Berlin Station s1 ep 4


If there’s a tv trope almost as ubiquitous as the Secret Pain these days, it’s the flashback explaining the Secret Pain. This week, Berlin Station joins the host of shows trotting it out, filling us in on Daniel Miller’s Secret Professional Pain, in addition to the Secret Personal one we already knew about. Is this necessary? We already know he and Hector are old friends with history. I would have said that was all we needed, but instead we now have the standard side dishes of the terrible mistake, the not-that-clever cover-up, the guilt eating away at us, and the very good chance we’re going to mess up again as a result. Sigh. Richard Armitage is more than capable of selling it, but if the next spy/ secret agent-type drama I watch could sidestep this particular cluster of cliches, I’d be much obliged.

I’d be even more obliged if every one of these shows didn’t insist on painting Muslims as either terrorists (side-eyes Bodyguard) or accidental bomb /bullet fodder in the hunt for terrorists, but that appears to be too much to hope for these days. Unless you’re watching Blindspot, that is: it’s acquired a pleasingly diverse range of wrong’uns, but Bindspot’s a topic for another day and another post.

Anyway, no doubt the makers of Belin Station would say there are plenty of non-Muslim villains in their story, and there are. Michelle Forbes may be uncovering an ISIL mail-order bride business, but Richard Armitage’s eyes are on the Shaw and Creepy Cheekbones prize, even if he has to see a lot more of Joker’s boss than he would like in the process. The “Magic Date” sequence is wildly uncomfortable and has me fretting about consent and violation and all sorts of things I think the show wants me to ignore in favour of the easy smirk, but the other aspects of that story are better: the rooftop / server room op, Daniel letting Joker go in the hope she’ll come back, and Daniel realising that there’s something suspicious about Hector being the particular highlights. Hector hitting on Daniel’s cousin, though – no, thanks.

Back at the office, meanwhile, Dr Dubenko may genuinely be trying to get Frost promoted, or he may not. Either way, they end up at a conference on Iranian/ German relations, and Frost gets into some sort of love/ revenge quadrangle business with his wife, his mistress and his arch-rival. It’s not my favourite storyline and I’m not that keen on Dr Dubenko potentially turning traitor either, but it gives Richard Jenkins plenty to do and Caroline Goodall’s Kelly shows us there’s a canny head under that perfect coiffure, so we’re good. This episode, however, while well-made and exquisitely-acted, was a bit more like homework than entertainment. If it weren’t for Herr Armitage, I’m not sure I’d be back.


Berlin Station s1 ep 3


Either the levels of concentration I’ve had to invest in this show so far have paid off and everything’s suddenly clicked into place in my brain, or this week’s episode of Berlin Station was much more straightforward.

Even the previouslies seem to hint at a change: they go on for ages, presumably with a view to making sure no viewer is left behind as we head into this brave new dawn. The opening scene being a dream sequence doesn’t detract from that either – Steven Frost, with an eye on Provence, sitting waiting as the drip drip drip coming down on him and his office became a flood. You don’t need to be Freud to understand that one.

Or indeed to understand the rest of the story. One, Frost and Dr Dubenko have a terrible secret. I barely have five seconds to wonder what it could be before this new clear version of the show (and Dr Dubenko) just tells me: “This is us going to jail for running fake agents and bilking Uncle Sam, for God’s sake.” Righto, thanks Dr D! Two, The Office of Security (Office of Jerks, I’ve written in my notes – they are EXCEPTIONALLY rude) from Langley descend upon Berlin Station, thanks to another leak from Herr Shaw, so Daniel’s patron Jemma Moore is unceremoniously out, the long-suffering Sandra takes the fall for Frost, and he might have a shot at Deputy Director. Okay-doke. Three, Michelle Forbes’s asset throws his lot in with losova, without realising Michelle’s watching him do it – smile, you’re on Candid Camera, dude. Got it! Four, Hector’s cracking up over Faisal, but still several steps ahead of Richard Armitage’s Daniel, who looks awesome when he pulls a snazzy spy move with a steak sandwich and throws away his Jemma-phone, only to spoil it all later by taking no care of his regular phone whatsoever. Dude. And five, in other Daniel-related news, New Asset in Witch’s Hat and German Ally McBeal are both defiantly, and kind of obnoxiously, fighting the Armitage charm (so far); Herr Miller’s cousin is rather too obviously succumbing to it (Girl. “With you, it’s like having a dad around again”? Coming on waaaay too strong there); and Frost wants to step right into Moore’s shoes.

