Drowned sins

Jane Campion’s mini-series Top of the Lake is an odd one. Usually I’m quite comfortable pronouncing judgment on a series and how well it holds together – I wouldn’t go as binary as the proverbial thumbs up or down, but I’m rarely as ambivalent as I’ve been about Campion’s latest.

Top of the Lake

One thing I’m comfortable to say: Top of the Lake is a mess. It’s confused. It doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be. And it would be generous to describe its pacing as fits and starts. The series uses its story of a missing, pregnant 12-year old to outline a society that’s closed off, incestuous (both metaphorically and quite possibly literally), and a misogynist throwback, in spite of being set in what appears to be contemporary New Zealand. It never quite decides on the thrust of its criticism, though, as it gets tangled up in its own ambivalence: so many of its men appear to be (or, just as bad, strive to be) sexist alpha males with little regard for the women in their community, yet the series’ prominent locus of female kinship and healing rarely becomes more than a caricature of neurotic women in search of a New Age guru to follow. Which they find, sort of, in Holly Hunter’s G.J. – more on whom later.

On the whole, too many of the characters in Top of the Lake remain one-dimensional, gendered in simplistic ways: the clueless macho, the weak middle-aged woman, the brow-beaten son. The characters that escape such categories aren’t so much better written as they are elevated into something more complex and interesting by the acting. Elizabeth Moss’s young detective, Peter Mullan’s grizzled patriarch – yes, there’s a bit more meat on the bone in the way they’re written as well, but primarily the actors bring to life characters oscillating between stereotype and archetype. There’s something reminiscent of Sam Shepard and his character constellations in Top of the Lake: at its worst, it’s a jumble of clichés, at its best it achieves an almost mythical sublimation coupled with strong, compelling performances. Top of the Lake is something rarely found on TV: it’s not entirely naturalistic, and it takes a while to recognise, let alone accept, the series’ more stylised approach – an approach that is perhaps reminiscent more of the stage than the small screen.

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Having said that, some of the series’ strongest moments would be impossible on stage, relying as they do on the images and the breathtaking landscape of New Zealand. The cinematography is striking and deserving of a big TV, if not even a movie screen. As is some of the cast: even if both Mullan and Hunter especially suffer from writing that misses as often as it hits, they almost burst the confines of TV. Hunter especially is a strange creature: her character’s lines rarely have more depth than fortune cookie wisdoms, yet she has a presence that is memorable when what she says rarely is.

Altogether, Top of the Lake is compelling. It’s fascinating. In its deeply flawed, messy glory it’s considerably more interesting and worthwhile than several other series recently shown by the BBC. It is a series that almost requires being discussed and it’s some of the more ambitious TV I’ve seen in quite a while.

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Just don’t mention Auntie’s MPD!

In its many years of service, the Beeb has done some terrific drama. The Singing Detective, Edge of Darkness, Pride and Prejudice, or, going back to the ’70s, I, Claudius. Its recent output has been all over the place, but I enjoyed last year’s Page Eight and The Hour (in spite of some flaws).

The second season of The Hour finished a couple of days ago. The series kept some of its problems, mainly the uneven quality of the writing, with some scenes very effective and others rushing headlong into hamfisted melodrama, clumsy exposition or silly cliché. Nevertheless, it was a definite improvement on the first series – exciting, engaging, and every scene with Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor a revelation. Come Awards season, if Auntie doesn’t pat itself on the shoulder for putting those two on a sound stage together and letting them show what they’re capable of, I hope that Malcolm Tucker unleashes hell on the people responsible.

One of these you don't want to be stuck in an elevator with...

So, that’s BBC at its… well, perhaps not best, but definitely good. If this is the standard of British television drama, I think Britain could do a whole lot worse.

Cue Hunted.

It’s easy to see what they were going for: an entertaining, fast-paced yet moody spy thriller set in a world of shifting allegiances and moral ambiguities. What they got was one of the most half-baked, clichéd TV shows I’ve seen in a long while. Laughably bad writing – the premise should have been a warning, with the main character, Sam Hunter, becoming (dun dun DUN!) the hunted! The aesthetics were all early 2000s gone HD, but the plot and characterisation were on par with your average ’80s series, except this didn’t even have the giddy sense of fun that some of those shows had.

