The news that Mad Men returned in America to its lowest premiere rating since the season 2 opener is unimportant on one level – it’s on cable, it’s on its final demi-season anyway – but on another it simply confirms that, for whatever reason, we reached peak Mad Men some time ago. And even for a devotee like me it’s been difficult to disagree with the proposition that the last two seasons have failed to match the first four.
Looking on the bright side, though, I thought season 6 better than 5, and I’m sure that everyone connected with the show will want to go out on a high, particularly given that showrunner Matthew Weiner has always wanted to make seven seasons, suggesting that he has a fitting endgame in mind. (Given that, in line with current fashions, this final seventh season is being split into two, with the second half scheduled for 2015, it could be argued that he’s making eight seasons. But no matter.) And we in the UK are getting to see the show a matter of days after American transmission, which is always welcome. Weekly reviews here as soon as I can manage them (tonight, Sky Atlantic, 10pm).
CBS drama Intelligence definitely isn’t going to run for seven seasons – it’s completed its first (thirteen episode) run in America, with little chance of renewal. Which perhaps isn’t surprising: with Josh Holloway starring as an ex-Delta Force operative with a chip in his brain which enables him to access, y’know, the internet and stuff, it sounds like Sawyer off of Lost playing Chuck. There is, in fairness, a decent supporting cast – CSI’s Marg Helgenberger among others – and the reviews weren’t terrible, but I can’t see myself watching this (17 April, Sky 1, 9pm).
And another thirteen-episode drama, although this time one that’s already been cancelled in the USA, starts the day after. ABC’s Betrayal is about a couple having an affair who are also on opposite sides in a murder trial – yes, sounds like 13 episodes is about your maximum for that premise. Reviews for this one really weren’t good, and it’s based on a Dutch show anyway, which makes me wonder why we’re not just getting the subtitled original (18 April, 5USA, 10pm).
Finally, the BBC is providing us with “another chance to see” Parks and Recreation, which our CJ reckons to be just about the best thing on TV, from the start. (tonight, BBC4, 11pm).
Coming soon: season 2 of Orphan Black. And coming very soon: Fargo.
Although season 1 of The Trip was a bit of a critical slow-burner, with hindsight it’s difficult to see how it could have been anything but a success: glorious scenery, foodie porn, a proper director (Michael Winterbottom), and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riffing for half an hour every week. Assuming that the relevant parties were interested there was always going to be a second season, and four years later it’s finally arrived.
This time round the action, such as it is, is transferred to Italy: so this time round there’s glorious foreign scenery and foodie porn, but presumably the main attraction – insecure middle-aged men bickering, with a genuine darkness at the core – is still in place. Part of the success of The Trip, I think, stems from the leads playing slightly exaggerated versions of how we imagine them to be in real life: Coogan prickly, priapic, and overtly competitive; Bryson outwardly more amiable, perhaps, but capable of querulousness. And also competitive as all hell. She was only 16 years old (tonight, BBC2, 10pm).
In theory I’m way too old for this sort of thing, but you know me better than that, so….. just a quick word about new US drama Star-Crossed, debuting in the UK on Sky 1 tomorrow (Friday) night at 8pm.
Apparently following the standard CW template, it’s about a beautiful, kind young woman who falls in love with a handsome, potentially dangerous but actually more misunderstood young man – this time the object of her (and our, ideally, or the show will be a total bust) affections is a good-looking chap of the alien variety, rather than the mutant, vampire or otherwise kind. Almost certainly about to be cancelled in the US, it probably isn’t your best bet if you’re looking for something more than a one-and-done season of plaintively-soundtracked teen romance and I can already see Jed rolling his eyes from several miles away, but who am I kidding? I love this kind of nonsense, so I’ll be checking out the first ep anyway.
It’s only been about 900 years since it was last on, but Person of Interest’s winter/spring hiatus is finally over and the second season resumes tonight (Thursday) at 10pm on Five. This puts us over a year behind the US, which is particularly problematic when you spend any time on the internet at all – I fell upon a somewhat massive season 3 spoiler a few months ago, and have been trying desperately to forget about it since then – but I suppose we should be pleased the Five stable is at least still showing POI at all. Unlike Justified or Parenthood…. Anyway, weekly reviews here as usual.
