Public Service Announcement 14 of 2018: Timeless, The Crossing, The Americans, Madam Secretary, Silicon Valley, Deep State

Unpopcult is very excited by the news that ludicrous-but-fun time-travelling drama Timeless is returning to UK screens this week. There’s a lot to be said for Timeless: it has a highly likeable cast; its Cases of the Week are generally entertaining, even if the Big Conspiracy isn’t the most diverting; and, to its credit, it follows through on its casting of an African American (the excellent Malcolm Barrett) in one of the lead roles by exploring what it might mean for a black man to drop in on, say, America in 1954, when he needs treated for a gunshot wound but the hospitals are segregated. And the costumes are great.

But – let’s be honest – we’re excited because we’re shipping Lucy and Wyatt VERY HARD INDEED, and if Wyatt has finally managed to get his STUPID DEAD WIFE out of his system and realise WHAT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM, we could be in for a treat. After its first season Timeless was cancelled and then un-cancelled, so we should probably appreciate it while we’ve got it (tonight, E4, 9pm).

ABC’s new Lost-wannabe thriller, The Crossing, started in the US yesterday, so it’s very much to Amazon Prime’s credit that it’s already available here. The premise is that a group of war-fleeing refugees turn up in America seeking asylum, claiming to be from 180 years in the future. Critical response has been lukewarm, and I don’t have access to Amazon Prime anyway, so if you try it let us know what it’s like.

On the subject of shows that I can’t legitimately watch, the sixth and final season of The Americans is starting tonight at 10pm. This annoys me because, despite regarding the show as a genuine best-thing-on-TV contender, the last couple of seasons were shown first on ITV Encore, a channel to which not everyone has access. And now it’s going out on ITV4, a more widely available channel, but I’ve lost touch with it so won’t be watching. (I think at least one of the past two seasons might have been repeated on ITV4, but I only know that because I stumbled across it halfway through.) Shame.

Also starting: the post-hiatus rest of season 4 of Madam Secretary (5 April, Sky Living, 9pm); season 5 of Silicon Valley (5 April, Sky Atlantic, 10.15pm); season 2 of Star (tonight, 5star, 10pm); and Fox UK’s new spy thriller Deep State, in which Mark Strong plays a retired hitman who has to deal with an MI6 cell gone rogue in the Middle East. Might be OK (5 April, Fox UK, 9pm).


Public Service Announcement 50 of 2017: Madam Secretary, She’s Gotta Have It, Godless

The word I keep using about Madam Secretary is “underrated”, because it seems to me that despite its obvious strengths – tight plotting, political relevance, and one of the best casts on network TV – it kind of gets damned because it isn’t The West Wing, rather than appreciated as a solid, smart, grown-up drama which almost always delivers. This is its fourth season, so it probably isn’t going to snag any uncommitted viewers by now. But I expect it to remain one of the highlights of my TV week (tonight, 9pm, Sky Living).

And there are two new offerings from Netflix, both available as of now. Probably the more intriguing is Spike Lee’s ten-episode adaptation of his own 1986 movie She’s Gotta Have It. I liked that a lot at the time, but to be honest haven’t seen it since, so it’s entirely possible that it would look a little anachronistic in 2017. The good news is that, according to the positive advance critical response, Lee might well have managed to successfully bring the lead character, Nola, into the 21st century without sacrificing the film’s verve and energy. Very probably worth a look.

Godless, meantime, stars Michelle Dockery, Jeff Daniels, Jack O’Connell, and Unpopcult royalty Merritt Wever and Sam Waterston in a seven-part Western, created by Scott Frank and Steven Soderbergh. This, too, if the critics are to be believed, is exceptional. But who has time to watch all this TV?

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.

Madam Secretary s2 ep 23

The second season of Madam Secretary has just finished on UK TV. And, perhaps a little to my surprise, I’m forced to reflect that it has stealthily become one of my favourite shows on TV at the moment. To be clear: it’s not “great TV”. It’s not a Sopranos, a Mad Men, a Good Wife. Nor is it even a seasons 1 and 2 Scandal; although, as it happens, it’s significantly more consistent, in terms of quality and tone, than present-day Scandal. It’s very good, though. Really very good indeed.

In this finale, ‘Vartius’, Elizabeth learns, through her idiosyncratic consultant Mike B (the always-welcome Kevin Rahm) that President Dalton has identified a replacement for her. This perturbs her – not only has POTUS said nothing about it to her, but dude’s a friend – but the explanation, which arrives in due course, is that Dalton wants her to run as his Vice-President at the forthcoming election. Which… eh. I wouldn’t want to limit the character – and I’d hope we’re way beyond tokenism; in five seconds I can think of two shows with female VPs – but I quite like Elizabeth where she is.

