Public Service Announcement 5 of 2021: The Architecture The Railways Built

Another for the list entitled “Things BBC Four should be doing”. For those of us who love architecture and trains – and we’re a constituency, there’s no doubt about it – this show, rerunning tonight for its second season, is an unassuming delight. In its first season presenter Tim Dunn, a heartwarmingly passionate and enthusiastic screen presence, toured various railway stations, lines, bridges, and buildings around the UK and Europe, explained why they were there, pointed out some features of interest, and moved on to the next one. Thus in the course of one episode we were, for example, taken from the astonishing Ribblehead Viaduct in Yorkshire to the Art Deco marvel that is Surbiton station in London, finishing off at a funicular in Austria. I’m not sure I could ask for anything more from a TV show, to be honest. Particularly these days (tonight, Yesterday, 8pm).

Blindspot s5 ep 11

*SPOILERS (REALLY BIG ONES)*

“Let’s go save the day one last time.”

The end is here, friends: one final “there’s gonna be an attack on New York TONIGHT” that only Team Tat can avert. And since it’s the last hurrah, let’s have a whole bunch of Blindspot’s favourite things, shall we, starting off with its very, very favourite thing: the return of previous guests and cast members in hallucination form! A sort of Greatest Hits/Greatest S***s collection, led, of course, by someone I despise so much I’ve almost run out of adjectives for him – I knew that malignant hellhound Roman had to be back before the end. I KNEW IT.

Why is he back, though? Well, in perhaps the most Blindspottish combination of Blindspot themes, ever, the recently ZIPped Jane secretly stops taking the antidote that would save her life, because the location of the ZIP, the specifics to Ivy’s evil plan, and thus the key to saving the day, are all buried in Jane’s sub-conscious and the only way to find them is to endure a series of hallucinations telling her how much she sucks. (Apart from the Reade one, who is quite nice to her, bless.) So, let’s see: crazy psychobabble plot; mad Blindspot mythology; seconds to avert certain destruction; and Jane’s self-loathing and eternally block-headed determination to sacrifice herself – all present and correct!

Does this nonsense work? Much better than it should, largely because it’s leavened by the utterly delightful Patterson and Rich who, never mind saving New York, have saved the show from its own tendency to engage in po-faced nonsense instead of fun-filled nonsense too many times to count. The rest of the cast have never been less than fine, but it’s our beloved Ashley Johnson and Ennis Esmer who have emerged over the years as the stars of the show. Their joyfulness, a pacy script and some majestic stunts ensure that this series finale is entertaining and funny, despite a storyline that doesn’t just strain credulity (if that bothered me, I’d have stopped watching after s1 ep 1) but strains my patience a little too. Sure, it’s lovely that everyone who’s previously been on Blindspot wants to come back. It’s  very sweet that they manage to squeeze most of them in (except Brianna, Mayfair and, oddly enough, Afreen, who was in it just last week so you’d think she’d be around). And it’s genuinely nice to see Borden, Reade, Keaton, Weitz and plenty of others again. But giving Roman, Madeline and a whole bunch of villains I got fed up with the first time around half the episode to needle Jane again seems like a waste of valuable time we could have spent with the rest of Team Tat. Or just Team PatDotcom. (I love them so much.) Especially since Team Baddies’ constant “what is truth, who’s the real terrorist?” chat is far too close to the type of conspiracy theory lunacy going on in the real world at the moment to be entirely fun to listen to either.

But enough of that. This wasn’t necessarily the Blindspot send-off I hoped
for but, regardless of how I feel about Roman, or Madeline, (or even ruddy PUSHY rocking up in the wedding sequence!), it was a suitably bonkers finale to a show I’m tremendously fond of. It’s had its fair share of ups and downs but has given us so much to love and laugh about over the years and, in true Blindspot fashion, wasn’t going to leave us without one final, mad puzzle to chew over. So, in the last few minutes, to the gorgeous, haunting strains of Dear Prudence (this version sung by Matt Berninger from The National, with back up vocals by Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire and Laurel Sprengelmeyer aka Little Scream), Team Tat leave the FBI forever and we catch up with them some months later, happy and content at a rosily-lit, Hallmark-movie-idyllic dinner with all their loved ones. (Even Avery is there! I thought the writers had forgotten her.) It’s beautiful. Gorgeous, moving… everything any of us could have wished for these characters who’ve gone through so much. Or… is it?

