The Smoke: Season 1

smokeThere are lots of contrasts in being a fire-fighter. A lot of the time is spent on relatively low level tasks around the fire house while waiting for the bell to ring, or out on pretty basic call outs like rescuing proverbial cats from trees. That seems to provide an opportunity for playing childish pranks, moping and a fair amount of moonlighting on side projects. But when the alarm does go for a real emergency, the characters (mostly) switch into professional mode – working through their well trained procedures. Walking into burning buildings is literally the day job, and although the training and equipment make it safer, it’s still unpredictable and risky. It’s a contrast between day to day monotony and strict processes and the chaos and danger of things on fire.

Meanwhile the fire-fighters all have personal lives as well. They’re a group of people who rely on each other and form a complex network of relationships. Then you’ve got life outside the station, what’s it like to be the family of a fire-fighter? There are practical issues such as the shift work, terrible pay and unpredictable hours; but also the stress of not knowing if they’re safe and dealing with the emotional and physical fall out when things go wrong. No one involved is a superhero, they all make mistakes and poor choices that have knock on effects back and forth between personal and private lives.

While that all sounds great (or at least it does to me), keeping that all in play is a really complicated balancing act and sadly for the most part The Smoke just doesn’t manage it. Rather than merging it all together it’s like a gritty action drama is switching back and forth with a messy soap opera with convoluted relationships, pantomime villains and over-blown reactions. Each episode swerving back and forth across the complete range, occasionally hitting on moments of brilliance but not really bringing them together into a cohesive whole.

The unevenness continued through the dialogue and acting. Some of the characters, in some situations had a wonderfully fresh and realistic tone. They actually behaved how real life people do, their words felt fresh and raw rather than overly rehearsed and scripted, their responses felt realistic as if the words were genuinely coming from their brains in those situations, not the writers room on a fourth redraft. Unfortunately that generally didn’t follow through consistently for some of the secondary characters, and was also abandoned wholesale when necessary to move the plot along. Jamie Bamber is very watchable (although his accent is often painful) but it’s Jodie Whittaker who really steals the show.

The most obvious comparison for the show is Chicago Fire, but in many ways that only tells half the story. Chicago Fire is pure soap opera, everything is turned up to 11 and many of the stories/relationships could just as easily take place in an office as in a fire house (although there’d be less reason for all the blokes to take their tops off). By having simple aims, Chicago Fire delivers what it sets out to do. You may not like it, but it is successful. The Smoke however tries to do more and when it fails, it falls further. I did find it very watch-able, the moments when it succeeds were interesting, original and worth a certain amount of eye rolling through the places where it fails. But I’m not sure that I will bother to watch the second season.


The Musketeers: Season 1

muskateerThe BBC seems to have an ongoing commitment to producing Saturday evening family dramas, shows that appeal to young and old by covering the full spectrum from fart jokes to existential crises, sometimes elegantly integrating the two (Doctor Who) and sometimes just swerving wildly between them (Merlin). I’m quite a fan of this type of show, at worst it makes for a mindless 45 minutes or so while eating dinner and as a bonus sometimes you get something a bit more substantial on top. So when the BBC announced they were doing a version of The Three Musketeers I was *almost* excited. I’ve loved the story of the musketeers since I was introduced to it via Dogtanian and the 70s comedy films starring Michael York and Oliver Reed. The story seemed a really good fit for Saturday evenings on BBC – swashbuckling action, palace intrigue, handsome young men with just about credible reasons to take their shirts off and friendly banter and camaraderie by the bucket load.

So I was rather surprised when rather than being a Saturday at 7pm show to fill in the gap left by the departure of Merlin, Musketeers appeared on Sunday at 9pm show. That immediately confused me, Sunday at 9pm is a very different timeslot, no kiddies to appease with running and swashing of buckles and instead an expectation of something a bit more thoughtful (The Crimson Field is now in the slot since Musketeers finished its run).

I’m not sure Musketeers ever got over that confusion. While the absence of bodily function jokes was a blessing, the darker story lines never felt like they were really being committed to. Elements of the show were still a little camp (yes Peter Capaldi, I’m looking at you and your beard) and somewhat silly when compared to the tone of some of the actual plots about the politics and acceptable actions of the period.

The repetitiveness of the stories really didn’t help either. It felt like pretty much every week one of the Musketeers found the love of his life, who was then placed in jeopardy and eventually had to be given up because being a Musketeer is too important and/or too dangerous to allow long term relationships to work out. The first couple of times it was interesting, but it got old pretty quick once it had looped past each of the four Musketeers at least once.

