Public Service Announcement 45 of 2013: Strike Back, Ripper Street, The Escape Artist, The Vampire Diaries, The Mentalist

All righty, the clocks have gone back an hour, which is the tv schedulers’ cue to ram another bunch of shows on the box.

First up tonight (Monday) at 9pm, we have the return of two shows unpopcult won’t be troubling itself with: Strike Back (season 4 if you count the Richard Armitage season) on Sky 1 and Ripper Street (season 3) on BBC 1. I gave up on Strike Back a long time ago but if you’re looking for bombastic action tv with as much gratuitous nudity in it as possible, fill your boots. As for Ripper Street, whether it’s a good or bad addition to the period English serial killer genre, I don’t know, but if you’re a fan, enjoy.

Tomorrow night (Tuesday) at 9pm meanwhile, is even busier. BBC 1 has “The Escape Artist starring David Tennant, an actor whom I like but not quite enough to watch every single time he turns up in every second programme that’s made in the UK. Also “British legal thriller” is not a genre I’m overly enthusiastic about so I’ll be giving it a miss. Especially since The Vampire Diaries (season 5) and The Mentalist (season 6) are returning at exactly the same time, on ITV2 and Five respectively.

Both shows had their problems last year. Diaries, in particular, had an appalling fourth season and reviewing it every week put me in a terrible mood so I don’t think I’ll be doing that any more. Especially since the programme is now moving on to its college years period; always a “difficult” (and often disastrous) transition for a high school drama to make. Still, I’m daft enough to keep watching if not writing about it for now, since Damon is always good value and I’m hoping that the migration of the dreadful Klaus and the rest of the Mikkaelsons to their own spin-off series might re-energise the show and fix everything else. Hmmm.

The Mentalist meanwhile – while nowhere near as bad or as infuriating as Diaries – did not have a great fifth run either, with the mediocre episodes outnumbering the good ones by some distance. It did pull off a few home runs, however, and the news that Red John will finally be unmasked in the first half of the season is more than welcome. Again, I’m hoping that will re-energise the show and er, fix everything else. As well as giving us some serious Jisbon shipping opportunities – SQUEE!!!!!

Anyhoo, I’m still very fond of Jane and co, so, Red or Dead, the plan is to carry on reviewing each Mentalist ep as soon as I can. Even if it is now on on a Tuesday instead of a Friday, which is just wrong.

Strike Back: Vengeance ep 4

Still in Algeria and with El Soldat in hot pursuit, Scott and Stoney drag their prisoner and assorted hangers-on to an angry French monk’s farmhouse – this week’s location for the usual siege-style shenanigans as not one, but two separate sets of baddies try to kill the Bravo boys and their pals. Do the baddies never learn? An hour of shooting and shouting later, and Scott and Stoney are still alive and kicking if nuclear trigger-free yet again. YET AGAIN.

Meanwhile, back at base, Sinclair spends the ep making snide remarks to Boss Lady Rhona Mitra who turns out to have intimate knowledge of Scott and Stoney’s prisoner. Of course she does. Because the staff at Section 20 only have two ways of dealing with folk: kill them or boff them. As Scott illustrates in this week’s Ludicrous Sex Scene: the baddies are outside, death is an RPG hit away, but our man who always can still finds time for a quick roll in the shed with the desert warrior queen lady from last week. She’s a woman within 10 feet of him, though, so obviously it had to happen. Sigh.

In fairness, this episode wasn’t quite as appalling as last week’s but that didn’t stop it being as gratuitously stupid and offensive as ever. And as plodding. People constantly firing at each other becomes less exciting with every bullet we see, and I stopped caring about the nuclear triggers about 3 episodes ago. I’m conscious it’s Emmy weekend and I know not everything has to be Mad Men or Game of Thrones, but it has to have something worth watching and Strike Back doesn’t any more. It’s just really, really bad. Too bad for me to sit through another episode, so I’m not going to. Goodbye, Section 20, and good luck with those pesky triggers – unpopcult out.

Strike Back: Vengeance ep 3

Before the first few eps of Project Dawn, I didn’t know just how tedious a relentless litany of skin, swearing and gunfire could be, but my God, even for Strike Back, this week’s episode hit a new low. 

In by far the dullest episode yet – and after last week’s snore-fest, that’s quite an achievement – Bravo One and Two ran around Africa, shooting at stuff, again.  They failed to find the season’s McGuffin, sorry, “nuclear triggers,” again.  Scott squeezed in some ludicrously implausible sex, AGAIN – this time with his former CIA boss while in actual CIA CUSTODY.  And, because I thought this show could not get any sillier and it decided to prove me wrong, Scott also found time to flirt with a feisty desert warrior queen – no, I am not making this up – while Stoney had a wrestling match with a desert warrior man in an actual ring of fire.  An actual ring of fire. 

EH?!?!?

