Instinct s1 ep 1

There isn’t much that’s new about Instinct: it is, essentially, another variant on the Sherlock Holmes story. Our super-detective this time is Dr Dylan Reinhart (Alan Cumming), presently an academic with an interest in behavioural psychology. He rattles off some instant Holmesian analysis at his first meeting with Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic), who he correctly deduces to be a NYPD detective. But how does he know she’s a…? “Oh, come on. The I-don’t-care-how-I-look pantsuit, the humdrum flats, the almost total absence of…”. You get the picture, and you got the picture in House and The Mentalist, never mind in Elementary and Sherlock.

Dylan is also the author of a book about psychopaths, and Lizzie is in his lecture hall in the hope of persuading him to help with her investigation into a particularly nasty and bizarre murder. Initially he refuses. But that wouldn’t make much of a show, and even as the corpses start piling up he agrees to help. He does, though, need to keep this a secret from his husband Andy (Daniel Ings) because, as well as being an academic, author, and now a police consultant, Dylan used to be a CIA operative, and he seems to have promised Andy that he’d give up the dangerous stuff. Insofar as he has a Secret Pain that appears to be it. (As promised in pre-broadcast publicity Dylan’s sexuality is no big deal; it’s just there. Well done, CBS. Representation matters.) Lizzie’s Pain is more substantial – the murder of her last partner – but it isn’t much of a Secret as it’s revealed before the end of the episode. Naveen Andrews (Sayid in Lost) drops in as Julian, one of Dylan’s old CIA contacts, now freelancing as the obligatory tech guy.

Of Sky Witness’s three big new American dramas I thought this the least satisfactory. There’s a fair amount to like: the plot is pacy and entertaining in a ridiculous sort of way – the killer, at the scene of each murder, leaves a playing card which is a clue to the next victim – but the baddie was screamingly obvious as soon as s/he appeared. And the script is good in places, but very clunky in others. It’s the first episode so, in fairness, some allowance has to be made, but there’s a lot of exposition. Much of it comes from Lizzie, who, after summarising Dylan’s CV to his face for our benefit, then casually reminds her boss and BFF, Jasmine (Sharon Leal), that she’s “the youngest lieutenant in the department’s history”, something of which Jasmine is presumably well aware.

On balance, though, I’ll give it another episode or two before making a final decision on whether to become a regular viewer or not. This is probably because of the leads: I’ve been a fan of Cumming for 30 or so years now, dating back to his days in cabaret act Victor and Barry. Novakovic, meantime, is an appealing and ever-so-slightly off-kilter screen presence: I spent most of the episode trying to work out where I’d seen her before, but a review of her filmography would suggest that she’s new to me. The two of them work well together, and make Instinct worth watching. 

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Bodyguard s1 ep 1

At a time when Muslim women and how some of them choose to dress are the subject of particularly vicious scrutiny and prejudice from a lot of people, politicians and press who should know better, it’s not ideal that a lady in a hijab is the potential villain in the first episode of Bodyguard. In fairness to the show and the writing however, Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard isn’t interested in pandering to prejudice – it’s looking to find its real villains in the corridors of power, and although some people will undoubtedly come away from the show still secure in their own prejudices, they’re very much choosing to miss the point.

As are the people who seem to be complaining about the number of women in the show, period. WTF is wrong with them? Trying to answer that will get me nowhere though, so time to get off my soapbox and get reviewing: Bodyguard opens with perhaps the most nerve-shredding, terrifying twenty-five minutes I’ve seen on TV since Game of Thrones. I don’t want to spoil too much of the train sequence but it is magnificently executed and almost unbearably tense, and I may have come close to having some sort of cardiac event during it. My GOD.

If every other second of the ep were terrible, it would still have been worth it to see that twenty-five minutes, but the rest of Bodyguard is also excellent, with a different kind of tension and unease pulsing throughout. Richard Madden is brilliant cop and army veteran David Budd, scarred by his experiences in Afghanistan, suffering PTSD, and just about managing to suppress those feelings in order to protect hawkish Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). For now. It’s a career-making performance from Madden: even in the middle of acts of extreme heroism, his Budd is never less than visibly, desperately human, with compassion, determination and gut-wrenching fear all playing out across his face at once. Hawes’s Julia is much more closed-off, however, as befits her character, and it’s never entirely clear which way their relationship is going to go. There are some lovely moments between them – the apology, the shirt moment (you’ll know it when you see it), the summary dispatch of the Chief Whip – but there’s also the abiding, unshakeable feeling that David is about to go very wrong, very soon. I hope he doesn’t – one ep in, and I already really, really care about this character – but either way, this is a superb start to the series and an excellent way to kick off the BBC’s autumn drama season. I’m not planning to review every ep but I’ll maybe do a round-up at the end and we can see if the rest of Bodyguard lived up to its terrific first ep.