Of course The Musketeers lives and dies with the four main characters, and it took some time for the actors and audience to settle in with the characters. They’re iconic roles and the relatively unknown and inexperienced actors didn’t immediately bring them to life. It took me several episodes to get the hang of who was who and for them to ground each Musketeer into their familiar traits. But by the end of the season everything was coming together a lot more and I was starting to see the potential of each of the characters getting some more long term development than the isolated films have ever managed.

The female characters actually didn’t suffer from that problem as much. I wasn’t sure why they’d changed Constance’s role from being the Queen’s maid to being… actually, I can’t even remember how she got involved with the whole thing, but other than that minor problem, each of the three women (Constance, Milady and the Queen) was an interesting mix of strength and emotion.

One other thing the show did get right from the start at least was the production design. It looks both beautiful and right. Everything from the lavish French palaces to the leatherwork on the armour feels appropriately intricate. I also rather liked the style of the opening credits and the music that was used. Although again, it all fit a Saturday evening adventure series a little better than the 9pm drama slot.

If the show had been in the 7pm slot on Saturdays, I would have come down a lot more favourably. I acknowledge that’s pretty daft, particularly as I rarely watched the show live, but I had different expectations for a Sunday at 9pm show. If you approach the show as moderately disposable entertainment, then I think you’ll be satisfied. But if you’re looking for more, I think you’ll be disappointed with the first season. I will look forward to next season with revised expectations, although losing Peter Capaldi to Doctor Who (ironically of course to the Saturday at 7pm time slot) will be a blow to the series, so we’ll have to see how they cope with that.

Outnumbered: Season 5

Outnumbered ChristmasI had to check Wikipedia for the chronology of the seasons, but with the exception of a Christmas special in 2012, it’s over 2 years since we had an Outnumbered series. Given the change in ages of the Brockman children (and indeed the actors) that’s seen quite a shift in the family, and I think that jump is probably a good thing. It may have been interesting to see the more gradual shift of the kids, but this jump allowed us to really mark the changes.

Karen and Ben are still children, but they’re not little kids any more. Jake is to all intents and purposes an adult (maybe the only one in the whole family), he’s not talking back to his parents like an unruly teenager, he’s properly interacting with them, challenging them but also taking and being given responsibility. To a certain extent he’s always been the straight-man of the comedy, somewhat older than his age, and now he really occupies that middle ground between child and adult, mostly grown up, but still uncertain of what he’s doing with his life and occasionally willing to muck about and act like a kid again.

Karen and Ben are a little more problematic. Both are still demonstrating the annoying traits that their parents have failed to really deal with, and have now gone from cute and quirky to outright annoying as they grow older. Ben’s hyperactivity and silliness, and Karen’s stubbornness don’t really work at secondary school and while that’s addressed with Karen via a stunning and hilarious meeting with her new headmistress (the perfect Rebecca Front, “we’re all unique, but we’re not all special”), Ben continues to be firmly ridiculous, encouraged by a demented drama teacher it would seem.

As with previous seasons of Outnumbered there are some beautifully observed moments of every-day comedy – interacting with mobile phones, losing car keys, trying to explain the ridiculousness of life to rightfully confused teenagers. But there are still times when the characters meander too far from reality and do things that you don’t think any real person would do which is jarring. The penultimate episode of the season (and indeed series) nicely demonstrated that. The quiet hilarity of Pete trying to co-ordinate three children and two relatively innocuous chores, combined with Karen and her headmistress’s conversation was undermined by Sue’s over the top failure to balance work and family and get a conference call to work. That aspect was pushed that little bit too far and it broke.

I’ve loved this show because unlike most other sitcoms it felt believable. Real life is genuinely funny and this is the kind of show that is comfortable, familiar and helps you see the comedy in your own life. I will really miss Outnumbered and have some hope that we will be able to check in with the Brockman’s again every now and then. I want to see if Ben ever grows up and if Karen’s new leaf sticks, what kind of people they’ll be and how Sue and Pete deal with all their kids turning into adults. Hopefully we’ll see them again some day

Mostly procedural, mostly British pilot catchup

I’m getting increasingly behind on my reviewing, so am opting for a round up post to gather my thoughts on some of the new series that have appeared in the last few weeks on British TV. Mostly procedural (except one), mostly British (except one).


