19 May, 9pm on Fox
Why’s Jean Reno French? Not generally – we all have these burdens to bear – but specifically in Jo. He’s heading up a Parisian homicide team, but everyone else speaks like they’re in a pilot for CBS. In truth, it’s because the series is an attempt by French broadcaster TF1 to grab a slice of the lucrative international market. But in TV terms… well, it doesn’t have the elegance of Wallander.
Being cast in the American mould, CSI: Paris throws us straight into the murder and death with little hoo-hah – this show’s got to be syndicated some day and backstory’ll only confuse the proles. There’s a dead body in front of a landmark – Paris has got a few, so we’re good for a couple of series yet – Reno’s Jo rolls up, quickly diagnoses a religious motive and saunters off to an autopsy. Boom, job’s a good ‘un and we’re almost done in time for brioche.
These bite-sized, 45-minute crime dramas may appeal to the undemanding, but they’re unsatisfying. They don’t have the contemplation of noir or the plotting of something like Morse. People are dead and lying to us before we know who they are, and the investigators are many so we don’t have to waste time getting between plot points. There’s no room for ideas to bed in, so subversion and reveals don’t mean much.
The cops in such series are identikit and the attempts to give them some marginal individuality are one of the few places you’ll get some laughs. Jo may be another unstable, drug-taking cop with an estranged daughter, but he’s an unstable, drug-taking French cop with an estranged daughter goddammit. So, he, um, has controlled rent and shiz.
But remember, Reno’s the tentpole casting here – the Gallic equivalent of Gary Sinise – and the only regular with any acting chops to be seen. He’s there to make the project look like it has dramatic worth and give it profile. But while Jeany Boy gets the mandatory scenes of torment, the Abercrombie & Fitch models he’s cast with are only there to spout exposition and practice being out of focus. Presumably they’ll each get their moments in upcoming episodes, but such things aren’t usually much more than fodder for showreels.
Jo’s showing on Fox, so TF1 got their prize of a marketable commodity – but the products sells because it’s a known quantity. Like a lightbulb or a strip of cling film or some batteries – not like a piece of quality television. Maybe it’s unfair to to single out Jo if the problems are with the market as a whole, but it’s no reason to defend it either. Do like a French footballer and shrug.
You’ve seen them on the display stands in Waterstones. Photo montages of Matt Smith, Daleks and Spirograph designs. Nice present for a Doctor Who-obsessed niece maybe, but inessential. Tie-in books have never garnered the most respect. If looking cool on the Tube with a dog-eared copy of On the Road is at one end of the scale, getting crammed up against the doors with a near-mint edition of War of the Daleks is the other.
But hold on, hipster. Most people who care know Doctor Who is the longest-running science-fiction series in the world, but it also holds the record for the most novels published about one (fictional) character. These aren’t mere cash-ins; they’ve had an important, reciprocal and occasionally fraught relationship with the parent series. And when the show went off air in 1989, the books kept on going.
“This was during what Doctor Who fans call ‘the Wilderness Years’,” said Doctor Who scriptwriter Paul Cornell at this year’s Sci-Fi London festival. “But I call [them] ‘the Theme Park Years’ – they’re full of great, fun ideas.” Cornell’s just one of the current generation of Doctor Who scriptwriters who cut their teeth on the novels – Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and Matt Jones all made similar early starts.
Many franchises are dismissive of their tie-in media, but for Doctor Who, its time off air proved a petri dish for emerging talent. The young, fan authors who came onboard with Virgin’s “New Adventures” range were not only cheap and eager; they had new ideas and fresh tones to bring the series. The back cover of each yellowing novel proudly proclaimed it a story “too deep and too broad for the small screen”.
The tie-in comics and later audio plays would follow suit. Forget 2005, Rose Tyler and Christopher Eccleston. This was where Doctor Who did so much of its growing up. This was where the Doctor came to meditate on his own monstrousness, where his companions fell in love with him and where he broke their hearts. He even blew up Gallifrey.
Cornell’s own “Human Nature” – in which the Doctor becomes the human schoolmaster John Smith and inconveniently falls in love – started life as fan fiction, before becoming a book in 1995 and finally, in 2007, a two-parter on television. “Something I wrote at school ended up on TV!” he said. “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
Alright, so not everything from the books made it to TV. In one adventure, the Doctor took hallucinogenic drugs so he could battle the baddie on the astral plane, in another a character was threatened with a forced abortion, and Russell T Davies’ “Damaged Goods” saw the Doctor’s companion getting a blowjob in the back of a taxi.
