We start with a put-upon single mother in a bank, her life in emotional and financial turmoil, being refused an extension on her mortgage by a less-than-sympathetic clerk. She goes back to her car, takes out a gun, and returns into the building for a shooting spree, all the while watched by someone sitting outside. Red alerts the Task Force to the fact that the event is part of a pattern of similar incidents in which people who have never been in any trouble before suddenly use extreme violence, and the investigation leads to Dr Linus Creel, a social psychologist, who has been working in hospitals, identifying susceptible individuals with the “warrior gene”, and manipulating them into violence. It’s part of Subproject 7, an experiment in mind control, originally paid for out of the apparently bottomless financial pit that is the American black-ops budget, now funding at least a zillion TV dramas and quite a few films.
In order for Aram to gain access to Creel’s computer database someone needs to get closer to him, and it is of course Keen who goes as close to undercover as she’s ever likely to get, posing as a woman at the end of her tether in order to be interviewed by Creel about her personal history. This is actually a terrific little scene, in which we are left to wonder just how much of what she’s saying is the truth. In fact, Aram – who thinks she’s lying – and Samar strike a bet about it. (Aram seems to be getting much more screentime, doesn’t he? This is good. I like Aram.) But when Keen is asked what she would like to do to her husband, and replies, “I’d chain him up and force him to tell me about all the lies, the secrets he kept. I’d make him my prisoner”, we can be fairly sure that while she’s exaggerating, but it’s produced by a genuine emotion.
Until this point, it’s been above-average Blacklist, if not exceptional. Where this episode really scores, though, is that the longer arcs finally lock into place again. Not, perhaps, to start with: at first there’s more to-and-fro between Red and Naomi, the former Mrs Red, along the let-me-protect-you vs I-don’t-want-your-protection lines. But then Vargas (Paul Reubens, every bit as creepy as last week) turns up at the house of an apparently unconnected woman, and all of a sudden Red has leverage he can use to oblige Naomi’s husband Frank to convince Naomi that it’s time to leave. (And the scene with Red, Frank, and the stick acted as yet another chilling reminder that while the show expends a certain amount of energy on turning Red into an eccentric antihero, he’s a particularly sinister one.)
Then the show takes a number of turns that I really can’t write about without a big SPOILER ALERT. Dr Creel has manipulated a student into turning up at an anti-gun rally with a gun. During the ensuing shootout, Creel takes Keen hostage at gunpoint, and while everyone gets on with the business of shouting at him to drop his weapon, the sniper we saw in last week’s episode actually does something about it, taking Creel out with a single shot. Red confirms to Keen that the sniper is working for him, leaving us to wonder why Red wanted Keen’s team after Creel in the first place: has Red, perhaps, been using Creel’s techniques? Why was Samar so keen to concede to Aram that she lost their bet, then hand the file over to Keen without letting anyone else see it?
And then, just as I was thinking that Keen has been a more intriguing character this season, and that Megan Boone’s performance has been much better as well, we get THAT final scene, which – inevitably – reminds us of her words to Dr Creel about what she would do with her husband, and Red’s later observation that she’s “hiding something”. Yes she is, and whatever it is the show’s been hiding it from us as well. Which I’m fine with: I wasn’t happy when Homeland played tricks on us, but The Blacklist is a different kind of show, and hasn’t actually been conning us anyway. More importantly: what is it Red and Naomi aren’t telling Keen? Where’s Jennifer? And what the EFF is behind that door? Oh, I’m back in all right. I’m expecting ‘Dr Linus Creel’ to divide opinion, but I suspect it might be the first really pivotal episode of this season. I thought it was thrilling.
Time to get to know “Poor Nora Durst” a little better, as we follow her to a convention for, I don’t know, the Department of the Departed and partners, or something. Essentially, it’s one of those work conferences held in a hotel over a couple of days, where people compete over who can drink more, then oversleep and miss their seminars/panels/the reason they’re at the conference in the first place. You know the type. The difference being, however, that the guests of honour – the “legacies” – at this particular conference are people who have family members among the Departed.
In a magnificently prosaic, totally conference-y detail, you get an orange sticker on your laminated ID for every family member you’ve lost and, as Nora points out, her 3 stickers get her a lot of sympathy. That sympathy, however, both has its limits – as Nora learns when another guest runs away from her in terror – and is its own kind of prison; when her pass is stolen, initially Nora’s outraged, but the enforced anonymity means that when she’s swept up with a group determined to have a good time, she can let go of all the baggage of being Nora and having all those orange stickers and party just as hard.
