A big weekend of TV. Top of the list, despite my long-standing antipathy to British TV drama, is A Very English Scandal, the BBC’s adaptation of John Preston’s brilliant book about the relationship between politician Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott; and the subsequent trial when Thorpe was accused, with others, of conspiring to murder Scott. (Even if you don’t watch this, the book is unequivocally recommended.)
I’ve been interested in l’affaire Thorpe since it happened, pretty much, so I would have been watching anyway. But when the casting details were released I hugged myself with sheer joy. Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe strikes me as almost laugh-out-loud perfect. And I’m intrigued by the prospect of Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott: Whishaw certainly has all the beauty of the young Scott, and then some, but as an actor he always seems to me to have an enigmatic inner stillness, something which – by all accounts – Scott didn’t necessarily have in abundance back then. Can’t wait. Bunnies can (and will) watch A Very English Scandal. (Sunday, 9pm, BBC 1.)
And if that weren’t enough, at exactly the same time UK viewers will be getting their first look at season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Now, as you may have inferred, Unpopcult – certainly this 50% of it – is kind of fed up with big meaningful important TV drama that feels like homework, and has been retreating into fun procedurals instead. But the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale managed to be incredibly serious and terrifically entertaining at the same time, and of course benefitted greatly from having Elisabeth Moss – maybe the best TV actor at work today – in the starring role (Sunday, 9pm, Channel 4).
On top of that Elementary returns for its sixth season, on the back of the news that it’s already been renewed for a seventh. I say again – best Sherlock on TV (Monday, 9pm, Sky Living).
The big new American drama hitting UK screens this week is NBC’s Timeless, in which Dr Luka Kovač from ER plays a former NSA operative who steals a time machine, then uses it to bounce around history with the intention of changing it. Fortunately there’s another time machine available for a group of pursuers. It also stars Matt Lanter (90210), British actor Paterson Joseph, and Abigail Spencer (Rectify). The reviews were reasonable, and ratings have been OK, but at the moment renewal is looking unlikely. CJ thinks it looks like an expensive Librarians. I might take a look (Wednesday 14 December, E4, 9pm).
Meantime, the Netflix/BBC America co-production of the Douglas Adams-inspired Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has already been renewed for a second season. Our friend e has already steered us, gently but firmly, towards this show, and (notwithstanding that it might not be a direct adaptation) I’m a huge fan of Adams’s work. So I might take a look at this as well (Netflix, tomorrow).
One show I’ll definitely be watching is Elementary, returning for its fifth – and, in all likelihood, final – season. It went off the boil just a little in season 4, but it remains a reliable pleasure; and, of course, the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation currently on TV (Tuesday 13 December, Sky Living, 9pm).
And also starting: season 4 of the magnificent Allison Janney in Mom (Thursday 15 December, ITV 2, 12.25 am).
It’s hard for me to say anything about Madam Secretary without sounding as if I’m damning it with faint praise. It’s a solid, carefully-crafted show, with an excellent cast: well-scripted and well-acted TV for grown-ups. This gives it an almost old-fashioned air; drop Mad Sec into the TV landscape of, say, 15 or 20 years ago and it would be hoovering up award nominations. In today’s world of television auteurs producing edgy drama for cable and streaming services, though, it’ll likely manage to go its entire lifespan without crossing Emmy’s radar. It’s good, and I always enjoy it, but it’s never quite felt like essential viewing. In short, what I think I’m saying is that Madam Secretary isn’t The Good Wife. Anyway, it’s back for season 2, and at the moment it looks set for another renewal. Fine by me (tonight, Sky Living, 9pm)
By coincidence The Good Wife itself – the outstanding network drama of its era – returns to UK screens this week for its seventh and, in all likelihood, final go-round: creators/showrunners Robert and Michelle King have indicated that they’re stepping down at the end of the season, and Julianna Margulies has described herself as “unemployed come April”. It might be as well: even Wife stans like Unpopcult wouldn’t argue that season 6 was up to the standards of previous years, and advance word from America would suggest that the decline in quality is ongoing in season 7. Still, even a tired Good Wife is better than just about anything else on TV, so we’ll be watching and reviewing until the end (Thursday 28 January, More 4, 9pm).
And Elementary is back after its mid-season hiatus. No unfunny “comedy” episodes, no overlong and self-indulgent flashback episodes: the best Sherlock currently on TV. Oh yes it is (Thursday, Sky Living, 9pm). Also starting on the same night, season 2 of Agent Carter (FOX UK, 9pm).
Elementary’s back tonight for UK viewers: one of the best US network procedurals around just now, with a Cumberbatch-equalling performance from Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes. The show really hit the heights in the first half of the last season with the Kitty arc, and I’m not sure whether it’ll ever match that. Mind you, there’s an excellent reason to watch this time round as well, with the news that John Noble – a terrific actor – has been cast as Sherlock’s father. I won’t be reviewing this season, not to start with anyway, but I’ll definitely be watching (tonight, Sky Living, 9pm).
