Thursday, 23 April 2015

Things to watch, things not to watch: a tormented US cop, wily Soviets, wily Americans, bad Englishmen in Australia, a saintly Englishman in Cornwall

Nothing here to educate or edify, no gritty realism or insightful analysis: these are just series that entertain. Or, in at least one case, don’t.

Made specifically for Amazon and available to stream: Bosch. A lot of fun, if you like this genre, and it is entirely generic. The tormented middle-aged LAPD detective, hated by his superiors who are plotting against him. Above them are remoter superiors who plot and counterplot to further their careers, and are loyal to the eponymous Bosch only when it suits their plotting. He is, naturally, divorced with a clear implication that it was against his choice, and still is; he of course has a teenage daughter who’d like to see more of him. He’s incredibly attractive to significantly younger women (he’s in his forties), but can’t establish a lasting relationship with any of them. He is, of course, a maverick, frequently ignoring process and pushing regulations to their limits. From time to time he’s even in serious trouble as his enemies argue that he’s pushed beyond them.

The picture says it all
Bosch (Titus Welliver):  the tough man tough criminals do well to avoid
Throw into the mix a soulless serial killer who likes to taunt him down the phone, and you have a structure which you will, of course, entirely recognise. This particular instance of it is well acted and well directed, and can give you hours of innocent fun with the occasional jolt to keep you awake – if, as I said, you like the genre at all.

Also available on Amazon at the moment is The Americans. Naturally, as the name implies, the protagonists are absolutely not Americans. They are in fact Soviet spies, living as Americans, in the US. You’ll be amazed at how well the actors playing these parts speak English, or rather American; this actually is a little amazing for the male lead, who really isn’t American, but from a US point of view English, though in reality he’s Welsh.

The Russian spies in The Americans:
Matthew Rhys, who's Welsh, and Keri Russell who actually is American
The Russians who are openly Russian speak Russian, which is a great little touch of realism. It’s pretty much the only touch, however. The sleeper spies get away with murder (sometimes literally): people see their faces, they frequently engage in their nefarious activities in the open, even in daylight; one imagines that in reality they’d have been caught in about three weeks, instead of lasting for years (there’s a long backstory to the series). Still, there are some interesting characters, well acted, and gripping incidents. It’s also fun to watch a series where the bad guys are good guys – and the writing works well, making us sympathise with them. I did, however, keep wondering how long the series could last: the first two seasons are set at the start of the 80s, with the Soviet Union having less than a decade to survive. Will the spies be scrambling for the exit at the end of season 9, if there is a season 9?

Season 3 of House of Cards, on Netflix, has all the pace, the panache and the performance of the first two seasons. Plenty of wit and action as well, to keep us hooked and watching. Sadly, it doesn’t have anything like the same quality of story line. Manipulation of events by ruthless, amoral people was the guiding theme of the first two seasons, and what gave the series its character; that’s sadly played down in season 3. Indeed Claire Underwood, wife of the manipulator in chief and not far behind him in wiliness, seems to have been reinvented as a somewhat more moral character, which sadly makes her a lot less interesting.

Lars Mikkelsen, even more sinister as a Russian President than Putin
With Kevin Spacey, outstanding as ever
On the other hand, excellent acting by Lars Mikkelsen, Danish but convincing as a Russian at least to my ear, doing a wholly Putinesque performance as the Russian president, is almost enough on its own to justify watching the season.

I can’t say the same about the BBC series Banished, about the first white Australians – who, as Australians never tire of telling me, were selected by some of the best judges in England. The series is set in the first convict colony in New South Wales, and there’s plenty of good stuff about the setting and living conditions (rations are constantly being cut, and there are some curious consequences of having a community of 1000 men with 200 women). Still, the plot is painfully predictable and unimpressive, and leads to an ending which I won’t spoil, even though I could hardly do it more harm than it does itself. Pretty colours, though, and pretty people (yes, those English judges must have been good on beauty as well as crime), and the kind of thing you could watch while tired and having a few drinks: if you fall asleep, you’ll have no trouble catching up: what happened while you were out was exactly what you imagined was going to happen.

MyAnna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in Banished
 Good acting but an indifferent script

Finally, also on the BBC, we have Poldark. And here we can kiss gritty realism entirely goodbye – and it doesn’t matter. This is pure fairy tale, pure escapism. Right from the start. Poldark himself has just come back to his native Cornwall from fighting, under British colours, in the American War of Independence – and comments that he felt he’d been on the wrong side. Yeah, right. An English landowner (impoverished, maybe, but a gentleman nonetheless, in the late eighteenth century when being a gentleman really meant belonging to an elite), who sympathises with a democratic cause – at a time when the word “democrat” was a term of abuse?

This man is a saint. So lie back, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy a series with about as much connection to reality as Walt Disney’s Snow White. Taken in that way, it has great entertainment value and won’t disappoint. But only if taken that way…

The smouldering Aidan Turner, complete with fetching war scar
In an unchallenging but amusing fairy tale Poldark

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