Public Service Announcement 9 of 2020: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Sky Comedy launched yesterday. (It replaces Universal TV on the EPGs, and if a new home isn’t found for Unpopcult’s beloved Private Eyes, there will be TROUBLE.) Its schedule, largely American in origin, comprises a decent mix of re-runs of shows like Modern Family, 30 Rock, Veep, The Mindy Project, Sex and the City, and the essentially perfect Parks And Recreation; a slate of late-night American talk/sketch shows (Corden, Fallon, Oliver, SNL); and some new-to-the-UK comedies, such as AP Bio, Mrs. Fletcher, and Miracle Workers. Many will also be available as boxsets.

There’s some extra good news for Virgin Media viewers like me, who don’t have access to Sky Atlantic: it looks as if a few shows which were previously on that channel have been moved to Comedy. Veep and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver fall into that category, as does Curb, back for a tenth season of semi-improvised misanthropy. I didn’t see season 9 for that reason, but I’m going to assume that I can just pick it up again, from tonight at 9pm. Also tonight: The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (10.50pm), and The Late Late Show with James Corden (11.50pm).

Picard s1 ep 1

Do starship captains dream of electric friends? This beautifully-calibrated new addition to the Trek canon suggests they do but, like all dreams on TV, they’re never just dreams.

In 24th century France, Jean-Luc Picard is slowly living out his retirement/”waiting to die”, his memories never quite letting him rest. His uneasy peace is shattered when a young woman, Dahj, seeks refuge chez Picard after a John Wick-style encounter with assassins out to get her, and it becomes clear that the Admiral’s dreams may mean much more than he thought. Who is Dahj? Why is she special? The answers to these questions are obvious very early on if you’ve ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation before and, to its credit, this new iteration doesn’t beat about the Borg bush for too long trying to hide them. Instead, it quickly, deftly paints a much bigger picture of Picard’s past 15 years or so, why he left Starfleet, and where Dahj fits into both that and all the Trek lore we already know.

It’s a skilful, careful mix of the old and the new, with a deep reverence and love for the titular character and the entire Next Generation embedded in its very DNA and evident in every line, every idea and every shot. The history of these characters forms the building blocks of a new story that, in this first episode at least, manages that impossible combination of being both a fitting elegy for the past and a wholly contemporary, relevant piece for the present. The cinematography is gorgeous too, with the lush, serene fields of Château Picard contrasting with the sleek, pristine lines of space age cities and labs, and the infinite awe of space. And the acting is everything: this is as self-assured and thoughtful a spin-off as I’ve seen in years, but it would never have worked without the utterly mesmerising performance from Patrick Stewart at its heart, infused with melancholy, tenderness and the indelible, inescapable weight of a long life lived. It’s a performance that will never be acknowledged by standard award shows because it’s in Star Trek, but don’t let that fool you – it’s exquisite. I rather suspect the rest of the series will be less contemplative and more action-oriented, but if it’s even half as good as this first instalment, that’ll be more than good enough.

Hawaii Five-0 s10 ep 4

A teenage girl is seen being dragged into a van. A few hours later, the van is found, sans girl but with a mountain of dead kidnappers, professionally assassinated. The Five-0 is a little perturbed that no-one has reported the girl missing, and deduces that she must be from a wealthy family, who got some hired killers involved instead of the police. The girl, Yumi, is traced to a tony private school and then to an apartment, where she’s alone and tremulous. Her parents are away. Quinn – showing signs this week of both a “general vibe of hopeful ambition” (Danny) and a Secret Pain (me) – gently interrogates the girl, in order to get her to reveal what happened to her.

But… here’s the thing. There’s no sign of anyone else having been in the van apart from Yumi and the kidnappers. Which means that the person who professionally took out the baddies is… well. Yumi might not be an ordinary schoolgirl after all. And after administering a sound, yet spectacular, beating to Quinn and Tani she takes off, leaving a bundle of passports, guns, and cash money in her apartment.

So who is Yumi, really? She’s not a teenager, nor is she legitimately in an upscale Hawaiian school; instead, she’s an international mega-criminal and North Korean spy with an Interpol Red Notice against her name, and she’s trying to track down a defector. Before the end of the episode she will, while wearing a presumably non-coincidental Kill Bill-yellow shirt, have kicked her way through a couple of hundred Feds, and abducted the defector, and demanded a plane to take them to North Korea, failing which she’ll release online a deluge of confidential information about US interests. Fighting fire with fire, the Five-0 recruits its old friend and ours, Halawa Correctional Facility’s very own Aaron Wright, to try and stop her.

Meantime, Steve has to take Eddie the Dog to the vet, and endure the indignity of having Danny play wingman – the vet is hot – and then Eddie the Dog playing, well, wingdog I suppose. This is much better than it should be, because H50’s star of the writers’ room, Zoe Robyn, is in charge this week. It’s a terrific episode, in fact. I mean, obviously ridiculous. But terrific.

