Public Service Announcement 33 of 2020: Superstore, Heroes, Line of Duty

Supermarket-based comedy Superstore is starting to look a little long in the tooth, as most sitcoms are by the time they get to their fifth season. While not as regularly roll-off-my-sofa funny as it used to be, though, it’s still capable of plenty. The characters are brilliantly-drawn, the cast is fantastic, the humour (both visual and otherwise) is barbed and still occasionally hilarious, and the writing, while lighthearted on the surface, is quietly brave and determined, with issues like unionisation, health care, maternity rights and immigration deftly woven in to the fabric of the show. The s4 episode with the ICE raid just about broke me. I’m not sure ITV2 are as fond of it as I am, given the consistently contemptuous way they’ve always scheduled it, though. The past few seasons and the first half of season 5, it’s been tucked away at 8.30pm every weeknight where only the very determined can find it and record it (ITV player only keeps the eps for 7 days so that’s as useful as a chocolate teapot as well) but ITV2 have obviously decided even that’s too dignified for the second half of s5, so we’re up to 2 episodes a night, starting tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8pm, and taking a break on Friday, because why not? Will it be on next Monday? Or start on Tuesday again? Who knows. Anyway, repeats of s5 eps 9 and 10 are on tonight (8pm and 8.30) if you want to remind yourself of the lovely, yet crushing way the first half of the season ended, before we find out what happens next tomorrow.

From one less than respectful scheduling decision to a couple of equally speaking ones, meanwhile, although they’re not saying quite the same things. Lockdown and the pause in new production has meant the BBC digging into its vaults and pulling out a lot of its vintage jewels for everyone to have another look at instead. This is sometimes a little bittersweet: I mean, BBC2 has started re-running season 1 of Heroes in double-bills on Sunday nights. And s1-4 are all on the iPlayer. OMG. Save the Cheerleader, Save the World! Remember how awesome and how popular that show was at first? And remember how things changed? If we’re looking for pointed scheduling decisions, the series finale (I don’t recognise that Reborn business and nobody can make me) going out as a double bill very late on a Saturday night after the snooker tells you all you need to know about that. But if remembering how high Heroes soared before its plummet from grace is a little sad for those of us who might still carry a torch for Peter Petrelli, early adopters of Jed Mercurio’s police corruption drama Line of Duty are in a much happier position. Starting out on BBC2 in 2012, it’s only become more and more popular. It’s not like it’s difficult to get hold of, either. The fourth and fifth seasons made it on to the hallowed screens of BBC1. Seasons 1-4 are on Netflix. And every single ep ever made is on iPlayer at the moment. But if the BBC want to give the first season a lap of honour on Monday and Tuesday nights on BBC1 (starting 9pm tonight), who am I to tell them no? They might even get Jed to watch it.

9-1-1 s3 ep 11

911 is never exactly subtle, but this week’s was even less so; over-enthusiastically shoehorning its theme into every scene possible, with almost every sub-plot revolving around the “Seize the Day” of the episode title. Everywhere you looked, someone was getting injured either because they were trying to seize the day, or because they just weren’t seizing it enough. Or at least that’s what they kept telling us: having a different guest character say the phrase every few minutes was a bit much. Still, the stories were punchy and entertaining, ranging from the tremendously cool skydiver rescue (full marks for the fantastic use of Spirit in the Sky as well), to the very cute “weird Cyrano thing”, with some more-than-gross-enough fishy shenanigans and the OH MY GOD EWWWWW EVEN GROSSER if-you-saw it-you know-what-I’m-talking-about (and if you didn’t, trust me, you don’t want to) business along the way.

As with most weeks though, the other main theme was family. Michael’s story is shaping up to be a tough one; beautifully-acted, but likely to be devastating soon enough, I would think. Can’t say I’m looking forward to crying through it. Thankfully, Chimney’s is looking much brighter: dude had some stuff to work through, and brother Albert rocking up unannounced would have tried anyone’s patience but, if anyone needed a reminder that a) everyone loves Chim (as they should) and b) “family” doesn’t just mean the people you’re related to, this was it. Awww.

