Not bothering with opening credits or any sort of time-wasting flummery, this new Sky 1 drama plunges straight into the action, with the first few minutes (seven, according to the spoiler-filled Guardian review) spent watching – and praying – as firefighter Kev Allison – or “Gaffer” or “Guv” as his colleagues at Mile End fire station call him – and his crew try to rescue residents from a horrendous blaze in a block of flats.
This could be pretty exciting if you were watching an action movie or some glossy procedural, but The Smoke clearly doesn’t want to do “pretty exciting” – apparently instead of CGI or special effects for the fire scenes, they went for the genuine article – it wants to do realism, and that opening sequence is really, truly, incredibly frightening. I distinctly remember whimpering more than once, my hand over my mouth, so if the aim is to remind us that actual firefighting doesn’t have anything to do with the glossy vapidity of Chicago Fire but involves normal people putting themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of other normal people, then job done.
Unfortunately for Kev, the rescue goes horribly, horribly wrong and he sustains terrible injuries, the true extent of which we don’t realise at first: we just fast-forward to 9 months later and his first day back at work. His face (even the gritty Smoke doesn’t want to mess up Jamie Bamber’s face) and upper body, bar some scarring on his back and chest, are ok, and at first, it seems like he is too.
As the day wears on, though, taking in a road accident (Kev is lovely to the trapped girl) and another fire at the same estate, it becomes clear, that he’s far from ok and the scene in the evening where the full devastation of his injuries is revealed – in every sense of that word – is both shocking and quite, quite brave for mainstream tv. Crucially, however, while I’m not convinced he would still have a job to go back to the next morning or even that he’d want to, that moment is not gratuitous or stupid, despite the fact that it could very easily have been both.
As could the show as a whole – I say again: Chicago Fire – but it was far from it. In fact, this opening episode made me feel a little guilty about my somewhat dismissive PSA, since The Smoke is infinitely better than I expected it to be.
Which is not to say it’s perfect. For a start, the mystery of “who attacked Kev” is far less compelling than the consequences, so the twist at the end of the ep annoyed me as did the prospect that Kev may start his own investigation into the identity of the two boys partly responsible for his plight. The partial responsibility of his boss and Kev’s barely-controlled anger towards him proved a much more interesting route to go down this week, though, and I’d rather the show continues to develop that theme instead.
The other characters also need development too: the said boss is brilliantly sketched-out in a couple of quick scenes – we’ve all had bosses like that – but the other characters are nowhere near fully-drawn yet. They’re more a set of tropes than people with the supportive girlfriend (Jodie Whittaker thus far wasted in a role with nothing to do but look sad and tender), the stoic best friend, a male and female pair of (mildly irritating) pranksters, a couple of slightly feckless likely lad-types, the cook called Billy the Mince and a new recruit saddled with the nickname Asbo. Hmm.
But I suppose this episode was more about us getting to know Kev than anyone else and there’s plenty of time to flesh out the rest of White Watch as the series goes on. On the strength of this first outing, it seems worth hanging around for, especially since the misery portrayed may be unflinching but it isn’t wall-to-wall: the darkness is leavened with plenty of welcome, bawdy humour, so as well as danger, we also see camaraderie and black comedy. And a lusty, enthusiastic, fire-engine-based, sing-along to “Someone Like You.” Heh. I really liked The Smoke. I might not review it every week, but, for now at least, I’ll be watching it.