And this may reveal me as sorely lacking in testosterone, but I’d rather watch Peter Capaldi go OCD on his desk for an hour (pun only semi-intended) than Melissa George trying to infuse her undercooked character with personality by bringing out her most potent duck-faced pout ever. I’ve seen George do much better work with stronger material, but her Sam Hunter is insipid, as are most of the characters, whether they’re played by veteran actors or not. Someone should have told the makers of Hunted that conflicted doesn’t equal dour, dour doesn’t equal glum, and glum doesn’t equal moodily bored.

In the end it’s a race: what does the series in? The one-dimensional characters? The charmless acting? The glossy yet drab visuals? The writing that’s either done by idiots, for idiots or both? The final episode that provides less resolution than an episode of Eastenders? Or the BBC, deciding that Frank Spotnitz would have a better chance taking his pet project somewhere else?

Just pucker up your lips, 'cause this blows...

Doctors and vampires and ghosts, oh my!

Okay, time for a confession: although I have a UK passport, I fail the Brit Purity Test on several counts. 1) I don’t like football. 2) I am painfully indifferent to cricket. 3) I neither love nor hate Marmite.

The most egregious, though, is this: 4) I don’t get Doctor Who.

Let me repeat that: I don’t get Doctor Who. Admittedly, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but what I’ve seen has left me… non-plussed, I guess. Somewhat confused at what all the fuss is about.

Let’s start at the beginning. My mum, the born-and-bred Brit in the nuclear family, was never much into sci-fi, and she told me at an early age that Doctor Who was a load of rubbish. Living in a country far, far away (let’s put it like this: we can see Europe from here!), it was never on TV, at least as far as I could tell, so I was never able to catch an episode as a kid. I had some faint awareness of the series and its trappings: that weirdo blue phone box-looking thing, a ’70s guy with curly hair and a long, multicoloured scarf, and low-rent, evil R2D2-alikes going “Exterminate! Exterminate!” like so many homicidal Stephen Hawkings. But I’d never seen an episode.

Growing up, I picked up info about the series here and there – but it was only a few years ago, when Doctor Who got the Christopher Eccleston treatment that I thought perhaps I should check it out. A few years later I got a three-episode DVD set for Christmas, which had been gathering dust on a shelf until a week or two ago, when I decided that The Time Had Come. I was going to check out the series and finally get an idea of what all the fuss is about. (For the record, the three episodes I’ve seen are the first episodes featuring Eccleston as the Doctor.)

For the first two episodes (“Rose” and “The End of the World”), I simply didn’t get it at all. The acting was broad, the writing lacked wit, Billie Piper… actually, Piper, an actress I don’t usually like, was probably the best thing about it, keeping things relatively grounded. My main problem, though, was that the series seemed to be firmly aimed at kids. I understand that it’s something of a UK tradition for children to watch the series while hiding behind the sofa because it’s allegedly scary (hundreds of thousands of British kids must’ve grown up afraid of plastic trashcans…), but since so many of the people extolling the virtues of Doctor Who were in their 20s and 30s, I expected something more, well, mature? I don’t mind tongue in cheek, but the winking, isn’t-this-a-lark tone reminded me mostly of Christmas pantos. The humour mostly fell flat, and the cheesy production values didn’t feel charming so much as smugly self-satisfied, less idiosyncratic style than shtick.

I came this close to getting it, though, with the third episode, “The Unquiet Dead”, featuring Charles Dickens (acted by Simon Callow with genuine charm) and space zombies. The ingredients were the same – moderately scary villains with a sci-fi slant, tongue-in-cheek humour, Billie Piper’s mouth hanging open – but Mark Gatiss’ scriptworked, added to which the episode knew well enough to take its central conceits seriously enough. With the tone a lot less all over the place, I could see why people would take to the character and to the series’ mix of sci-fi, mild horror and British eccentricity. (In fact, I hope this Gatiss fellow finds some more writing jobs – if only there was another BBC series about an eccentric, intellectually brilliant main character with a loyal companion where the man could use his talents…)

I might end up checking out more episodes, in the hope that they are more along the lines of “The Unquiet Dead” – but I’m not sure I trust the series to balance its tone so it doesn’t come across feeling silly rather than charming and pandering rather than scary. We’re currently watching another BBC series that to my mind has similar problems with tone: Being Human. I enjoy the series well enough, but it is very hit-and-miss in how it combines high-concept, whimsical sitcom, horror clichés, Neil Gaimanesque supernatural-meets-the-mundane and character-driven drama.

