Public Service Announcement 34 of 2014: Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex, one of my favourite new shows of 2013, returns to British screens tomorrow night for the start of season 2. Like The Americans, one of my other cable favourites of last year, the advance word is that the show has used the opportunity of a second season to become even better. Meantime, the first season has hoovered up deserved Emmy nominations for the refulgent Lizzy Caplan as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama, and for Allison Janney and Beau Bridges in the Guest categories. And we’re only around four weeks behind American transmission, which isn’t at all bad (tomorrow, More4, 10pm).

We’re still waiting for the autumn deluge of new and returning shows, but there are a few other things starting around now. After three years the not-as-good American remake of The Killing (Forbrydelsen) was itself killed by AMC, but resurrected by Netflix for a fourth and final six-episode season, released on August 1. Sky Atlantic has Gomorrah, the Italian adaptation of a book about the Camorra, which was also turned into a film a few years ago (tonight, 9pm).

And new channel TruTV – no, me neither – starts today, and will be showing Conan O’Brien’s talk show nightly at 11pm. I’m very much not an expert, so the next few sentences can be discounted, but it seems to me as an outsider that the late night talk shows have simultaneously become more visible – if anyone does a bit that’s worth seeing, it’s all over social media within 24 hours – and less essential to their parent broadcasters, because fewer people are watching live. Which gives Coco’s show, with a small but select audience on parent cable channel TBS, a fighting chance of greater cultural relevance than might otherwise be the case. Meantime, here in the UK it isn’t easy to see any of the American late night shows as they were intended – we get The Daily Show on cable/satellite, some Fallon if you hunt around, and that’s about it, I think. I wonder if Stephen Colbert’s impending move to Letterman’s chair might prompt an enterprising British broadcaster to take a chance on it? Probably not.

Public Service Announcement 21 of 2012: The Killing (AMC), Awake

As with the last PSA, it’s a returning show and a new one. The returner is the AMC remake of The Killing, back for season 2 after seemingly disappointing most of its viewers with the lack of resolution at the end of season 1. I wasn’t bothered by this as much as I was bothered by the fact that it wasn’t anything like as good as the original, with only Joel Kinnaman as troubled cop Holder providing something different and intriguing. I won’t be bothering this time round, I reckon, but Forbrydelsen completists might like to note that Sofie Grabøl turns up at some point in a cameo role (tonight, 10pm, Channel 4)

And the new show is NBC’s Awake, with Jason Isaacs (hello) as Michael Britten, a cop who, after a car crash, finds himself living in two alternate realities. In one, his wife survived the crash; in the other, his son did. High concept for sure, and with Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) as showrunner it has some serious TV heft behind it. The critics loved it but, unfortunately, as things stand the American viewers aren’t turning up in anything like the sorts of numbers needed to secure a renewal. (Creator Kyle Killen was also behind the similarly praised-but-ill-fated Lone Star.) I’ll be giving this one a go (Friday 4 May, 10pm, Sky Atlantic).

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 12; s1 ep 13

These episodes were shown back to back in the UK, and episode 12 was probably the better of the two. In fact, episode 11 having been given over to the pointless Linden/Holder driveabout, there’s just the tiniest bit of urgency about proceedings in episode 12. So we find out that Rosie might have been involved with high-class escort agency Beau Soleil (could this be a Manson shout-out, or am I just looking for serial killer references where none exist?), after finding out from Aunt Terri that there’s money in ho’ing, and that one of the less-popular Beau Soleil gigs involves ministering to a client known as Orpheus, who has a drowning fetish. There’s some boring shit going on with the Larsens, but I wasn’t paying attention. Also – for some reason which isn’t explained, and which was inexplicable to one viewer at least, something which was in no conceivable way the fault of the Mayor torpedoes his campaign, apparently handing victory to the otherwise unelectably dull Richmond.

