One summoner’s tale

I’m not one of those critics who thrives on tearing something to pieces. And I’m especially sensitive to other writers, as I know how difficult and pressurised it is to write for TV, and the compromises you have to make in that job. But I cannot pretend that ITV1’s five-nighter The Jury, which I review this week in my Guardian Telly Addict round-up, didn’t horribly disappoint me. I prefer to celebrate the best telly, rather than prod the worst, and indeed, give the stuff I wouldn’t normally watch a fair and objective chance … I trust, if you’ve been watching, that you would agree with this general assessment of what I do. But because The Jury, a high-profile piece of TV real estate, was written by a proven genius of populist TV drama, Peter Morgan, I feel it’s only right to express my disappointment. At least I can back my feelings up with clips, which I do. You can watch Telly Addict here. I also pass armchair judgement on American Horror Story on FX and Life’s Too Short on BBC2.

I’m not going to get a job reviewing telly for an actual newspaper – such as, I don’t know, the Guardian – by liking everything, or giving everything a fair crack of the whip, but I never did set out to be Charlie Brooker, who does the opposite with such panache, originality and sincere bile; I set out to be me, watching telly, in my living room, and then saying what I thought of it. (Incidentally, the estimable John Crace, who reviewed Life’s Too Short in the actual newspaper – and not from the bottom of a bin behind a filing cabinet down a long corridor at the back of the Guardian website – was much harder on it, and eloquent, too.*)

Oh, and I’ll be reviewing the excellent Rev next week.

*POSTSCRIPT: I provided a link to John Crace’s review but the Guardian website mysteriously removed it. It’s cached here though, should you wish to read what was, after all, in the paper itself on Friday.)

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Top telly

This week’s Telly Addict, over on the Guardian website, is overcome by unplanned gloom this week, with all three programmes under review set on the wrong side of the tracks and reflecting the seamier side of life. Sorry. It just happened. Top Boy, which ran from Monday to Thursday on C4, is set on a fictional Hackney estate where drug-dealing and internecine warfare is rife; Misfits, back for its third series on E4, is a sci-fi comedy that’s also set on an estate, this time the unnamed Thamesmead in Bexley/Greenwich, and revolves around young offenders on community service; and Braquo, a thrillilng new French cop import on FX, which I’ve already written about, is set in the underbelly of Paris, where violence on both sides of the law is a way of life. As is drinking at work.

It’s all pretty gritty. But vital in many other ways. I loved Top Boy, written by Ronan Bennett and superbly directed by Yann Demange, although why it was force-fed to us in four days I don’t know. Is this new concertinaed scheduling orthodoxy a reaction to DVD box-set bingeing? If so, I can see the logic, but it does mean that a drama as important and impressive as this feels as if it’s being rush-released, and that the channel that’s showing it has no confidence that an audience will stick around for it given a whole week between episodes in which to lose interest. Do we have such short attention spans?

This week’s Telly Addict comes with a warning again: this video contains scenes of nudity and language that some viewers may find offensive. Brilliant.

You’ve got the love

This is my 25th Telly Addict TV review for the Guardian, and a reasonable juncture, I think, to thank my two regular producers, the unseen Matt Hall and Andy Gallagher, who produce, direct, shoot and – most importantly – edit it every week. If it’s in any way slick, elegant or professional, especially in its use of the clips, it’s down to them. I just talk into their camera. This week, in an effort to deliver quantity first, I manage to talk into their camera about five programmes, without tipping over the optimum eight-and-a-bit minute mark: the end of Spooks, BBC1; the end of Celebrity Masterchef, BBC1; the return of Young Apprentice, BBC1; the start of Jamie’s Great Britain, C4 and the return of The Walking Dead, FX. It’s been tremendous fun doing this every week for half a year, and the lady at Guardian reception actually knows my name now, so long may it continue. It’s the only way I’m getting into the building. The link is here.

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.

Now pay attention

On Wednesday night, I was delighted to be asked to host the FX Christmas Pub Quiz, an annual event staged by the FX channel, home – in this country, at one time or another – of The Wire, Generation Kill, True Blood, Sons Of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Eastbound and Down, Nip/Tuck, Dexter and The Walking Dead. Teams from various publications – Guardian Guide, Shortlist, the Sun, Time Out, Sky magazine, What Satellite, Men’s Health – competed against teams from TV.com, Walker Media and HBO. (The team from Nuts didn’t turn up, sadly. Probably out masturbating somewhere.) It was a terrific night. Last year’s host was Reginald D Hunter, whose natural cool was, we must imagine, slightly undermined by being perched on a stool all night, trying to shout above the general din of media folk drinking free beer and champagne and dipping free crispy duck wraps in plum dipping sauce. I have no such cool to undermine, and really enjoyed trying to keep order, and treating in good spirit those lively souls who felt it was their job to shout out stupid answers. (“Dildo!”) Here are some of those media folk, including the team from the free magazine Shortlist, who won the quiz, for the third time, I believe, so well done to them. (In the spirit of their magazine, when the answer sheets were collected up at half time by FX adjudicators, Shortlist just left theirs lying around on the seats. Boom, boom!)