But weren’t we all a bit like that growing up? Too enthusiastic about the newfound darkness in the world? But it was also when we wriggled into adulthood. For many, the Nineties will always be “the Wilderness Years” for Doctor Who, but it turns out that what Britain’s longest-running television series really needed was not to be on TV at all.
Endeavour, Episode 1,
14 April on ITV
Lewis may have gone for a rest, but the third opera of the Morse cycle is back for a full series – and it’s not just marking time until ITV can get away with commissioning Hathaway. But rather than following the next generation of deductive minds, we’re skipping back one – to Morse’s first days in Oxford CID.
The constants are here: the opening montage, classical music and academic allusions. The franchise has always been ‘intellectual’ in a very ITV way – the characters must be educated because they listen to classical music, use Latin phrases and went to a natty university – but that’s also its strength.
The atmosphere is one of intelligence, but the mysteries are solid and don’t sacrifice plot in favour of high-mindedness. It’s a Sunday evening, this is ITV and you want a good mystery – not Swedes having crises of masculinity. Leave that to BBC Four.
Morse the character is a conduit for this. An Oxbridge dropout, he has the capacity for intellectual engagement but is not divorced from the common experience of life. It’s what sets him apart from so many of those he investigates: the dons, doctors and poetic undergraduates whose analytical or poetic mind-sets frame all life in the vernacular of Homeric odysseys, periodic calculus or Lewisian fantasy.
To any guest cast in Morse, Lewis or Endeavour, the rigours of justice look like the crude demands of a philistine. That it is these people who so often form the cadre of suspects is a satisfying twist on the Promethean archetype of the hero: Morse is the fallen god come back to burst some Olympian egos.
But in Endeavour we have a Morse who is yet to fully realise that ability. He is less certain in his questions, but already has the streak of individualism that makes him equally ill-suited to the hierarchies of the police as academia. He wants to listen to Wagner and solve murders, and doesn’t want his ‘superiors’ telling him what he should be thinking about either.
Those high-ups take the form of Roger Allam and Anton Lesser. Both have the sort of demeanour that can play rough-but-acceptable or posh-but-relatable depending on how you frame them: here, Allam goes for the former, while Lesser takes something approaching the latter.
Perhaps Lesser’s ruthless superintendent works a little too hard to mark the difference between the imagined, proper postwar period and the far-from-revolutionary revisionism the murders themselves present; The decade of Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home and The L-Shaped Room is quite capable of critiquing itself.
That is, however, a minor quibble. The vintage cars and choice LPs add period flavour – and gives ITV a replacement for Heartbeat as well as Lewis in these belt-tightening times – but Endeavour is comfortingly familiar. Sticking to the formula has paid off in this case and Morse is a franchise that is very happily extended. Oh, and he stills gets his obligatory moment of inadvertent revelation – “LEWIS!”
“Do you have any soft drinks?”
“We have all the soft drinks,” this is the Groucho Club, she didn’t need to add.
10 minutes there was enough to shatter any illusion I had that I was Don Draper. Mind you, there were plenty at the Mad Men season premier trying harder than me. The invite said, “dress to impress,” and those of us attending had rushed to the hair cream, handkerchiefs and razor-sharp shirts like an account exec with his first crack at the bourbon.
We were at least in good company: as the sixth season opens, even Don Draper and Roger Sterling are finding it hard to be them. 1967 is coming to an end and it feels like the world is going with it. For all the glamour of its image, the series has always shown the venality of its characters’ lives. The partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may fill a few fantasies, but they are not nice people and their culture isn’t a pleasant one.
Some have missed the point and called the series racist, sexist and homophobic – but in presenting these realities of the era without comment, Mad Men is not condoning them. It is crediting its audience with the independence of thought to conclude for themselves how awful it all was (and maybe still is). It isn’t Heartbeat.
Four or five series ago, Don and Roger gloried in their own competence and vitality, but these opening episodes reek of death. The tranquillity Don finds in Hawaii isn’t from a brochure, it is – as he sees in the mirror of his own copy – the peace of the grave. This isn’t a desire to die, but an appreciation of the serenity an ending would bring: like laying your head on a soft cotton pillow at the end of the day and cutting off the background hum of everything.
Grim as it may seem, it’s a good place for Mad Men to be. The next series will be the last, but the lords of Madison Avenue aren’t going out with a bang: the world they knew is already gone and now it’s a question of what they will be left with. Mad Men’s time will soon pass and it may be years before we see another show so well written. So close the door, sit down and take a drink. Do enjoy the cocktail, because it is very good.
Season 6 of Mad Men, airs on Sky Atlantic from Wednesday 10 April at 10pm
The Eighties sucked. Mass unemployment, CFCs, and nuclear Armageddon back on the horizon. It’s a wonder we made it through the decade alive, and even more bizarre we haven’t buried all evidence of it. Fuck off Molly Ringwald; I want nothing more to do with you.
