Apparently, the British Horse Racing Authority say that with 90,000 horses running a year in Britain, this is a minimal fatality rate.) But great drama does not rely upon an audience’s foreknowledge of, nor participation in, a specific field. It should educate and enlighten. Luck does this in dazzling, tactile style. From the moment Michael Mann’s first episode started, we were dropped into a rich ecosystem of trainers, owners, riders, agents, gamblers and gangsters – not to mention animals.
It looks incredible. Even an average HBO series looks as good as any Hollywood movie, and this is above-average. It takes you from the stands onto the track and then behind the scenes, into the stables, and to the places where deals are done, and horses are traded. It then leaks out into the bars and hotels where business continues while the horses sleep. With talent like Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Kevin Dunn and John Ortiz on show – not to mention Joan Allen, who’s just been introduced, and Michael Gambon, who’s promised – it’s human drama of a particularly salty type. Mumbled? Yes, Luck is one of those shows for grown-ups, like The Wire or Generation Kill, that speaks its own language and assumes you are alert and patient enough to catch up.
Because of the initial impenetrability of the world it inhabits (and we are looking here at people who appear to do nothing but think about horses – except perhaps Hoffman’s mobster, who thinks chiefly about money), it took me until Episode 3 to truly click with it. But it was a revelation. You have to work at a series like this. But what payback.
So, my Saturday nights are now illuminated and clouded with steaming equine breath by Luck. Friday nights, which actually occur on Tuesday nights, are lit up by Friday Night Lights, an NBC series about high school football which ran for five seasons from 2006 and is now showing, box set style, on Sky Atlantic, having previously been patchily and lovelessly shown on ITV4. Here, again, is a show about sport, and about fanatical local devotion to sport, which is a world away from my own, but which has hooked me right in.
Created by Peter Berg – it began with a movie of the same name – it takes a factual basis and fictionalises it in the made-up small town of Dillon, Texas, where the local Panthers are less a team, more a way of life and death. Regardless of the sport, which still strikes me as lumpy and brutish and detrimentally constructed around intervals, this presents a further layer of devotion that’s foreign to me. But it’s conveyed with such warmth, understanding and empathy, again, you’d be hard-hearted not to get drawn in.
Kyle Chandler plays the new coach, whose reputation hinges on the score of a game at the end of each week, and among the stars of his young team are Taylor Kitsch as the Keanu Reeves-like airhead Tim Riggins, Scott Porter’s paralysed Jason Street and Zach Gilford’s chorus-girl ingenue Matt Saracen. Connie Britton is exceptional, too, as the Coach’s wife. It’s a soap – a description I used on this week’s Telly Addict and which drew some ire from fans of the show, although I would never use “soap” as a qualitative term. FNL is a show that centres around a whole town’s worth of characters and traces their interconnected lives on a weekly basis, which is pure soap opera. And it’s sublime stuff, fluidly filmed in hand-held style, and run on the natural authenticity of partly improvised dialogue and blocking.
I love these two shows, albeit FNL with a more romantic devotion and not a single caveat, which can’t be said for Luck, which will never even reach its second season, let alone its fifth. Either way, I find myself currently caring about the result of fictional horse races and football games.
As for the unhappy fate of Luck: I was naturally horrified to find that two horses were actually euthanised after injury in the making of its pilot and one subsequent episode, although in many ways, the horses were just racing for the cameras, as they would be if racing for real – neither is crueller than the other, you might argue. But after a recent third injury, which also resulted in an animal being put down, Luck basically cancelled itself, with regret, and with representatives from PETA fuming that their dire warnings were not heeded.
Animals can never be categorised as “actors”, as they do not volunteer. You can train them, but they are always working animals, not thespians. And no worker, human or otherwise, should be put in danger.
So, Luck is about to run out, and FNL has already finished (albeit with around 70 episodes yet to air – yippee). It would be better if both shows were broadcast on a free-to-air channel, but Friday Night Lights is already boxed, up to Season 3 at least for Region 2. It really is – as fans have been insisting for some time – one of the modern greats, and worth seeking out.
