Public Service Announcement 34 of 2017: Doctor Foster, Tin Star

Clearly, the only thing we really care about this week is Private Eyes. There are a few other things worth mentioning, though. The BBC has brought back ratings blockbuster Doctor Foster for a second go-round of middle-class adultery and revenge. While the first season had the usual UK drama flaws – too many episodes, occasionally ridiculous contrivances – it was entertaining enough, and writer Mike Bartlett was prepared to make his lead character somewhat unlikeable. So a second season might be worth a look. I don’t expect to review this time round (Tuesday 5 September, BBC One, 9pm).

Sky Atlantic, meantime, will be showing the latest drama from hit-and-miss production company Kudos. Tin Star, um, stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, with Roth as a London detective who moves to the Rocky Mountains and encounters trouble from oil workers. It’s already been renewed for a second season, which suggests that someone has confidence in it. The whole season will be available on demand for (ew) bingeing, because these days we’re children who can’t wait a whole week for another episode (Thursday 7 September, Sky Atlantic, 9pm).

And the BBC iPlayer has the fascinating documentary Frank Lloyd Wright: The Man Who Built America for another three weeks or so. Highly recommended.

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Doctor Foster s1 ep 5

As expected, we start where we left off last week, with Gemma and Simon dropping in on the Parks family for the dinner party from hell: Kate’s there, as are her parents Chris and Susie. It doesn’t take Gemma too long to detonate her unexploded bomb: she warms up by shattering one of Susie’s ornaments, which seems a little gratuitous, unless she thinks that Kate’s parents – like just about everyone else in Parminster – knows what has been going on. Which they might. Then, round the dinner table, Kate once again coolly provokes Gemma – she’s organising divorce parties – but what she doesn’t know is that this time Gemma’s going for it, and she reveals that she knows about the affair, the pregnancy, and Chris’s dubious dealings with Simon. Mic drop.

So once Simon heads off to Kate’s, and Gemma’s made sure that she’s done her best to wreck the lives of everyone in her family – including her son Tom, who she sends to the door of Simon and Kate’s lovenest just to make sure that he knows all about the affair as well – Gemma rocks up at the door of her neighbours Neil and Anna, for no good reason other than to ruin their marriage as well. At this point, though, Anna steps up in spectacular fashion, and having said that she knows about Neil’s philandering, that she can live with it, and that if Gemma thinks she can split them up she’s kidding herself, she really sticks the knife in: “You have no idea”, she hisses to Gemma, “how you come across… it’s clear you think you’re very slightly better than all of us”.

Which essentially confirms something alluded to throughout Doctor Foster’s run: Gemma really isn’t a particularly nice person, and hardly anyone likes her. (Not even her son Tom.) This is both a good and a bad thing: on the one hand, if your central character is a wronged woman, it’s reasonably courageous to make her an unpleasant one; and, added to the fact that Simon’s relationship with Kate has endured for two years and is hardly a fling, it means that the show has an agreeably ambiguous approach to its central relationships: relationships can be messy, breakups more so, and apportioning blame isn’t always black and white.

And Gemma doubles down on this when she gives Simon the very strong impression that she’s murdered their son. Simon’s behaviour in this scene, of course, is appalling, which illuminates the downside of the show’s handling of its characters: almost without exception, these people are savagely unlikeable. I really didn’t care for, or about, any of them, and was entirely indifferent to their fates. Once again this includes the rather whiny Tom, who in particular doesn’t get a free pass for calling his future stepmother a slut.

Which left me, in turn, not sure what to make of the show as a whole. Doctor Foster finished its run with excellent ratings – and, as with the similarly-flawed Broadchurch, I always like it when a scripted show captures the imagination of viewers. Parts of it were good, and Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel were excellent, as was Jodie Comer. On the other hand, it was of course way too long – three episodes, max, would have done the job; and phenomenally silly in places. Still, it was worth watching, and after the madness had calmed down I liked the ending, in which no-one got everything they wanted, but the possibility of a happier future was held out. The BBC is, for now, refusing to rule out the possibility of a second season, although in my view it should.

