Public Service Announcement 47 of 2019: Elementary, Better Things, Harrow

Elementary is back, for the last time. “With the seventh and final season underway in America”, wondered The Sunday Times on 2 June, “can we now concede that this modern-day Holmes reboot was far superior to our own Sherlock?” Well, Elementary is better acted and plotted; has a more interesting relationship between the two leads; and, crucially, isn’t smugly, but wrongly, convinced of its own genius . So: yes, The Sunday Times, indeed we can concede it. In fact, some of us have been saying it for years (tonight, 9pm, Sky Witness).

In its own low-key way, Better Things – which also returns this week – has a claim to be somewhere near the top of the Best Things On TV list: Pamela Adlon is the star and auteur of a bittersweet comedy-drama about a single mom in LA, trying to cope with her modestly successful acting career, the pressures of parenthood, and the challenges of life. Although Adlon has now severed her ties with longtime ally Louis C.K., he was still involved with the show during this second season, and on the evidence of the stellar first run of episodes this show shares with C.K.’s self-named vehicle the ability to conjure jaw-dropping genius out of nowhere. For the avoidance of doubt I’m not for a second suggesting that C.K. is the visionary behind Better Things: this is very much Adlon’s show, and the word from America is that the C.K.-less third season of Better Things is astonishing. Meantime, we can savour season 2 (Wednesday 17 July, 10pm, BBC2).

And season 2 of Harrow is here. Didn’t bother with the first season; won’t be bothering with this one; thus far, no-one has told me that I’m missing out (tonight, 9pm, Alibi).

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The Blacklist s6 ep 5

Not for the first time, it’s worth remarking that The Blacklist isn’t scared to get weird every now and again: this week’s cold open features home invaders wearing monkey masks forcing a wealthy businessman to drink poison from a flask. The deceased, Harris Van Ness, was one of Red’s allies, and Red breaks off from his ongoing court case to alert the Task Force. Which, of course, springs into action, as it always does when Red’s interests are threatened.

But the actual problem lies elsewhere. Van Ness left all of his wealth to his son, one Tim Peterson, whose existence was unknown to the rest of Van Ness’s relatives. Tim works in a bowling alley, seems to move in somewhat more trailer-park-adjacent circles than the rest of his newly-discovered family, and has just got engaged to Deidre, a charming school teacher. None of it quite adds up, though, and a brief investigation reveals that Deidre isn’t what she seems. She’s an actor, provided by an agency named Alter Ego, which “fills vacancies”: a wife, a family, whatever. (It all reminded me a little of this astonishing piece in The New Yorker.) And a baddie.

Meantime Red is in court, arguing that the search which yielded the gun found on him was illegal, that the gun is inadmissible in evidence, and that therefore he hasn’t breached his immunity agreement. As he’s representing himself, that means we get the pleasure of James Spader cross-examining a witness and making legal submissions. (I’ve never seen The Practice or Boston Legal, and I’m kind of regretting that now.) Even more pleasingly – for those of us who care about these things – the show actually pays the viewer the compliment of providing a reasoned, nuanced decision on Red’s motion to suppress. No doubt the judge will be revealed, in due course, to be in someone’s pay. For now, though, I’m liking her.

As with last week, the supposed Blacklister – Alter Ego itself – isn’t much of a villain at all; in fact Ressler, who has a family wedding to go to and needs a plus-one, consults them at the end in order to hire a partner. But, again as with last week, that’s very much beside the point, because The Blacklist is on terrific form at the moment.

The Blacklist s6 ep 4

Red, in prison awaiting trial, throws the Task Force the names of Rod and Delaine Uhlman, who offer criminals huge cash advances in return for items being deposited with them, which they sell if the cash isn’t repaid. A bit like… pawnbrokers, which is presumably why they’re known as The Pawnbrokers; even if it doesn’t strike me as a particularly niche or, for that matter, Blacklisty service. Never mind. The Pawnbrokers have exchanged cash for a hard drive stolen by an NSA employee who, rather prosaically, wants the money for gambling. He loses it all, can’t buy the hard drive back, and it’s offered for sale to China, which has particular reasons for wanting to get its hands on it. Samar – possibly suffering from aphasia, in a storyline I’m already fed up with – goes undercover as an agent from the Mossad in order to gazump the Chinese. It’s well done without being exceptional.

Meantime, Red is having fun. One of his fellow prisoners, Baldomero, bears a grudge against him. (This turns out to be because Red boned his mother.) Convincing death threats are uttered. Red identifies an ally in the initially unconvincing form of inmate Vontae, who is played charmingly by Coy Stewart, a young actor new to me but of whom I hope we’ll see much more. He also uses a rat to smuggle messages out of the prison to Dembe. Even by The Blacklist’s standards, this plot really doesn’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny, which is all the more reason not to bother with that sort of thing and, instead, just sit back and watch James Spader lording it over everyone else on the screen. Interestingly, Liz now seems to have got over the whole Red-impersonating-her-father business; she seems to be genuinely concerned when Red takes a beating in prison, and fairly relaxed when the DNA guy she and Jen brought in is at first unable to offer any information about Red’s real identity. But DNA guy tries again and comes up with… something. I guess this plot will run and run, which is fine with me: the standard of Blacklist episodes, six seasons in, remains remarkably high. 