But wait! Finally something interesting emerges about Richmond – not only was he a bit of a playa after his wife died, but he’s Orpheus! He’s totally got to be the killer! And so episode 13 is devoted to dredging up enough evidence to prove that he did it, with the unlovable Gwen exploding his alibi, and security photo footage found which puts him driving the car which had Rosie in the boot at the right time. It’s Richmond!

Except… and here we get to That Ending. Now, I’d managed to hide from the full details, but despite my best efforts I’d stumbled across the odd spoiler suggesting that the ending was unsatisfactory at best, and that loyal Killing viewers were furious about it. Perhaps because of that I wasn’t quite as pissed as everyone else at the inconclusive nature of it. Moreover – and giving the writers the benefit of the doubt – the first season of Forbrydelsen itself was originally shown to Danish viewers in two parts, with a similar cliffhanger ending to the first part, then a wait of a few months. (AMC’s version has been renewed for a second season.)

I was, however, more annoyed about a couple of other things. Firstly: did it have to be Holder? In my review of episode 1 I was strongly agin him, but as the series has gone on he’s become my favourite character by some distance. Number one in a field of one, perhaps, but he’s been the only remotely edgy, interesting, intriguing, provocative, ambiguous presence in the whole thing. And to find out that he’s in the service of some mysterious Big Bad – well, I was deflated. And anyway – what the hell kind of useless conspiracy is it, when all it takes is a phone call or two to find out that your incriminating photo is doctored?

So that’s season 1. As I’ve said more than once, I suppose if I’d never seen Forbrydelsen I’d be a bit more generous. But even allowing for that it wasn’t even close to being as good. The political and family arcs, so essential to the original, stubbornly refused to fire, and Mireille Enos’s inward-looking performance meant that the investigation storyline was less than satisfactory. I don’t know if I’ll bother with season 2, if and when we get it, and as far as I can tell that’s a widely-felt emotion.

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 11

After building up a bit of momentum, The Killing abruptly swerved off the road this week: this episode was bookended by a few minutes of Rosie-hunting, but the main storyline was the disappearance of Linden’s son Jack. Good thing too, you might think, and the prospect of an interesting episode was greatly heightened by the absence of the insipid Richmond.

It didn’t work out like that, though. More or less a two-hander featuring Linden and Holder trying to find Jack while driving around chatting, the point seemed to be that we would find out more about their respective backstories. So we now know that Holder likes crystal meth – who doesn’t? – and we’ve finally found out who Regi is. Holder’s reward, meantime, for putting his personal life on hold to drive Linden around some teenage kid hangouts was having to endure a persistent low-level whine, which turned out to be Linden. Really, they could have covered this ground in five minutes back at the station house, and the impression this lame episode left me with was that the writers didn’t have quite enough to fill 13 episodes, so decided to play for time.

Were I feeling generous, I might call this episode a brave departure, or a gamble which didn’t come off. But having just sat through an hour of it I’m not feeling remotely generous, so instead I’m calling it utter crap.

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 10

It’s pretty clear to me that I’m only ever going to give this version of ‘The Killing’ grudging praise at best. Putting the original aside for a moment, though, I have to concede that this was rather good, perhaps the best of the season so far. Bennet’s in the clear and a coma, meaning that it’s finally Belko time. It turns out that Ma Belko is a “different kind of person”, in the wry words of the increasingly impressive Holder; that Belko has a shrine to Rosie ON HIS BEDROOM CEILING (ew); and that he has keys to the Larsen house and was there on the night of Rosie’s disappearance. Dude’s so obviously a killer, it can’t be him. And anyway the show pivots quite smartly, giving us reasons to be sympathetic to him as well – with that mother at home, it’s clear that he was looking to the Larsens to provide a normal family life for him.