Public Service Announcement 8 of 2020: Avenue 5, Picard

Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the space cruise ship Avenue 5, created by Armando “The Thick of It” Iannucci, captained by Hugh Laurie and sailing on to British screens tonight for its maiden prime-time episode, having swung by HBO a few days ago (and aired on Sky 1 already at 2AM this morning). I like a bit of space tv, and I like a bit of comedy, but the mix isn’t easy to get right and, despite Avenue 5’s impressive pedigree, the trailer did not float my boat – the tone of it just set my teeth on edge. That said, it was just the trailer. If you want to give the actual show a fair shake, you can catch episode 1 on Sky Go or on Sky 1 at 10pm tonight (Wednesday). I’m as yet undecided.

Right at the other end of the space spectrum, meanwhile, and I suspect much more my speed, the first episode of the long-awaited Picard – or What Jean-Luc Did Next – hits CBS All Access in the US tomorrow and Amazon Prime in the UK on Friday (24th). Which is nice and prompt, just as we like it round here. And they’re only showing one episode a week, which we like round here as well. A sequel to/spin-off from the iconic Star Trek: The Next Generation and its movies, Picard has living legend Sir Patrick Stewart back on board and will feature other members of the Next Gen cast as well, which is more than enough of an incentive for me to watch it (I loved The Next Gen, especially Riker and Troi, SQUEE) even if I’m a little ambivalent about the idea of dragging the Admiral out of retirement. Let the poor man rest! Although not if it means an entire season of watching him just wandering round a vineyard. A happy medium between action and reflection is what I’m looking for in my OAP space adventures, thank you, Picard – make it so.

Taken Down ep 1

Abeni and her two young sons flee violence in Nigeria, seeking safety across the ocean, only to find themselves stuck indefinitely in the holding pattern of the asylum system. Eight years later, they are still waiting, stuck in the same mouldy room in the same Direct Provision Centre in Dublin, when the body of a young fellow resident is found at the bus stop across the road. Who killed her?

Serious-minded crime dramas about the murders of young women are of course ubiquitous nowadays, and Taken Down isn’t immune from some of the usual clichés of the genre – there’s a troubled cop with a Secret Pain (albeit a physical one for a change), a community steeped in secrets, that type of thing – but its focus on and empathy for people seeking asylum is what makes it a little different. It treats people at the Centre as exactly that; people, each with their own hopes, stories and feelings, a crucial perspective that is regrettably all too often missing from public discourse. The casually cruel indifference of the system and some of the people in it provides a poignant backdrop to the story, with such a palpable sense of sadness and resignation hanging over everything that the final scene, devastating though it is, is less of a shock than an inevitability. This first episode is not in any way cheerful viewing, but it is beautifully-acted and wholly compelling. I won’t be doing weekly reviews but I will be watching again.

Hawaii Five-0 s10 ep 3

We open this enjoyable episode in the 1980s, with Hungry Like The Wolf – banger! – on the soundtrack, and a plane crashing into the Pacific just off Hawaii. Present day, and a salvage team which is poking around the submerged wreck of the plane is astonished to discover the corpse of a recently-murdered scuba diver, name of Jay Kahale. So the questions pile up: why did the plane crash in the first place; what was Kahale looking for; why was he killed? 

Even without Jerry there to help, the Five-0 bats around a few of the murky theories which have attended the plane’s crash, including the possibility that the it was brought down by an misfiring iteration of the US Government’s SDI programme. They even find an online conspiracy theorist, Delphi Son, and try to get some sense out of him.  It’s probably just as well that Daniel Dae Kim, Jorge Garcia, and Terry O’Quinn are no longer on this show. Plane crash. Hawaii. People wanting answers. Online theories… all kind of reminding me of something else. Anyway, the Five-0 manages to find out what the diver was looking for and the identity of his killer. However, when the black box is recovered from the plane it’s been wiped, leaving open all of those lovely conspiracy theories. 

Meantime, Eddie the Dog has the week off – as does Danny, as it happens – so Steve and Quinn try to find out who planted the bomb in Steve’s garage. Actually, they kind of know it was Fleischman from Northern Exposure, but they need to prove it. This ends with Fleischman’s house blowing up – with him in it, I think – and with Quinn, inevitably, being invited to join the Five-0. She’s arrested almost immediately afterwards, but I would imagine that’ll just burnish her bad-girl credentials.

Public Service Announcement 7 of 2020: Modern Family, Cobra, Sex Education

American comedy heavyweight Modern Family is back for its eleventh and, we are told, final season. It’s easy to be sniffy about it, and I’m not going to be: it’s past its peak, perhaps, but what a peak it was. And in Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O’Neill, Eric Stonestreet, and Sarah Hyland, among others, it still has one of the best sitcom casts around (Friday 17 January, Sky One, 8.30pm).

It precedes the first episode of Sky One’s new political drama, Cobra, in which Begbie from Trainspotting (Robert Carlyle) is prime minister. Almost worth watching for that alone, I’d say. The title refers to the UK Government’s COBRA committee, which meets to discuss emergencies. Helping PM Begbie to get through a widespread energy crisis are Victoria Hamilton, Richard Dormer, David Haig, and White Collar’s Marsha Thomason, who I didn’t even know was British (Friday 17 January, Sky One, 9pm).

And the second season of Netflix’s Sex Education is available as of tomorrow. Meant to watch season 1. Never did.