Tonight also sees the UK debut of two interesting recent – much more recent than POI, Five, take note – dramas from the US in the form of Believe (9pm on Watch) and Klondike (9pm on Discovery). Believe is JJ Abrams and Bad Robot’s latest attempt to repeat the success of Lost – never gonna happen, mate – this time with a new series about a little girl with special powers of some sort and the wronged man who has to protect her. It sounds suspiciously like a re-run of (the utterly turgid) Touch to me, and it doesn’t even have Jack Bauer in it this time, so I won’t be bothering. The pilot was however directed and co-written by Alfonso “Gravity” Cuaron, one of the show’s creators who seems heavily involved in it, so at least it’ll look gorgeous, whether it’s actually any good or not.
Klondike, meanwhile, may be a more intriguing oddity: a period mini-series about prospectors in the Gold Rush, it’s the Discovery Channel’s first scripted offering, and ordinarily, I’d turn my nose right up at it on that basis, but its reviews have generally been much better than those for Believe, it’s produced by Ridley Scott and it stars Richard “Robb Stark” Madden, Tim Roth and Sam Shepard. All of which suggests Klondike is more than worth our time, but sadly we don’t have any – it’s on at the same time as The Good Wife, Nashville, POI and Southland so I can’t see us having the space on these pages or our viewing schedules to squeeze it in. Shame. If you do give it a go, let us know how you get on.
And finally… if you make it through all of Thursday’s tv, More 4 is jumping on the Scandi-drama bandwagon on Friday with new 6-part Norwegian financial conspiracy thriller Mammon kicking off at 9pm. Jed deals with the Scandi stuff around here so he may or may not decide to add it to his roster, but it’s not one for me, I have more than enough to catch up with already.
I seem to know quite a few people who gave up on The Americans during its first season, which just goes to show how opinions can differ. I thought this 80s-set drama about Russian spies in American suburbia was terrifically enjoyable, and very probably the best new (cable) drama of 2013. So I’m delighted to see it back on British screens this weekend, commendably soon after US transmission (well done ITV). And the exciting news is that, according to initial reaction to the first episodes of season 2, The Americans has got even better, which opens up the thrilling possibility that, rather like Justified did between seasons 1 and 2, The Americans might have gone from really good to great. Anyway, don’t listen to the naysayers: The Americans is worthy of your time (Saturday 15 March, 9.20pm, ITV 1).
Which, sadly, is more than can be said for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., returning tonight after its mid-season hiatus. I almost never bail on shows – and I should do so a lot more, frankly – but one good episode and a couple of half-decent ones were nowhere near enough to persuade me to continue either watching or reviewing. It should be said that the evidence from America, where a handful of post-hiatus episodes has been screened, is that there might have been a recent improvement in quality; it’s too late for me, I’m afraid. Our friend Tim at Slouching towards TV is, I think, carrying on with weekly reviews, but we’re out.
Which makes us “losers”, apparently, according to Clark Gregg, Mr Tahiti-It’s-A-Magical-Place himself. We should have had more patience, according to Mr Gregg – ironically the best thing about the show so far – who compared the first run of episodes to eating the “healthy stuff” and saving “dessert” for later. Now, I like it when actors are passionate about their shows, and I suppose you could applaud his ingenuity in trying to turn the show’s limp plots, miscast and misfiring actors, and lame dialogue into virtues; and, for that matter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into The Sopranos or something. Having given the matter further careful consideration, though, he and his show can piss off (tonight, 8pm, Channel 4).
And I suppose we should mention the UK debut of Ironside, a remake of the 60s/70s show about a wheelchair-bound detective. Blair Underwood – always watchable - is the star, but it was cancelled after only a few episodes, so it hardly seems worth taking an interest. I’m guessing that there must be contractual reasons why 5USA is bothering to show it at all, otherwise it would look odd that it’s broadcasting Ironside while cancelling its contract to show Justified (Tuesday 18 March, 9pm, 5USA).
Coming soon: Person of Interest, and new Scandi-drama Mammon. And just around the corner: Burn Notice, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones.
The Blacklist, perhaps the best of 2013’s new network shows, is back on British screens tonight. With a cracking Case of the Week premise, backstories to die for, and James Spader’s screen-devouring central performance, this is something close to a state-of-the-art procedural. In fact, if there is a problem – and so far at least it isn’t much of one – it’s that it’s definitely Spader’s show, to the point where the rest of the cast can sometimes feel like a bit of an afterthought. Still, Spader’s portrayal of master-criminal Red Reddington contains more subtlety, empathy, mystery and humour than many of its critics are prepared to allow, and with renewal for a second season already safely in the bag The Blacklist is a success, any way you want to look at it. We’ll be back with weekly reviews as before (tonight, Sky Living, 9pm).