Public Service Announcement 31 of 2018: Bodyguard, The Bodyguard

BBC1’s big new Sunday night drama Bodyguard, with Keeley Hawes and Richard “Robb Stark” Madden, comes with some high expectations. Writer Jed Mercurio’s impressive body of controversial, big-ticket work includes not only recent mega-hit Line of Duty but also Cardiac Arrest, Bodies, and, er, Strike Back season 1 (I was surprised too), so his latest take on the political action thriller should be interesting, at the very least, and ideally more complex and nuanced in its politics than your standard shoot’em up fare. One very clear thread running through Mercurio’s work (even those four episodes of Strike Back, if you squint a bit) is his determination not to idealise authority or the establishment – he’s always trying to look behind the façade to the murkiness beneath – and this tale of a police officer assigned to protect an ambitious politician from the very types of danger it suits her agenda to magnify looks like it might well be in the same mould. So if it somehow turns out to be a right-wing reactionary fantasy instead, I’ll be somewhat annoyed, but there’s only one way to find out. First episode is 9pm tonight (Sunday) and I’ll review as soon as I can.

Those looking for a bit more of a nostalgic take on the theme meanwhile, might want to switch to Channel Five tonight at 10pm, ie just when ep 1 of Bodyguard finishes, since, in a frankly genius move, they’re showing the Whitney Houston/ Kevin Costner classic – don’t even bother arguing with me on this – The Bodyguard. What a night for fans of the bodyguard/ hate-to-love romance genres! (Yes, I mean me.) Sadly, it finishes after midnight and I have to get up annoyingly early for work in the morning so I’ll have to give it a miss, but since I haven’t seen it since I was about 15 and I’ve become significantly more cynical since then, it might be just as well. This way it can remain pristine and beloved in my memory instead. All together now, “If I should stay, I would only be in your way…..”

Nashville s6 ep 16

Last episode, ever ever ever. Juliette puts her house on the market, in order to buy a farm (?), and Hallie tells Avery that Juliette is pregnant. Juli, however, makes it clear to Avery that she doesn’t want him to come back to her for the baby; it has to be because he needs her, which he really doesn’t. Not that that’s going to be a problem, of course, But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Deacon is offered a tour as headliner. He seems overwhelmed. I kind of thought that he would have headlined a tour before now, but apparently not, given his reaction. Before he can decide what to do, though, he and The Girls have one or two more traumas to negotiate. Maddie is now hanging out with Twig, who has become… kinda annoying and a little needy, like the guy who can’t believe his luck that he’s dating the most popular girl in school. Maddie rips the plaster off. Sorry, Twiglet. It isn’t her; it’s you.

Deacon has kicked his father out, but makes the mistake of giving him the opportunity to come out with some more self-serving pap about his past, his alcohol use… so we know we’re not going to be rid of him. And to compound that, Daphne invites Gideon to the final of Brad’s stupid reality show, for which Brad has deliberately given her a song to perform which isn’t in her wheelhouse. Daphne loses the competition, and is pretty upset. On the plus side, her coach Ilse – who has actually been really nice – flirts rather endearingly with Deacon.

Avery, Will, and Gunnar decide to get the band back together, minus Alannah, who is now fully engaged in the final phase of Project Brad. He invites her to his hotel room and makes violent advances towards her, which she repels. He then runs through some #MeToo talking points: powerful women and beautiful women, that’s the deal, you’ll never work again, stopping just short of asking “Got enough?” Because, of course, Alannah recorded the whole thing. Thus Zach – I had totally forgotten about his Senate run – and Deacon, and a lift full of women, including Jessie, march on Brad’s office and tell him that he’s going to sell (name of record company – still can’t be bothered looking it up) for a tenth of its market value and give Jessie full custody of their son. Otherwise the recording, and the rest of the allegations, will be made public.

Now, hold on there. I appreciate that analysing the plot of Nashville is a fool’s errand, but it’s the last time I’m going to have that chance, so here goes. Much as Brad deserves to be screwed over, I’m not at all sure that blackmail is the way to do it. And in the event that Nashville’s Ronan Farrow equivalent breaks the story – and word will get out somehow, there’s no doubt about that, given how many victims there are – how is it going to look for a Senate candidate to be party to a deal which suppressed evidence of serious sexual misconduct in return for a business deal which is favourable to him? Oh, the hell with it; it’s the finale. Well done, everyone. #Time’sUp, Brad.

