Public Service Announcement 7 of 2017: O.J.: Made in America, Broadchurch, Catastrophe, Quantico, Black-ish, Taken

Just as American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson is one of the best TV dramas I’ve seen for years, ESPN’s Oscar-nominated non-fiction account of the Simpson story, O.J.: Made in America, is a truly outstanding documentary. It’s now available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, although at three episodes, each clocking in at around three hours each, it represents a bit of a commitment. But don’t let that put you off.

Next, a couple of shows from this side of the Atlantic. I realise it’s disproportionate for me still to be annoyed about season 2 of Broadchurch, back this week for a third run, but taking TV too seriously is pretty much my niche. So here goes again: the decision to use the second season as a running criticism of the dramatic choices of the first season is one of the most insultingly stupid things I’ve ever seen on TV. In passing, I note that the Radio Times, which called season 2 “thumpingly good” while it was on, is now admitting that it “misfired”, which is a kind of moderate version of what I was saying at the time. So you can take its recommendation of the first episode of season 3 with a pinch of salt, I’d say. This time round I won’t be reviewing (Monday 27 February, 9pm, ITV).

I also thought season 2 of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s marital dysfunction comedy Catastrophe to have fallen short of the standards of its first season: it had always been filthy and nasty, which I mean as a compliment, but in its second season it seemed to have misplaced the sweetness at its core and replaced it with a sour misanthropy, which made it much more difficult to love. So we’ll see what season 3 brings (Tuesday 28 February, 10pm, Channel 4).

Turning to American TV: first up is the return of Quantico. In season 1, beautiful FBI recruits – one of whom may be behind a deadly terrorist attack on Grand Central Station – slept with and betrayed each other, which makes it sound somewhat more appealing than it actually was. Lead character Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is, in season 2, off to the CIA, probably to do the same sort of thing. I stuck it out through the first season, but there’s next to no chance of me watching any more (Thursday 2 March, 9pm, Alibi).

Also starting: season 3 of Black-ish (Tuesday 28 February, 8.30pm, E4); and Amazon Prime in the UK has NBC’s adaptation of Taken, available within hours of broadcast in the US. As ever, Unpopcult applauds this practice (Tuesday 28 February).

Broadchurch s2 ep 8

4bd44266-a3de-402f-b077-eb8fad8443e6-1020x612Spoilers.

I was going to start with another instalment of Things People Have Been Saying About Broadchurch, because there really isn’t any shortage of material, but let’s not. Enough. Instead, let’s get to the action. We start with the verdict in Joe Miller’s murder trial, and it’s a not guilty. Oh dear. So Jocelyn needn’t have bothered coming out of retirement after all. For some reason Joe thinks he can hang about in Broadchurch, but after hiding out at the church he gets dobbed in by Paul Whicker the Tall Vicar, and Mark and Nige abduct him.

They don’t kill him, though. In a memorable scene in the very first episode Mark walked through the friendly, smiling Broadchurch community. The community has turned out again, but this time it’s to make it clear to Joe that he isn’t welcome – obviously, you might think – and Paul has arranged, apparently through a network of similarly hooky priests, for him to be accommodated in a halfway house in Sheffield. Which on one view brings this storyline to an end. I’m not sure it does, though; we aren’t much further forward than we were at the end of season 1, and I’d say that should the show require it we aren’t yet absolutely clear on who killed Danny, still less on motive.

Still, at least the trial is over. And in response to the assertion that it doesn’t matter if the trial is run under the court rules of Bizarro World: well, perhaps it doesn’t. Unless you’re going to use your second season to criticise the procedural inaccuracies of the first, in which case you should probably at least try to make a better job of procedure in the second. And until someone is found not guilty because his confession has been incorrectly treated as inadmissible. That isn’t writing; that’s cheating.

In Sandbrook news: they all did it, and that shared knowledge kept them all quiet. At least we got flashbacks as well as confessions: one head banged off a floor; one head roofied and smothered; secrets kept for years. It could have been worse, but I’m not sure it was a story which needed to be told at all. And the final scene was, presumably, designed to show that family and friends can overcome hideous loss and pain, but looked a little awkward: would you really hang out with the wife of the man who murdered your son?

So what to make of Broadchurch? Actually, I think the critical reaction to this season has perhaps been unduly harsh. Season 1 was overpraised. But season 2 has been unfairly criticised. Admittedly episodes 2 and 3 were rank, and the idea of using your second season to reassess the dramatic choices of your first was stupid. But all that’s happened is that an above-average British TV drama has regressed to the mean and become an average British TV drama; no more, no less. Although some viewers have been shed along the way there will be a season 3, which really doesn’t feel necessary.