Public Service Announcement 44 of 2019: For the People

I liked the first season of Shondaland’s legal drama For the People quite a lot: fresh-faced AUSAs and public defenders battle with each other in and out of the courtroom, with snappy dialogue, smart plots, a ship or three, and enchanting performances by Hope Davis and Ben Shenkman as the grown-ups in charge of each office. This second season will, however, be the last: unfortunately, American audiences just weren’t buying what For the People was selling, and it’s hardly going to inspire save-the-show hashtags. Charles Michael Davis joins the cast this time round as an investigator, but I’m guessing and hoping that otherwise it’s business as usual (Wednesday 3 July, Sky Witness, 10pm).

Public Service Announcement 43 of 2019: Private Eyes, Waco

You know how much Unpopcult loves Private Eyes. But after a week reading about Brexit, the rapist in The White House, the likelihood that in a matter of weeks Boris Johnson is going to be my prime minister, the climate emergency, and – I can scarcely believe I’m typing this – fucking concentration camps in the United States of America in 2019, we’re perilously close to needing something, anything, which might put a hint of a smile on our faces for a few minutes. Thank the very Lord above, then, for the return of this cheerfully inconsequential Canadian PI dramedy, with leads Cindy Sampson and Jason Priestley as partners in a detective agency, and – more importantly for our purposes – the reigning three-in-a-row winners of Unpopcult’s Ship of the Year Award. Unpopcult royalty Ennis Esmer is in it as well, which further seals the deal. We’ll be reviewing every episode, because it reduces the risk of us catching sight of the news (Monday 1 July, 8pm, Universal).

I suspect that Waco, the Paramount Network’s miniseries dramatising the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians’ compound in Texas, is somewhat more serious. It stars, among others, Taylor Kitsch – Tim Riggins! – as David Koresh; Michael Shannon – yes, the Michael Shannon who might be one of the best actors on the planet – as Gary Noesner, the head of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit; and Emmy-nominated John Leguizamo as an ATF agent. However, the critical response was lukewarm, which is presumably why we’ve had to wait 18 months to see it in the UK (Monday 1 July, 9pm, Alibi).

Public Service Announcement 42 of 2019: Bellevue, How To Get Away With Murder

Our Unpopcanada division is about to ramp up production, with the return of Private Eyes to British screens next week. Meantime, the whole of eight-part Canadian crime drama Bellevue is available on My5. Anna Paquin plays a detective investigating the disappearance of a trans teen, while dealing with what looks like lashings of Secret Pain: a father who committed suicide, and the reappearance of a mysterious person from her past. Reviews would suggest that it’s OK; the fact that it wasn’t renewed after this season, shown in 2017 in its home country, would suggest that it didn’t quite find an audience.

And I’m a couple of days late with the return of How To Get Away With Murder, largely because I don’t care any more. But it’s back for its fifth season at 9pm on Sky Witness on Wednesdays. I assume they’re still all unlikeable.

The Blacklist s6 ep 3

Red, under arrest and facing prosecution, sacks his useless public defender and represents himself in court. His main argument is that he had an immunity agreement with the FBI, which had been signed off by the Attorney-General, and that all of the charges before the court are covered by it. This is not an unreasonable argument, on the face of it. And, again on the face of it, his position is reinforced by the fact that AUSA Sima (Ken Leung, who was Miles in Lost and Leon in Person of Interest, and is therefore edging ever-closer to becoming Unpopcult royalty) has hidden the existence of the immunity agreement, to the point where Red has to bring Cooper into court to confirm the position. Would Cooper do it all again? “You’re damn right I would”, he snaps. Sima’s counter-submission – that Red is a really bad person – seems to me to be kind of beside the point. 

While the court is wrestling with this non-issue, Red has thrown out the name of another Blacklister: Spalding Stark, The Pharmacist, an “icon in the biohacking community”, per Aram. We first see Stark offering a non-FDA-approved treatment to five people suffering from a degenerative illness, all of whom immediately die. A charlatan, then? Well, no; his treatment works, but he’s being sabotaged. Big Pharma is to blame, in a roundabout sort of way. Which leaves open the bigger question of why – on the reasonably safe assumption that there was an ulterior motive – Red wanted Stark found at all. We’re not told the whole answer yet, although we do learn that Stark is doing a job for Red. I’m guessing something to do with DNA, maybe?

Back in court, the judge has sided with Red, and is about to release him. But there’s a problem: when Red was arrested he was in possession of a gun, which would invalidate the agreement. Red wants to argue that the search and seizure was unlawful, but meantime he’s locked up. And presumably for his argument to succeed Liz will need to cop to dobbing him in. It’s yet another bracing, entertaining episode from the Blacklist team, with added anti-Trumpery from Cooper, who is keen to make the point that truth and facts matter. Mind you, I don’t quite know what was happening with Samar, who seems quite distressed about forgetting a word she wanted to use. You should try being my age, girlfriend.