Public Service Announcement 11 of 2019: New Amsterdam, Burden of Truth, Grey’s Anatomy, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Burden of Truth (Universal, Thursday 7 February, 9pm) and Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Station 19 (Sky Witness, tonight, 10pm) are both back for their second seasons this week, while Grey’s itself returns for the second half of its fifteenth season (Sky Witness, tonight, 9pm).

Meantime, NBC’s medical drama New Amsterdam gets under way on Amazon Prime on Friday 8 February. Tom Keen from The Blacklist stars as Dr Max Goodwin, who is hired as the new chief of medicine at New Amsterdam hospital. Critics were lukewarm, but it’s done well enough in the American ratings to be renewed for a second season.

Finally, season 2 of American Crime Story – The Assassination of Gianni Versace – has turned up on Netflix in the UK. When it was first shown here I didn’t watch it, on the basis of a couple of less-than-encouraging reviews from US critics whose opinions I generally trust. I then had to sit on the sidelines as it was lavished with praise and awards. So here’s my chance. No matter how good it is, though, I’m still not expecting it to match up to season 1, The People v. O.J. Simpson, which I continue to regard as a landmark show. Nor will I be watching it until I’ve finished Russian Doll, also on Netflix, which on the basis of the episodes I’ve seen so far is flat-out amazing.

Public Service Announcement 11 of 2018: American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Scandal, The Good Doctor, Designated Survivor (maybe)

Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series returns to UK television tonight. I thought the first season, The People vs O.J. Simpson, was something close to a masterpiece. This second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, arrives with slightly less of a critical fanfare, although reviews have generally been good; and, apparently, containing an excellent performance from Glee’s Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Versace’s killer. Thing is, although I should be watching, I’m not going to be. It may be that I’m just not as interested in this case as I am in that of Simpson. Written, incidentally, by Tom Rob Smith, also responsible for scripting the decidedly patchy London Spy (tonight, BBC2, 9pm).

After that, though, some Unpopcult favourites are lining up to come back from their midseason hibernation. Scandal is back for its final run of episodes (Thursday 1 March, Sky Living, 10pm). The Good Doctor returns for the rest of its first season (Friday 2 March, Sky Living, 9pm). And there was a rumour that UK viewers would this week once more be getting to see President Jack Bauer in the Designated Survivor Situation Room, grappling with what we must presume to be the irrevocable REDACTED of his beloved REDACTED, who at least won’t be prosecuted for felony corruption (Netflix, maybe Thursday 1 March, but don’t bet on it).

Public Service Announcement 5 of 2017: 24: Legacy; Madam Secretary; The People v O.J. Simpson

I’m genuinely curious about 24: Legacy, as a more or less unashamed fan of its parent series. This isn’t always an easy position to defend in polite liberal company, because the 24 caricature – it’s all torture, evil Muslims, and America First – sometimes has more traction than the show’s reality. As it happens, 24’s politics were always significantly more nuanced than its critics, most of whom probably don’t watch it anyway, would have you believe: it really wasn’t season after season of Islamist terrorists at all, and to suggest that it was is grievously to misrepresent the show’s equal opportunities approach to villainry. I’m a little more squeamish, mind you, on the question of whether 24 normalised the use of torture, particularly when there is little real life evidence that jamming the bad guy’s swingers into a vice and shouting “WHERE IS THE BOMB?!” at him would yield anything approaching actionable intel. But the show’s unique format demands that the plot keeps driving forwards, and patiently spending months building a rapport with a suspect probably isn’t going to deliver the same onscreen thrills.

Anyway, can a reboot without Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian be a success? Well, Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) is in as the hard-perimeter-demanding male lead, supported by Miranda Otto (who was in season 5 of Homeland), Unpopcult royalty Jimmy Smits, Dr Langham (Teddy Sears) from Masters of Sex, the much-missed James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky) from Scandal, DR NATHAN KATOWSKY (Gerald McRaney) from This Is Us, and 24 survivor Tony Almeida in due course. So I’d say that it has given itself a fighting chance. I’ll be reviewing the first episode at least (Wednesday 15 February, 9pm, FOX UK).

Also starting: the third season of Madam Secretary, an underrated show which, as I’ve said before, suffers a little because of what it isn’t – The West Wing, House of Cards, Scandal – rather than being appreciated for what it is: a modestly ambitious political drama for grown-ups with one of the best ensemble casts on network TV. Probably no reviews, but I love this show (Wednesday 15 February, 10pm, Sky Living).