Anyway, I asked Chrystal from FX, who thanklessly compiled the quiz, if I could reproduce it here, just for fun. (The winning three teams got prizes and everything, but I am not FX.) It’s all based on what happened this year. Thanks to FX for the gig, especially Marc who made the introductions, and to all the media whores who came up to me afterwards and said nice things. It was held at the Book Club in the area of London many know as Old Street. I liked the venue. And they served amazing food. And created a mind-blowing chain of about 30 Jagerbombs on the bar afterwards; Chrystal was asked to ceremonially push over the first alcohol domino in the chain, and all of the shot glasses of Jagermeister plopped into the tumblers of Red Bull, ready to be downed by people who should know better. I have never seen such a thing in my life. I wish somebody had filmed it. Perhaps somebody did.

The quiz appears below this sappy posed picture of me with the FX “branding.”

The FX Christmas Pub Quiz 2010

1. Who replaced U2 at Glastonbury this year when Bono suffered a back injury?
2. The cast of Glee mostly dominated the UK charts with Don’t Stop Believing, but who sings the original?
3. Name the number 1 album in the UK which caused a stir this year after the band used a family photo found in a charity shop as the cover art?
4. … and the 2010 Mercury prize goes to?
5. What is the full title of the third Twilight film?
6. A somewhat true account behind the creation of Facebook, who directed The Social Network?
7. In addition to the US, Sex and the City 2 was primarily set in which country?
8. Who directed the American remake of Tomas Alfredson’s vampire story Let the Right One In?
9. It wasn’t such a happy day when which actor died aged 83 October of this year?
10. On January 8, Elvis Presley celebrated which birthday?
11. Whose sex text affair with a backing dancer was exposed when their other half discovered a secret phone?
12. Which pop star finally ended years of speculation by coming out as a “proud” and “fortunate” homosexual earlier this year?
13. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the first episode of the three-part miniseries Sherlock was entitled what?
14. In January, who won the final ever series of Celebrity Big Brother?
15. Who stars alongside Matt Smith in the new Doctor Who series as his two companions Amy and Rory?
16. In chronological order which three TV channels aired Britain’s live series of party leader debates with David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg?
17. How many American viewers tuned into the premiere of Sarah Palin’s Alaska on the cable channel TLC?
18. The cast of which US sitcom performed two live performances to the East and West coasts as a one-off stunt?
19. Sarah Ferguson opened up on which US chat show following the hidden camera scandal that rocked Britain?
20. The Lost series finale aired simultaneously across 59 countries but what was the US’s transmission date?
21. Where was the 2010 Super Bowl held?
22. Which driver is the Formula One 2010 World Champion?
23. What country did Holland beat to make it to the Final of the football World Cup in South Africa?
24. Who won their third Golf Masters title this year?
25. Name the female protagonist in the Steig Larsson Millennium Trilogy?
26. Released in November, the memoir Decision Points follows whose life?
27. Controversy surrounded which fiction novel when plans for a big screen adaption invoked industrial protests this year?
28. Complete the title of this autobiography by Chris Evans: Memoirs of a _____
29. Who said: “I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven … I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up.”
30. Who said – or Tweeted:”You are the chosen one dun dun dun”
31. Who said: “I feel sorry for straight men.”
32. Who said: “I’m no Tom Jones but I’m doing better than Nick Clegg.”
33. What technology was highly promoted during the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas this year?
34. True or false: fish shrink in harsh winters?
35. What is Apple’s top selling app for the iPhone in 2010?
36. Facebook users in India were offered a chance to make themselves appear whiter online as part of a marketing campaign by which skincare company?
37. In which month was Haiti hit by the devastating Earthquake?
38. Nineteen people were killed in a stampede at which music festival this year?
39. What are the first five letters of the Icelandic volcano that brought Europe’s air travel to a halt?
40. Thirty-three miners were trapped in a 500 square feet passage, in temperatures of 97 degrees Fahrenheit. But how many days were they underground for?
41. What CCTV moment sparked international outrage and resulted in a fine of just £265? (I’ll accept the generally agreed name for the moment as it appears on YouTube, or the protagonist’s name.)
42. Following a recent high court battle, who is the owner of Liverpool FC?
43. Which US state introduced a law that would allow police to stop anyone who they think is an illegal immigrant?
44. In America, Proposition 19 claims to control, regulate and tax what?
45. A Florida-based produce company is looking to titillate the eye and the taste buds by offering a new red-coloured what to give a colourful crunch to salads and dips?
46. What was the name of the now deceased psychic Octopus who correctly predicted the World Cup winners?
47. A flock of which animal gathered in Mexico to form a giant version of itself? (Unless the pic was photoshopped!)
48. The largest gathering of people dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz was achieved in which country this year? (Bonus point if you can name the town.)
49. My name is not my name, I’ve taught and rode and slain. Vampires are not my game. Themes of life and death with me remain. Who am I?
50. What religion is Homer Simpson? (I’ll accept either of two answers to this.)