Public Service Announcement 32 of 2020: Bull

It’s been quite a while since we in the UK saw the third season of Michael Weatherly’s vehicle Bull, to the point where I was wondering whether we would ever get to see season 4, and reflecting that I could undoubtedly survive were that the case. However, it’s found a slot on usual home Fox UK, and I’ll probably watch it. I don’t want to say too much more than I already have about its chequered history. But you’d have to speculate that with a season 5 renewal in the bag, notwithstanding that we live in an era when improper personal conduct can lead to shows being cancelled, actors being dismissed, and showrunners being sacked, it does kind of look as if someone has decided that Bull is too big to fail (Monday 3 August, 9pm, Fox UK).

The Blacklist s7 ep 14

Red is in Alaska to pick up some “cargo” – this run of episodes has notably reconnected Red with some of the criminal schemes which presumably allow him to keep his extensive cast of familiars on the payroll – but the containers in which it was being transported have been dumped in a lake, along with the drivers. This happened in the Alaska Triangle – of which I had never heard, and thought was a creation of the writers, but which turns out to be a thing – where thousands of people have gone missing over the years.

Fortunately, the Task Force now has Agent Park on its books, and she knows Alaska. Unfortunately, Alaska also knows her. And the Secret Pain which was trailed a few episodes ago led to her agreeing never to go back, as she’s reminded when she drops into the Anchorage FBI office all, help an ex-colleague out? Eventually they do, and she runs a decoy operation, driving a truck with a container attached to see if someone will take the bait. And this week’s Blacklister, Twamie Ullulaq, can’t resist a nibble, as a result of which Park is abducted and thrown into a crate. (Twamie, incidentally, is an alumnus of Operation Washtub, a 1950s programme under which the American military, worried about the possibility of a Soviet Union invasion of poorly-defended Alaska, trained Alaskan Natives in counter-insurgency techniques, undertook to give them land, and then went back on the deal. “Imagine that”, taunts Red, “your government breaking its promise to Indigenous people”.)

But Park isn’t alone: there’s someone else already there, and he’s someone she’s encountered before. Not the source of her Secret Pain, exactly, but  certainly the reason she was turfed out of Alaska and warned never to return: his name is Lussier, he was Park’s mother’s boyfriend and drug buddy, and Park always blamed him for her mom’s early death. Although, as she concedes, that might not be entirely fair.

Needless to say it was Red whose planning brought them together, although he hadn’t quite anticipated that they’d end up in a crate. Red regards Park as a loose cannon, you see, and he “won’t tolerate” that. The fact that it’s open to an international criminal mastermind to tolerate, or otherwise, an FBI agent passes without remark this week.

As this all ends up being somewhat inconsequential, it’s arguable that the real action this week is taking place in Aram’s love life, where he engages Red to find out whether or not Elodie is, in fact, a murderer. First, says Red, get a blood sample from her dead husband, and I’ll get it tested. (The dropping-off of this sample is my episode highpoint, as it happens.) Meantime Aram also sees someone from Les Fleurs du Mal engaged in apparently friendly conversation with Elodie, and the pieces of the jigsaw start to fall into place. Yes, Elodie is a killer. Or… is she? Is this all too obvious? Either way, poor Aram, who once more got to punch above his weight with a hot girlfriend who once more is no good for him. All in all, this episode continues the recent trend of being entertaining, but not quite as good as the week before.

Prodigal Son s1 ep 1

Criminal profiler Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne) is sacked from his FBI job for being generally disagreeable, which is undoubtedly linked to the fact that he hasn’t remotely come to terms with his father Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen) being a prolific doctor-stroke-serial killer known as The Surgeon: tormented by nightmares, and the knowledge that it was he who, as a child, turned his father in, Malcolm suffers from sleep deprivation and a recurrent fear that he is more like his father than he would care to be. Much to the dismay of his mother (a delightful Bellamy Young from Scandal), he is then tapped by old friend Gil Arroyo of the NYPD (Lou Diamond Phillips) to help with an investigation into a series of murders which bears a remarkable resemblance to some of his father’s crimes.

