O.J.: Made in America

I’m not alone in regarding the drama series American Crime Story – The People v. O.J. Simpson as one of the outstanding TV shows of the year. By coincidence, while that was being made ESPN was working at the same time on O.J.: Made in America, a documentary series, which was broadcast over the summer in America and (with surprisingly little fanfare) on BT Sports in the UK. And it’s one of the other outstanding TV shows of the year.

We know, of course, that the case of the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and the subsequent prosecution of Simpson, was a hellish brew of violence, race, media, politics, law, class, and misogyny. Where O.J.: Made in America really scores is in putting all of that in its inescapable context, by showing us the personal history of Simpson and the racial history of Los Angeles, before getting to the trial. It includes archive footage and talking heads, such as F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, and Carl E. Douglas from the defence side; Mark Fuhrman from the LAPD; a couple of jurors;  and from the prosecution Gil Garcetti and the much-maligned Marcia Clark, but not her teammate Chris Darden. (Would it be unfair to suggest, even tentatively, that Clark still doesn’t quite get why Simpson was acquitted?)

And at the centre of it all is the irony of Simpson, a man who during his career tried to outrun the very idea of race, but then saw himself defined by it: damned or saved – perhaps both – by the colour of his skin, depending on how you view the investigation, prosecution, trial, verdict, and sordid aftermath.

I have the same lingering doubt that I did with the dramatised version: is it entirely right that I should find it so richly entertaining? And there’s quite a lot of it – five parts, each clocking in at just short of two hours. But it’s remarkable television. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Public Service Announcement 24 of 2016: The Night Of, Wolf Creek

First on this week’s list is the acclaimed eight-part HBO drama The Night Of, based on the UK show Criminal Justice. British actor Riz Ahmed plays the lead role of Naz, who has a night of sexy and druggy action with a young woman, then – inevitably, this being TV – wakes up the next morning to find her stabbed to death, and is accused of her murder. Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are co-creators, writers, and exec producers. The American critics loved it (Sky Atlantic, Thursday 1 September, 9pm).

And from the other side of the world, Wolf Creek, a six-part remake of the horror film of the same name, is one of the first original programme offerings from Australian streaming company Stan – no, I can’t keep up either. An American tourist in the outback survives an attack during which other members of her family are killed, then tries to track the killer herself. I haven’t seen the original – and, apparently, thoroughly nasty – movie, but the TV show was reasonably well-received in Australia. Trailer here (Fox UK, tonight, 10pm).

Also starting: Amazon Prime’s The Collection, which they’re touting as their first ever original UK drama, even though it’s set in post-war Paris (episode 1 available from Friday 2 September); season 3 of NBC’s The Night Shift (Sony Entertainment Television, tonight, 10pm); season 2 of Netflix’s well-received Narcos (available from Friday 2 September); and  the first and only season of Syfy’s already-cancelled Hunters, about a Philadelphia cop who tracks down aliens, or something. I have no intention of watching, but I quite like the fact that each episode has the title of an OMD song (Syfy UK, Wednesday 31 August, 9pm).

Forthcoming attraction: him out of Poldark, in Poldark. More on that soon.

The Catch s1 ep 9

So Ben has chosen a side: Alice, obvs. (He’s giving that impression, at least; the possibility of him pulling the rug away can’t be entirely discounted.) But just in case things are getting too cosy, enter Sybil (played by Lesley Nicol, Mrs Patmore from Downton Abbey), the de facto boss of the Kensington firm and the matriarch of the Bishop family, who combines homely, maternal charm, and the distinct likelihood of ruthless violence as and when required.

Sybil’s first piece of business is getting Leah, last week’s counterfeiter, back from Margot, who is still pretending to be Alice’s therapist. Alice, though, has worked out what is going on, and intends to help Ben and Dao by planting a tracker on Margot. She blows it, though, when she spends an entire therapy session dissing Margot. To her face. (Having Leah, emotionally detached from everything, spot this immediately is a nice touch.) Meantime, in a hugely entertaining storyline, Sybil’s job for Ben and Rhys is to get themselves invited to a wedding, for reasons we don’t yet know but which will presumably be the subject of the finale. Whether it’s entirely necessary to have them pose as a romantically-involved couple is debatable, but it’s great fun, as are their attempts to influence the about-to-be-wed Morgan and Stephanie.

It’s another slick, fast, and engaging episode. Most importantly, though, once again it feels as if the people involved in making it have put in sufficient effort to ensure that it’s all of these things.