See? Straightforward. Busy, but straightforward. And the final scene suggests that’s by design, as storm clouds gather, thunder rolls, and the rain begins to fall, drip drip drip, onto Frost’s head. Now when did we see that before? It’s not a particularly subtle callback to the first scene, and it’s an even less subtle metaphor for trouble ahead, but after a dense, sometimes opaque couple of opening episodes which asked a lot of the audience, I’m not complaining about this one doing the work for us. I enjoyed it.

Berlin Station s1 ep 2


I meant to say something last week about the dingy, seedy look of the Berlin of Berlin Station, but I was busy being dazzled by the crisp, modern office wear, so I thought the contrast with the location (as shot – I mean, I’ve never been to the real Berlin, it might rival the Apple Pencil for crisp modernity for all I know) would keep till this week instead. This week, however, just about everyone on the show leans into the dingy, seedy theme.

Maybe they decided to go a different way after ep 1 and have the characters look as well as feel world-weary and generally a bit dirtied by life. Maybe the budget wouldn’t stretch to more than one nice suit each. Or maybe last week’s outfits had to go back to the hire shop. Whatever the reason, suddenly everyone, with the exception of Michelle Forbes, looks a lot less sharp and fresh, and a lot more 1970s. I mean, Dr Dubenko even wears a polo neck in lieu of a shirt and tie at one point. Dude, come on. And Hector, who had enough to worry about last week what with his treason and his having sex with his asset in front of full-length windows (way to keep it on the DL, guys), now has Claudia’s mother and the imminent death of Faisal on his conscience as well. So he abandons suits entirely and spends the whole episode looking like he needs a shower. Oh, Hector. You can’t wash away guilt.

Even Michelle seems a little less put-together than usual. She wears a nice black v-neck top/suit combo on day 1 while she’s jockeying for Steven’s job, changes to a lovely slash-neck top (sans jacket) on day 2 of said jockeying, but then somehow ends up back in day 1’s outfit when her boyfriend/husband/possible spy(?) is trying to get secrets out of her. Continuity error? Or perhaps she spilled her coffee. It probably doesn’t matter but it’s probably not a great sign that, in a week where the main female character went undercover, openly went after her boss’s job and started her own op against this dude Iosova that they’re all so excited about, I was so easily distracted by her clothes.

At least Richard Armitage’s Daniel, out on his own secret mission, manages to keep the rest of the team and the cesspit dragging them down at arms length. He’s busy trying to warn Claudia’s friend Ingrid that Creepy Cheekbones might be after her, but all it gets him is a bad-tempered lecture. Shame. It’s not all bad news for Herr Miller, though. In another change from last week, someone is following him, rather than the other way round, but Danny boy is onto him – in fairness, the guy could not have been more conspicuous if he was wearing a cowbell – of course, and is having none of it. Our hero has a cousin (love interest?) and her annoying, floppy-haired son (kidnap/threat fodder for later?) to hang out with and Cowbell is not invited. So Dan the man cuts him out of the picture, sets up a meet with German intelligence’s principal Ally McBeal lookalike, and sets her onto Creepy Cheekbones for good measure. Job done.

The best scene of the week is the last one, though: Hector, literally shouting his guilt from a rooftop; Daniel, wrapped up in his own Secret Pain, but beginning to connect the dots; and me, wondering why the eff there is no wall or at least some sort of barrier to stop people falling to their deaths. (COULD THIS BE IMPORTANT LATER? Hm.) But here I go getting distracted again. It’s easily done since, changes in aesthetics aside, this is another slow-paced, fairly dense episode requiring quite a lot of patience and not offering a massive amount in return, as yet. I was intrigued last week but I’m getting a little antsy now: two eps in, the old-school spycraft (the cobbler!) is fun, and the cast is tremendous, but the story is missing a spark. Unless it finds it soon, it’s going to be a very long season.