In fact, both of these series have given me a new appreciation for Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy. Whedon isn’t always perfect, and when he’s bad he’s ghastly – but he is amazingly deft when it comes to juggling wildly different tones and managing to be funny, poignant and scary at the same time. While his sense of humour is also very ironic, it maintains the integrity of his characters and what they’re going through; the occasional wink to the audience is handled well enough for the audience to chortle but still take the protagonists seriously. And all of this in spite of similarly cheesy production values as in Doctor Who.

So there it is, good people. Give me Whedon instead of Time Lords in Tardises (Tardii?). The question remains: where do I hand in my passport?

P.S.: None of this would’ve happened if I had been raised on a steady diet of Doctor Who, The Ashes and Man U. But I did watch Casualty religiously for several years – shouldn’t that count for something?

What have the Romans ever done for us?

When we were watching HBO’s Rome, I heard whispers and rumours of one that was greater: I, Claudius, these voices hinted, and then (sounding ever so slighly like histrionic Nazgul) BBC… Derek Jacobi! “Pshaw,” I said, with an emphasis on the “Psh”, but since when had I ever been able to resist the lure of cheap boxsets on Amazon?

Anyway, as so often happens, that boxset had been sitting on the shelf for years, while we watched Rome and many other series… but then, a few weeks ago, I thought it was finally time to check out a good old BBC classic. After all: Derek Jacobi, but also Patrick Stewart! John Hurt! Brian “GPS” Blessed!

The first episode of I, Claudius came as a bit of a shock. After Rome, a series whose production values were clearly visible on the screen, the ’70s series looked decidedly drab and dowdy, its colours faded. Worse perhaps, the acting felt extremely mannered, as if enunciation was supposed to do double duty for characterisation as well. (I remember seeing the RSC Macbeth from around the same time on video and thinking that the likes of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench had never seemed this fake.) I was positively yearning for the likes of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, for the glories of Cinecittà.

But then, we thought, it’s only 12 episodes. Surely there will be at least some historical interest, or we might spot someone who’d later turn up as a bent copper on Prime Suspect or that aging but handsome doctor on Casualty. Hey, we’d seen Steven Spielberg’s Taken, and after that a bit of over-enunciation and fruity British thespianism can’t beat us, can it?

I’m glad we stuck with the series; yes, it does take some getting used to, especially for modern audiences, and yes, you cannot expect the production values of HBO at its most extravagant. The acting is clearly not what we’re used to – but I wonder sometimes how seemingly naturalistic acting of the 21st century will seem to audiences in thirty, fourty years. Most likely, Rome is still my favourite of the two series, although that may at least partly be because it came first: in terms of acting, I, Claudius definitely catches up – and where it beats its nipple-happy great-grandchild is in terms of its overarching story. Rome‘s great weakness is its story and how it fails to be paced well in season 2. Obviously the early cancellation of the series is to be blamed, but regardless of that the HBO series fails to bring a compelling story arch to what history more or less dictated to its makers. Caesar’s rise and eventual assassination is compelling to watch, but once that story has been told Rome becomes a series of “And then…” Things happen because they happen, not because they make for a strong plot.

In comparison, I, Claudius has an overall arch. It has themes. It feels like something that is both historical and a story written by a writer who knows where he’s going and what he wants to achieve along the way. And while I love Pullo and Vorenus to bits as characters, they are a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: fun to be with, but essentially peripheral to the larger story. I’m not sure that Rome, especially in its second season, really managed to get the most out of its Upstairs, Downstairs parallel storylines; I, Claudius doesn’t feature the commoner’s perspective, but it is more of one piece as a result. And the acting, once you become acclimatised to the style, is very strong. Hell (Dis?), you even get that rarest of beasts: a subtle performance by Brian Blessed that consists of more than fruity bellows. Even when it comes to sex on screen, one of Rome‘s trademarks, its ancestor isn’t all that coy: it’s difficult not to think that I, Claudius must have driven Mary Whitehouse to righteous frenzies back in the day.