Babylon arrived with a fair bit of publicity pushing its connections to Olympic Opening Ceremony hero Danny Boyle (producer and director). It’s described as a comedy-drama, but I actually don’t know much more about it. Initially that was because I wanted to come to the series reasonably fresh and from what little I did read everyone was having a hard time describing what the tone and flavour really was. The principle reason for my ignorance is that I didn’t make it more than 10 minutes into the first episode before I had to switch it off. The first scene made me cringe, the second left me angry and halfway through the third I realised that I was actively searching for ways to distract myself from having to watch or listen and so decided to give up. I don’t know whether it’s intended as biting satire based on what police work is really like, but nothing I saw gave me any confidence that it was based on reality, and even if it was, then that’s not something I want to watch. I’m sorry, but if the armed police really are that horrific and juvenile than I don’t want to see it outside of a documentary or news story. The introductory pilot will be followed by a series later this year, I won’t be touching it with a barge pole.

The Smoke

Sky are increasingly moving into content production rather than just purchasing other people’s shows and The Smoke is one of their flagship offerings. Set in a fire station in Mile End it picks up 9 months after a disastrous call-out that had serious physical and mental fallout for the fire station’s chief, played by Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica). I’ve always been a bit surprised that given the plethora of cop procedurals there aren’t more series about Fireman (or paramedics for that matter), but I guess fundamentally someone lying in the street with some fake blood is considerably cheaper to do than raging infernos. The Smoke certainly doesn’t compromise on the budgets or spectacle mixing some genuinely scary fires to accompany with more small scale chip pan fires and traffic accidents, although the latter is possibly even more scary due to its relatively common day feeling. There’s also no skimping on the melodrama, it’s as much a series about emotions and characters as it is about smoke (the title I’m sure is all metaphorical as well as literal) and it certainly doesn’t pull its punches on the horrors the fireman see or the not always sensible ways they deal with them. In contrast to Babylon, somehow the juvenile antics of the firemen don’t push them away from the audience, instead making them easier to connect with although not necessarily making them likeable. It’s all laid on a bit thick in places (particularly Bamber’s accent) but it’s certainly interesting enough to have me hitting the series link.

The Muskateers

This series is now four episodes in, but you can catch up on iplayer until April. I was initially a bit underwhelmed by the series, but for some reason I stuck with it and it’s rather grown on me. I was expecting this to slot into the Merlin shaped hole on Saturday nights, pitched more towards the younger audience with humour, silliness, relationships, unsubtle moral quandaries and a heavy dose of action. What I got though was an attempt to step towards a more mature audience on a Sunday night, but not a massively successful one. The tone is quite uneven, there’s plenty of entertainment and plenty of interest, but the two aren’t blended together, instead coming in blocks of “here’s the funny bit” and “here’s the serious bit”. Each bit is good, and it has smoothed out a little bit, but it can make it rather frustrating to watch and easy to tune out the bit that you’re not in the mood for at the time. There’s plenty of energy though and I like what they’re doing with the characters and the variations to the traditional story that makes it more suited for a longer series, so we shall see how it goes.


As we wave goodbye to the Scandinavian Bridge, BBC4 immediately offers us the Belgian Salamander to deceive us into feeling cultured by watching something with subtitles, while really we’re just watching a slightly trashy thriller. Four episodes have aired by the time I write this, but I’ve only watched the first of them and am allowing the others to build up on the Sky+ box as I haven’t quite decided whether I’m going to stick with the show. The first episode was intriguing enough – a colourful police officer, a three dimensional villain, an original crime, some action, some politics, some mystery and some humour. I just found myself having a bit of an internal crisis; if this had been in English would I have bothered with it, or am I just watching because it’s got subtitles? It’s a silly thing to get caught up on, but I have a suspicion that the series itself is intrinsically quite disposable and for now it’s not quite bubbled above the other things on my to-watch list.


Given my anaemic response to many of the recent new British drama offerings, I didn’t go into Channel 5’s Suspects with anything resembling expectation or hope. I mean, Channel 5 doesn’t really have the reputation for showing high quality drama, let alone making it themselves, so I was absolutely astonished when I found the first episode original, interesting and utterly compelling. The documentary filming style immerses the audience in the action and the complete focus on the crime and investigation is refreshing. The characters are completely secondary, but thanks to the talented actors they manage to reveal themselves organically. The investigations feel realistic and the stories are interesting, although in both episodes I’ve watched the eventual outcomes were fairly predictable and standard which did let things down a bit, but overall I’m really impressed.