I suppose Joe will return to Broadchurch, and the murder of Danny will be reopened. I also have a lingering concern about Sandbrook. Yes, they’ve confessed. But as we know from this season that means nothing. For example: Claire’s confession was given to two police officers. One actually works as a traffic cop in Devon, pretended to be her friend, and went on the pull with her, while taking the first opportunity to seize and examine her phone without getting a warrant. The other works at the police training college and was, at best, funding his own informal witness protection arrangement for her. She accused him on tape of raping her and imprisoning her. What sort of a confession is that?

They couldn’t. Could they?

Broadchurch s2 ep 7

Commenting this week on Broadchurch, David Tennant himself: “I think we’re a victim of our success, to be honest”. Yes, David? Go on… “The first series was such an extraordinary thing. We never allow lightning to strike twice in this country… we just don’t let that happen. So, inevitably, there was going to be a certain amount of ‘it’s not as good as the first time’. I think it is. I think it’s a wonderful series that I’m very proud to be part of.”

Well, I’m always delighted when actors are fans of the shows they appear in, but it isn’t our fault if season 2 isn’t as good as season 1, dude, and viewing figures haven’t dropped because of our reluctance to let lightning strike twice.

Anyway, to the episode. No matter how stupid a courtroom drama is (see reviews passim), it would take a remarkably unskilled dramatist to render it completely boring. So although we didn’t actually get much further forward this week with the case against Joe, there was undoubtedly a certain amount of tension: the standard last-minute piece of evidence, prosecution and defence speeches, and the wait for the jury’s verdict. That having been said, the best line of the whole thing was delivered by the junior prosecution barrister to his defence opposite number when the courtroom was otherwise empty. (And the later-years love story, although telegraphed weeks ago, was touchingly understated.)

In the Sandbrook storyline, the increasingly distasteful relationship between Lee and Claire continues to be the most perplexing mystery: why? Putting that aside, which I’d love to do forcefully, perhaps holding it face-down in the water for a while, there was lots happening here this week. What did it add up to, though? As with season 1 at this stage we have lots of potential candidates for the killing of Pippa (I’m guessing, from Lee’s remark that almost nobody knows him in France, that Lisa, the missing girl, is there), all of whom would fit with the known facts: as well as everyone in Doggers’ Lane being a suspect, it turns out that Lisa was being stalked by Gary, Mr Thorpe Agri Services, Jr., possessor of a furnace. And I still don’t care. Part of the strength of season 1 was that the show was more about loss and pain than the murder mystery, and without a reason to get involved with the Sandbrook case I’m finding myself detached from it. Still, it all meant that Hardy and Miller could tend to their Conspiracy Wall.

Like last week, this wasn’t bad. But Broadchurch is now just an ordinary drama, and the cliffhanger ending was predictable and cheap.

Broadchurch s2 ep 6

After last week’s modest revival, there were more signs in this episode that Broadchurch has pulled itself out of its slump. This actually wasn’t bad at all, at least in part because it returned to the themes of the first season: pain, loss, and the way in which actions have consequences.

It wasn’t entirely free of the most problematic aspect of season 2, which reared up again when Sharon tried to get the case against Joe dismissed on the basis that season 1 was an inaccurate representation of correct investigative procedures. This time, though, it wasn’t allowed to bog the episode down, and the courtroom scenes had a certain amount of power: Jocelyn’s quiet but persistent cross-examination of Tom, breaking him on the witness stand, and creating a vacuum into which Ellie was, finally, able to rush – I’m your mother, young man, and you’re coming home; Mark being accused of killing his son, having to reveal his meetings with Tom, and how his affair with Becca was about to end his marriage. I’m back to feeling sorry for Beth again.

I’m a bit more equivocal about the Sandbrook arc this week, though. It seems to rest largely on Lee being a sexily irresistible sex force of sexy-nature, being bonked or drooled over by the entire female population of Doggers’ Lane, garden fences adapted to permit him to slip between lovers without even having to negotiate garden paths. Certainly Claire can’t help herself: half-strangled by Lee one minute, enthusiastically discussing Uganda with him the next, househunting together a few seconds later. (It’s all unfortunately reminiscent of the infamous Kalinda’s Husband storyline in The Good Wife.) And possibly even murdering for him; or, at any rate, helping to cover a murder up by stealing a crucial piece of evidence, the pendant, from Hardy’s wife’s car. She’s not quite so stupid, though, that she can fail to notice Ellie staring at the photo of her wearing the pendant; short of Ellie saying “Is that a photo of you, Claire, wearing the pendant which went missing?” it couldn’t have been more obvious.

For the now neck-bearded Hardy a mixed week: he orders Claire to leave his one-man Witness Protection Programme, correctly figuring that he needn’t hide someone who wants to be found, and presumably saving himself a five-figure sum of money in the process. He then has a pacemaker fitted, and does the Jack Bauer thing of leaving hospital within minutes of coming round from the anaesthetic. Possibly his ex-wife’s reappearance in his life has pepped him up; she was certainly quick enough to get Ellie away from his bedside.