This being The Leftovers, however, it’s not quite as simple as that. Nora thinks someone is using the stolen pass to impersonate her, and (as with Chief Kevin’s Dog-Shooting Friend) neither the viewer nor the hotel staff can be sure at first whether she’s imagining it. That and the life-size Departed Doll industry are more than creepy enough for one ep. But there’s plenty to unsettle the viewer before we even get there; in particular, the incredibly sad shopping trip when Nora buys cereals, milk and eggs for her Departed children, throwing out the untouched cereals, milk and eggs she bought for them last time, and the spectacularly unsettling interlude with “Angel”;, which I won’t spoil, but freaked both "Angel" and I the hell out.
There’s light amongst all the shade though, as Nora shares some majestically awkward, yet completely adorable scenes with Chief Kevin, and it’s those scenes I liked the best about “Guest.” Not because of the shipper element – ok, not just because of the shipper element, but also because one of the things The Leftovers is brilliant at is awkwardness: the less than polished things people say and less than explicable things people do, especially when they’re grieving. In a tv landscape full to bursting with fast-talking geniuses who talk in snappy one-liners burnished to a shine, it’s refreshing to see a show where people talk more disjointedly and say things they shouldn’t, getting uncomfortable pauses and stares in return instead of more quick-fire banter. Another terrific episode of the best new show of the season then; I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know who’re watching The Leftovers, but I absolutely adore it.
Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) introduces her Criminal Law 100 class to a lecture theatre full of students: it should, she snaps, be called “How To Get Away With Murder”. Which is appropriate, as the episode started with a flashforward to four panicky student types apparently trying to decide how best to get away with a murder. Keating is also a defence attorney, and her students get to assist with her case preparation: they (all) sit in on a consultation with a woman accused of the attempted murder of her married lover, and the best of them will be selected to work at Keating’s law firm with her associates: bright, blonde Bonnie (Liza Weil), and ever-so-slightly-sleazy Frank (Charlie Weber).
Of the students, it’s probably Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) who gets most screentime this week: he’s on the back foot from the start, in off the wait list, ill-prepared for class, and living in a skanky apartment with a noisy – yet mysterious and a little hot – neighbour. He looks like he’s going to be the decent one to be contrasted against his psychopathically ambitious classmates and his adulterous boss – Keating is married to a professor, and knocking off a cop – whose ethics are at best questionable. Which in turn means that, for now, he’s perhaps a little unexciting.
If I’m being honest, it took a while for the main plots to lock into place for me; there are (I think) three separate murder plots going on in this episode, and it probably wasn’t until the final five minutes that I worked out what was going on with them: there’s the flashforward murder (the victim of which we discover right at the end); the Case of the Week murder (which essentially, and gratifyingly, remains murky); and the missing sorority girl murder, which is taking place in the present-day timeline and is perhaps connected to the strange fingernail/bite marks in Wes’s apartment.
But that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. As it happens, the show reminded me at least as much of Damages – strong female lead played by a movie-star, criminal law, multiple timelines – as it did anything else from the Shondaland stable. But that’s not a bad thing, of course, and on the evidence of this pilot episode ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ looks as if it’s going to be more than preposterous and entertaining enough to keep me watching. Viola Davis’s performance, in particular, is excellent.
Fitz and Olivia are post-coital but nonetheless angry with each other, although the measure of their solipsism is that they’re having a screaming match about Jake, while they know him to be standing outside the door. Unwilling though they might be to admit it, however, there are bigger issues than their relationship to be dealt with: specifically, a reporter has a story about the presumptive Vice-President, Andrew Nichol, taking non-prescribed oxycontin in the Governor’s mansion a few years ago. Nichol concedes that it’s true, and Olivia is deputed to handle the story.
Except it isn’t true: Andrew’s covering for Mellie, who after being raped by Fitz’s father attempted suicide by overdose, and was saved by Andrew. (I couldn’t quite get the timeline right: did the overdose happen minutes or years after the rape? If the former – which was implied by Mellie’s horror of being touched – why was she talking about the son who might be Big Jerry’s?) In the present day Andrew’s still in love with Mellie, of course, and it might be reciprocated: they kiss in the White House, under portraits of previous First Ladies, their eyes looking on in silent and reproachful judgment.