As a Case of the Week it’s somewhat perfunctory – as is often the case in first episodes – but it serves the purpose of bringing Malcolm back into the orbit of his father, who he hasn’t seen in ten years, when he visits Martin in prison to see if he can offer any insight into who his copycat might be. Martin is now incarcerated in a bizarre book-lined “cell” – apparently he can still provide medical advice, or did I get that wrong? – and between the two of them the prime suspect is identified as one of Martin’s current patients. Job almost done, although in order to adhere to procedural conventions one of Arroyo’s colleagues, Detective Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau), has to be put in mortal danger before the case can be wrapped up.

Prodigal Son takes something from both Hannibal (TV) and The Silence of the Lambs (movie) – the investigator who, to his dismay but to everyone else’s benefit, can think his way into the mind of a killer; the imprisoned criminal mastermind extracting an emotional price in return for helping out with investigations. (There’s also a dash of Lethal Weapon in Malcolm’s apparently reckless, but possibly calculated, indifference to his own safety.)

Which is to say, whatever your view of the merits of the show, there’s nothing very new here. It’s elevated by two excellent performances (Sheen and Young, of course); and several interesting ones (principally Payne, Perrineau, and Phillips, although others may yet emerge from the new character overload of the first episode). It isn’t terrible, it really isn’t. At the same time, it isn’t great either. It’s perfectly watchable schedule-filling nonsense, is what it is. Whether that’s enough for you will depend. For myself, I think I’ll keep watching.

Public Service Announcement 31 of 2020: Prodigal Son, Coroner, MacGyver

In Fox’s Prodigal Son Tom Payne plays Malcolm Bright, a profiler – which is, of course, an occupation very much loved by the makers of films and TV shows – who, after being fired by the FBI, is asked by the NYPD to help with its investigation of a murder. Fortunately, he can call on the assistance of an expert on serial killers: his estranged, and imprisoned, father Martin Whitley (Michael Sheen), who was, well, a serial killer himself, known as The Surgeon. And so father and son team up to solve crimes. This is clearly nonsense, although it did well enough in America to merit renewal for a second season. And I’m not greatly encouraged by the trailer either, which suggests that the immensely talented Sheen is in his wild-eyed-haired-and-bearded mode, rather than his subtle-and-intelligent one. But having said all of that, Bellamy Young from Scandal plays Malcolm’s mother; Lou Diamond Phillips plays Malcolm’s NYPD contact; Greg Berlanti, whose work has met with Unpopcult approval in the past, is among the exec producers; and I have a feeling that this might just be entertaining enough for me to at least give it a go (Tuesday 28 July, 9pm, Sky One).

Unpopcult’s Commonwealth division, meantime, notes with interest the return to UK screens of Canadian drama Coroner, in which Serinda Swan excels as troubled Toronto coroner Jenny Cooper, with the impressive Roger Cross – last seen in this episode of The Rookie – as Detective McAvoy. Tamara Podemski – sublime in Run, which I seem to have enjoyed more than, literally, everyone else on Planet Earth – is in the supporting cast as well. I enjoyed the first season sufficiently to watch again, which is to say that it won’t change your life, but it’s well-made drama with some interesting themes (Wednesday 29 July, 9pm, Sky Witness).

And, although I don’t watch it, MacGyver’s return to UK screens last night for its fourth season allows me to note that the slightly surprising cancellation of Hawaii Five-0 has perhaps become somewhat more explicable with the news that Peter Lenkov, who was showrunner for both shows and for Magnum, has been dismissed for quite the catalogue of misdeeds. So I herewith double down on my prediction that H50 will be back in some form sooner rather than later, perhaps after some housecleaning at CBS.

9-1-1 s3 ep 10

It’s Christmastime. There’s no need to be afraid. Unless you’re watching  911, in which case, brace yourself. There’s pepper spray carnage in the toy aisles. Buck is making small children cry in car parks. A man is being sucked into an aeroplane engine. A little boy is doing CPR on his unconscious, un-breathing mother. A woman has turned into a smurf. And everybody, especially me, is extremely worried that Bobby might have cancer. (Sidebar: Buck describing Marie Curie as “a really smart lady” is perhaps the best thing Buck has ever said and, for a moment there, just a moment, I think I loved him as much as Bobby does.)