Richmond continues to be a problem for the show: he’s been vindicated on the Bennet business, but comes off as smug rather than trustworthy-all-along. Not only that, but it turns out there’s footage of an apparently brief meeting between Richmond and Rosie, although it’s shot in such a way as to strike this viewer at least as remarkably similar to a famous Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky encounter. I wonder if I’m imagining it. And Rick (the underused Callum Keith Rennie) looks as if he’s finally had enough of Sarah, although he drops a heavy hint about her psychiatrically-troubled past before he walks. It looks as if the show is picking up momentum at just the right time; I liked this quite a bit.

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 9

Having been a little perturbed by Linden’s lack of chemistry with Richmond, I’ve now realised that I’ve kind of missed the greater point, which is that Linden doesn’t have chemistry with anyone. I haven’t seen Mireille Enos in anything before so don’t know whether she’s playing a really cold character, or whether that’s just her style. It does, however, make for a somewhat uninvolving experience when she’s on the screen. Much the same could be said of Richmond, who’s not only a vacuum in an open-necked shirt, but a rather unprincipled and ambitious one at that. Even when he plays dirty, it doesn’t really work.

This fell into the same OK-but-not-great category as the last episode, perhaps because most of the good stuff featured in Forbrydelsen: the Muhammad red herring gets dragged out, and Bennet gets dissed by his students and beaten to a pulp by Stan. The scene with the basketball was new, though, and very, very silly indeed.

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 8

It turns out that al-Qaeda might have been responsible for the murder of Rosie Larsen, or something, so the FBI is in town. Which means, yet again, the feds vs local cops theme beloved of just about every American crime writer ever. Is it of equal fascination to American viewers and readers? I genuinely don’t know. I do know that I watch and read a fair amount of American crime drama and fiction, and I could happily go the rest of my life without encountering it ever again.

That aside, though, this episode was considerably better than the last one. Bennet inexplicably switches language in the middle of a phone conversation with his terrorist-suspect brother, just in time for his child bride to hear the English bit, which is about passports and shizzle like that. Richmond goes negative in his campaign, which at least makes it a little less soporific. He totally agonises about it, of course. There’s been a leak from the Larsen investigation, and Holder’s skulking around meting strange people, so Linden assumes that he’s up to no good. There turns out – of course – to be more to both the leak and to Holder than meets the eye. He continues to confound my expectations by being the most intriguing character in the show; Michelle Forbes, meantime, remains the best actor, and every now and again she proves it. All in all quite good, actually.

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 6

About as good as last week, which is to say rather dull. The big problem this week was mayoral hopeful Darren Richmond. Now, Troels Hartmann he ain’t – I would have given up my own career to campaign for Hartmann – but his weakness as a character was ruthlessly exposed this week when, challenged to state his position during a TV debate, he came up with some blather about dreams which veered close to the parodic. If the writers are trying to convince us that Richmond is insubstantial they’re doing a good job. I actually prefer the other guy.

The sequences dealing with the grief of the Larsen family remain powerful and well-acted – this week the preparations for Rosie’s funeral – but the unique strength of Forbrydelsen was just how well all of the strands worked, and how they influenced each other. So far it’s not really happening here: the link between the political story and the rest doesn’t feel organic, and Linden and Richmond have no chemistry. On top of that no-one seems interested in the Larsens, and the case itself still feels like an administrative burden rather than an all-consuming necessity. In its favour, Holder continues to be a standout character – what was that business in the car all about? – and we may be finding out more about Stan’s past and its relevance than we did in the original with Theis. Also, Gwen is easily as unlikeable as Rie, if not as hot.

The Killing (AMC) s1 ep 5

I’m sorry to keep banging on about this, but it’s still proving impossible to avoid comparisons with Forbrydelsen. Particularly after an episode like this one, in which not very much happens. This would have been – indeed, was – indulged when Forbrydelsen did it, as another example of the show’s dogged determination to tell its story at its own pace. In the AMC version, though, it just comes over as rather dull. So – Ahmed starts to look like a suspect, which probably means it wasn’t him; Darren digs the mole out and plays hardball with Yitanes; the Larsens continue to grieve. And this viewer, at least, gets very nostalgic for Lund and Hartmann.