Oh, and then there’s John Hurt’s Caligula. Trust me, after this you’ll never be able to look at him with the same eyes.

No shit? Sherlock!

Yeah, I know… That subject header is both corny and a bad joke. Sorry. Anyway, Sherlock. While I loved how the BBC series started its second season, I found the following episode – “The Hounds of Baskerville” – a bit of a disappointment. Entertaining, yes, but also not nearly as clever or charming as “A Scandal in Belgravia” had been. (Preferring naked yet tastefully presented Irene Adler over a hoary CGI hound? Perish the thought!) In that respect, season 2 shaped up to reflect the pattern set by the first three episodes: one good, one weak… one brilliant?

In hindsight, season 2 did mirror the first season – inverting the episodic quality as a mirror would. “The Reichenbach Fall” was definitely a good episode, but it was no “Scandal”… and it showed that a little Moriarty goes a long way. Sherlock‘s flamboyant take on the Napoleon of Crime was perhaps its most controversial take on Arthur Conan Doyle. Was he effective or annoying? While I haven’t read many reviews praising Andrew Scott’s camp Irish master villain, I was a big fan of his in “The Great Game”. His Moriarty’s over-the-top flamboyance struck me as an overt performance covering a ruthless, utterly amoral and frighteningly insane nemesis for everyone’s favourite be-cheekboned sociopath. (Check out his “If you don’t stop prying, I’ll burn you. I’ll burn the heart out of you. ” at 5:45 in the following clip.)

Thing is, there are so many scenes featuring Moriarty in “The Reichenbach Fall”, it frankly becomes a bit boring… and yes, his shtick does begin to grate. He still has many effective moments and a highly surprising exit from the episode, but there was a scene about halfway into the episode that I was hoping to end sooner rather than later.

The second issue I have with “The Reichenbach Fall” is this: set up an ending that signals this clearly that there’s some sort of trick involved and it’s very difficult to become involved in the character’s emotional journey. I’m sure it comes as no major spoiler that at the end of the episode, as in the Sherlock Holmes story it’s based on, our consulting detective seems to fall to his death… but the great sleuth manages to trick death somehow. Thing is, Martin Freeman’s wonderful take on Everyman John Watson makes him an obvious identification figure for the audience, but in the final moments of “Fall” we’re not empathising with him: we’re wondering how Holmes pulled it off. Freeman’s emotionally truthful scene at his friend’s grave is wasted because the previous five minutes were so clearly signalled to be some sort of sleight-of-hand trick. Which, incidentally, also means that the series’ writers will have a hell of a job with the payoff: they won’t get away without an explanation, but chances are that the explanation will be too elaborate to feel satisfying to the audience – the most amazing magic trick is rendered clumsy and inelegant by an “Oh, so that is how they did it… Hmm. Blimey. Cor… And we’ve waited a year for that?”

Having said all of that, the episode was entertaining and, at least to my mind, better than “Hounds” – and it did one thing exactly right: when the whole world turns against Holmes, they don’t go for the tired old “Even his best friend doesn’t trust him…” Watson, the sort of friend Holmes may not deserve and quite possibly isn’t smart enough to wish for, never gives up, never buys Moriarty’s fabrication. And that’s what I’ll be tuning in for when Sherlock returns: not the reveal, not the cases. Holmes and Watson.

Damn… I’m turning into the modern-day equivalent of a Mulder/Scully ‘shipper, aren’t I?

Consult this

Oh, Auntie. After a year of bigger and smaller disappointments and only one moderate success, you’ve shown me you can pull it off. And how… 2010’s Sherlock was a great treat: funny, exciting, smart. But it was also only three episodes, one of which was decidedly weaker than the others. Would a 1 1/2 year hiatus help? Judging from the New Year’s Day episode and season starter “A Scandal in Belgravia”, the answer to that is a definite, loud, positively orgasmic “Yes!” Honestly, has there been witty dialogue, chemistry between the characters and stylish execution like this in any UK production in the last couple of years?