You won’t see me at Cheltenham any time soon, but then nor would you see me volunteering for the army, and I love dramas about world wars. The best can take you somewhere you haven’t been.
This week’s Telly Addict looks at White Heat, BBC2; The Sarah Millican Television Programme, BBC2; and Friday Night Lights, currently showing from the beginning on Sky Altantic. Apparently, in a Guardian editorial meeting my name came up in a positive light for the way I deal with people in the comments section under Telly Addict. Hey, all I do is enter into a dialogue with anybody who’s being friendly and discussing the TV shows, and hold back from typing the first thing that comes into my head when a troll has an anonymous pop.
This week on Telly Addict, in which my opinions ride on the back of the thoroughbred Guardian, I’m reviewing Luck from HBO on Sky Atlantic (with apologies to the 50 million people without access to Sky, although you may enjoy the pretty clips); Homeland from Showtime on C4; and Upstairs Downstairs on BBC1, during the assessment of which I think I mispronounce Ralph Macchio.
Again, sorry about the brevity and scarcity of current blog entries, but I’ve just completed two full, punishing weeks of 6 Music Breakfast, which I loved doing, while still under the cosh of the Mr Blue Sky deadline, which is, frankly, next Friday, so it’s back to work for me. Enjoy your weekend! (Incidentally, we’ve made some very exciting casting decisions for the second series, all of which will be revealed in March when the ink is dry on the contracts.)
And if you missed Thursday’s one-off, half-hour documentary on Radio 4, Oscar Sings, about the Academy Award for Best Song, which I presented, it’s on iPlayer.
I am incredibly busy this festive season, but keen to do my usual themed reviews/lists of the year. Let’s do TV. In a year where the most exciting stuff happened on the news, I will concentrate on new and returning dramas, comedies and documentaries. Clearly, there are more than 15 TV shows I loved in 2011 – I enjoyed Frozen Planet, like everybody else, and Spooks – but you have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise you would go mad. Here is the line that I drew.
1. The Shadow Line, BBC2
I spent much of the year watching British drama on television and failing to really passionately engage with it. And not all of it could blame its own hype for in-built disappointment, like The Hour. As a writer who can currently only dream of writing serious drama, I want everything to be great. I will it to be so. But much of it seems designed to be understood by idiots, which is likely to be down to pressure from broadcasters and producers, and I understand that. Meanwhile, Hugo Blick’s near-Shakespearean police corruption potboiler moved about familiar territory with such panache and confidence, it put all those identikit new cop shows like Vera, Case Sensitive, Case Histories and even The Body Farm in the shade. And required you to think at every turn. Even though none of us guessed the ending – surely! – it wasn’t a whodunit. It was so much more than that. I can never forgive it for seeming to drown a cat, and the fact that I have made it number one despite this shows just how good, and resonant all these months later, it is.
2. This Is England ’88, C4
This could have been more of the same from Shane Meadows, who found a comfortable spiritual home on TV last year with This Is England ’86. But he raised the emotional bar, and wrung so much more out of his gang, not least Lol, perhaps the most inappropriately named character in modern drama, through whose troubles Vicky McClure played a blinder. Lovely use of The Smiths on the soundtrack, too.
3. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, More4
A truly epic undertaking, Mark Cousins filled a void we didn’t even know existed by providing a history of cinema that was at once personal and polemical, but strove for mainstream legitimacy and arguably achieved that, constantly criss-crossing continents to show echoes bouncing around the globe concurrently, but firmly placing entirely original and thrilling comparisons into context. His lilting voice – which I love – conveys “pretentious” to his detractors, but its softness and sense of wonder humanised a big subject. I didn’t want it to end.