That’s harsh. But it’s no more extreme a reaction than the one that currently surrounds us – only it’s going in the opposite direction. You can’t start a YouTube clip, or turn onto E4 without somebody or other riffing on the Eighties. OMG, do you remember Five Star?! No, and neither do you; we weren’t alive then.
Most of us in our twenties and thirties don’t remember the Eighties: and for those who do, it’s a decade defined by Trap Door, Danger Mouse and Count Duckula, not whoever was in the charts or running the country. So why the obsession? Let’s do the arithmetic. Read more
Doing Hard Time: Las Vegas
Friday 1 March at 9pm on Nat Geo
Prison is hell: it’s an important lesson and there isn’t a shortage of documentaries to teach it. National Geographic’s latest isn’t one of the better efforts. Covering a year in the Clark County Detention Centre, Doing Hard Time: Las Vegas tries to show the state of the modern US jail system through the stories of its wardens and inmates.
But it tries too hard to tell that story. Of course, every documentary is authored and offers a particular view of its subject. Every cut, edit and caption represents a choice about how the topic is to be portrayed. What a documentarist can at least strive to do is to remove themself from the picture as far as possible. The question is not “Is this what would happen if I were not there?” but “Does this look like what I would happen if I were not there?”
Doing Hard Time scuppers its own chances of genuine insight by being too laboriously authored. The ever-present voiceover consistently steps in to give structure, to foreshadow and to recap. It’s an increasingly prevalent form
of authorial intervention, intended to keep hold of as great a portion of the audience as possible over the ad breaks and to snatch any further viewers who might be flicking through.
As a result, very little of the programme actually ends up being substance, and trying to watch it becomes as difficult as attempting to follow the Super Bowl. How am I meant to care about what’s happening on the pitch when I spend more time listening to the commentators?
Compare this to Louis Theroux’s Behind Bars and the faults are obvious. Theroux may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but his light touch, eyes-of-an-innocent approach is perfect at luring stories out of people. If the documentarist plays the fool, his subject will get cocky.
There are stories to be found in the Clark County Detention Centre, but Doing Hard Time makes a very bad fist at telling them. Inmate Dawn Collins’s ‘dorm mother’ act is picked apart by wardens and fellow inmates, but the force of that impact – of the whole show – should lie in its reality. Wrap it up in such obvious facade and you might as well be watching Prisoner Cell Block H.
Will they or won’t they? It’s a staple of television drama: the perfect exploitation of the serial format to keep the sexual tension sizzling. The news junkets, spy rings and runaway dinosaurs might come and go each week, but have a guy and a gal with one finger on each other’s knicker elastic, and the viewers’ll be tuning in again. Here are five of the top couples who’ve trod that tricky path to televisual love.
The Doctor and Rose (Doctor Who)
“And I suppose, if it’s my last chance to say it: Rose Tyler…” Read more
James Martin’s United Cakes of America
Good Food, 25 February at 9am
America isn’t your first thought when contemplating the world’s great gastronomic regions. When it comes to baking, cooking and jouet cuisine, they make the British look positively French. Anyone who’s ever watched Man v Food knows quantity is the marker of quality when it comes to your average American diner.
There’s more than a little of such US imports in James Martin’s latest vehicle. The cook travels around the States learning how to make good ol’ American food – and then showing us how to prepare something completely different. The cuts come every couple of seconds, and constant recapping and foreshadowing make damn sure that even those suffering micro-bouts of narcolepsy can keep up.
Ignoring adverts, each episode’s a mere 22 minutes, yet somehow time still feels wasted. Laboured spontaneity and un-amusing discussions of Martin’s car try to build some story beyond the cooking, but Top Gear this ain’t. While Martin’s capable enough during the instructional pieces – delivered in a set trying so hard to be Yankee doodle-dandy it can only be in Chiswick – he’s not terribly engaging outside of them.
The set-ups he’s continually shoved into don’t help. The best travelogues offer glimpses and insights into the everyday world of alien places. Sometimes they may stumble upon the eccentric, the endemic or the extreme, but they retain a documentarist’s distance. United Cakes of America feels as artificial as the average American hamburger.
The programme’s not alone in possessing any of these faults. It’s designed to go up against Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars and all the other corn syrup starching up the Food Network. But that doesn’t excuse it: it just means it’s generic as well as paper-thin. There’s no use getting annoyed about something even its makers didn’t intend to mean anything – but there’s no reason to watch it either.