The Weller-Does look out at all the beloved faces sitting around them, and they can’t quite believe their luck. And, suddenly, neither can we, as Jane, reminded by Kurt that so many things could have turned out differently, “There’s some world, somewhere, where this dinner never happened”, has one last… hallucination? Maybe. Is this dinner, this happiness real? Or is it, like the weddings sequence earlier, just the dying synapses of Jane’s brain offering up the semblance of a happy ending to ease the pain of death? Is the real ending the full-circle one of Jane’s body being zipped back up into that bag in Times Square?

God, I hope not. Blindspot supremo Martin Gero says they wrote the ending with a certain “intent” but it’s up to the viewer to choose. When I saw it at first, I thought she had died. I sobbed. Now? I’ve decided she didn’t. I don’t care if I’m right or not. If I can choose my ending, I’m choosing the happy one: the combination of the music, the characters and all the love between them lighting up that scene is just heavenly, and Jane doesn’t need to be dead for that to be true. In this case, for these characters, and given the year we’ve all had, I’m just going to let heaven be a place on earth. Goodbye Team Tat! If we ever get a PatDotcom spin-off, I will be all over it like the tattoos on Jane. If not, enjoy your retirement from saving the world. You’ve earned it.

Winter Walks

Rather like Museums in Quarantine, this is a simple but effective idea. Across consecutive nights, in five half-hour long shows, broadcasters take a walk in the North of England with hand-held 360-degree cameras, talk about what they see, occasionally chat to passers-by, perhaps recite some poetry. Balm for those of us with troubled minds, which is most of us.

The programmes feature Selina Scott in the Yorkshire Dales; Lemn Sissay in Cumbria; Simon Armitage on the Yorkshire coast; Baroness Warsi again in the Dales; and the Reverend Richard Coles in the North York Moors. Four of them were filmed almost a year ago before the first lockdown (Warsi’s was filmed in November), and have the air of despatches from another world: no masks, no hand sanitiser, open shops and pubs, worry-free conversations with strangers. Were we ever so carefree?

The best of the bunch is Selina Scott in the Yorkshire Dales because, well, because it’s Selina Scott and it’s the always-astonishing Yorkshire Dales. These days, any sighting of Scott is welcome if bittersweet, because it’s a reminder that one of the most accomplished broadcasters of her generation has barely featured on TV in the past 20 years, largely (one infers) because hardly anyone in the industry quite knew – knows – what to do with women over 50. It’s a scandal, and it’s also a great shame.

Anyway, all five episodes of Winter Walks are beautifully executed by Leeds-based production company Atypical, who were also behind the equally-beguiling Yorkshire Walks (2019), and are entirely worth watching. I loved them. (Available on the iPlayer.)

Spiral (Engrenages) s8 eps 3&4

*SPOILERS*

Alors. This saison’s Spiral is going at a tremendous pace. By the end of cette semaine’s double bill, Souleymane (a terrific, multi-layered performance by Ayoube Barboucha) has escaped the system twice, overdosed on heroin, been kidnapped, and inadvertently led les flics to an international drug smuggling ring. Dude is busy. He’s also mugged a poor woman in a deeply upsetting scene which should be taught in tv school as an example of how you can get across the visceral horror of a violent attack on a woman without luxuriating in it or torturing the actor playing her in the process. We barely see the victim, we don’t see her injuries or his blows connecting with her body, but we feel the pain and terror of it all even more. Some other shows should take note.

Souleymane’s avocat Joséphine, meanwhile, has got herself hopelessly compromised again, albeit with some oddly un-Joséphine like choices: for a start, she gives Laure confidential info which implicates her client, takes part in a search of a crime scene (!), and, when Lola dumps her in a fit of pique, comes on way too desperate to Edelman, which causes him, of all people, to cut her off. All of this is because Joséphine’s way too emotionally invested in Lola and Souleymane, which is a relatively recent development for her, je pense? Since saison une, she’s happily and shamelessly flouted the rules when representing clients, but it’s always been so she wins, rather than because she cares about them all that much: seems to me that since she fell in love with Pierre and lost him, that has changed. She still shamelessly flouts the rules, but it’s not just so she wins: first with Lola and now with Souleymane, it’s because she’s allowed herself to care about them, and she’s terrified of losing them too.

Laure, by contrast, is not letting fear of losing anything get in her way, perhaps because none of the consequences of Laure’s actions ever really land on her. The investigation into Shkun’s death is beset by politics, both of the office and the municipal kind, with Beckriche and the Prefect making a bit of a mess along the way, but Ali somehow gets the blame for it. Ali recruiting an informer and a tremendous set-piece in the airport where the breadth of the drug scheme first comes to light puts everything back on track but Laure’s decision losing them the prime suspect? Everybody’s all “ne t’inquiète pas” about that. And as for Gilou – well, he’s out of jail, being obnoxious to Brèmont, demanding his job back (are you serious?) and infiltrating Cisco’s gang. Bien. But when he suggests that seeing Laure might land him back in jail, she refuses to take non for an answer, because as usual, rules and risks don’t matter, all that matters is what Laure wants. Argh.