Saturday, meantime, sees the return of Scandi-drama The Bridge (Bron/Broen) for its third season. I thought season 2 was significantly better than the first, but in my view the success of both was attributable in large measure to Kim Bodnia’s performance as Martin, the cop everyman grounding Sofie Helin’s Saga in something approaching reality. Bodnia, though, won’t be appearing this season, and for me that’s potentially a problem. Whether it’s a fatal one we’ll find out soon. Weekly reviews again, even though the BBC is persevering with the asinine double-bills (Saturday 21 November, BBC4, 9pm).
And two streamers: Amazon Prime has The Man In The High Castle, an adaptation (and apparently a loose one) of Philip K Dick’s counterfactual novel set in an America under German and Japanese rule, they having won World War 2. And Netflix has Jessica Jones, yet another live-action adaptation of a comic. Both are available tomorrow.
Sherlock’s former sponsor Alfredo has gone missing, which carries with it the worry that he’s relapsed into addictive behaviour. Sherlock is then contacted by Oscar, his erstwhile drug buddy, who featured a few weeks ago. Oscar wants Sherlock to find his sister Olivia, also an addict, and just as Sherlock is about to dismiss the idea Oscar reveals that he knows where Alfredo is, and that he’ll trade that information for assistance in finding Olivia.
Given the background, Sherlock’s search for Olivia inevitably takes him back into the world of heroin addiction, which is not a comfortable place for him to be, although he reassures Watson that he won’t be tempted. As it happens, though, Oscar already knows what’s happened to Olivia, and his purpose has been nothing more than to show Sherlock that he’ll never escape the addict’s lifestyle, and to try and drag him back into it. Even allowing for the fact that Oscar is himself an addict, this is remarkably cruel. And what makes it worse is that Oscar is right: Sherlock brutally assaults him, heedless of whether he lives or dies – and that remains unclear at the end of the episode – and then, it is very strongly hinted, relapses into heroin use. There’s a harrowing final scene in which Watson tells a withdrawn, uncommunicative, dishevelled Sherlock that his father has found out what has happened and is on his way to New York.
‘A Controlled Descent’ is probably the best episode since the first half of the season, working on multiple levels: the plot itself is compelling; it builds on the way in which the season has shown Sherlock to be open to the idea of friendship; it reintroduces him as a heroin addict, which the show has never entirely lost sight of; and it raises the prospect of exploring the relationship between Sherlock and his father, something else which has been hanging over the show since the start. All in all I’d say that this has been the best season of Elementary so far, particularly the sequence of episodes leading up to the departure of Kitty; and the news that John Noble, one of the best actors working on TV today, has been cast as Sherlock’s father (and as a regular rather than a guest) is a welcome reaffirmation of the show’s commitment to keeping the quality level high.
The key moment in this episode comes towards the end, at exposition time, when Sherlock explains that the plot is “almost too deranged to describe out loud”. Well, yes; and not for the first time this season either. This one, though, really did feel like a game dreamed up in the writers’ room.
To start with, it’s relatively straightforward: USDA researcher Everett Keck is murdered while investigating the phenomenon of bee colony collapse. Sherlock suspects AgriNext – the big bad pesticide company which featured earlier in the season – of being behind the killing (human and bee), but then evidence emerges to suggest that Keck was actually introducing varroa mites to bee colonies, which gives any number of beekeepers a reason to kill him, assuming they care enough about their bees to actually terminate the life of a human being. (Motive remains tricky throughout this episode, it has to be said.) But then a second plot is introduced, in the shape of the possible kidnapping-for-ransom of a reclusive Arab sheikh. And the challenge for the writers is to connect the two arcs.
While that’s going on, there’s a subplot which, for now, goes nowhere: Gregson is offered a promotion, but wants to leave his team in good hands, so access Watson to check out his potential successor, Ann Vescey. Watson doesn’t come up with anything bad, but Greyson nonetheless opts to stay where he is for now, although there are clear hints that he might not be given the choice. ‘Absconded’ is yet another entertaining but forbiddingly convoluted episode, in which I didn’t ever really believe enough in the motivations of the key players, and thus didn’t get engaged with the plot as a whole.
A New Jersey judge is found murdered on a subway platform. The obvious suspect is escaped prisoner Nikki Moreno, who the judge sentenced to four years for drug dealing, and whose prints are found on the murder weapon; then a guard from the prison turns up dead as well. I must admit that when REDACTED appeared, I thought it was going to be one of those procedural episodes, in which the best-known guest actor turns out to be the perp. But the solution turned out to be a little more imaginative than that, so well done; and extra points for including both some pointed criticism of the concept of private prisons, and a pert reference or two to Orange Is The New Black.
And the subplots are good too: there’s a fun throwaway about whether Sherlock has managed to buy the Stanley Cup on the darknet, and a more penetrating one about Bell’s nascent relationship with a fellow detective who turns out to be hiding something, leading Sherlock to fret about whether his own preference for emotional isolation is affecting those around him as well. Excellent.