Then it’s flash-forward time! I do like a good flash-forward. Six months on Maddie is moving into her own house and Daphne is signing a record deal. Since this is the final round-up I’m going to say, yet again and for the final time, that I wouldn’t have believed how much these characters have improved, and how good Lennon and Maisy Stella have been. I hope they both have great careers doing whatever they want to do. (Particularly Maisy, who has been close to being the show’s MVP in the final season.) Alannah – hey! – is supporting – ho! – The Lumineers. I remain utterly steadfast in my view that she was one of the show’s good guys, and I liked the actor (Rainee Blake). Will and Zach are a couple. The Last Highways (sic) are a success.

As for romantic endgames: I don’t get my Gunnlett, because Scarlett is engaged to… well, whatever that was. Everyone else gets Julvery, though, because the writers decide to let Avery pretend that he can’t live without Juliette, and let the viewers pretend that this time Juliette isn’t going to pull the football away, so he travels out to live on her stupid farm with her and her stupid goats, and they live happily ever after, until the next time she makes his life miserable.

But the final scenes belong to Deacon, who is on his first solo tour. It’s worth noting that it’s only a year and a half since he staggered off with our Most Annoying Character award, something which seems inconceivable now. I mean, it’s completely inconceivable while we have Toby from This Is Us in our lives, but the way in which the character turned around to fill the Rayna-shaped void in the show felt organic, which is a huge tribute to Chip Esten’s acting throughout. And he – and we – get our reward, with the appearance of Connie Britton, doing a Clooney. 

So we get a lovely little scene in which they flash back to their wedding night – and Esten and Britton are so good together – which becomes a full-on, fourth-wall-shattering onstage finale, in which just about everyone who’s ever been in Nashville joins in with ‘A Life That’s Good’. It’s not perfect: I could really have done without Deacon and Gideon reconciling (“Son, I know all your songs”), for reasons which I’ve gone into in previous reviews, and I could happily have lived without seeing Beverly ever again. On the other hand – Rayna! Mayor Teddy! Both of the twins who play Cadence! Luke! And acknowledgement being given to creator Callie Khouri, and the people behind the scenes as well. 

Nashville, I loved you. May we all have a life that’s good. And that’s a wrap.

Public Service Announcement 30 of 2018: Instinct, The Innocents

Following For the People and 9-1-1, Instinct is the third of Sky Witness’s launch schedule of big new American dramas. Alan Cumming stars as Dr Dylan Reinhart, a triple-threat academic, author, and retired CIA officer, who is – of course – dragged back into solving crimes. Apparently Reinhart is the first openly gay lead character in an American network drama, so well done CBS. Unfortunately the reviews would suggest that the show isn’t great. On the other hand it’s been renewed for a second season, and this first run is only 13 episodes long – I will NEVER get tired of celebrating first seasons which don’t go on for 24 episodes – so it might be worth a look. I’ll be reviewing the first episode at least (Thursday 23 August, 9pm, Sky Witness).

And on Friday, Netflix drops all eight episodes of supernatural YA drama The Innocents, which has been getting some decent advance buzz. If Unpopcult watches, it’ll be CJ, the head of our teen programming division – ask her about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – who tells you what we think.

Burden of Truth s1 eps 1&2

On the strength of the trailer, the fact that we were kicking off with a double bill and I was tired after a long day at work, I went into Burden of Proof expecting to be unimpressed. That probably wasn’t fair. Unfortunately, though, it was also entirely realistic.

Episode 1 takes forever to get to the places we know it’s going to go. The cold open could have been short and shocking, but instead it dawdles around for what feels like ages at the football match – for the record, my lack of enthusiasm for football is entirely unrelated to the gender of the players; I’m just not into it – before we get to the big moment at the end. Poor Taylor’s collapse is well-executed and upsetting, but we’ve been waiting too long for it by then and that turns into something of a theme for the whole episode. A bunch of scenes where Kristen Kreuk’s Joanna firstly has to explain the entire case (and the first half of the plot) to her boyfriend who’s supposed to be the high-powered legal eagle dealing with it although he’s plainly the worst lawyer in the world, then has to step in and rescue him when he flubs the meeting with the client, then has to persuade her weirdly clingy father/managing partner to let her go back to her old small town home and sort the case – I mean, a) the client wants her to, b) it’s plainly obvious the boyfriend will just mess it up and c) FFS we know she’s going to go, it’s the whole premise of the thing, would you just get on with it?!?! – are awkward and flabby, and things only start to move, although still not that fast, when she actually gets to Millwood.

Joanna herself is a walking trope – “No filter, no conscience, God made you the perfect lawyer” says her loving father, except there’s plainly a soft heart underneath that sharp-suited exterior, just waiting to be touched – and she’s not the only one. There’s her estranged best friend Diane (I think her name was Diane, but if it wasn’t, it totally should have been), now the school guidance counsellor, divorced and probably amenable to a relationship with the very suspicious police chief. There’s the said police chief himself who does a lot of staring at Joanna because of the Secret Bad Thing her father did that got them run out of town. And there’s Billy Crawford himself, who seems to have been some sort of bad boy in school (and maybe Joanna’s ex? I don’t know if we know that yet, but there’s a definite vibe between them. And she seems to have a type in that he looks very like her stupid current boyfriend but with less bouffant, more small-town hair) but is now the town lawyer and patron of hopeless causes.