Sherlock: Season 3

SherlockMy review of season 2 was heavily mixed. I adored the substance of the show (the writing, the characters, the stories, the humour the direction) but felt badly manipulated by the production team. After just three episodes they left us on a frustrating cliffhanger and cheerfully waved goodbye, see you in 2 years.

2 YEARS! Almost to the day in fact. It wasn’t even a proper cliffhanger, we weren’t wondering whether Sherlock Holmes was really alive, because they showed he was, but just about how he did it. That was all, just the mechanism. Sherlock the series did exactly what Sherlock the character does, leaves you struggling to put together the final details and revelling in the fact that it/he is so much cleverer than you. It felt like a somewhat crappy way to treat your audience.

But like the character, the series can get away with it because it’s brilliant. So despite feeling slightly used and dirty about the whole thing, I was as eager as anyone to find out the answer. I actually watched a television program live. That was how eager I was!

And wouldn’t you know it, they turned it around. I said in my season 2 review that I feared they would resolve and dismiss the cliffhanger in the first three minutes (as they did with the one between seasons 1 and 2). But they really didn’t. They not only took their time with the actual explanation, but they didn’t skim over the emotional fallout either. We saw the effect the deception had on Watson (more of that later) but we actually saw how it effected Holmes himself! We get to see a different Sherlock this year, one who actually makes and embraces connections with people. Ok some of those connections turn out badly or as part of a scheme, but still. He’s not exactly changed, but he is a bit more open.

It’s that openness which I think may have frustrated some people. The criticisms about the series playing too much to the fans. I think it’s fair to say there was a lot of fan-service this year, with the various comedy variations on Sherlock’s not-a-death, seeing Sherlock drunk, in a relationship and acknowledging how important John is to him. But I don’t see that as something to be overly critical of. Yeah, the speech at the wedding had maybe too many touchy-feely moments in it and I cringed a bit at many of the imagined deaths, but if that’s what the people who adore the show and have patiently waited for it want, then isn’t rewarding them something to be praised not criticised? Who is the show for? The people who watch and love it, or the critics?

Maybe the complaints are just because you have to look so phenomenally hard to find something wrong with the show. Because it is damn near perfect. The simple elegance of the writing belies how (apparently) hard that is. With the possible exception of The Good Wife, nothing on television at the moment comes close to the pure quality of this production. Maybe that’s because Sherlock is really a miniseries not a series, but then so is Downton Abbey and Sherlock has more talent in its episode titles than an entire season of Downton has.

Each episode is a delight to watch. It’s a show I go out of my way to watch live and one I desperately try to watch with other people, because the experience is so reliably wonderful that I want to share it. That did mean that were plenty of moments admittedly that I had to snivel discretely into my tissue mind you, largely driven by the utterly superb performance from Martin Freeman. Benedict Cumberbatch is of course dreamy and wonderful (the moment where Sherlock as the French waitor realises that he’s miss-played this one being a particular standout) but for me it’s all about Martin Freeman. He’s the heart and soul of the partnership and the show as a whole, he’s the perfect straightman – effortlessly stealing every single scene and moment. Added to the mix was Mary, the perfect blend of Watson’s humanity and Holmes’ smart manipulation and you’ve got the perfect mix.

The writers certainly played to their strengths this season. They know exactly what they have in their two leading men (headhunted left right and centre for massive Hollywood productions) and they provide them with just the material they deserve. It’s the perpetual blessing and curse of Sherlock – incredible actors mean very difficult timetables. So we are left with a wait of who knows how long before we get to see them again. I thank the writers from the bottom of my heart for the lack of cliffhanger. Unlike last time, I’m left with no bitterness, just a pure joy at getting to watch the offering of a group of people at the very tops of their professions.

BBC Dramas

I seem to have fallen woefully behind in my reviewing over Christmas and the New Year; not because I was doing something massively exciting, or trudging through some kind of trauma, just because I didn’t get round to it. So I’ve gathered up a few reviews that can be broadly grouped into a “dramas on the BBC” category.

Last Tango in Halifax
Last Tango in HalifaxI loved the first season of this series, saying “There’s nothing stressful about Last Tango in Halifax, it’s easy going, amiable, sweet, funny and just utterly lovely”. Sadly the same cannot be said for the second series. It’s still a thoroughly good watch with interesting stories, characters and a realistic blend of humour and seriousness, but the loveliness was somewhat lacking.