I’ll print the answers next week. Don’t sent your answers to me, just have a go for your own amusement. Why not print the questions out, take them to a basement bar that is full of people shouting, and attempt them while drinking Tiger or champagne or Jagerbombs while staring at a giant picture of Dexter’s face. Then it’ll be just like you were there.

Bromine Barium

Breaking-Badad

On the first day of 2010, I watched the final episode of the second season of Breaking Bad, which I now declare to be the finest new TV series of 2009. (It began on AMC in the States and here on FX in 2008, but I picked up on it in 2009.) It was so good and so satisfying, this final episode, I was moved to immediately begin to watch season one again from the start. It is the mark of a truly great TV show that you can watch it again, without a cooling-off period. Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, is one such show.

I wasn’t sufficiently drawn in by the trailers to catch it when it premiered on FX at the end of last year; maybe the timing was wrong, or maybe it just seemed too fond of itself in those trailers. When it was snapped up and re-aired by FiveUSA, I actually missed the opening episode, by mistake, and was forced to come in at episode two, by which time Walt White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) had already embarked upon their get-rich-quick scheme in the New Mexico desert. In fact, Ep2 of S1 begins with its own flashback, further tantalising us about what actually occured in Ep1. To be honest, the trailers, and a couple of rave reviews, filled in the basic narrative gap: that chemistry teacher Walt has been diagnosed with lung cancer and opts to pay for the treatment and look after his family by cooking up crystal meth with an ex-pupil dealer.

It’s a dark piece of work, cleverly set in Albuquerque where they have bright sunshine 300 days a year, thus always hammering home its bleak message under blue skies. It’s not the first time the suburbs have revealed dark secrets, but this is no American Beauty. The White family are not well off. They can’t afford health insurance. Their boiler doesn’t work. Their pool is not an indicator of wealth or comfort. Indeed, the pool itself will come to contain its own grim portents as S2 unfolds, and an emptied pool at another location will bring death. The trailers presented a sort of self-consciously wacky comedy, but Breaking Bad is anything but – there is humour in the writing, certainly, but it comes from the juxtaposition of dialogue, the clash between a 50-year-old man and an ill-educated, jive-talking twentysomething hip hop kid: in Ep1 Jesse tells Walt in the desert that he can see “a cow house”; when Walt tries to dictate to him what to do, he comes out with, “Heil Hitler, bitch!”; and when Walt educates him in how to fashion a makeshift car battery and, like his teacher again, tries to get him to name the element copper, Jesse triumphantly calls out, “Wire!” If Aaron Paul’s characterisation of Jesse seems one-note and comedic from my summary, you ain’t seen nothing yet, beeyach.

Walt is a clever, learned, philosophical man who missed his chance to make money and cannot connect with his students, despite being a very good, and very illuminating, teacher. He loves his wife, and his wife loves him, and there’s a baby on the way, but the sense of having missed the boat is etched into Walt’s brow. He does not “deserve” inoperable lung cancer on his 50th birthday (“Why me?”), and yet, absurdly, it is the making of him. It changes his life. Certain death releases the inner Walt, which is generally bad news for everyone else.

The only real lightness comes from Walt’s son, Walt Jr, who has mild cerebral palsy and yet provides the story with its heart: brilliantly played by RJ Mitte, who also has palsy, he is anything but defined by his condition, and usually cuts through the breakfast table tension between his parents with the honest, unsugared view of a teenage boy who’s finding his own personality (he starts demanding to be called “Flynn”, without much explanation, because his friends do, thus hacking at the family ties of his unimaginative and narcissistic given name). Here is a character who’s living with a debilitating physical condition, hopping around on crutches, unable to use the pedals of a car effectively, but he deals with it stoically and bravely, and does not demand praise or special privileges for doing so. I’ve no idea why Gilligan gave the son palsy, but it was a genius move. (If a kid appeared on crutches in a British drama, you’d immediately think, “box-ticking.” But then, as Breaking Bad confirms, we may as well stop making TV drama in this country and just let the Americans do it.)