Doctor Foster s1 ep 4

At the start of the episode Gemma and Simon’s marriage looks as if it’s survived, which would – sort of? – vindicate Gemma’s repeated and otherwise inexplicable failure to confront her husband. Anyway, as we find out this week, she lost both her parents when she was a teenager, which perhaps explains her willingness to overlook Simon’s infidelity and financial chicanery; she doesn’t want to lose this family. And she loves her house.

In the workplace, though, it’s all going wrong. Someone is posting online – h8ers gonna h8 – about how terrible a doctor she is. The police are wondering in what way her mother-in-law got hold of those sleeping pills. And an official complaint has been made about her threatening to burn someone with a lit cigarette. The other partners clearly don’t know just how off-the-wall she’s been recently – and these complaints barely scratch the surface of her unethical behaviour over the last three episodes – but she’s encouraged to take a leave of absence until it’s all sorted out. Whether her best course of action is thereafter to go round to Carly’s boyfriend and offer to pay him off if he’ll withdraw his complaint about the cigarette is open to question, but she’s sufficiently unhinged to do it.

And from then on things just get worse. She finds out that Simon and Kate have reconciled when she sees them kissing round the back of his office – which presumably means that we can add “everyone Simon works with” to the lengthy list of people who are aware of his affair. Is there anyone in Parminster who didn’t know before Gemma? And, once again, instead of confronting Simon about it she decides that there’s a much crazier and more complex way to deal: she drags her son and Simon’s assistant into some demented lie about her suddenly having to go to a conference, then pisses off to the seaside to hang with Jack, her old lush ex-partner, and with Mary, a woman who seems to have had a hand in her post-parent-death upbringing, although I didn’t quite follow that bit.

Anyway, what follows is actually quite revealing: she flirts with suicide, and she exhibits a staggering degree of solipsism when she insists, over and over again, that her grief at catching her husband playing away from home outweighs everything else, including Jack’s sorrow at the death of his partner of 30 years. “You’ve always known exactly how to hurt people”, Mary coolly observes, and once again we get a flash of something selfish and unpleasant at Gemma’s core; something which – dare I say it? – might just start to explain why Simon’s prepared to risk everything for a fling with a younger woman.

After last week’s detectable improvement this episode was a big step back, though, and – leaving aside the continuing implausibility of the story – yet another example of a British TV drama in which fifteen minutes’ worth of plot is somehow made to fill an hour. The point, I think, was to set up the last scene, an impromptu dinner party at the home of Kate’s parents. Simon and Kate are both there, presumably starting to suspect that Gemma’s got the goods on them; and Gemma herself is an unexploded bomb. One would guess she’s going to detonate in next week’s finale, and that no-one’s going to be able to avoid getting damaged.

Doctor Foster s1 ep 3

Gemma has a plan, and it involves a three-pronged attack. She’s realised that she doesn’t know much about her finances – because despite being a highly-paid professional she’s left it all to Simon, like a girl – which would be highly relevant if she were to leave him. So Ros is deputed to engage with Simon and find out about the finances of his building development. Carly is sent off to hang out with Kate and become her buddy, thus getting inside affair/pregnancy info.

And Gemma herself sticks on a LBD and some heels and goes off to dinner with sleazy Neil from across the road. It’s possible that as a hetero male I can’t see what’s attractive about him, although given that his chat-up line is “I’m here because I think we would have a really good time fucking” (ew) I’m pretty sure I’m not missing anything. In fact, he’s so sure of his seductive appeal that he’s already booked a room for the two of them. He likes it physical, you see. Even more amazingly, Gemma succumbs and jumps into bed with him. 