And tomorrow brings the third run of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Lee has spent years honing his particular artistry to its present sharpness, and even though he’s claimed that he won’t be satisfied until it’s just “me and broadsheet journalists in a self-congratulatory loop”, he probably now has exactly the sort of size and type of audience he wants: big enough to sustain a career and a TV series or two, but not so big that he has to accommodate those who just don’t get it. (Like, for instance, the difference between real life and a stage/screen persona.)
Saturday night might seem like an odd time to put this on; in fact, it might be ideal, as many of us in Lee’s fanbase are probably more likely to be at home, nursing our low-level misanthropy to keep it warm, rather than out enjoying ourselves. Lee’s intelligent, provocative brilliance is best seen on stage, and it survives the transition to TV quite comfortably. (Having said that, his book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’, in which he transcribes and deconstructs some of his routines – which are themselves, of course, deconstructed during his act – is also worth a look: crammed with fantastic bits so that, rather like his performances, it repays revisiting.) And enigmatic genius Chris Morris is in the show this time as well. Irresistible, I’d say (Saturday, BBC 2, 10pm).
Also starting: Jonathan Creek’s back, although it’s never been the same since Caroline Quentin left, has it? (Tonight, BBC1, 9pm) And Revolution returns tomorrow for the second part of its second season (Saturday, Sky 1, 10pm).
Coming soon: Person of Interest, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
When PSA-ing Damages a few weeks ago, I suggested that, when it started, much of its significance resided in the fact that it had a bona fide Big Movie Star opting, apparently voluntarily, for the small screen. This weekend British viewers get to see another example, when HBO’s True Detective starts. It stars Matthew McConaughey – currently odds-on favourite to win the Academy Award for Best Actor – Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan, and arrives on the back of the sort of reviews which leave you in no doubt that you are about to see an Event. Well, we’ll be the judges of that; in any case, it’s slightly unfair to compare it to, say, Breaking Bad, which took at least three seasons to become Breaking Bad, the phenomenon.
In True Detective Harrelson and McConaughey play Louisiana homicide detectives trying to solve the apparently ritualistic murder of a woman, because of course it’s generally women who are the subject of ritualistic killing in TV and films. It runs to eight episodes, and the intention – if the show is renewed – seems to be that each subsequent season will have a different cast, which must be a temptation to actors who perhaps want to do something worthwhile on TV without tying themselves to seven-year contracts.
Anyway, CJ has already decided that True Detective comes under her TV For Boys heading – I’m sure that the Emmys will be including that category this year – so I’m on reviewing duties for the first episode at least; thereafter, we’ll see (Saturday February 22, 9pm, Sky Atlantic).
After years of complaining about British drama, round about a year ago I was stopped in my tracks by two new shows from Channel 4’s stable: the dark, complex, and visually stunning Utopia, which will be returning later this year for a second run; and My Mad Fat Diary, back this week.
Saddled with an unpromising title, which made My Mad Fat Diary sound like an exploitative reality show, this 80s-set adaptation of Rae Earl’s semi-autobiographical novel about growing up with mental health issues was perhaps my biggest surprise of the year: charming, moving, sensitive, and amusing, impressive in the way in which it repeatedly sidestepped predictability, and with a predominantly young cast which clearly believed in the material and adorned it with some of the freshest and most appealing acting you’re likely to see. (But not above giving us a happy ending, which is also in its favour.) I loved it, and I’m delighted to see it back, with the gang off to college this time. Season 1 reviews here, if you’re catching up; weekly reviews of season 2 as soon as I can write them (Monday 17 February, 10pm, E4).
The next night sees another in the expanding genre of faux-documentaries in which actors play heightened versions of themselves: Doll & Em, with Emily Mortimer as Em, big-name actor, and her real-life bestie Dolly Wells as Doll, who relocates to America after a relationship breaks down, and becomes Mortimer’s assistant. In keeping with the conventions of the genre it’s created by Mortimer, and part-improvised, part-scripted by the leads (with director Azazel Jacobs also chipping in). Mortimer is a genuine talent, if perhaps difficult to warm to; Wells I have no idea about, which is, I suppose, partly the point.