Berlin Station s1 ep 1


After this first episode of Berlin Station, I feel like the two main things you need for good spycraft are a nice hoodie (muted colours, no logos to draw the attention please, we’re not amateurs) and a pair of comfortable shoes. After all, most of your time will be spent following people, with a carefully casual look on your face belied by the watchful look in your eyes.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that a whole lot of this series-opener involves Richard Armitage walking round tailing people in highly serious and choreographed fashion. In fact, we first meet his Daniel Miller (quiet, handsome, Secret Pain – you know the drill) in a lift, looking wary and just about to embark on another choreographed walk. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Although this particular one is different for a number of reasons, the main one being that half the cast is involved, and it’s more a ballet than a solo dance. And he gets shot at the end of it. NOOOOOOO!

Because the show can’t just kill off its lead and end before it begins, though, we then jump back two months to find out our man’s a smart, sensitive but slightly maverick (natürlich) CIA operative who’s transferred from Panama to the titular Berlin Station to find and stop “Thomas Shaw”, Herr Shaw being the CIA’s own personal version of Wikileaks. Berlin Station itself is run by very professional, very experienced intelligence people, all of whom you will recognise from Other Things. (Dr Dubenko! That guy from Four Weddings! etc) and all of whom are wearing very well-cut suits. Michelle Forbes’s Valerie, in particular, sports the kind of understated, beautifully-tailored office look I have been aiming for my entire working life without even coming close, WHAT IS YOUR SECRET, MICHELLE? HELP ME.

Immaculately dressed and highly-skilled though the Berlin team are, though, since Herr Shaw could derail the entire enterprise and start World War III any minute, they’re all a bit tense. Daniel is obviously on it – secretly – but he’d better be schnell about it because Shaw’s stepped up the pace and every leak means another spy or asset being plucked off the streets/out of their shiny offices at Deutsche Bank, the only questions being which spy/asset and whether the Americans get there in time to do the plucking first.

It’s all very high-stakes but also realistically downbeat, unglamorous and measured in pace. (I mean, as far as I know. I’ve never actually worked in the field of international intelligence.) All of which means it’s not an easy watch: there’s a great deal of information to absorb and plenty of characters to place in this first instalment, so, after a long day at work, I don’t think I fully grasped who everyone was or why they were important. At one point, for instance, Michelle said “Let’s get Gerald to a safe house!” and it took me several minutes and quite a few scenes to work out a) why? and b) who on earth is Gerald?

But I liked the cast and the story so far more than enough to keep watching and concentrating anyway, although I did wonder if the random topless women in the various club/party scenes were there to hang onto viewers who might not have wanted to put the work in otherwise. No doubt the writers would tell you the aim was to show the seediness of the Berlin spy nightlife, but it really wasn’t necessary and trying to redress the balance by sticking in a similarly gratuitous shot of Richard Armitage naked didn’t change that, appreciated though it may have been by certain corners of the internet.

Nudity or not, though, Berlin Station hasn’t quite knocked my socks off yet. On the strength of this first outing, however, it seems like a solid, thoughtful and grown-up spy drama with something a bit different from your usual running and shooting. And I don’t mean just the walking. I’m intrigued. And I’m on board.

Public Service Announcement 41 of 2018: Berlin Station, Great News, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Ah, autumn. Leaves falling, winds blowing and, uh….spy dramas raining down on us all of a sudden?! Huh. We’ll talk about the upcoming Little Drummer Girl and Condor over the weekend, but unpopcult’s spy season kicks off with the very long-awaited (by me, anyway) Berlin Station, tomorrow (Thursday) night on More 4 at 9pm. Set at the, um, Berlin Station of the CIA, the first season is 10 episodes, second is 9 and third has already been commissioned. None of this information is anywhere near as important to unpopcult (or at least this half of it), however, as the fact that Richard Armitage is in it. Yes, I said RICHARD. ARMITAGE. So I’ll be on (very eager) reviewing duties for that, and hoping that his Daniel Miller gets a much better ending than his Lucas North did, although ideally not for a long while yet.

On Netflix meantime, a couple of things of interest. First up, the second and final season of US sitcom Great News is available for streaming from tomorrow, although there is a very strong possibility I might be the only person in the UK who watched any of the first one. It’s an unapologetically silly but very easy watch (especially when you’re on the train) about a tv news producer whose mother joins her at work as an intern. It won’t rock anybody’s world, but it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously and I’m shipping producer Katie and her boss Greg like gangbusters, so if they don’t get together by the end of the season…..*sniffle*… send cake.