Nashville s4 ep 1

One month later. There’s a half-hearted Deacon-is-dead fakeout; his side of Rayna’s bed is empty, and Rayna herself bravely concedes that she’s had to do some “letting go”. But it doesn’t even survive the credits, and the good news is that Deacon lives. Unfortunately, the appalling Beverly has also made it through; at any rate, she’s in a coma, which obliges everyone to pretend that they want her to regain consciousness. Which she eventually starts to do, to tears from Deacon, Scarlett, and Unpopcult.

Rayna can’t worry too much about that, though, although God knows she’ll have some dissembling to do if and when Beverly comes walking back into her life. Because just as she signs Juliette’s life over to Jeff, W******’ D*****’ Records, and some dude called Patrick (who seems to be covering for Jeff while the latter is torturing sinners in the Infernal Places, or whatever he does in his spare time), Juliette phones her, in a state of intoxication and tearful disarray from The Road.

Now Juliette, it should be said, is ostensibly having the time of her life: she’s on tour, promoting Cline! (which appears, unaccountably, to have been given a different name by its producers), about to release a new album, hanging out with vapid party girls, keeping Layla in her place, duetting with Steven Tyler, and forgetting about poor little Cadence and poor little Avery. So what up?

Well, when Rayna private-jets out to see her, Juliette denies all knowledge of the call, delivers a spicy put-down or two in re Highway 65, and chases Rayna out. “You break my heart, girl”, murmurs Rayna. “You really do”. And mine too, as it happens: as I said at the end of the last season, the fact that Hayden Panettiere – who’s been superb in this show for years now – was playing this part while actually coping with postpartum depression in real life just makes it all the more harrowing. (And, incidentally and impressively, Jeff manages to be the nastiest person in the whole episode despite not actually appearing this week.)

But it all leaves Rayna with a little food for thought; yes, Rayna, your vanity label has indeed been something of a disaster. On the bright side, though, you’ve still got The Girls. Who are now getting letters from (ex-?) Mayor Teddy, behind bars but still creating havoc. Older Girl – intolerable as ever – is throwing Teddy’s letters straight in the bin, to which Younger Girl takes (unexpectedly violent) exception. Deacon wades into their fight, still bruised by the whole Beverly/sibling rivalry thing, and tells them that each will be the best friend the other will ever have. Well, you can see why that might not come as great news to YG – imagine having OG as a lifelong BFF? – and she stomps off in a way which suggests that she, too, is going to be problematic this season. Ho hey.

And, unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if Gunnar and Scarlett are going to be my safe place. They’re meeting up to record their latest song, which is, of course, as molten and gorgeous as usual. But Gunnar starts off wanting to “talk about it” – the almost-kiss at the end of season 3 – when Scarlett very clearly doesn’t. Then when the two of them are rehearsing, with all the usual eye contact, they totally make out! At last, I thought; but then Scarlett is all, we can’t do this; and Gunnar is all, you want this; and I’m all, dude: you really don’t want to be telling her what she’s thinking. Thing is, I’ve been on Team #Gunnlett since like forever, and even I’m getting fed up with it. The only thing keeping me going now is that Scarlett’s doctor boyfriend is perhaps the dullest person in the world, and you can see that she knows it. She just about manages to stay awake for long enough to tell him that she loves him.

Underneath it all, though, I still maintain that Gunnar is a good guy. His scenes with Will are always among the best in any episode – they have a real chemistry – and there’s a lot of work to be done there, because Will’s having difficulty coming to terms with his sexuality being public. “Why’d you come out just so you can stay in?” wonders Gunnar; affectionately, it should be said. Fortunately, there’s about to be plenty of fun round at the Lexington/Scott household: Avery’s back from his parents, he’s moving in, and he’s brought Cadence with him! Wonder who’ll be the first one to leave Cadence on a bus (or whatever)? Anyway: a perfectly serviceable return for Nashville, although I spent quite a lot of time waiting for something consequential to happen.

Containment ep 7

This week on Containment, it’s all about the some-form-of-computer-business office building that Jana, her flaky pal Suzy, those two rubbish guys they know and the maintenance manager are holed up in. Blue hazmat suits all round!

Xander and Teresa (currently at the about-to-burst stage of pregnancy) joining the party is fine, but T’s mother being forced to bring a gangster along as her plus-one is not cool, and things go from awful to Armageddon very quickly when the most disturbingly well-organised gang of murderous meth-heads in the Atlanta area decide to stop doing wheelies in the car park and storm the building instead.

