Two proper TV heavyweights return to UK screens this weekend. The Handmaid’s Tale always looked like being event TV: an adaptation of a significant novel with a stellar cast and substantial themes. Although the second season didn’t quite make the same splash as the first, I persevered and ended up liking it a lot. The problem is that it took a few episodes to get going, and in today’s TV landscape there’s really no need to stick with an underperforming show until it gets its shit together: if you don’t want to eat your greens before being rewarded with dessert, there are other options available. So I’m approach this third season – again, on the receiving end of some less-than-wholly-positive reviews – with a certain amount of trepidation.
The most terrifying parts of the show, perversely, aren’t always those set in the future; because of course we’d put a stop to things before they reached that stage, right? It’s the flashbacks, showing how the path to the dystopian Gilead started with the sacrifice of personal freedoms and the rights of women in the name of theocracy. Since the show has started, in fact, we’ve seen the American states of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, to name but three, fall more and more Under His Eye. Maybe the time to start resisting Gilead is… round about now? (Sunday 9 June, Channel 4, 9pm.)
Killing Eve, meantime, was one of the biggest surprises of 2018, perhaps alongside Russian Doll. It should be said that Unpopcult is divided here, but you can safely ignore CJ on this one: the first season was utterly fantastic TV, rightly winning our Best New Show award at the end of last year (and I’d have voted for it as Best Show as well had it not been for the remarkable second season of The Good Fight). And I’m particularly delighted to see the rise of Jodie Comer, who we identified as a star-in-the-making in My Mad Fat Diary. I think I’m correct in saying that the whole season will be available on the iPlayer as of tonight, but for those of us who prefer our TV pleasures at a slightly slower pace, week-by-week broadcast also commences this evening at 9pm on BBC One.
Can Killing Eve stand up to the hype? Actually, it just about can. Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) is a MI5 desk-jockey, assistant to the world-weary Bill (David Haig), and living life in a state of moderate dissatisfaction. A Russian politician has been assassinated in Vienna, and Eve – to the disdain of her superiors – has concluded that the assassin is most probably a woman. So when the girlfriend of the deceased, who witnessed the assassination, lands in London, and Eve is given the job of making sure that she’s looked after, she goes a little further and carries out an unauthorised interview in the hope of confirming her suspicions.
We already know that she’s right: preternaturally skilled psychopath and killer-for-hire (?) Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is not only behind the Vienna wet job, but a pile of others as well; including, by the end of the episode, the Russian politician’s girlfriend. This, together with the off-the-books investigation, is enough to get Eve the sack, although she’s subsequently approached by Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), head of the Russia desk at MI6, with an offer to continue the investigation.
I liked this a lot. The soundtrack is terrific; I had Shazam to hand throughout the episode. And the acting is great: Oh is entirely convincing as bored-but-perceptive Eve, and Owen McDonnell does a fine job as her husband Niko, as does Shaw as the experienced spook Carolyn. Haig is magnificent as Bill, and Kim Bodnia is clearly enjoying himself as Villanelle’s thuggish handler. Comer has the toughest job of the lot – she has to convince as a barely-out-of-her-teens star assassin – but I’ve seen enough of her in the past to be confident that she’s got this.
Killing Eve also scores highly for its dialogue (this episode was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), which is witty without being sparkling, but this is by design: it’s the conversation of people in jaded, cynical middle age, fighting battles they don’t think they should be fighting any more. It reminded me in parts of the Slough House series of books by Mick Herron, and those who know me will know that there’s no higher praise I can give anything. Killing Eve isn’t at that level, but it’s tremendous Saturday-night fun.
BBC America’s Killing Eve was, when shown in the USA, a critical hit and – on its own terms – a ratings success, with its viewing figures almost doubling during its 8-week run, and a season 2 renewal in the bag. It’s an adaptation of Luke Jennings’s novella series Codename Villanelle, which has been developed and partly written by the insanely talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer star as a MI5 agent and assassin respectively. I’m particularly pleased about the praise Comer has been getting; we loved her in My Mad Fat Diary, and she deserves her subsequent success. (Kim Bodnia from Bron/Broen also appears.) Having managed to deliver old-fashioned monster ratings with Bodyguard, the BBC has plainly decided that it doesn’t want them with Killing Eve: although it will be broadcasting it on a week-by-week basis on BBC One, starting tomorrow at 9.15pm, the whole season will be available for (ew ew ew) “bingeing” on BBC Three.
A few other things. A Discovery of Witches is also an adaptation, this time of a novel by Deborah Harkness. It’s something to do with witches and vampires forming an alliance, which sounds like the sort of thing I don’t care about. The cast includes Matthew Goode and Alex Kingston (tonight, Sky One, 9pm).
Unpopcult royalty Jeffrey Donovan stars in Shut Eye, one of the first shows on Virgin’s new Ultra HD channel. Donovan plays a magician who starts to have psychic visions. With a cast of triple-tested TV talent – David Zayas, Susan Misner, Emmanuelle Chriqui, KaDee Strickland, Isabella Rossellini – this sounds as if it might be quite interesting. The reviews and ratings would, however, suggest otherwise; it was cancelled after two seasons (Monday 18 September, Virgin TV Ultra HD, 10pm). And Constantine, an apparently mediocre DC Comics adaptation, lasted only one before cancellation (Monday 18 September, FOX (UK), 9pm).
And two from the streamers: season 5 of BoJack Horseman (Netflix), and the first season of Maya Rudolph/Fred Armisen vehicle Forever (Amazon Prime), both dropped today.