Problems remain: if Joe wasn’t Danny’s killer, then season 1 was a bust. I don’t actually care who the Sandbrook killer(s) is (or are), and as I said last week I’ve completely lost track of Lee’s shag tree. Nor do I care about the Jocelyn/Sharon backstories, although such has been the half-assed way in which they’ve been introduced and pursued I’m not sure that we’re meant to. And I really didn’t like the look of the magic Carbonara of Truth. It’s unlikely, now, that this season is going to live up to expectations. But this was OK.

Broadchurch s2 ep 5

The pile of nonsense written about Broadchurch – to which, I concede, I’m about to contribute further – continues to accumulate. This week the Radio Times was back for more, with a preview in which it tried to construct an almost entirely phoney ratings war between this show and Silent Witness, both popular, both showing at 9pm on Mondays. Now, the ratings are interesting to people who are interested in that sort of thing (like me – this week Witness edged ahead); and, at least in the case of Broadchurch, to advertisers. Beyond that the fact that the shows are on at the same time is irrelevant to viewers: anyone who likes both can watch one live and avail themselves of the catch-up options for the other. Or even, perhaps, use one of them there video recorders and tape one.

Anyway, the Radio Times is almost never knowingly out-cheerleadered when it comes to overrated British drama, but this week a note of peevish defensiveness was detectable: “Broadchurch… has taken flak for its courtroom scenes, which would in real life be drowned out by cries of ‘Contempt of court!’ (NB: no they wouldn’t. Can’t anyone spend a couple of minutes researching this stuff?) But then – forensic scientists who go on police raids and interview suspects? Surely not?”

One can almost see the folded arms, hear the “so what do you say to that, then?”. Yet again, though, the point is in all likelihood missed. At least I think it is. I don’t watch Silent Witness, but if you do you know what to expect, and I’m guessing that each episode doesn’t pick up on the procedural improprieties of the previous one.

That all having been said, it should in fairness be noted that the week’s Broadchurch wasn’t great, or even particularly good, but it was probably the best episode since the first of the season, the one which fooled us into thinking that the level of quality in the previous season was going to be maintained. The courtroom stuff is still barely tolerable, and the fall-out between Sharon and Jocelyn about the former’s son can be added to the already long list of Things I Really Don’t Care About. The most absurd exchange this week was probably between Rev Paul and Sharon, affecting bafflement – “If you’re so sure about his guilt, why have you been visiting him?” – that Paul had been acting like, well, a priest. (Although one might also wonder why it took everyone more than three seconds to work out that Googling ‘Thorp Agri’ might be the best way to find out something about Thorp Agri.)

Jodie Whittaker as Beth and Olivia Colman as Ellie continue to provide grace notes – Ellie’s conversation with her son was the only point this week at which Colman was required to do some proper acting, which of course she more than managed. And she now even has a Conspiracy Wall! Meantime Jodie is still getting dragged into the reformed sex offender cul-de-sac, this week with a church full of nonces. (That must have been a fun day in the casting department.) But Whittaker is convincing as someone trying, and failing, to hide her pain.

And in the hitherto redundant Sandbrook case, things are starting to move, even if I found it impossible to keep up with who is supposed to have shagged whom in Doggers’ Lane, where Lee and Ricky were living at the time of the murder(s). (Lee’s ability to silently materialise at a distance from crucial scenes is starting to annoy me.) Admittedly the plotting is along the same lines as season 1 – anyone could have done it – but at least we now have a list of suspects, a possible alternative scenario under which the missing girl might yet be alive, and in Ricky a grieving parent. Who might also be a guilty parent, but one doesn’t preclude the other. All in all, then, a bare pass.

Broadchurch s2 ep 4

The Radio Times, previewing this episode, described it as “thumpingly good”. It wasn’t, of course. It was “crashingly dull”. In fairness, it wasn’t quite as bad, or as industrial–strength stupid, as the last couple. Mind you, the scene in which Hardy and Miller – already under scrutiny for the affair they’re not having – check in at a hotel which (of course) only has one room left, and then share not just the room, but the bed, was as asinine as anything this season has thrown up so far.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The show’s still running two main storylines. Joe’s trial grinds on, the prosecution closing with an irrelevant anecdote about Joe beating an adult up years before. Sharon decides not to call Joe – incidentally, is this the first time we’ve heard Joe’s defence, or even that he has one? – and kicks off with the return of Pauline Quirke, after a uniquely inappropriate blast at her junior: “These are people’s lives you’re talking about! Have some respect!” Yeah, like it was the junior who decided to make up an affair between Hardy and Miller, thus permanently blighting their professional and personal reputations. And let’s not even get started on the exhumation. Pauline dobs Nige in.

