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.

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.

The Blacklist s7 ep 12

Having given us a snappy heist movie last time, The Blacklist ticks off another genre this week: it’s a kind of Agatha Christie-esque country house murder, with Red in the role of Hercule Poirot. That it’s also fabulously entertaining is yet further evidence, were it needed, that The Blacklist’s writers’ room can turn its hand to just about anything.

The house is on a Baltic island, owned and maintained just so that people like Red and his fellow international criminals can get together away from prying eyes, on this occasion so that they can bring together the stolen caskets from last week’s episode, under the watchful eye of, well, casket-broker and one-time Red squeeze Cassandra (Joely Richardson). As soon as Dembe, who flew in with Red, is dismissed – no consiglieres allowed – and we’re told there’s a storm coming, we kind of know what’s next; and, sure enough, one of Red’s fellow casket-thieves collapses and dies. Red carries out a quick autopsy with kitchen equipment and concludes that there’s been a murder. Not the first, either, and soon enough there are bodies strewn everywhere, and just Red and Cassandra left standing.

So what’s going on? Well, admits Cassandra, concealed somewhere about the caskets is a tiny McGuffin: it’s a list of American operatives working inside the Turkish government. No, it’s Turkish assets working inside the American government. Heck, whatever: the important facts are that they’re surrounded by baddies – including, although it scarcely matters, this week’s Blacklister, Cornelius Ruck – and all they’ve got is each other. Cue knowing mayhem (“the butler did it”, Red drawls at one point) and occasional Red/Cassandra makeout sessions.

It’s a bottle episode, perhaps, but it’s a triumph: fast, wry, and sexy, with Spader and Richardson demonstrating that they know precisely how to turn the chemistry on. Red and Cassandra even make it back to America in time for Agnes’s ballet recital, and although the possibility of some grown-up time in the South of France lingers for the pair of them, Cassandra judges that she needs to leave Red where he is, with Liz and Agnes. Red and Liz both acknowledge, in turn, that they perhaps need something, or someone, else in their lives – and I for one am wondering whether we’re ever going to get some #Kessler – but that their present arrangement maybe isn’t so bad. “We may not have bigger lives”, observes Liz, “but at least we have each other”.

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy

Ben Anthony’s excellent documentary about Keith Haring tells what is, on level, a familiar tale: the kid from the small town (in this case Kutztown, Pennsylvania) who comes to New York City and embraces it, and all it has to offer, with vigour. But the film gets to the heart of what made Haring unique, and what made his untimely death – at 31 – such a tragedy, by tracing his swift ascent from art school and graffiti to fame, fortune, hedonism, and activism. Astonishingly prolific, driven, and hard-living, and not short of ambition, Haring was capable of creating art which sold for a lot of money, while at the same time ensuring – through, among other things, his famous Pop Shop – that his images were available for mass consumption.

Anthony makes astute use of archive footage and an excellent selection of talking heads: people who knew and loved Haring, including his sister and, most movingly, his straight-edge parents, both still alive, rather than random celebs reading a script. In addition he has access to Haring’s own words, in the form of an autobiographical recording made shortly before his death. It all adds up to an ideal companion-piece for those of us who were lucky enough to see the dazzling retrospective at Tate Liverpool last year, back when it was possible to do such things as go to art galleries with lots of other people. It’s available on the iPlayer.

The Blacklist s7 ep 11

In America, this episode was broadcast on the other side of a three-month midseason hiatus. Not so here, although it perhaps makes more sense to view this episode as The Blacklist easing itself back into the game: it’s a bit of a romp, a bit heist-y, a bit of fun. Even, agreeably, a little camp in places. This may be because Red has relaxed, believing Katarina Rostova to be dead. Certainly, his interest in this week’s not-really-a-Blacklister is entirely and admittedly because he wants to realise a large profit on a criminal enterprise: some time ago, Red and five colleagues stole six Byzantine nesting caskets, kept one each, and now someone wants to buy them all. The problem is that, when Red retrieves his casket from a fingerprint-protected vault in Ukraine – a mini-play in itself – it’s a forgery; and, as no-one has had access to it, it was a forgery when he took it.

And so to Blacklister Victoria Fenberg, a member of a family which has made vast amounts of cash money from legal, highly addictive pharmaceuticals. Victoria’s scam is that items are stolen from museums, she copies them, puts the forgeries back, and sells the originals through the underground criminal market for works of art. As it happens, all of the stolen items also belong to the Fenberg family, and this is all in order to fund… well, that would be telling, although it’s reasonably obvious where the story is going. Victoria remains at liberty at the end of the episode, much to Ressler’s fury; happily, Red has already indicated to her that she might have a part to play as one of his rotating cast of familiars, some of whom we’ve already seen this week in the episode’s opening scene, set at Dembe’s birthday party.

In other news, Liz and Red have entered into one of their habitual sparring matches, this time about whether “the woman in Paris” was Liz’s mother, although both are now playing this sort of thing with half-smiles: neither really believes the other’s position, and they aren’t wholly interested in pretending otherwise. Red offers carefully-worded non-denial-denials. Everyone seems very enthusiastic about attending Agnes’s ballet recital. And Aram is storing up a whole heap of trouble from himself. He’s still bedding the refulgent Elodie – and who can blame him? – but she’s now openly wondering whether it might be better for all concerned if, you know, her husband were just to die tragically. And she’s showing an unhealthy interest in the more colourfully-nicknamed Blacklisters. As this wouldn’t be the first occasion on which Aram’s romantic life had compromised his employment, there might be a visit from HR soon.

Public Service Announcement 31 of 2020: Mrs. America

BBC Two’s new ‘70s-set drama import, FX’s Mrs. America, portrays a political and cultural clash with a significance which still resonates today. Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, well-known in the States as a conservative campaigner who led the backlash against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, with Rose Byrne as feminist activist Gloria Steinem. 

And there’s more. I know I keep saying this about prestige TV dramas, but Mrs. America really does have the most astonishing (and predominantly female) ensemble cast: as well as Blanchett and Byrne, there’s Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Melanie Lynskey, and John Slattery. On top of that it’s created by Dahvi Waller, who has written for, among other things, Unpopcult favourites Desperate Housewives and Mad Men, as well as the acclaimed Halt and Catch Fire, which I haven’t yet seen. And on top of that it arrives fresh from US transmission with the adulation of critics ringing in its ears. In short, this looks quite unmissable (tonight, BBC Two, 9pm and 9.45pm).