Other stuff: the final season of Girls is under way (Mondays, 10pm, Sky Atlantic); season 13 of Grey’s Anatomy resumes (Wednesday, 9pm, Sky Living); John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has returned (Mondays, 10.35pm, Sky Atlantic); and Australian drama The Kettering Incident starts (Wednesday, 10pm, Sky Atlantic).

And I’ve kept the best for last. The outstanding The People v. O.J. Simpson – American Crime Story is on Netflix UK from tomorrow (Wednesday): one of the best TV dramas of recent years, with remarkable performances from a stellar cast, in particular Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, and the nonpareil Sterling K. Brown.

American Crime Story – The People v. O.J. Simpson s1 ep 10

I hadn’t planned to say anything more about The People v O.J. Simpson. But now that it’s finished: my God, this was a great show. It kind of feels as if it’s in poor taste to say that a dramatic retelling of a gruesome real-life murder was ridiculously entertaining. But it was. I even found myself watching Marcia and Chris and… well, is it shipping? What do you call it when the people actually exist in real life, might or might not have hooked up 20 years ago, are now being played by actors, and you want them to get together on the show? Retro-shipping? In which case I’m retro-shipping #Darcia into the middle of next week.

Given that the plot is well-known – albeit, as it turns out, a gift to dramatists – what the show really needed was good acting. And here, of course, it cleaned up. I warmed, as the season went on, to John Travolta’s larger-than-life Robert Shapiro, especially in the context of Cuba Gooding, Jr., as Simpson, who went in almost the opposite direction – fitting, perhaps, for a case which became much bigger than OJ – but got a chance to shine in the dazzling final episode. Were David Schwimmer not Ross out of Friends, he would be getting more credit for his increasingly haunted performance as Robert Kardashian, slowly coming to the conclusion that his beloved Juice was guilty. And in just about any other show Nathan Lane’s subtle, wily F. Lee Bailey would have been the standout.

At the centre, though, were three remarkable performances. In my review of the first episode I singled out Sarah Paulson (playing Marcia Clark) and Courtney B. Vance (playing Johnnie Cochran) for praise, and as the show went on they just got better. By the end, though, I was wondering whether both had been overtaken by Sterling K. Brown, turning in a quite jaw-dropping performance as Chris Darden, particularly in the astonishing ninth episode, as all of the tension of the case and its context – racial, sexual, whatever – started to boil over. That episode took what looked like a high-stakes gamble by spending quite a long time on the legal back-and-forth, but more than got away with it, leading up to the still almost-unbelievable moment when Detective Mark Fuhrman (yet another impressive performance, this one from Steven Pasquale) took the Fifth on being asked if he’d planted any evidence in the case.

This isn’t quite the best show I’ve seen in the last 12 months. (Fargo, if you’re wondering.) But it’s yet another Golden Age of Television benchmark, even in today’s increasingly-cluttered TV world, and I would expect Emmy nominations all over the place. Nor did it lose sight of the victims – even if Darden, at the final press conference, breaking down in the arms of the Goldmans hadn’t got me, the last shot would have.

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson s1 ep 1

It’s arguable that American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson pulls its smartest stroke at the start, with real-life footage of Rodney King’s beating by police officers, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots which followed the acquittal of the officers. The riots happened 2 years before Simpson’s arrest, but it’s a statement of intent, and one which ties the show as strongly to the present day as to pre-O.J. history.

Anyway, it sets the scene for a thoroughly entertaining episode, which just about manages to combine seriousness and a hint of camp. As with Deutschland 83, half-remembered names come swimming back into focus: Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Kato Kaelin. Some of the acting is very good indeed: the standout so far is Sarah Paulson as lead prosecutor Clark, appalled by the crime but ambitious nonetheless. The reliable Courtney B. Vance is excellent as Cochran. And Cuba Gooding, Jr. makes up for his lack of resemblance to the real O.J. by giving the character a fury and neediness which feels right.

The most problematic performance so far (discounting David Schwimmer’s, which is perfectly fine, but dude has a lot of running to do to escape the shadow of Ross Geller) is John Travolta’s as Shapiro: Travolta seems somehow detached from the rest of the cast, almost as if he’s just too famous for the part. This is perhaps fitting; it’s a dramatic portrayal of a crime which had, in its unfolding mid-90s narrative, elements of fame as well as race and domestic abuse. But on the evidence of this first episode American Crime Story will more than get away with it. I really enjoyed it, and I’d recommend giving it a try, particularly if you’re old enough to remember the events first time round. I’m not anticipating further reviews, but I didn’t expect to be writing this one either, so we’ll see.