Still, I’m confident that, whatever happens, Madam Secretary will be fine. It’s an intelligent, well-constructed show which appears comfortable in its skin; a show which knows what it’s doing, knows its strengths, and uses that confidence to grow and evolve. The longer story arcs in season 2 were a perfect demonstration of that: the way in which geopolitical crises in Russia and Pakistan were developed, and the consequent strain on the McCord marriage, was a model of how to do that sort of thing within the constraints of a network drama.

Public Service Announcement 5 of 2016: Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, Elementary

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).

Madam Secretary s1 ep 22

Madam Secretary finished its first season with pretty much the same plot as in every other episode: Elizabeth is in big trouble but somehow manages to turn it around. This week, the big trouble relates to the failed Iran coup of a few weeks ago and the revelations about the death of her predecessor, all of which is leading to a Congressional hearing at which a grandstanding Senator with White House ambitions wants to bring her down. And if he can’t do that, he’ll get at Elizabeth’s husband Henry. As ever, though, with a leap and a bound Elizabeth manages to extricate herself, admitting that she passed information to Henry that he wasn’t entitled to have and thus breaching the Espionage Act, yet somehow getting away with it. Just once, I’d quite like one of her Hail Marys to fail, for something to go properly wrong for her, just to see how she – and the show – would cope.

Not the marriage, though; as I’ve said more than once before I get a bit fed up with TV drama always resorting to turbulence in a marriage to crank up the tension, but the writers have left the McCord union alone, and allowed it to be affectionate, mutually supportive, and plausibly sexy. Much of this has rested on the evident chemistry between the two leads, which has now spilled over into an offscreen relationship. I am TREMENDOUSLY excited about this development, incidentally. I LOVE when that happens.

In fact, in general I’ve rather warmed to Téa Leoni’s unshowy but effective performance over the course of the season, and Tim Daly has continued to vie with Željko Ivanek and Erich Bergen for the MVP award on the male side of the cast. Bonus points also for introducing Kevin Rahm – an actor I always like to see – as an eccentric but effective bare-knuckle advisor, and one or two marks off for the final episode snog between Mad Sec’s daughter and POTUS’s druggy son.

The show as a whole remained, as I said at the halfway point, a reliable pleasure, with the occasional ambitious Sorkin-esque flourish which the terrific cast handled well. Ratings remained solid in America, leading to a second-season renewal; I’m still convinced that this show has the potential to fly a little higher, but I won’t be devastated if it simply maintains the standard of the first season. Anyway, Madam Secretary didn’t rock my world, but it wasn’t supposed to. I like it, and if we get the next season in the UK I’ll totally be watching.

Madam Secretary s1 ep 12

We’re just over halfway through the first season of Madam Secretary, so it’s a good time to check in with it. So far, the model for just about every episode has been the same: an apparently impossible-to-solve foreign policy or diplomatic crisis is averted by the astonishingly competent Secretary of State Bess McCord (Téa Leoni), who in her spare time juggles her family and married life.

This episode, ‘Standoff’, ticks all the boxes: Bess and her husband head to New York for a romantic anniversary break (marriage). While they’re away, their son Jason injures himself (family), and a drug lord suspected of the murder on American soil is seized from a Mexican prison by an armed militia, who then hand him over to the grandstanding governor of Texas. The Governor refuses to surrender him to the Mexican authorities, who in turn threaten to withdraw their border security (intractable diplomatic problem). Eventually, Bess’s team need to bring her back from New York in order for her to avert war with Mexico, or something.

The show’s two longer-term arcs both get aired this week as well: Bess’s husband Henry (Tim Daly) is indeed, as I suggested in my review of the first episode, too good to be true, but not because he’s tomcatting around; or not yet, anyway. No: he’s an incredibly top secret spy, whose missions are so secret he can’t even tell the effing Secretary of State about them. And Bess, with the assistance of an old CIA friend, is investigating the death of her predecessor, which of course totally wasn’t an accident.

It’s formulaic, but that’s not necessarily a problem: it’s an upmarket procedural in the guise of a political drama, and I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every single episode. The frustrating thing, though, is that every now and again the dialogue zings, and the outline of the show that Madam Secretary could be snaps into focus. Because the premise is good, and the cast is top-notch: Leoni and Daly are attractive leads, with Daly in particular turning in a relaxed, authoritative performance. The undercard has Željko Ivanek, Bebe Neuwirth, and Geoffrey Arend, all on form, together with Patina Miller as Daisy, the press secretary, who is in an office romance with Arend’s character. And Erich Bergen, an actor new to me, is a treasure as Bess’s assistant Blake. With a cast like that, you could be making a terrific show. As it is, Madam Secretary has to settle for being a reliably good show, which isn’t the worst thing to be by any means.