Did I learn anything about the USA’s relationship with food from United Cakes of America? Not really. Did I learn how to bake any actual American cakes an arty chef hadn’t fiddled with? No. Might the show catch my attention for a few moments as I flick through the digital channels? Possibly. Would I feel I’d wasted those three minutes the moment I moved on? Definitely.
Britain loves a bastard. And back in 1990, they didn’t come much bigger than Francis Ewan Urquhart MP – protagonist, arch manipulator and chief shit in the BBC’s landmark miniseries House of Cards. The US remake premiers on Netflix on today, but the original remains a classic of British television drama.
Telling as it did the story of a power struggle orchestrated by Chief Whip Urquhart following the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the original series gained notoriety when the PM really was forced from power during its run. That’s more than mere coincidence.
Coming from someone so close to the seat of power – the series was based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, Chief of Staff for the Conservative Party from 1986 to 1987, and Deputy Chairman from 1994 to 1995 – House of Cards wreaked of import. Even now, its classical illusions and grandiloquence make it all the more potent a snapshot of a time when assumptives were circling the throne of office.
Urquhart himself has often been likened to Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III; a malcontent, overlooked for power, turning the vices of his masters upon themselves. There’s something of Lady Macbeth and I, Claudius in his
plotting, vicariously power-hungry wife Elizabeth. The pair are particularly suited to the Greco-Roman world of late-Thatcherite politics.
The likening of Cabinet ministers and senior party officials to scheming Roman senators is a heartening indictment of right-wing politics from a man who should know. The fact that the most sympathetic character is a coke-snorting, abusive PR executive should give you some idea of the Grade A shits we’re dealing with.
There’s an Electran affair between Urquhart and Mattie Storin, the junior reporter who becomes an unwitting part of his grand scheme. Actors Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker were 65 and 25 respectively at the time the series first aired – and their increasingly intimate terms get ever more uncomfortable.
You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when Mattie declares “I want to call you daddy” and you realise you never meant to be turned on by this in the first place. Whether the US remake – coming from the same Los Angeles studios that frequently depict such unlikely romances with no hint of self-awareness – has the balls to pull the same trick remains to be seen.
The terrifying thing is that all this only makes Urquhart a more reassuring image of power. As soon as you realise someone with the charisma, the capability and capacity of Francis Urquhart is preferable to the well-intentioned but culpable lot from The Thick of It, you begin to understand a lot about politics.
But would I have wanted him for Prime Minister? You might think that, my dear: I couldn’t possibly comment.
What’s the obsession with Japan? Samurai, anime and swords have been all over Hollywood for the last decade. The influence was borderline explicit in The Matrix and the various stern-guys-in-leather flicks that followed it. Tarantino had a whale of a time pastiching old Shaw Brothers classics in Kill Bill – and in just the last few weeks we’ve had the latest posters for The Wolverine, with moody old Hugh Jackman wielding a katana.
This particular predilection for all things Nipponese goes back to at least the latter half of the 19th century. After 200 years of seclusion, Japan was forced to open up to international trade by the Americans. As the country set about a rapid period of industrialisation, the West got its first proper look at Japanese culture. And those imperial fellows in their frock coats and whiskers were rather taken with it.
In the westerners’ eyes, the time capsule culture, the exotic wood carvings and Japan’s honour system stirred up romantic images of an ancient, nobler form of society. Gilbert and Sullivan made it the subject of their operetta The Mikado. And that idea of Japan has endured. Anyone who’s got to series four of Mad Men will be familiar with The
Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study that codified much of this fascination.
The important thing to understand is that the western idea of Japan has little to do with Japan itself and a lot to do with the West. In cherry-picking particular images and forming them into a coherent picture, we legitimate and calcify certain desires for the Other – that our own society is as false as we believe it to be, when seen in the reflection of this patently superior (and self-constructed) alternative.
Jean Baudrillard called it a ‘simulacrum’ – and yes, as any A-level bore will tell you, they got a reference to that into The Matrix, too – a manufactured idea of a place or person that supersedes the real thing in our minds. It’s a lot of fun, but potentially harmful if that dream gets in the way of the original. Think of all those businesses getting turned into shortbread shops in Edinburgh.
It’s easier to see how this operates when looked at in reverse: the aesthesised version of Britishness that fills manga and anime – and has been re-exported here in the form of steampunk – also originates in the 19th century. Back then, the Japanese government was keen to rid itself of the same past we’re so in love with and adopt the modern dress, business practices and political attitudes of the ‘civilised’ West.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. US geeks and British dudes can have their fun swinging katanas and kendo sticks atop cloud-scudded mountains in their favourite video games. Japanese otaku can put on top hats and bustles and solve mysteries in the British Museum. Just remember that it’s all play, and be careful it doesn’t stop us getting to know each other a little bit better.