4. The Killing, BBC4
I’ve only seen the first season. The second is stacking up in my Sky+, deliberately, so that I can watch it box-set style in big swathes – that’s how I devoured this one. I sense that Forbrydelsen II is not the equal of the original, but how could it be? It’s half as long, for a start, whereas the first one, out of the blue, took us into a whole other world and allowed us to linger for 20 episodes, all the while changing our minds about whodunit, and learning Danish as we went. Sophie Grabol was superb as Sarah Lund, but it wasn’t just about her and her jumper. This was a window on the parallel universe of Scandinavia, where grisly murders don’t happen as much, politics is all about coalition and the rain seems never to stop. Who knew that a subtitled drama would be one of the year’s best? (It originally aired in 2007, of course, but it’s new to us.)
5. Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic
I apologise to all of you who diligently snub all of Rupert Murdoch’s works and thus cannot join in the chorus of approval for what is, effectively, our own little HBO: Sky Atlantic. Its launch was, for my household, one of the best bits of news of 2011. Whether it’s oddities like Bored To Death, from-the-start re-runs of the likes of Big Love and The Wire, TV movies of the quality of Too Big To Fail or Temple Grandin, or brand new, still-wet broadcasts of the best US stuff, like this, or Mildred Pierce, the stopcock of quality never stops flowing. What’s most astounding about Boardwalk Empire is the way the second season has turned it on a new pivot, with Jimmy taking over from Nucky, or attempting to, and Van Alden starting a new life. Also: the best opening credits on television. You can probably see those on YouTube for free.
6. American Horror Story, FX
Delighted to see this get a Golden Globe nomination today. I have a soft spot for FX (more Murdoch, I’m afraid, but he’ll get his comeuppance in hell), which this year brought The Walking Dead back and went all BBC4 with its thrilling French cop import Braquo. But American Horror Story, one of the few truly chilling pieces of mainstream television since Twin Peaks, pretty much instantly became a favourite, with Jessica Lange bringing some Hollywood ballast to a cast otherwise made up of familiar folks from other TV shows, like Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, Morris Chestnutt from V, Zachary Quinto from Heroes, Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under, and on it goes. The haunted house standby gets an eerie makeover from the creator of Nip/Tuck and the now off-the-boil Glee (with both of which it shares a delicious sense of camp), with a gimp seemingly living in the attic, and everybody who ever died in the house living in the cellar.
7. Game Of Thrones, Sky Atlantic
I’m really not one for fantasy lit. And I doubt I’ll ever pick up one of George R.R. Martin’s novels. But this epic saga, based upon that very source material, provided a stirring narrative in its first season, with a parallel world of warring factions so complex the opening credits (which won an Emmy) are based upon a map. Perhaps a little too fond of soft porn nudity for its own good, it’s full of British and Irish actors – and shot in Northern Ireland – so has that instant appeal. And it’s got Peter Dinklage in it – another Emmy winner – so what can go wrong? Season two due to air on HBO in April 2012, and that means we’ll get it almost concurrently, something that never used to happen, did it?
8. Fresh Meat, C4/Rev, BBC2
Hedging my bets a bit, I realise, but these two comedies, so very different, cannot be separated in my mind. Fresh Meat, which showed Campus how to do a student comedy – mainly by doing it about the students and not the staff – will surely win Jack Whitehall a Comedy Award on Friday, and if not, it doesn’t matter, he’s redeemed himself in the eyes of anyone who had him down as a smug, preening, fast-tracked, over-privileged stand-up hunk, breathing life into the monstrous but lovable JP. (Zawe Ashton also a revelation as Vod.) Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong created the template and, we may assume, the characters, but other writers, some much newer to telly, took on individual episodes. This programme is actually like a university. And Rev I’ve raved about very recently. It continues to delight.