Laure being the centre of the universe is a theme which even Beckriche seems to have embraced now. On hearing about the new promotion offered to Ali, any reasonable manager would be saying “We’ll be sad to lose you but congratulations, you’ll be brilliant, all the best!” Beckriche? Has never been so offended in his vie at the idea that anyone might want to leave this weirdly co-dependent squad of delinquent cops and get on with the rest of his career. WTF?

Peu importe. Bizarre management practices aside, this is the best Spiral’s been in years: every episode is rattling along and the main plot is complicated, sure, but deftly-plotted, interesting and sometimes genuinely moving. The scene where Ali and Laure have to break the news of Shkun’s death to his mother over video call is harrowing, and the show deserves praise for trying to shine a light on the plight of these children. Spiral’s CID aren’t the only ones struggling with the fact that these children they see as “delinquents” are victims too. How best to deal with that is something criminal justice and immigration systems across the world really need to start grappling with properly.

Magnum P.I. s3 ep 2

Higgins is on her first date with Dr Ethan Singh, and it seems to be going OK. “Do you ask out a lot of patients on dates?” she wonders. Which is a legitimate question, although one perhaps for the Hawaii Medical Association rather than Higgy. But is Dr Ethan, perhaps, too perfect? Kumu is tasked with a deep dive into his background.

Back at Robin’s Nest, this week’s job is the repossession of a private jet on which someone hasn’t been keeping up lease payments. This will mean seizing the plane and flying it away, which Higgins is totally up for after a couple of practice sessions on a flight simulator on her laptop. Magnum doesn’t think it’s going to be that straightforward, but they need the money. Him in particular, because he pawned his Rolex, which used to belong to his father, to pay for new tyres for the Ferrari; the pawn shop sold it; and he wants to buy it back. Incidentally, the conversation between Magnum and Higgins at this point in the episode isn’t flirty and funny, it’s unpleasantly needling, and one of the writers should know the difference.

Heigh-ho. They find the plane and board it, but while flying it away some baddies shoot at them and it, meaning that they crash land in the Hawaiian jungle. Very Lost. There’s a little bonus ball on board as well in the shape of Renaldo, an unconscious young man with prison tats, who once he comes to reveals that the plane was being used by a drugs cartel and that he’d been working with an undercover DEA agent. No worries, says Magnum; once we can get a signal we’ll phone the cops. Can’t, says Renaldo; they’ve got someone in HPD on the payroll. And all the while the baddies are approaching, because they want Renaldo back. 

Meantime, the stitches have burst on Higgins’s bullet wound from last week, which should offer her and Magnum a chance for some soulful bonding, but with Renaldo-the-third-wheel getting in the way there isn’t much of that. Also, Magnum seems quite keen to persuade her to give Dr Ethan a fair go. Which means, I think, that we needn’t hold our breath waiting for a Miggins hookup. Whatever. I’ve moved on. The action culminates with a shootout at a shack in the middle of the jungle, with Magnum’s “boys” flying to the rescue in TC’s helicopter. The episode itself ends with Higgins revealing herself to be the secret purchaser of Magnum’s watch, because she knows how much it means to him. This goes some way to mitigating her insufferable behaviour last week and this, I suppose, but not entirely. Perhaps there’s a power struggle, a schism if you will, in the writers’ room, with Shippers on one side of the table, and Non-Shippers on the other, glowering at each other. It’s not easy to rationalise the shifts in tone in any other way. Putting that aside, it’s an average episode. And the white SUV is still out there.

Public Service Announcement 4 of 2021: Briarpatch

Over the past year or so Alibi has built up quite the portfolio of top-quality imports, and the occasional well-made original drama as well. And, as part of every broadcaster’s ongoing search for #content in the time of Covid – see PSAs passim – it might have turned up another intriguing American drama in the shape of the USA Network’s Briarpatch, in which political aide Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson) returns to her hometown to investigate the murder of her sister. 

It’s based on a novel by Ross Thomas; the cast includes Edi Gathegi (The Blacklist), Kim Dickens, and Alan Cumming, who for me will always be half of Victor and Barry, but I suppose he’s done a few other things as well; and it’s exec produced by, among others, Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot). The critics liked it, but the audiences weren’t biddable, and it was cancelled after this ten-episode season. Worth a look, I think (Wednesday 13 January, 9pm, Alibi).