And finally, for now, the baffling success of the terrible Riverdale means comic book pal Sabrina the teenage witch has been dusted off and given an edgy new reboot of her own: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is available on Netflix from Friday (26th), just in nice time for Halloween. Those of us of a certain age who remember the resolutely cheery 90s version with chirpy Melissa Joan Hart may want to adjust our expectations, however. This version has Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, satanism and a much darker take on life as a supernatural teen with a malevolent cat and two witchy aunts in tow. Forewarned is forearmed. I haven’t made my mind up whether I’m curious/brave enough to give it a go, but if you are, let me know how you get on.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I’ve been meaning to write about the final (surely to goodness) Hobbit movie for a while now, but have been hampered by not really knowing what to say. I feel like it should have been a really big deal, given the bajillions of dollars and gazillions of people involved, but… let’s put it this way: the An Unexpected Journey disappointed me by being a bit “blah”, The Desolation if Smaug cheered me up by being much more entertaining, and then this film undid that good work by going back to “blah” again.

Truth be told, I was already a little wary going in to this one; lengthy on-screen battles tend to bore/bewilder me (as I’ve said before, I still have no idea what was actually going on during the battle of Helms Deep; please don’t feel the need to tell me) so the movie’s title didn’t exactly gee me up. But the actual battling was fine – the CGI was hugely impressive, at any rate, and, as a spectacle, it worked beautifully. Spectacle alone isn’t enough to make up for poor dialogue, an embarrassing “comedy” sub-plot, and the time wasted on storylines or characters which frankly did my head in, though.

On the dialogue front, I was one of the minority of people who didn’t have a problem with the love triangle in Smaug, but the mortifyingly asinine lines that Tauriel had to spout this time around and the fact it ended up being the most pointless insta-love triangle of all time have now changed my mind. Good grief. Aidan Turner’s Kili was irresistibly sincere (and handsome) but even he couldn’t rescue this storyline, albeit not for want of trying.

Still, at least they rehabilitated Legolas this time around; gone was his Smaug prissiness and back was the noble(ish) bad-ass I assume he was always supposed to be. Lucky for him, I guess; others were not so fortunate. King Thorin behaved like a total asshat for most of the film and yes, I know, Dragon Sickness blah blah, but since all it took to cure this almost demonic possession was a succession of stern talking-tos, I struggled to sympathise or invest in the character, even though it unpopcult favourite Richard Armitage was emoting away under the wig and the, er, mountain.

And as for the several thousand hours this film spent trying to convince us that that Lickspittle fellow and his cowardice/greed were funny… let me just clear that up right now. Nothing about that character, his scenes, his dialogue, his costumes, or the 900 years of screen time he was given at the expense of the other characters, the film and my sanity was “funny.” Unless “funny” now means “makes me want to punch myself in the face just to MAKE. IT. STOP.”

Sigh. It sounds like I absolutely hated the film, but I didn’t really. I did enjoy parts of it, thanks largely to the ensemble of brilliant actors – as well as Armitage and Turner, we had the wonderful Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett et al – all doing their damnedest, but I was deeply frustrated by the fact that the material they were working with never rose above mediocre. A magnificent cast, a load of cash and the some of the best special effects in the business – and yet, for me, The Hobbit trilogy began and ended with little more than a shrug and a yawn. Shame.

Into the Storm (2014)

Basically ninety minutes of folk charging around chasing after tornadoes and/or rescuing other folk from tornadoes, Into the Storm isn’t going to win any awards for writing or realism. It’s pretty daft. But disaster movies usually are, and as disaster movies go, this one’s a lot of fun. The characterisation is very basic but the cast, headed by dependably heroic school vice-principal Richard Armitage (sporting a generic American accent) and super-smart meteorologist Sarah Wayne Callies, is great, the tornadoes and the havoc they wreak look amazing (I gasped quite a lot), and, for the most part, the action zips along in highly entertaining, often jump-out-of-your-seat fashion. I could have done without the pair of Jackass-style imbeciles who kept popping up but, other than that – and the movie’s slightly odd pre-occupation with everyone in it filming everything – I enjoyed it a lot.