No, “Scandal” wasn’t perfect; it did have a couple of very cheesy moments, two of which weakened the female guest star in ways that are perhaps a bit iffy (mind you, I wouldn’t agree with the extent to which Jane Clare Jones criticises the episode), and it was perhaps too self-consciously cute with its references, punning and otherwise, to Doyle’s original stories (I groaned at the “Speckled Blonde”, though I loved the hat bit). Regardless, the episode was pretty much perfect in terms of being wonderfully entertaining – and just when you thought the humour might become self-congratulatory, Sherlock throws a scene at you that works as drama, showing that for all his brilliance, the main character is deeply flawed. The series is a fan of Sherlock-as-genius, but it doesn’t make the mistake of becoming fanboyish – or -girlish, although I gather that Benedict Cumberbatch does make for rather yummy eye candy. Then again, the testosterone brigade can hardly complain after a guest starring spot by Lara Pulver that would have made Mary Whitehouse’s head explode.

Oh, and the dialogues! If you were wondering where the sparkling repartee of a The Thin Man had gone, look no further: the Beeb’s been stockpiling it, refining it and quite possibly enriching it with steroids. This exclusive trailer from The Guardian website may be a bit weird, but it has a fantastic exchange between Holmes and Watson:

So, BBC, bring it on. Give me what you’ve got. And I’ll be willing to forgive you for the wasted potential of Exile.

Who are you “Oh aye, laddie”-ing, you ****ing ****?

If The West Wing occupies one end of the galaxy of TV shows on politics, The Thick of It is pretty much at the opposite end. The two shows share a couple of things, not least of which their complete insistence on being about words first and foremost – but if The West Wing maintains a fundamental idealism about politics, The Thick of It is the horrific Mr Hyde to its Dr Jekyll.

It is also one of the most witheringly foul-mouthed, funniest comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Watching an episode of each series side by side, it’s difficult not to come down with a case of TV whiplash: the BBC series practically squelches with cynicism towards British politics, the political establishment and the individuals who make it up. Whenever there is a moment where a character’s fundamental decency comes through for a moment, it’s soon covered with generous lashings of craven baseness, selfishness, cowardice and stupidity. I’ve rarely seen anything as misanthropic, and as sweary, as this series.

The strange thing is: usually I would avoid any such programme like the plague. I tend to find genuine cynicism facile and tedious, I’m way too much of a pinko liberal do-gooder wannabe, and swearing for the sake of it bores me. Yet The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, one of the most memorable television creations… well… ever – he elevates swearing to an art form. Watching him have a go at someone makes me dream of an operatic duet between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. It’d be fucking Verdi. People used to say that David Mamet (God bless his little converted-to-the Tea Party socks…) uses swearing as if it were a jazz riff – well, working from that, Malcolm Tucker is Charlie Parker. He knows when to improvise like a nightingale on speed and when to go for the kick-in-the-nuts simplicity of the oldest put-down in the book.

In fact, I was so dazzled by his verbal-vulgar dexteriarrhea that it took me several episodes to realise that he isn’t smarter than everyone else in the series – he’s simply a potty-mouth virtuoso with the instincts of a shark.

Even with Malcolm Tucker as its main asset, the series is not flawless. Any individual episode is basically identical to any other episode – the plot details change, but they don’t matter. It wouldn’t work in 40-minute instalments – the episodes are short enough for the audience not to register that everything’s caught in an eternal loop. (Ironically, In the Loop is the title of the series’ movie spin-off, and that one works pretty well at way over 40 minutes.) The series knows, though, why it works and it plays to its strengths, at least for the first season. (I’ve yet to watch, or even obtain, any season beyond that. I saw and enjoyed one episode from season 3 on a long cross-Atlantic flight and vastly enjoyed it, almost choking on the god-awful British Airways food trying not to laugh too loudly.)

It’s best, though, to end this with a few choice words from the Master himself.