Bridgerton s1

*SPOILERS*

The Bridgerton books are light, charming froth about eight bright, funny, attractive siblings who find their soulmates in Regency England, against a backdrop of hot gossip, gorgeous gowns and unfailing loyalty to each other and their widowed mother. The first book, The Duke and I, is about Daphne falling for eldest brother Anthony’s friend Simon (the Duke of Hastings) and the issues that keep them apart for a bit, till it all works out nicely in the end.

This first season of this Netflix/Shondaland version takes the barest bones of that book, grafts characters, sub-plots and grand ideas – some from later books, most not – on top in well-intentioned but heavy-handed fashion, and gives us a Frankenstein’s monster of an adaptation, without any of the heart, humour and joy of the original books at all. That the intentions of the programme-makers are good just makes the whole business even more frustrating.

Credit where it’s due though. The costumes are exquisite. The soundtrack is lovely (its use of modern pop songs as orchestral covers is a particular delight). There are plenty of attractive people in the cast. Much of the acting is great. And Daphne and Simon make engaging leads. Although neither she nor he come out of it too well in the end, and they have so much long, loud and ultimately tedious sex on the way that I found myself getting really, really bored of it – episodes 5 and 6 are endless, my God. But whatever. I could live with too much sex if I liked the show. I didn’t.

The biggest problem is the characters. The Bridgertons in the books adore each other. They laugh, fight, and have fun with each other, and their mother is their undisputed queen. The Bridgertons in the tv series? Can barely stand being in the room together most of the time (except Eloise, the rebel, and Benedict, a plot device with a paintbrush), making the series an unnecessarily bad-tempered fight to the finish instead of a gloriously cheery skip to the happy ending.

Anthony, especially, has been turned into an out-and-out villain, raging his way through the season, and treating his mother and sisters with utter contempt. Yes, this highlights the rampant sexism in the different social rules applied to him, but that’s obvious in the books anyway (and Anthony’s a good guy in them). It would have been just as obvious in any tv series. No need to destroy the character and the entire family dynamic to achieve it. Especially if you want us to ship him and his love interest in season (book) two. But then that’s this show’s way: character after character is stripped of subtlety and nuance in service of whatever point the show wants to make. It’s not the points that are the problem, though, it’s the lack of trust that the viewer will understand them unless every character is turned into a cartoon, and every second conversation into either an argument or a lecture.

Look at gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, an acerbically funny folk hero in the books, who becomes actively malicious and cruel in the tv series, in a way that makes a mockery of the reveal of her identity at the end: how can we possibly root for her or – SPOILER – Penelope herself, when she’s almost ruined her best friend’s sister for sport and destroyed her pregnant cousin for jealousy? Or check out fledgling feminist Eloise, whose tv iteration starts off interesting and fun, but rapidly turns into a broken record, saying the same thing again and again till, even though I could not agree with her more, I wanted to mute her to eternity.

Even formerly minor characters suffer this surgical removal of subtlety, especially the ones whose roles are expanded or invented to further the cause. Anthony’s mistress Sienna, for instance, might be there to emphasise class distinctions and hypocrisy when it comes to male and female sexuality but both he and she are so insufferable that the point being made is trampled underfoot. Likewise Marina Thomson, whose (entirely new for the tv series) miserable storyline not only drags the whole series down but converts Lady Featherington from misguided and silly into an essentially irredeemable pantomime villain, making it difficult  to sympathise with either of them, and burying the fundamentally important message about women (and mothers especially) doing the best they can in a system stacked against them as a result.

Even the show’s positive message about diversity of casting is mishandled. Contrary to some of the racist nonsense being written out there, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t have people of colour in the casts of shows like this. They do it in the theatre all the time and they should be doing it more in tv and film. I’m far from the first to point out, however, that the show makes a fundamental mistake in neither choosing to ignore race and racism entirely (as in The Personal History of David Copperfield) nor taking the other route and properly acknowledging or addressing it. Either would have been fine, depending on the story they wanted to tell. Instead, the writers pick a road somewhere between the two: they have two black characters tell us that there used to be racism in Bridgerton world but that it was essentially “cured” by the king falling in love with a black woman. And then the show never bothers to consider or show the effects and consequences of it ever again, the ultimate takeaway being that a member of the royal family marries a black woman, and racism’s over forever. Well, that’s nice. Totally borne out by our experience of the last few years, too, huh?

Sigh. I’m acutely conscious that I’ve now spent about a thousand words berating a tv show for overdoing it. Long story short: Bridgerton looks beautiful, means well and has plenty of legitimate things to say, but it tries to say them in such a way that they either miss the mark or somehow make things worse, destroying most of what was likeable about the original story and many of the characters in the first place. I wanted to love it, it drove me nuts.