In Race For The White House news, Hollis Doyle is back, and promising support for Sally if she’s prepared to appoint an Energy Secretary who will have an open mind about “drilling in that gas station they call the North Pole”. Sally’s PTSD-ing about her murder of Double-D, though, and Publius is still leaking information about that as well, to the point where Cyrus hires Charlie to deal with whoever Publius might be, meaning that David Rosen – attending a meeting with a journo on James’s behalf – nearly gets himself killed by accident. (Whether the bag-over-the-head was necessary seemed to me to be moot: couldn’t Huck and Abby just have tapped him on the shoulder and told him to leave?) Anyway, Hollis seems to have shifted to Fitz’s camp, joining such trusted public figures as Adnan Salif, with suitcases full of cash to be laundered through Fitz’s campaign, at the behest of the show’s newest baddie.
And for the Gladiators, there’s still not much going on: Adnan is holding ‘Clearwater’ over Harrison, yet another top-secret something-or-other with a code name. Fitz is a monster on a leash. Quinn is trying to demonstrate that she’s as good as anyone in B-613. Mellie’s questioning of Fitz about what it’s like to be as hot for someone as he is for Olivia has more power and pathos than the OPA staffers’ storylines put together. Overall, in fact, ‘We Do Not Touch the First Ladies’ felt a little unfocussed: entertaining, but not quite as on-point as Scandal usually is.
Public Service Announcement 46 of 2014: How To Get Away With Murder, Scorpion, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Big Bang Theory
Lots beginning over the next couple of days. Let’s start in Shondaland: as well as the return of old warhorse Grey’s Anatomy for its eleventh season (tonight, Sky Living, 9pm), Ms Rhimes has exec produced new show How To Get Away With Murder, which is created by Peter Nowalk, a writer and exec producer on Scandal. How To… stars Viola Davis as defence attorney and law professor Annalise Keating, who along with her students becomes involved in a murder. Unsurprisingly, Keating also has a complicated home and professional life. It’s been reasonably well-received by critics, its ratings are holding up, it’s already had a full-season order, and it looks like another hit for Shonda. I’ll be watching: I’m not anticipating week-by-week reviews, but then I thought that about Scandal (tonight, Universal, 10pm).
The other big new drama of the week is Scorpion, in which a maverick misfit computer genius and his maverick etc. friends are recruited by the Department of Homeland Security to do the sort of thing that mavericks etc. would do in a show like this: unsolvable crimes are solved. Now, Scorpion had poor reviews, but for now at least the viewers are turning up in considerable numbers, suggesting that it’s doing something right (Thursday 23 October, ITV 2, 9pm).
As, apparently, is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., although I’ll be fecked if I know what it is. I reviewed the first half of season 1 and eventually gave up, although our friend Tim over at Slouching towards TV kept going for the whole run. It’s now back for a second season, and fairness compels me to acknowledge that the general view is that the show improved a little after I stopped watching. I’m not starting again, though (Friday 24 October, Channel 4, 8pm).
A much safer bet is The Big Bang Theory, back for its eighth season. There’s a simple reason why it’s America’s top-rated comedy: it’s very, very good at what it does. And there’s a simple reason why the cast members are worth every dollar of their new pay deals: they make CBS an absolute fortune (Thursday 23 October E4, 8.30pm).
And American Horror Story returned yesterday for its fourth season, subtitled Freak Show (Tuesdays, FOX UK, 10pm).
All six of these shows, incidentally, are at worst a few weeks behind American transmission, suggesting that UK broadcasters are finally getting that particular message. There’s more to come before the end of October as well; and more still in November.
The cold open: a spookily deserted O’ahu. We then go back seven hours, to see Steve and Danny sitting in an office bickering, while an unseen female voice questions them. She claims it’s a Governor-mandated “annual psychological audit of personnel” but it’s totally couples therapy, and it also gives the show a chance to provide a recap for new viewers – how Steve and Danny met, how the Five-0 was put together, that sort of thing. Then we cut to a couple running up a Hawaiian hill to be confronted by… “What is that?” wonders the woman, but whatever it is it mows them down in a hail of machine-gun fire. Bang bang bang. Credits. New credits, in fact, including both Chi McBride and Jorge Garcia, confirming their status as permanent cast members.
Anyway, the mysterious shooting thing turns out to be a drone. Not just any drone, but a domestic weaponised surveillance drone, stolen from a military contractor, and controlled – of course – by a disaffected ex-employee. Now, in real life I have the usual liberal objections to drones: in the military context, they dehumanise and sanitise the act of killing; in a domestic context, they have uncomfortable implications for privacy. Put them in a TV drama, though, and I’m singing and dancing; and it has to be said that hovering a combat drone over a crowded beach has a considerable eerie power, all the more so when it opens fire again. Which leads to everyone in O’ahu being told to stay inside in anticipation of further attacks, hence the cold open.