The biggest trope of all is of course the basis of the series since Taylor reads the tough, heartless lady lawyer the Riot Act, awakens her conscience and recruits her to the side of the angels/ girls who have been poisoned by Big Somebody by the end of episode 1. Episode 2 is significantly better and more interesting since the story’s actually started to move by then, but it suffers a little from forgetting bits of episode 1. For a start, Joanna tells the stupid boyfriend that he’s “the best lawyer that firm’s got” which is either a lie or a sign of terrible amnesia given the first half of episode 1. Warming to her theme, Joanna also tells her dad that Billy is a “talented” lawyer, which is something of a surprise since Billy has spent most of his screen time demonstrating that he’s a good guy with absolutely no idea of even the most basic questions a lawyer should be asking in a case where the ground zero of the girls’ illness seems kind of obvious from the start. And just for good measure, Joanna, who by contrast has demonstrated an encyclopaedic, almost infuriating knowledge of everything tort and toxic chemical-related by then, and Billy essentially swap roles/ brains when she suddenly asks him “What’s benzene?” and he knows.

Pointing all this out is incredibly petty of me, I know, but in a tv landscape where there are lots of shows clamouring for time I don’t have, and when we get a drama like this one which, as Jed said, is stitched together from pieces of other (better) ones, it’s going to be this type of thing that stands out. Burden of Truth’s premise is fine, but its execution is incredibly clunky and the characters (including Joanna the superbrain) are consistently several miles behind the audience in coming to some pretty obvious conclusions. In its favour, though, it’s significantly less flashy and fond of itself than fellow legal newbie For the People; Anwen O’Driscoll and Sara Thompson are great as victims Taylor and Molly, respectively; and I could easily get into shipping Joanna and Billy. I don’t see myself reviewing the show again, but I’m interested enough in finding out what happened to the girls – who, unusually for me, are significantly more compelling than the adults – to keep watching for now.

9-1-1 s1 ep 1

Abby (Secret Pains: boyfriend left her, mother has Alzheimer’s; played by Connie Britton, good but comfortably in her wheelhouse) is an emergency dispatcher in LA: she answers the calls, directs the first responders, and keeps the panicked caller talking until help gets there. That help is provided by, among others, fire department captain Bobby (Secret Pain: recovering alcoholic; played by Peter Krause, good but etc.) and LAPD sergeant Athena (Secret Pain: her husband, the father of her children, has just come out as gay; played by Angela Bassett, and you know how this goes by now).

They are supported by, among others, young hothead LAFD rookie Buck (Oliver Stark, interesting), whose inability to keep his, uh, hose in his firetruck around attractive women ultimately leads to Bobby giving him a #MeToo era sacking (“It’s not 1950 any more. We work with women side by side”); and LAFD paramedics Hen (Aisha Hinds) and Chimney (Kenneth Choi).

And that’s pretty much it as far as the premise goes. There are three Cases of the Week in this episode. In the first, a stoner calls in claiming that there’s a baby crying inside the walls of his apartment: maybe someone flushed a baby down the toilet and it got stuck? This is clearly preposterous, except that’s what happened. In the second, a woman is being choked to death by her pet snake. The amount of time it takes the assembled first responders to decide to kill the effing snake is surprising.

So far, so meh; and I was left thinking that I would have expected a show with Ryan Murphy’s name on it to be a little bit more exciting, or shocking, or… something? The third Case of the Week, though, works. Abby takes a call from a nine-year-old girl, alone in her suburban house, who claims that home invaders are trying to get into her home; and she doesn’t know her address because they’ve just moved in.

To start with, the precise nature of the threat is left tantalisingly unclear, until it all snaps into focus. Abby, by phone, quarterbacks the terrified girl round her house, while trying to find out where she lives in order to direct the emergency services. It’s nothing new, but it’s done very well, and in a way which gives Buck an opportunity to redeem himself while assuring Abby that she’s the real hero. It actually occurred to me while watching this that it would be entirely possible – in fact, likely – that Abby might not ever be in the same room as any of the emergency workers. On the other hand, as she and Bobby – attractive, been round the block once or twice, ruefulness in their eyes – are the show’s obvious ship, I’d be a little disappointed if the writers didn’t at least give that a go.

On balance, I’m probably going to watch 9-1-1 again, although that might well be, in part, because of the comfort offered by the familiar: I like Britton, I like Krause, and I like slick procedurals. If you want more than that, I’m not sure yet that this is the show for you.