Meantime, Hardy is still conducting his unofficial and procedurally improper reinvestigation of Sandbrook, which should at least provide plenty of season 3 material if we get there. (And we might: ratings have, for now, stopped nosediving.) Having brought Claire to Broadchurch to protect her, he’s waited until he knows Lee to be in the area, then pissed off to Sandbrook with Miller, leaving Claire on her own. Needless to say Lee comes a-callin’, woos her with a fish supper or something, and they do it, because of his irresistible sexual magnetism. Incidentally, if the show’s going to suggest that mild, consensual S&M exists on a continuum with child murder that would be unfortunate to say the least, so let’s hope not, eh? Not only that, but there’s a suggestion that Hardy might have slept with Claire himself. (Still, who could blame him? She’s smokin’ hot.)

The relationship between Miller and Hardy is now utterly joyless. Hardy: “Miller! Do this!” Miller: “Oh, for God’s sake”. And so on. Their road trip introduces us, apparently pointlessly, to Hardy’s former wife and his daughter; and to a new suspect: Ricky Gillespie (Shaun Dooley, who we at least know from Misfits to be capable of plausibly playing a psychopath), father of murdered Pippa. Ooh, he’s got bluebells on his wall!

So, where now for Broadchurch? We’re halfway through this season, and there aren’t very many grounds for optimism about the rest of it. This leaves me in the position of contemplating another four weeks of bitching about the show, which isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with. I’ll probably keep watching, because I like to see things through, but I really don’t know if I’ll review again.

Broadchurch s2 ep 3

Oh dear.

But before we get to this week’s episode, I think we need to revisit the debate about last week’s. The Daily Mail and The Guardian – both with a particular audience to keep happy, and apparently limitless online space in which to do it – have devoted plenty of column inches to the vexed question of whether Broadchurch is implausible and factually inaccurate, and whether it matters if it is. This culminated in Mark Lawson adopting a magisterial nothing-to-see-here tone and piling in. (As a general rule, when Mark Lawson writes about television I’m quite happy to be on the other side of the argument.)

To be clear about it, though, the issue isn’t just that Broadchurch is implausible. I like implausible TV and (as should be clear) watch lots of it. And I’ve always presumed that medical professionals, for example, roll their eyes when watching hospital dramas. As I’ve said on here a million times, though, shows can be stupid, clever, or somewhere in between, but they need to keep faith with their audience. Once that stops happening, they’re on an inevitable decline. If you watched the first season of this show because of its sober exploration of the effect of profound grief on a small, tight-knit community, you’re less likely to be impressed, I would guess – and the tumbling ratings would seem to confirm – by David Tennant charging about the countryside hiding witnesses. (Tennant, incidentally, seems to have forgotten how to act, or perhaps it’s the script.)

So the problem is twofold: firstly, that Broadchurch is way past that stage: it has been staring at Implausible in its rear-view mirror for a while now, and is rapidly moving through the outer suburbs of Just Plain Stupid. And, secondly, that it’s simultaneously using season 2 to review the unlikely events of season 1 (a point missed by Lawson), while allowing its characters to continue to behave how the hell they like. I predicted that, in due course, either season 3 would offer a reasoned critique of where the characters went wrong in season 2, or the show would start to consume itself.

And the latter point was reached rather sooner than I expected, when a local policeman is the recipient of accurate allegations that a senior detective (and one who, let’s not forget, has already been the subject of public derision for his handling of the very case in question) has imprisoned, illegally recorded, and attacked Lee, the suspect in the Sandbrook case. How do you deal with that? Well, obviously you march the detective, Hardy, into a field where Lee is battering something or other with a sledgehammer, and make Hardy apologise. And that’ll be an end to it. Next week: Local Plod is investigated for his inappropriate handling of a serious complaint? Who knows?

All of which would be forgiveable if the show had any sort of dramatic momentum. In truth, though, it doesn’t any more. The big Sandbrook development this week is the identification of some other suspects, including Claire. Even this, though, doesn’t make sense: if Hardy was actually keeping an eye on her, rather than protecting her, what’s to stop her just running away? And in the Latimer case, we’re back in the  Wessex courtroom with its idiosyncratic rules of evidence, and the possibility that Joe’s not the killer. (Although, once again, I have to ask: if he’s taking the rap for someone else, why plead not guilty?) There’s a bit of Secret Pain news as well: Jocelyn’s elderly mother (?) is in care which she can’t afford to pay for, and Sharon’s son is in jail himself. I can’t help thinking that there’s more to come from both Pains. Did Sharon, for example, defend her son in court? Honestly, I wouldn’t put anything past this show at this stage.

The scenes with Olivia Colman and Eve Myles, once again, were good. But that’s about it. Plausibility and accuracy are the least of Broadchurch’s worries at the moment.