Is it terrorism? Possibly; Disaffected Ex-Employee explains that he wants America to feel the same fear as those against whom drones have been used. “You’re comparing sworn enemies of the United States to innocent civilians?” snaps Steve, and for a second I thought, oh no, we’re back in oorah territory. But Disaffected is allowed to make the point that plenty of civilians have died in American drone attacks, and we move on.
Because it’s all a distraction anyway for the main event, which is the extraction of someone or other, using a plane which is going to land in Main Street, O’ahu, at the behest of the SRS, a terrorist group comprising “the best” ex-Soviet intelligence agents, which presumably means that the ones which weren’t quite as good have to go off and form their own terrorist group. What if they’re late developers? And then the action really starts: on the basis that you send a thief to catch a thief, the only way to stop a drone is with another drone, and the episode becomes a delirious round of drone vs drone, drone vs plane, bullet-spraying drone chases, and so on.
There’s a curious postscript setting up a number of possible longer arcs: something about Danny’s brother, Adam proposes to Kono, Chin tries to get IA off his back, and some bad men are after Jerry. I’m comforted, though, by the fact that neither the recap at the start nor the coda mentioned Steve’s mom or Wo Fat, both storylines which, for me, have outlived their usefulness. We can worry about that next week, though. Bromance, drones, gunfire; I loved every last second of this.
Bromance Watch: DUDES. Couples therapy!
Women in the Workplace Watch: The show’s latest piece of fluff seems to be Max’s new assistant Dr Shaw, whose major contribution is to confide, through Max, that she thinks Danny is cute. Thanks, Dr Shaw. Could you run along now, please? The men have work to do.
“Oh, FFS!” Watch: DRONES.
(This episode was brought to you by: the Sheraton Waikiki, which has presumably paid more than the Hilton Hawaiian Village this time round.)
Period hospital drama The Knick, from celebrated auteur Steven Soderbergh, with movie star Clive Owen in the lead role, would like you to think it’s a bold and exciting new look at a part of medical and social history that is usually ignored, romanticised or soft-soaped. A shame then that it chooses the oldest, most hackneyed way to kick off the season: we open in a brothel and, within seconds, are treated/subjected (depending on your point of view) to a full-frontal nude shot of an unidentified woman (she’s wearing a shirt but it’s open) wandering in for no good reason other than to murmur something to our hero as he lies in a drug-induced stupor.
I nearly switched off at that point, because, FFS, in this “Golden Age of TV”, can we not come up with something a bit more original, a bit more evolved, than using yet another nameless, character-less female body as tv shorthand for the flaws proudly toted by yet another sodding “anti-hero” in yet another sodding cable drama which thinks it has something interesting and daring to say about the human condition but is happy to treat half of that human condition like slabs of meat to do so?
Find a new way to tell us your hero’s troubled, guys. FIND A NEW WAY.
Sigh. Set in 1900 New York, The Knick revolves around the mega-talented, super-tortured (excuse me while I put my eyes back in, they rolled right out of my head) Dr John Thackery, the Chief Surgeon at the titular Knickerbocker Hospital. He’s a genius, a drug addict and a jerk; he’s horrible to the nurses (obv), worse to the African-American surgeon who wants to work for him, depressed after his partner’s suicide but, obviously, still the greatest doctor of all time.
Yes, it’s Gregory House’s racist Grandpa.
Because it’s 1900, however, he doesn’t have quite the success rate that his progeny at Princeton-Plainsboro does. Thackery and his staff are constantly pushing at the boundaries of medical advancement, losing patient after patient in the process. Social welfare laws are in their infancy, with poverty, racial and sexual discrimination, corruption and the spread of tuberculosis all woven seamlessly into this first ep. Soderbergh and co have (it seems anyway, I’m no historian) done their research, and it’s all – the surgeries, the withdrawal-induced sweats, the venality of local officials, the grim and pitiless life of the poor – presented with a clinical and unflinching eye, in the usual Soderbergh style. Unfortunately, however, it’s also saddled with a clinical and cliched script: the dialogue is stilted and dull, the characters stereotypes, and Thackery, at the centre of the whole thing, is not so much an anti-hero as an asshat. All this is dressed up in oddly twee, hokey period costume, which may be accurate, I don’t know, but feels strange when the show is holding itself out as daring and innovative, and soundtracked with a series of weirdly incongruous, staccato electronic beats, more reminiscent of the 1980s than the 1900s. As a whole, it’s a jarring mish-mash of styles and attitude, and the only new, warm thing about it is the extra blood and guts. In short, I hated just about every second of it. I won’t be watching again.