Then, of course, we have a Christmas party so beautiful and touching that it almost hurts to watch, and we realise, yet again, that, not only is this show absolutely lovely sometimes and full of deeply nice characters we are getting way too fond of, but its writers are also sadists. I mean, I don’t know how on earth any of us would have coped if Bobby got sick. But it’s not like I have any idea how we’re going to manage now SPOILER has instead. Bobby’s face, my God. There may not be enough tissues in the world to get me through the next few weeks.

The Blacklist s7 ep 13

Following hot on the heels of the last two episodes – heist and country house murder – this is another delightfully inconsequential outing for The Blacklist. According to co-showrunner Jon Bokenkamp, we’re now well into the post-Rostova run of Blacklist episodes in which “Red’s in a good mood and having fun. And when Red has fun, we all have fun”. Indeed, Red scarcely concerns himself at all with this week’s Blacklister, Newton Purcell, who we first see knocking out the power source to a server farm, then blagging his way in by pretending to be an electrician sent to fix the fault, downloading some data, and blowing the place up. Although the server farm hosts an NSA data centre, it turns out that Purcell wasn’t interested in any national security information, instead downloading internal company documents.

Not for the first time in Blacklist history, the theme is the little man taking revenge against the corrupt company – Big Server, I suppose – for reasons which allow us to have a degree of sympathy with him, even if Park half-kills him while effecting arrest. Liz tells her that she crossed the line, which is news to Park, who wasn’t even aware of the existence of a line in the Task Force. “You shot the Attorney General”, she reminds Liz.

While this is rumbling on – standard Blacklist fare, really – Red is indeed having fun: he’s come up with a plan to import a truck substantially made of tritium to a dealership in Houston, where someone will purchase it on his behalf so that he can sell it on, thus making significant amounts of cash money and at the same time establishing a means through which he might make very much more in the future. Unfortunately Red has entrusted the logistics to our old friend Glen, who manages to get the truck sent to a dealership in Scranton instead of Houston, where it’s being used in a competition entitled ‘Hands on a Hard Body’: last person standing and touching the truck wins it. Well, Red’s trust is on the line, so Glen – headbanded and tracksuited – hastens to Scranton in order to win the truck, urged on by Red. I did half-wonder why Red didn’t just arrange for the truck to be stolen – let’s face it, he’s done much, much worse – but in the end the denouement is actually rather sweet.

Less sweet is the fate of Elodie’s husband: he’s finally died, allowing Aram and Elodie to be together, guilt-free. Of course she stayed with her husband through his illness, Aram tells Liz, because it was the right thing to do; they didn’t even have a prenup. Except they did, because Aram finds it; and in the event of Elodie leaving she would have got nothing, whereas her death-in-service benefits, as it were, are colossal. As she very obviously killed her husband, I’m now wondering whether she equally obviously didn’t? And Liz has sent a hotshot PI (played by Kecia Lewis) into the field to try and find Ilya Koslov. Whoever that might be, and I’ve kind of lost track. Anyway, not quite up to the standard of the last couple of episodes, but I had a good time.

Mrs. America ep 4

The battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in 70s America – in which progressives thought they had a certain path to victory, but were ultimately defeated by conservatives with a relaxed approach to the importance of facts and honesty – might well be seen as having a significance well beyond the issue of the ratification, or otherwise, of the amendment itself. What a delight, therefore, to watch a drama which not only recounts the story, but does so with strutting panache. Mrs. America is, in short, flat-out one of the best things I’ve seen all year, with some fabulous performances from its astounding cast: I’ve just watched the fourth episode, in which Tracy Ullman’s abrasive Betty Friedan goes toe-to-toe with Cate Blanchett’s polished Phyllis Schlafly, watched by a concerned Gloria Steinem (a never-better Rose Byrne). Uzo Aduba has also been a revelation as presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, but there isn’t a weak link in the whole thing.

