No, not Al Gore’s ill-fated network, but what I’m enjoying on TV currently:
Show Me A Hero – A drama series about housing policy in an upstate New York city doesn’t sound like it’s going to be compelling television, but it really is. It’s based on a non-fiction book and tells how some of Yonkers’ city council chose to ignore a judge’s ruling that social housing needed to built across the city and not ghettoised in a single place. This was fought hard, with many middle class local residents believing that should the housing be built their property prices would plummet and they’d be surrounded by crack houses and the like. Oscar Isaac is excellent as Mayor Wascisko, who initially campaigns on a bill against the housing but slowly seems to come around to it. The broader cast is excellent and the story is compelling. In the US HBO showed it in 3x 2 hour blocks, but Sky Atlantic is showing it in 6 weekly episodes. I’m hooked.
Last Week Tonight – Essential viewing every week, especially since Jon Stewart went off the air. He’s on a break at the moment, but will be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll be curious to see how Trevor Noah gets on with his take on The Daily Show, but perhaps Stephen Colbert even more so. Sadly, we probably won’t get to see either of these in the UK. Even James Corden’s show isn’t getting an airing here – surely ITV2 or E4 might want that?
Taskmaster – I very nearly didn’t bother with this, but Dave is on good form at the moment with its original comedy series. This series is a curiosity, and it continues to confound me with how good it is every week. Simply put, Greg Davies is the “Taskmaster” ably assisted by Alex Horne (who actually created the format). Each week, the same group of comedians – Frank Skinner, Roisin Conaty, Romesh Ranganathan, Josh Widdicombe and Tim Key – are given various things to do. Except it’s all been pre-recorded, and most instances each comedian completed the task on their own. The producers found a sort-of house somewhere to record the attempts. Example task include getting a teabag in a teacup from the furthest distance, empty a bath as quickly as possible or draw a picture of a horse while riding a horse. They sound stupid, but it’s rather brilliantly done and laugh out loud funny. The casting is really good, with a spread of comedians taking very different approaches to the task. So much better than sometimes slightly lazy panel shows. A real gem. The current series has just finished, but Dave has a new series of Dave Gorman starting next week, so they’re on a roll!
Partners in Crime – OK, this might not be as good as the LWT versions of these stories from the early eighties with Francesca Annis and James Warwick, but they’re still perfectly good Sunday night fare. I’ve not read the original novels, so I’m not sure how many liberties have been taken with the plot, although moving everything into the fifties is away from the first novel’s original twenties settings (the final book was actually written in 1968!). Yes David Walliams may have more than a bit of the Frankie Howerds about him, but I like Jessica Raine’s Tuppence, and the series seems to deliver on a post-war feel fairly successfully.
The Americans – I must admit that despite loving the first series of this, I essentially forgot to watch it again. So I’ve been frantically catching up on Amazon for the second series. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are a husband and wife KGB team undercover in America in a Reagan era 1980s. The series has to carefully walk a line between making us care about KGB officers, and the want to see them unmasked. They have two children who don’t know their background, and there’s an FBI team after them. The series references real events – the attempted assassination of Reagan, the illegal training of Nicaraguan Contras and the development of Stealth technology – and we get to see things from inside the FBI and inside the Soviet residentura. The series doesn’t pull too many punches, and although the various wigs and facial hair that our heroes wear sometimes seem a little over the top, every so often they act brutally just to remind you that they’re not on your side. After two seasons on ITV, the third has just shifted onto ITV Encore frustrating at least one friend of mine since that’s a Sky exclusive channel.
Only Connect – While I might catch the concessional episode of Pointless, this is the only gameshow – or more accurately quizshow – that I watch. A Monday staple.
Parks and Recreation – Also a Monday staple is the fourth season of Parks and Recreation which Dave has picked up after BBC Four dropped the ball. This is actually a razor sharp look at American politics with a cast to kill for.
Veep – Also a razor sharp look at American politics. Armando Ianucci is stepping down from this now, but it will continue on HBO, still with plenty of Brits who worked on The Thick of It continuing. This series introduced Hugh Laurie’s character and it’s my own fault that I binge watched the entire series over a weekend when Sky made it all available ahead of a week by week broadcast schedule. Unmissable stuff.
Dag – How many Norweigian sitcoms have you seen recently? Well this is the one you’re missing. Dag is a couples therapist who broadly speaking thinks most of his clients should end their relationships. But he himself lives a fairly lonely existence, locked away inside his apartment with his enormous DVD collection, his black satin sheets and his gadget collection. He has a sister who’s marriage has broken down, his sister’s friend who takes a shine to Dag, his curiously chipper receptionist, and his best friend Benedikt who’s basically a womanising fool. I’ve probably not sold this to you, but it’s simply terrific. Although there are slapstic elements, the series also takes a serious look at birth, death and relationships. Sky Arts has just finished series 1 and is heading straight into series 2. It looks like there’s been four series so far in total.
Ripper Street – Ripper Street always took me a while to get into. I half-watched the first series, and then let the second series mount up on my PVR. Sometime around this point the BBC cancelled the series and I started catching up since I’d read a few positive comments about the direction the series had taken. It’s true, it was getting really smart towards the end of the second series. At which point Amazon came along and commissioned a third series, with the BBC a minor partner and getting delayed broadcast rights. Somehow I didn’t properly watch the series when Amazon released it at Christmas, but caught up again with the BBC’s broadcast. I quickly overtook the Friday night broadcasts by watching the slightly longer Amazon versions, and I think it’s fair to say that this has been the best series yet. The cast is excellent and the writing and story arcs are really well put together. Nothing is a given, and even the slightly antiquated language fits the bill beautifully. I’m delighted that the series has been renewed by Amazon for at least another two series.
And a couple of series that even if I’m not recommending, I’m sticking with:
Odyssey – Yes, it’s a sub-Homeland story, and quite how they’ve contrived to keep Anna Friel’s character away from a phone for so many episodes is beyond belief. But I’m sort of enjoying it. Lots of French actors you know from other things seem to pop up. My question is whether I should catch up with Homeland ahead of season 5. I think I’m at least two series behind…
Aquarius – A bit of an oddity that aired over the summer on NBC and that Sky Atlantic is showing over here. David Duchovny is decent and it’s set against Charles Manson building his group up. It set in an interesting timeframe, and they’ve paid a bit for music from the period. I notice that we’re getting the “unrated” version for international markets (ie. more toplessness than NBC can show).