Last night’s TV- Cracking Crime, shame about the time…

December 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Wallander – BBC1, Sunday 30th Nov, 9:00pm

Louis Theroux: Law And Disorder in Philadelphia – BBC 2, Sunday 30th Nov, 9:00pm, Sunday, BBC2

What the hell were the BBC thinking? It’s a bl**dy outrage! The people in charge of this decision should have been sacked, I want them hanging from a tree by their testicles – and I want my license fee money back, bl**dy BBC! Who do they think they are? First Ross and Brand (bl**dy filthy bastards! I didn’t hear it, but it’s a  outrage that I have to hear language like that, it is!), then the flaming John Sergeant fiasco, and now this – they make two good crime programmes, and then put them on at exactly the same time!

Alright – so it’s not exactly Sachsgate, and I’m sure that iPlayer will come to the rescue if  you fancy taking them both in, but it still ranks as one of the dafter pieces of scheduling in recent memory. Why pit two of your top line talents, Kenneth Branagh and Louis Theroux, directly against each other, especially when they’re both tackling the same issue – crime. But what exactly should you watch?

Let’s start with Theroux. If you’ve seen the trailer, where a crook comes over all ‘I didn’t have no gun!’ before amusingly realising that just he’d been caught on film with it, you might expect the typical Weird Weekends kind of jaunt into Louis’ world of whimsical strangeness, where he meets assorted oddballs and we chortle heartily at them, for they are jolly strange, jolly silly. Well – this time, Theroux spends the entire programme wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Okay, so he wears it over his clothes, in the sort of style generally only seen on war reporters (or Superman with his pants) but the effect is clear. This place is dangerous. Warzone-dangerous. Philadelphia has one of the highest crime rates in the USA, and there’s no sign that the cycle of drugs and violence will ever be halted. As Louis rides with the police, there’s a seemingly endless torrent of  shootings, overdoses, drug deals. And when he asks onlookers/participants what happened – nothing happened, and nobody saw anything, no snitching. It’s like the law of the playground – if kids had guns and heroin (although if you read the Daily Mail, they probably already do).

The police are almost completely powerless. Unless they witness it, they can’t do a thing. They know who the bad guys are. They can point them out, have a chat with them, but they can’t arrest them. Ironically, the only person who believes that he can keep any semblance of law and order is a preposterously fat, high, drunken Hispanic drug lord with a $100,000 diamond chain and a scrawny pet cow (okay, so there was one oddball).

At times, Theroux’s delivery evokes the image of a fluffy, wide-eyed rabbit caught in the middle of a carpet bombing. He gently prods away at his subjects, asking obvious or unanswerable questions, and lets them talk. It generally works well, as the people speak with refreshing truth, and as with most of Louis’ programmes, there are some fascinating moments… but when you’ve heard him ask ‘why is there so much crime here?’ for the zillionth time, and realise that there are no truly insightful conclusions to be made, you might be left feeling deflated, depressed (how could the Fresh Prince of Bel Air have been bought up in a place like this!?) – and short-changed by the bunny in the bullet proof vest.

The tragic oh-the-humanity element of crime runs through Theroux’s programme, as it does with Wallander. This feature-length drama (the first of three), stars Kenneth Branagh as the titular Inspector, inspectifying a series of grisly murders around the beautiful landscape of southern Sweden. Adapted from a series of popular Swedish books (well, popular everywhere other than Britain), there are no dodgy Sven-like accents, just an incredibly well-crafted procedural which contributes a tasty slice of humanism to an over-worked old genre. Detective programmes are the TV equivalent of Tom Jones – they’ve been around for ages, everyone knows them, everyone likes at least one of their oeuvre, and they both used to have knickers thrown at them by screaming girls. Well, maybe not that last bit.

And on the surface, this is nothing new… you might even say that It’s Not Unusual (sorry, sorry). A detective, murders, clues, leads, and so on and so forth, yadda yadda. What elevates it above the rest is the quality of the production. The setting feels fresh. There are no English country houses, no Oxford, there are Volvos instead of Jaguars – shot entirely on location in Skåne (å county that integråtes one of my personål favourite cool-looking letters), the landscape is beautiful, and often foreboding. But the script and the acting take the real plaudits – no mistake, this is Kenneth Branagh’s show. The Shakespearean luvvie brings his serious RSC chops to the party here, and absolutely nails it. Skirting closely around cliché, he looks the very definition of world-weary, the haggard Wallander is separated from his wife – every relationship he has seems to be seat-shufflingly awkward. With a soft heart beating at his core, Wallander still cuts an isolated, determined figure as he struggles along with his job and his life, like a man carrying a weight the size of Robert Kilroy Silk’s ego on his shoulders. And while this is enjoyable as a good old whodunnit crime drama, the focus on Wallander’s personal life ensures that, even as the show descends into to some deaths more grim and terrifying than being forced to watch a Jim Davidson DVD, there is a superbly human touch to proceedings. If you can handle a slightly more ‘artistic’ angle to your crime procedurals (some may say pretentious)  you may find Wallander more emotionally engaging than the average cop show.

Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander books, says: “I really dislike characters like Poirot and Miss Marple as they never change – they are the same from the beginning to the end of the story. You and I are different each day because of what happens to us…? which bodes well for the upcoming two parts, following on the next couple of Sundays. Next week, Louis Theroux brings us Law and Disorder in Johannesburg. Bad scheduling, yes, but at least you won’t go too far wrong if you’re slumped in front of the box on a Sunday night.

By Rob Pearson