But she’s working an angle, as it were: Neil has access to Simon’s accounts, and Gemma blackmails him into breaching confidentiality by threatening to tell his wife. (Even allowing for that Neil wants another go-round, which kind of suggests that Gemma is indeed “feral”. You go, girl.) From which she discovers that Simon has spent just about every penny they have, has forged her signature on a second mortgage for their house, and is being funded by – oh God – a mysterious offshore investor known only as Whitestone. Now, this last development I don’t care for; I’m really over writers who use the Enigmatic Word Which Means Something Mysterious as a dramatic shortcut.

Anyway, it looks as if Gemma might finally be ready to bail on Simon. But then he splits up with Kate, and since he does this audibly in a pub where Carly happens to be working – bit of good luck, that – Gemma finds out about it. Then Simon’s mother dies at absolutely the right time to save his marriage – every cloud, eh? – and when Gemma sees her husband and son in distress, she seems to realise that she doesn’t want to leave. Which looks like a sort-of-happyish ending.

But there are still two episodes to go, and at least three major issues outstanding. Firstly, Neil’s wife clearly suspects that something’s going on between her sex-god husband and Gemma, and she’s presumably well aware that it’s tough to keep a big dog like that on the porch. Secondly, Kate’s lying about the abortion, isn’t she? And thirdly, if we must, Whitestone. Still, even allowing for the silly contrivances, I thought this was the best episode so far by some distance.

Doctor Foster s1 ep 2

Gemma has decided to kick Simon out after finding proof of his affair, so leaves the birthday party early, comes home, stuffs some of his clothes into suitcases, and stacks them in the hall. Except… when he gets in he’s so drunk he doesn’t even notice them, and goes straight to bed. It’s a bit like trying to start a fight with someone who doesn’t want to join in, and by the morning Gemma has decided to adopt a different approach: the suitcases are unpacked, the clothes put away, and she’s pretending it didn’t happen. Which she’s able to, because Simon has no recollection of it. It’s difficult to know exactly what she’s up to, though: is she trying to save her marriage and keep her family together, or does she have a darker purpose in mind?

Like last week’s episode, this one takes an unnecessarily long time to get where it needs to. Most of the first half is dispensable, except for a scene in which Katie, Simon’s lover, comes in to the medical practice for an appointment with Ros. Gemma – who left ethical proprieties behind last time – switches patients and examines Katie herself, thus discovering that she’s pregnant. This is a tense little scene: there’s something coolly and daringly insouciant about Katie’s conduct throughout, as she clarifies for Gemma’s benefit that she’s in a relationship with a married man. Jodie Comer is very good here, of course, as we know from My Mad Fat Diary she can be.

Gemma also pisses off her actual patient, the one who had come in to see her, although since she thereafter manages to find any number of ways to contravene medical guidelines in her dealings with him it might reasonably be said that cancelling an appointment is comparatively small beer. In fact, when she later confides about the affair in the old lush who used to be a partner in her medical practice, he suggests that perhaps she should tell Simon about the baby. “I’m not ethically allowed to”, she replies, which suggests that she really is, by this stage, straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel.

It’s all worth it, though, for two things which happen in the second half of the episode. Firstly, for everyone who’s been screaming “JUST EFFING TELL HIM!” at the TV, it looks as if Gemma’s going to do just that: she confronts Simon and tells him that she thinks he’s having an affair, that she thinks she could get over that, but that she couldn’t live with him lying about it. For a couple of seconds it looks as if he’s going to crumble, but he sticks to the lie; thus, you would think, effectively pissing in his own chips, and once again returning us to the question of what exactly Gemma’s planning to do, given that she has the goods on Simon but seems oddly reluctant to let him know it. (The preview for next week suggests that an ill-advised hook-up with the smoothie across the road is what she has in mind, but that can’t be everything.)