Spiral (Engrenages) s8 eps 1&2

Bonjour et bienvenue, Spiral is back and so are the usual story beats: Laure’s squad is, as usual, (a) determined to take on and keep a murder case they’re not supposed to; (b) shocked and outraged when Joséphine uses the law to do something they don’t like (seriously, Laure, huit saisons, quinze ans, how is this still a surprise to you?); and (c) convinced they’re the only people in France who can solve a crime.

They’re missing a couple of their usual amis though. First up, Gilou is busy starring in his own Orange est le Nouveau Noir spin-off, passing his temps  on remand ignoring Edelman’s eminently sensible advice about everything, and doing undercover work for his new BFF Brèmont which is weird because Brèmont has never been at all keen on corrupt cops and I don’t remember him being that keen on Gilou either. Now they’re bosom buddies? Huh. Despite the best efforts of Juge Bourdieu, then, it seems like it won’t be long till Lt Escoffier is at liberty once again. The only real questions are whether he’ll be in as long as Joséphine was last saison, and whether the methods used to get him out will be any shadier than the ones used to spring her.

Secondly, Roban does indeed appear to have retired, which might not have been bad news for Laure since he was fed up with her shenanigans himself, except that new Juge Bourdieu is already wise to her and is having no nonsense. I would be more impressed with this were it not for the fact that, unless I’m getting entirely the wrong vibe, it seems like Juge Bourdieu might well be having something else entirely with Beckriche pretty soon, so Laure will get what she wants anyway. Bah.

As far as the rest of the team dynamics go, Ali (Tewfik Jallab) has been promoted to the main credits, which is more than deserved – he’s the best of the lot of them. Having had more than enough of Laure, he very sensibly wants to move team before he ends up sharing a cell with Gilou as well, but Beckriche blocks his move in a bid to save Laure’s squad and Beckriche’s reputation instead, the message in Spiral being apparently that no good  detective goes unpunished. Argh. Not that these are the only raisons Ali’s fraying at the edges, though. The new case – the murder of a homeless Moroccan child, from a camp of feral undocumented children – is clearly getting to him in some way; is that the smell of a #SecretPain in the air?

Having been thoroughly annoyed by saison sept of Spiral, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these two eps: fast, to the point, and highly engaging (except for the reappearance of Lola who creeps me out). Spiral’s problems remain, however. Promoting Ali isn’t enough to solve the show’s glaringly problematic racial dynamics, and just because Brèmont and Tom are kidding themselves that Laure has “changed”, doesn’t mean they’re right. Having said that, this was a very good start to the final run, and a lot better than I expected it to be. FYI: My plan is to keep watching 2 eps a week because that’s plenty but, if you want to skip ahead, the BBC has added all of this saison to the rest of the eps on iPlayer.

The Ripper

This four-part Netflix retelling of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper murders of the 70s and early 80s attracted a bit of critical advance publicity. Having watched it, it’s actually not bad, but perhaps a bit unnecessary. Most of the crucial parts of the story are present and correct: the appalling misogyny and the red herrings of the letters and tape, all of which led the police operation in entirely the wrong direction, hampered on top of that by some staggering maladministration. (Even after all this time, it remains startling and sobering that at the point of Sutcliffe’s arrest in January 1981, after at least 13 murders, a massive and long-running investigation was nowhere near tracking him down, and had it not been for a couple of coppers’ hunches and a huge slice of good fortune he might have slipped through the net again.)

Nor did ‘The Ripper’ strike me as particularly sensationalist, exploitative, or tasteless. It benefits from some good archive footage and some excellent interviewees – as ever, the peerless Joan Smith, who was actually there at the time, is the best of the lot, bringing critical rigour which doesn’t rely on hindsight; and on the police side Andy Laptew and David Zackrisson, who dissented from police groupthink at the time, are both entitled to have their say. And the focus is largely on the victims.

It doesn’t really add anything new, mind you; I suspect it’s a packaging of the story for non-UK audiences, to whom it might not be familiar. And some odd production decisions had a jarring effect. The BBC’s recent ‘The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story’ was probably made on a tenth of the budget, and is much better.

The Great s1 ep 1

I don’t much care for historical drama, normally. But this, as it happens, is my kind of historical drama: gleefully and unashamedly foul-mouthed, anachronistic, and funny. Nicholas Hoult is deliciously appalling as Emperor Peter III. Elle Fanning is even better as Catherine. And Phoebe Fox might be stealing the show as Marial.