Who writes this guff? Fourteen-year olds?  It’s the live-action equivalent of Guns’n’Ammo crossed with Playboy, and there is only so much teenage male fantasy I can watch play out on screen before I give up on Strike Back completely.  One more episode like this one and I’m out.  Even if I did laugh at “It’s the craftsman, not the tool, baby.”  Ugh.

Strike Back: Vengeance ep 2

Zzzzzzz………….

As far as Strike Back episodes go, this one had all the standard ingredients.  Seemingly hopeless rescue mission?  Check.  Massively outnumbered by local baddies?  Check.  Shootout every few minutes?  Check.  And unnecessary nudity at the 20 minute or so mark?  Well, of course, check.

That wasn’t all, either.  In fairness, there were also two helicopers, a tank, and Charles Dance, the combination of which one would think would have lifted the episode out of the doldrums.  Alas, one would be wrong.  Despite all the military hardware and the presence of Tywin Lannister, this was more like a video game than a coherent piece of tv as Scott and Stoney moved from one near-identical, empty and suspense-free level set-piece to another; just like they do every week, yes, only suddenly it all felt very, very tired.

Tim Piggot-Smith turned in a sweet, cantankerous performance as Burton but everything else was so cartoonish and bombastic (including Rhona Mitra channelling Lara Croft, and the twist at the end), it felt like he was in a different show from everyone else.  At its highest, Strike Back only really works as empty-headed excitement, and this week they didn’t even manage that.

Strike Back: Vengeance ep 1

Our heroes ended the last season on the verge of taking a bro break, so the beginning of this one finds them apart and missing each other desperately.  Aw.

Scott’s in Kenya, trying to transport a couple of British diplomats and their asset.  Being Strike Back, everything that can go wrong does; the Scott-meister does his best, but, without his wingman Stonebridge, he’s outmanned, outgunned and, um, a wee bit lonely, so his charges end up kidnapped and he ends up in the suds when he tries to rescue them. 

Stoney, meanwhile, is stuck back in Blighty, ignoring his unspeakably tiresome wife and teaching at an SAS training camp.  His heart’s back in the field with Scotty, though, you can tell.  So, after a training exercise with live ammunition (how can that EVER be a good idea?) goes horribly wrong, the news that his bezzie mate’s in trouble in Somalia gives him the best reason to get out of town ever.  Especially since Scott is a lot more fun than the Mrs, if you don’t mind dodging a hail of bullets every couple of scenes.  Boys will be boys!

That’s essentially it, to be honest: the bros are back, as are the bullets and the er, boobs, although keeping the female nudity count down to a single laughably unerotic sex scene in the whole ep seems almost restrained for this show, given last season’s shenanigans.  Progress?  Let’s not get too excited; the women in the show remain entirely interchangeable and almost wholly decorative, with the only ones who even get a name this time around being Rhona Mitra’s Rachel because she’s up to something shifty, and Mrs Stonebridge, aka, Kerry, because she’s always trying to break up the bromance.  Tsk.  Girls, eh?  

Sigh.  But then I wasn’t really expecting anything different from Vengeance.  As far as this version of Strike Back goes (and it’s so far removed from the Richard Armitage season now, it might as well be called “Strike Back: But Not The One You’re Thinking Of”) this episode was ok.  The dialogue was functional, the stunts were fine and Scott and Stonebridge’s bond held it all together.  If you like utterly mindless action bromance, you might like this.  If you don’t, you’ll hate it.  Me, I’m somewhere in between.

Public Service Announcement 39 of 2012: Doctor Who, Strike Back: Vengeance

It’s not as if you don’t already know, but yes, Doctor Who returns tomorrow – Saturday, 1st September –  at 7.20PM on BBC 1 (just a few hours before it’s also shown in the US).  The new season, and final one for the Ponds, kickds off with “Asylum of the Daleks” and seeing as I’m now slightly bored of the Daleks, this doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm but it’s Moffat and it’s Matt Smith, so I’ll be watching and reviewing as soon as I can.

Also back, but with much less (if any) global anticipation, is the latest iteration of Strike Back.  After last year’s deeply silly Project Dawn turned the show from Spooks Abroad to Boobs Abroad (in both the nudes and numpties senses of the word), this year’s Vengeance promises more of the same sort of nonsense.  It may be fun, it may not – if you’re interested in finding out, tune into Sky 1 at 9pm on Sunday.

Strike Back Project Dawn ep 10

Season finale time and, after last week’s surprise capture, Colonel Grant has a go at interrogating Latif and getting absolutely nowhere with it.  This is because interrogating Latif apparently consists of making annoyed faces at him while he smirks back.  Interesting technique, Colonel.

Stonebridge and Scott, meanwhile, pursue more conventional methods (unusually for them) to try and stop the dastardly plot to blow up the security conference.  It’s not immediately clear to me how they knew what these bombers looked like in order to charge around looking for them, but let’s just go with it.  The boys, of course, manage to sort everything out in a series of fairly awesome if gross sequences involving a tram, a SWAT team and a very unfortunate pregnant woman, also finding time to repel an attack on HQ, if a little late.  Nice work, fellas.