Mrs. America offers a detailed look both at the conflicts between and, importantly, within both sides of the debate, and declines to treat “the feminist movement” and “the conservative movement” as monoliths: there is no attempt, for example, to airbrush out of existence the infamous tensions between Steinem and Freidan. For my tastes it’s perhaps a little too sympathetic to some of its characters, in particular Schlafly, although that might just be the inevitable consequence of treating people as human beings rather than caricatures. (I’m not going to pretend I know enough about the events in question to offer a view on how accurate the show is – there’s plenty of informed opinion out there if you want it, and most of it would seem to suggest that Mrs. America is near enough.)

Most importantly of all, though, for those of us who have more or less given up on so-called prestige TV because of its stream of damaged male antiheroes and ludicrous sense of its own importance, Mrs. America is fun. Out-and-out fun. The dialogue crackles; the pace never lets up; the actors look as if they’re having the time of their lives; and this is all done without ever losing sight of the fact that an important tale is being told. This, in short, is what great TV looks like. That it is almost entirely female-created probably isn’t coincidence.

9-1-1 s3 ep 9

*SPOILERS*

Half the 118 is in therapy but it’s not really working, since they’re either not really sharing the whole truth (Eddie, Maddie), or they’re not really ready to hear it (Hen). Buck, who’s shared and heard a little too much “truth” with a therapist in the past, is more than cheerful enough for everyone, though – he’s so excited about a meteor dropping through the sky he manages to make the girl it makes a hole in happy about it. And he accurately diagnoses and sorts out Eddie in a sequence which goes in a much cuter, sweeter, significantly less punch-in-the-face-type direction than I thought it might, and hopefully puts an end to both the annoying Fight Club and the even more annoying Lawsuit storylines in one go. Yay for Buck! (Till next time he’s an idiot, of course.)

One down, two to go. Maddie isn’t into computer games and hasn’t got a best friend she wants to thump, so she has to wait till Tara shoots her husband to get to the root of her own pain – there’s nothing quite as mind-clearing as sticking your finger in some guy’s chest while his wife waves a gun around, amirite? Of course, Jed said that Tara would be back as either victim or killer(ish) and he was right. I would really like that to be the end of our time with her now, though – firstly, it would be braver to just leave the Maddie/Tara business there, all messy and unresolved, instead of tying it up in a bow either way, and secondly, I hate it – but I fear that this storyline won’t be finished until Tara or the husband finally is.

Speaking of finished, meanwhile, for a while it’s touch and go whether Hen’s career is: no matter how many people tell her the accident wasn’t her fault, she refuses to believe it. Things are so dire that even Karen seems kind and sensible. This is Hen, though, and 911 would be infinitely poorer without her, so all it takes is a spot of serendipity, a reminder of just how awesome she is, and she’s back on the team. I was so pleased when she came back and they were all hugging at the end, I genuinely burst into tears. I love Hen and the 118 so much!

*Dabs at eyes.* Anyway. Mental health may have been at the forefront of this episode, but there‘s plenty of danger to physical health to contend with as well. For a start, I hope May’s essay about Athena gets her into college because it almost gets her into a full body-cast first. On the plus side, mind you, it also gives us a really lovely scene when Michael talks Athena down: we’ve said it before, but I love the dynamic between Athena, Michael and Bobby, and how kind and loving and respectful it is. These people are so nice. Which of course makes me worry about poor Bobby all the more after his heroics at the scene of an accident in a tunnel which Eddie helpfully informs us in danger of turning into “Chernobyl.” It’s the kind of big, bold, wildly exciting set-piece that whole episodes, sometimes whole series of shows used to be built around, but on 911 this week they turned it around in about, what, ten minutes? Although, depending on the results of those tests, the fallout might last a while yet. (That doctor looked apprehensive. Please don’t kill Bobby, you guys!) Either way, it’s the sub-plot of the week for me – it’s terrific. So much so that I’d maybe have had a bit more of it and cut the Maddie/Tara stuff, but that’s just me.