Sky Living has been good enough to make the first six minutes or so available, which should be enough to give you an idea of whether you’re interested. Personally my tolerance for humblebragging actors showing themselves being egotistical and unappealing, thus implicitly demonstrating how self-deprecating and captivating they actually are, has been pretty much sated already, so Unpopcult isn’t bothering. But we may, of course, have misjudged it, and over at Slouching towards TV our friend Tim will be doing weekly reviews if you fancy giving it a go (Tuesday 18 February, 10pm, Sky Living; on HBO in America in March).
Finally, I think we can all agree that, after season 3 of Sherlock, Elementary now stands unchallenged as the best Holmesian adaptation presently on TV, with Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock also superior to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. It’s back for the second half of season 2 (Tuesday 18 February, 9pm, Sky Living). And the slightly-past-its-best Modern Family returns for its fifth season, with a double-bill (Monday 17 February, 8pm, Sky 1).
Coming soon: some welcome old friends, and promising newcomers.
There’s a lot of fuss made – even by us – when a British broadcaster manages to get its act together and show an American programme within a few days of its original broadcast. So it’s easy to forget that it remains the exception rather than the rule, even for the Sky channels, which generally have a better record than their free-to-air competitors.
Case in point: season 5 of hospital-based black comedy/drama Nurse Jackie finally reaches British screens this week, after several postponements, and around ten months behind American transmission. (Season 6, in fact, starts in the US in April.) Still, it’s good to have it back: I thought season 4 was somewhat better than season 3, so I’m looking forward to it. And as long as the sublime (and Emmy-winning) Merritt Wever remains a member of the cast, it’ll be worth watching for her alone. As before, weekly reviews (Sky Atlantic, Friday 14 February, 10pm).
The same day sees the start, finish, and everything in between of season 2 of the American version of House of Cards, which drops onto Netflix at 8.01am. This, I think, is Unpopcult’s first streaming PSA. We may look back on this as a historic moment.
The day before, UK viewers get the first episode of the fifth and final season of superior policier Southland. I gave up on it during season 2 but CJ, I believe, still regards it as one of the better shows on TV. I’m guessing it’s too late to drop in now, but for its select but devoted audience this will be good, if melancholy, news (Thursday 13 February, More4, 11pm).
Finally, there are lots of new shows starting tonight, and Unpopcult won’t be watching any of them. So it’s a thumbs down to season 2 of Beauty and the Beast (Watch, 8pm), semi-improvised cop show Suspects (Channel 5, 10pm), Fleming, with Dominic Cooper as the James Bond author (Sky Atlantic, 9pm), and season 2 of well-regarded police drama Line of Duty (BBC2, 9pm).
Lots of shows coming back/starting up over the next few days so we’ll have at least one or maybe even two more PSA’s before the week is out. But sticking with today (Monday) and tomorrow for now, first up is the second half of season 4 of The Walking Dead which returns from winter hiatus tonight at 9pm on Fox UK.
Possibly the most depressing tv show I’ve ever watched, I only managed the first season of the zombie misery-fest before I decided to choose life over walking death – I did mean to watch season 2 but, in the end, I just couldn’t do it to myself. However, there’s no denying it’s high-quality, serious tv with an excellent cast and a huge following who will be delighted to catch the usual carnage and despair only 1 day after it’s being shown in the US. Kudos to Fox UK for treating an American genre show and its fans with respect.
Talking of which…. a slow hand-clap for the BBC who are finally getting around to showing season 3 of the wonderful Parks and Recreation. The opening double bill starting tomorrow on BBC4 at 10.30pm, which is only 3 YEARS after it was shown in the US, 7 months after it came out on DVD in the UK and, just for good measure, a month after season 4 came out on DVD in the UK too. So, bang up-to-date, then.
Sigh. I’m sure there’s an excellent reason why the Beeb can find prime-time slots and cash for wretched fare like “Spooks on the Hustle”, sorry, By Any Means or The(umpteenth remake of the) Musketeers but has relegated Parks to a late-night slot on a niche channel years after the event, as if it’s something to be ashamed of instead of the best show it actually has on its books. Excellent reason or not, though, I didn’t want to wait, so I’ve already watched the whole of season 3 on DVD, perfectly legally. And it’s a joy. The writing is as sweet and sharp as season 2, the characters (especially Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson) are all both completely mad and completely brilliant, and the addition of Adam Scott’s adorable Ben and Rob Lowe’s super-keen Chris is inspired. I don’t think we’ll be reviewing it regularly here but I loved it so much the first time that I might just watch it on tv all over again.