Skyler (Anna Gunn, previously seen in The Practice and Deadwood) is the long-suffering wife, but no need to reach for the cliche-scanner – she’s long-suffering in the sense that she effectively has two male children to cope with, and seems to have subjugated her instinct to write to the needs of being a homemaker (we occasionally hear of her short stories, but they remain mostly buried). Like Walt, she has sacrificed something at the altar of family, and look what her reward is: a lying husband. Because Sky is visibly pregnant from the start of Ep1, the bulky belly and the bad back define her to us – she is carrying the future around inside her. Meanwhile, inside her husband, the breadmaker, is an inoperable tumour, something far less hopeful. I won’t ruin it for anyone, but in S2, Skyler sheds her innocence and loses the trust that kept her going – although even as far back as Ep2 in S1, she played detective and confronted Jesse in his own front yard, so she was never a victim.

The character who surprised me the most over the course of the two seasons was Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother-in-law and seeming polar oppostite, the hardass, ball-busting, pistol-packing, bulletproof DEA supervisor, buoyed by the innate bigotry and smart mouth that get him through his day job, but much more complex once you get to know him. Again, I won’t go into any story detail, but even Hank is not a God; he, too, can be reduced to a mere mortal by events. The skill of Breaking Bad is to drip-feed details about the supporting characters gradually over the course of the two series, with even Marie (Betsy Brandt), Sky’s sister and Hank’s wife, fleshed out beyond early tics. (What’s fascinating to me is how different the second viewing is – I watched Ep2 and Ep3 from S1 again last night, and Marie is a great example of a character who feels more real now; the scene in the shoe shop seemed almost random on first viewing; now it is loaded with portent. Can you imagine the guts it takes to make a drama so rich and so subtle that stuff is almost designed to bypass the first-time viewer? TV drama writing is all about immediate impact, usually. Not here.)

A word about the direction. You watch a great film, you can credit the writer and the director. With an ongoing TV series, you must credit a team of writers, and a string of different directors. And yet, Breaking Bad, like all the very best TV dramas, has an overarching visual feel. I guess the real skill of the TV director is to bring personal touch and individual vision without unbalancing the whole. In many ways, the landscape and the New Mexico climate give Breaking Bad its “look.” Of the individual directors across the two seasons, I think I have counted 16 – including, incidentally, Bryan Cranston, John Dahl, Charles Haid and Peter Medak, who once worked here and directed The Krays and Let Him Have It – but their skill is to create something cumulative. There are some amazing early stylistic touches, such as the way the first episode begins with a pair of trousers noiselessly floating to the ground (that was Gilligan), or the way Ep3 (Gilligan again) opens looking up through the acid-dismembered goo of a corpse in a bathtub as Walt and Jesse mop it up. And the recurring flashforward in S2 with the pink teddy bear in the pool is not just a stylistic flourish, but a narrative one, too – not that I’ll be giving any clues about that. (Hey, apparently there are clues in the episode titles of S2, but unless you want to ruin the ending, don’t look for them. I was happier not knowing.)

I never watched Malcolm In The Middle, so I’m only aware theoretically that Bryan Cranston is making a bonfire of his most famous screen characterisation here. I envy those who know and love him as Hal, the Dad in that popular show; it must make Walt and Breaking Bad seem all the more revolutionary. All I know is, Cranston deserved his Emmy for this – it’s a tightly-wound, small-brushstrokes performance that defies the precepts of so much returning-series TV in the sense that Walt changes throughout. The lead character’s job is usually to provide a constant, a pivot around which the action revolves. Sure, a character can get married, have a baby, move house, change job, but his or her personality must remain steady. Not here. Which is why Breaking Bad is more like a film.

Season Three airs in the States in March. Let’s hope Five have bought it. Breaking Bad has been a revelation: simple concept, brilliant execution, subtle depths. Life, death, birth, sun, sky: it is, to risk a pun based on Walt’s beloved Periodic Table, elemental. And, as I say, it merits an immediate second viewing, upon which it reveals further genius. If you haven’t seen it yet – and S1 is on DVD – you’re going to have to get over the fact that the main protagonist coughs, violently and painfully, all the time; that death stalks the show constantly; that by the end of Ep3, two bodies will have been clumsily and graphically disposed of; and that even if you think you’re immunised to insanely violent drug dealers thanks to their ubiquity since Quentin Tarantino changed the face of crime movies, there’s an even more insanely violent one, called Tuco, you have yet to meet, and he will scare the living daylights out of you.

I did. And I’m glad. Vince Gilligan is two years younger than me.