9. Top Boy, C4
Although arbitrarily broadcast across successive nights when it should have been allowed to bubble and simmer across the same number of weeks, Top Boy was writer Ronan Bennett at his dramatic and journalistic best, translating what he learned from residents of estates in East London into a story that – in bravely dispensing with the police (or “Feds”) – found a human story among the hardship. Along with Attack The Block, another fiction about black youths by a white writer that sidestepped caricature, this dared to look beyond the cliches. Also, what an atmospheric piece, so brilliantly founded upon the insistent, ambient riff from Ghostpoet’s Finished I Ain’t. (It’s interesting that this came so soon off the back of The Jury on ITV1, also by Bennett, but replete with cliches and clunky exposition, almost as if someone somewhere decided that ITV1 viewers needed their food cutting up into chunks for them, which I would argue they don’t.)
10. Treme, Sky Atlantic
Like Boardwalk Empire, here’s another sprawling drama that manages to keep a number of stories spinning, and was not defeated by a second season, despite a spectacular first. So very different to The Wire, whose Ed Simon co-created it, and yet so similar in many ways, it concentrated on the black experience, but not exclusively, and did a unique thing in narrative drama in letting the music tell the story. There is clearly music in the veins of New Orleans, and this aspect was what made Treme so different. It’s not a musical, but it is.
11. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, BBC2
I saw a lot of documentaries this year, as I am drawn to non-fiction. But Adam Curtis is more than a documentary maker, and his latest, esoteric, uniquely paced three-part opus took in everything from Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and Buckminster Fuller to President Mobutu, Richard Dawkins and the Club Of Rome, all the while taking the back off our obsession with computers and machine-age utopianism. This is a filmmaker who joins dots that you didn’t even know were dots.
12. The Promise, C4
Sometimes, ambition is not enough. But in tackling the Israel-Palestine question from both a historic and a contemporary viewpoint, without ever decisively demonising or lionising either side, Peter Kosminsky – a dramatist who likes issues – created a compelling story that asked as many questions as it answered. Claire Foy came of age (did that sound patronising enough?) as the initially apolitical tourist in Israel who delves into the past via the death of her grandfather. I didn’t feel brow-beaten – terrorism, cruelty and prejudice was shown on both sides – but came away feeling pretty sad about the whole situation. (It made me re-attempt Martin Gilbert’s epic account Israel, but it defeated me again. The Promise was in that sense far more successful.)
13. British Masters/Art Of America, BBC4
It would be churlish to separate these fine art series on the channel that does them best. The former gave us a new expert, Dr James Fox (with whom I entered into a pleasant correspondence when I contacted him through the faculty of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge while trying to ascertain his actual age, which is a sickening 29), the latter set a well established one, the persuasive Andrew Graham-Dixon, at another part of the world, this time America. So we had Dr Fox, not that one, moving from bathhouse to terraced street in search of the great, in some cases unsung, British painters of the 20th century, from Nash, Spencer and Freud to Hamilton, Bomberg and Hockney, while Graham-Dixon hopped in the statutory open-top car and went from coast to coast to get to the heart of Hopper, Wyeth, Rockwell and Warhol. Both utterly absorbing – the former knocked on forums by certain academics for sanding down the rough edges (a criticism my new friend Dr Fox refutes) – and both pulled off, with aplomb and approachability, in just three parts apiece. I could have watched either for twice as many. Can’t wait for their next LP. In a year when BBC4 had a large chunk of its pocket money taken away by a government that hates it, we have to hope they have ringfenced funding for this type of thing. Sky Arts do an ever improving job, but we can’t have Murdoch taking over the whole sandpit. Even Sky Atlantic disciples understand that.
14. Modern Family, Sky1
Still the best US import, Modern Family has been a constant in my life all year, and, when a run coincides with 30 Rock and Curb, as it did this autumn, I feel spoiled by American wit. Favourite character? Still Cam.
15. Celebrity Masterchef, BBC1
You know I have a soft spot for this, and it gets into the Top 15 partly because it had such a likable and impressive bunch of contenders in Kirsty Wark, Hollyoaks‘ Nick Pickard, Danny from Supergrass and eventual winner, the sweet and soft-spoken retired rugby captain Phil Vickery, but also because the show was exiled to the salt mines of daytime from the early evening and I think this was a bad move. It deserves to be reinstated.