Sadly, by then, Grant, Latif and some fellow who turned up last week are all busy having a big chat about Trojan Horse – I don’t understand why Latif cares about it, but never mind, let’s just go with that as well – so we find out all about who’s behind it, who betrayed Porter, who framed Scott, who shot JFK, whether aliens really exist… ok maybe I made the last two up, but we might as well have, given the furious amount of tying up loose plot ends in a big old bow going on.

The Trojan Horse reveals were rushed and forced and made no sense, and the big secret bore a little too much resemblance to the big secret at the end of the original Strike Back, but to worry about that at this late stage in the game would be to pretend that this show really cares about plot and it really doesn’t.   It’s all about the action for me now and that was highly entertaining, if you don’t mind your heroics big and mad and OTT.  And when they’re this well-executed, I really don’t.

Project Dawn started its season appallingly, and it’s still unashamedly big, daft and brash, but it has improved immensely since that first dreadful episode and I’ve actually grown reasonably fond of those two big numpties Scott and Stonebridge.  I’m glad I stuck with it – the last few episodes haven’t changed my life, but they’ve been reasonable fun.  Another season has been commissioned, and while it’s a completely different beast from the show it originally was last year, and it’s no replacement for my beloved Spooks, I’ll be giving it a go.

Strike Back Project Dawn ep 9

Watching this right after Spooks was probably a bit unfair on Section 20.  I wasn’t in the mood for any more drawn-out spy shenanigans and the first few minutes of Latif wearing a cap to watch an execution, Colonel Grant wandering about with a file and a sad face, and Scott and Stonebridge getting their mandatory sex quota in for the week did not help dispel that frustration.

However, after we got to Chechnya and the boys started to do their usual schtick of surviving while everyone around them is getting killed and swearing about it a lot, I eventually relaxed.   “Alpha One” and “Alpha Two” now have an amusing, reasonably convincing chemistry, the story was decent enough, and the cliffhanger was a good one, even if the whole “Who’s the mole?” storyline is getting clumsier by the week.  They practically had a big neon sign above Sinclair this episode.  We’ll see if that changes for next week’s finale.

Unfortunately, despite the guys’ roles improving, the ladies are still pretty poorly written.  Grant is in love with Scott now?  Er…seriously?  And as for Stonebridge’s insufferable wife and her frankly ridiculous ultimatums – how dim is this woman?  Given how heavily they’ve been pushing the bromance the past couple of weeks, there’s no way he’s going to give up a life with Scott at his side for anyone, let alone her.

Strike Back Project Dawn ep 8

Another watchable episode? Oh, Strike Back, you’re spoiling us.

I didn’t like this one as much as last week’s, but there was still plenty to keep me occupied.  Scott and Stonebridge and the hostages captured (again).  Escaping, shooting, thoroughly routing entire armies of warlord gangster-types (again).  Colonel Grant looking shifty (again).  And a bizarrely funny and kind of sweet friendship between Stonebridge and middle-aged Mrs Heath.  I liked their bond (and Mrs Heath) a lot more than Scott’s embarrassingly unconvincing romance with dull blonde Dana, but you can’t have everything.  At least it meant Scott got what I think was a little more character development.  If you squint.

Anyway, on the usual Strike Back themes: the body count was pretty high (the minefield sequence was well-played, but grim), the violence even more unpleasant than usual (all those throats getting cut really put me off my crisps), and the sex scene at the end hilariously inappropriate, but, still, the episode was strides ahead of the first few of the season.  Suddenly, watching Project Dawn isn’t such a chore any more.

Strike Back Project Dawn ep 7

Those of us avidly playing “Spot the Spooks star” every week while watching Strike Back got a bonus point with this one: Mel Raido played this week’s Strike Back baddie, and, at exactly the same time, was also on BBC1 on the mother ship Spooks, messing about with radioactive isotopes.  Heh.  Mel Raido is clearly the spy world’s version of the Doctor, managing to cause maximum havoc in two places at once….

But, never mind all that.  I don’t want to jinx it, but does anyone else think that Strike Back has finally hit its stride?  After last week’s quite enjoyable episode, this one was even better.  No one’s more pleased or surprised than me, I tell you.  It was still quite silly, mind, but the story of Scott and Stonebridge trying to get a bunch of hostages (and Latif’s MI6 mole) out of a forest and away from Kosovan gangsters was well-executed and the boys finally seemed to have settled into a fun kind of groove.

Their lines were amusing, their camaraderie believable and their refusal to stick to any plan handed down from on high entirely sensible, seeing as somebody on high is clearly on the take.  I kind of think it might be Sinclair now.  It’s ok to make fun of Scott – I mean, he makes it so easy – but not trusting him?  Dude.  Surely he’s taken enough bullets and enough flak, and saved enough asses to earn just a little faith by now?