And the episode also starts to make explicit something which was hinted at in the first episode: Gemma’s an outsider in the town, who moved from London when she married Simon, and everyone else knows Simon better than she does. (And it looks as if quite a few people – including her mother-in-law – also know about the affair.) So his pre-Gemma past as a Stakhanovite shagger comes into play – did anyone else wonder whether Ros, perhaps, had very good reasons for knowing about that? – as does his own father’s infidelity. It gives the rest of the season somewhere to go beyond just a lengthy exploration of a marital breakdown: a sort of passive-aggressive middle-class Straw Dogs. Straw Labradoodles, if you will. Which means it’s probably just about worth continuing to watch, but only just about.

Doctor Foster s1 ep 1

Every now and again I have a little spasm of guilt about the fact that I live in the UK, contribute to a TV blog, but (almost) never review British TV shows. But when I saw the excellent reviews for Doctor Foster, BBC1’s latest Suranne Jones vehicle, I decided to ignore my unhappy history with homegrown mainstream drama and give it a go.

So. Gemma Foster (Jones) is a brilliant, successful, attractive GP in her late 30s, with an implausibly charming son, and a stubbly property developer perfect husband called Simon (Bertie Carvel), who still wants to bonk her the morning after returning from a weekend conference. She borrows Simon’s scarf and notices a single blonde hair on it and, as she earlier caught him with lip balm, she ignores the zillion other ways a hair could have got onto a scarf and concludes that he’s having an affair. It could be Simon’s newly-single and newly-blonde assistant, or the blonde wife of a friend, or a blonde patient-cum-restaurateur… they’re surrounded by predatory blondes, and suddenly every interaction Simon has with a woman becomes a cause for suspicion. She checks his phone and finds nothing; then she follows him when he leaves work, but he visits his elderly mother (I think). Her paranoia doesn’t abate, though.

This is all reasonably well done. Jones and Carvel are excellent, and the way in which a passing thought starts out as ridiculous, becomes plausible, then doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny is nicely handled. One might reasonably wonder why she doesn’t just ask him, rather than snooping round his office; but without that sort of thing it wouldn’t be a TV drama, I suppose.

Then, though, it all starts to get a bit silly. One of Gemma’s patients has been unsuccessfully demanding sleeping pills, so Gemma finally offers to prescribe some for her, if in return she’ll spy on Simon. So the patient sees him kissing someone (probably – the angle leaves just a little room for doubt), photographs the car number plate, and – wouldn’t you know it? – has a dodgy cop mate who can run the plate, thus pointing the finger of suspicion at one of the blondes. Meantime there’s an odd little subplot in which Gemma elbows a senior colleague out of the practice, in circumstances which suggest that she’s perhaps not the vision of perfection she seemed to be at the start.

And then she discovers that the patient she hired as a private detective has been the victim of domestic abuse, so she dons a metaphorical Bat-costume, confronts her boyfriend, and threatens to disclose his medical records to his employer unless he gets the hell away from his girlfriend. (She might also burn him with a cigarette, I wasn’t sure.) By this point, I was pretty sure that Doctor Foster had taken leave of her senses. Perhaps I was supposed to, of course, because she then finds what looks like incontrovertible evidence of Simon’s affair: not with the blonde patient, but with a blonde someone else. But – encouraged by the way in which the discovery was filmed – I really can’t rule out the possibility that she hallucinated it. The rest of the episode, and the preview of next week’s, suggests that she’s now out for revenge. I dunno: I’d have thought that as a financially independent woman she’d confront Simon with the proof, perhaps keep a copy for the divorce proceedings, then get the hell out of his life leaving him to the blondes.

Anyway, it isn’t terrible, although it could have lost 20 minutes without undue strain, and for now I really can’t see where the other four episodes are going to come from. But it isn’t as good as Person of Interest, or Jane the Virgin, or Nashville, or (of course) The Good Wife, or… you know where this is going, and I’m well aware that it’s boring for me to keep making the same point. I might watch next week, but if Gemma starts stabbing people with those scissors I’m out.