Luckily, Jake turns up – in a moment so incredibly awesome I wanted to hi-five the tv – to help, and between him, the surprisingly badass, resourceful Jana and a DIY blowtorch (WHOA!), the day is just about saved. Too late for REDACTED and REDACTED, of course, but they both sucked so whatevs. Lex’s job and freedom bring sacrificed in the process is a shame, I s’pose…. oh, who’m I kidding? Lex and his sudden attack of Daddy Issues – do we really need an outbreak of Daddy Issues in the midst of a show about an honest-to-goodness apocalyptic plague? – are duller than dry cornflakes for dinner. But never mind him. The rest of the episode is properly exciting, Jana is much less annoying than usual, characters who’ve clearly been watching too many medical dramas suddenly shouting out pregnancy-related diagnoses is hilarious (“What if it’s pre-eclampsia?” “Hey, it’ll be Braxton-Hicks!”) and Jake is my future husband. Well, ok, no he’s not, but he’s lovely and that scene where he tells Jana how he feels about Katie is so utterly, utterly adorable it almost makes up for the absence of Miss Frank herself. Almost. If he could just tell her to her face next week, I’d probably SQUEE myself into space.

Stranger Things s1

imageThe Eighties have been falling in and out of fashion with some regularity over the past few years, but the heat currently being generated by Netflix’s Stranger Things should keep the flames of nostalgia burning brightly for a while. Set in a small, nosy, sleepy town – is there any other kind on tv? – circa 1983, it’s the story of the mysterious disappearance of one 12 year-old Will Byers, the determination of his three best friends and his mother (Eighties royalty Winona Ryder) to find him, and the sinister government programme that puts them all in danger in the first place.

A genuinely terrifying, supernatural horror homage with a warm, beating heart at its centre, Stranger Things’ main influences are Stephen King – Stand By Me and Carrie being the most obvious references – and Steven Spielberg, but there are affectionate, joyful nods to absolutely everything genre (and plenty that’s not) from that era, from Dungeons and Dragons to Star Wars, helped along by an impressively authentic soundtrack, and the most likeable, natural, wonderful group of child actors I’ve seen in years. The stand-outs for me are Gaten Matarazzo as the loyal, clever, funny, joyously intuitive and inventive Dustin, and Millie Bobby Brown as the heartbreakingly brave, tiny, damaged little superhero Eleven, but all five of the main children give tremendous performances in rounded, complicated, charming roles, more than holding their own against adults including Ryder, Matthew Modine (sporting a shock of impressively scary white hair) and the always-welcome Jim Harbour as hangdog Sheriff Jim Hopper.

By way of health warning at this point, I should say that if you can’t be doing with actual monsters as well as metaphorical ones, the show might not be for you – what happens to Will and various other people is explained but not entirely by science, if you know what I mean – and, equally, if X-Files-type scares and screams are not in your tv wheelhouse, you might not make it past the first ep. But if you’re brave enough to give it a go, you should find out pretty quickly whether Stranger Things makes you want to Moonwalk or whether you want to Safety Dance your way right out of there. For my part, it may have scared me silly, but it was worth it. I loved it.

The Catch s1 ep 8

A little bit of unfinished business from before our break. And, once again, The Catch falls down slightly on its Case of the Week. This time, it’s would-be pop star Kelsey – a friend of, and former musical collaborator with, Slightly Geeky But Attractive Female Associate – whose record company won’t release the album she made with mega-producer Nathan. When the reasons for this are revealed it feels as if the show is trying to make some pertinent points about the cynicism of modern celeb culture and the treatment of female musicians, but I don’t think the storyline can bear that weight. And Smooth Male Associate needs to man up stat and, perhaps, ask SGBAFA out, rather than gazing lovingly at her old music videos.

Meantime, in the Con of the Week, Rhys has roped Ben and Reggie into “stealing” a “package”: i.e. abducting a master counterfeiter named Leah Wells (Nia Vardelos) from under the eyes of US Marshals, who are guarding her because she’s about to testify against some LA crime kingpin or other. There are some nice touches – Paul McCartney for one; and, like Ben, I was expecting Leah to be pathetically grateful rather than high-maintenance – but by the standards of previous weeks it, too, feels undernourished.

I suspect this is because, with only two episodes to go, the personalities are being moved centre stage: Margot, posing as a therapist, is systematically interrogating Alice about her relationship with Ben; he, meantime, is trying to form an alliance with Rhys, in the hope that Margot will be sent to New York and Rhys will return to London, leaving him to play happy families in LA with Alice. But Margot has plans of her own. This part of the episode worked best – the scenes in which John Simm, Sonya Walger, and Peter Krause are struggling for supremacy have a real spark and energy to them, and Mireille Enos continues to be affecting as a woman in conflict about the grifter who might, or might not, be the love of her life. One also has to wonder about the final scene, in which Ben apparently makes his choice: is he, this time, to be trusted?