There was a thread of unpleasantness running through the series in the way characters treated each other, and occasionally it escalated to outright viciousness and cruelty. I think the writers were trying to look at an interesting question – at what age in your life can you be selfish and where is the line of what you should do for your children and family? But that question became hard to see when it was buried under broken confidences, sanctimonious recriminations and critical gossiping behind people’s backs. I’m not saying that any of these responses were unrealistic, they may even have been justified, but it certainly wasn’t the easy going and lovely light drama that I fell in love with last year. It sort of all came good in the end, but I had to really push myself to keep watching.

Death Comes to Pemberley
pemberleyI’m not a big Jane Austin fan and would probably not have bothered watching just another remake of Pride and Prejudice, but the added interest of a murder mystery drew me in to this. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as Mr Darcy helped as well. It turned out to be just perfect for the Christmas/New Year sofa slump, pootling along with enough suspense and drama to make you pay attention, enough comedy (from the excellent Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who) and Rebecca Front (The Thick of It) as Lydia and Mrs Bennett) to make you enjoy it and enough character to make you care. Even without fully remembering the characters I was still interested to see where their lives have gone, that things aren’t as simple as a happy ending, but they’re also not catastrophically awful. I actually left the three episode miniseries wishing it was coming back, which is more than I can say for any other Austin (or similar) work.

The 7:39
739I thought this was going to be a nice easy going romantic comedy/drama to ease me back into the reality of a new year. I mean it’s got a cast made up of lovely people – Olivia Colman (Broadchurch et al), Sheridan Smith (2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) and David Morrisey (ok so he’s pretty horrible in Walking Dead, but he still seems a nice bloke). At first it matched my expectation, the characters were wonderfully vivid and interesting, the situations familiar enough to be completely relatable while different enough to be fascinating and the tone of the whole thing had a lovely humour to it. But then everything gets very serious, very quickly. As the inevitable consequences start to reveal themselves that comfortable familiarity suddenly feels like a punch to the stomach. And when Olivia Colman reacts… oh my word. No one does devastation like she does.

As with Last Tango, this is a truly excellent drama, invoking powerful empathy and reactions. But it’s not necessarily what I was wanting to watch. Rather than a nice gentle story of forming a connection on a train this becomes a hard hitting drama about how we can’t have everything that we want, some things exclude others. It’s beautifully constructed, written, and performed and that’s what makes it heartbreaking.

Dr Who
doctorwhoI realised that I’d normally write a bit about the Doctor Who Christmas special. Then I realised that I hadn’t written about the 50th Anniversary episode either. I won’t go into an epic piece about them, because my response to both was quite similar.

On the good side, I love the heart and soul of this current incarnation of Dr Who (Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman), it’s sweet and funny with a thread of darkness and strength running through it. I also love the little nods to fans, I squealed and clapped with delight at some of the references and the watching Smith and Tennant together was everything I hoped for.

But why can the plots not make more sense?! Everything is so complicated and intricate that I’m left neither understanding or caring what’s really going on. It starts off simple enough but then gets more and more elaborate. Every episode I watch and at the end am convinced that certain things didn’t work. On conversation with other viewers I sometimes see that I’d misunderstood, or missed a reference, or not seen an unspoken explanation, but I shouldn’t have to go out looking for ways for the story to make sense! All the good stuff is enough to keep me laughing and crying through an episode, but it NEEDS to be better. Peter Capaldi and the fans deserve better.

Ironically Adventures in Time and Space, telling the story of how Doctor Who actually made it to screen was an infinitely better story. It was beautifully story of aliens and time, but aliens in the sense that they were very different people to those who would normally be in this environment and time in the sense that it’s all entwined with the period and history. It was a fascinating story about people who cared and it was told with such love and attention to detail that I was completely enchanted.

Downton Abbey: Season 4

Downton AbbeyI’m really behind on my reviewing. So behind that I gave serious consideration to leaving my review of Downton until I’d also seen the Christmas Special. But I realised if I did that there was a chance that I wouldn’t be able to go off on my planned rant, because there’s the possibility that the writers may actually use the Christmas episode to develop some plot, because god knows, they didn’t bother with anything so petty for the rest of the season!

The early seasons packed massive amounts of content in, taking huge chronological jumps and dispensing with weddings, deaths, scandals, traumas and joy at breakneck speed. Between the hurtling pace and the Sunday night scheduling you never really get a chance to stop and think about the insanity until you’re heading to bed and already thinking about opening your inbox at work the next morning. Season 3 was the first indication of decline, because they somehow managed to combine both the hail storm of events with a general sense of wallowing which was impressively contradictory. But season 4 has dispensed with the plots and firmly settled in for a long extended wallow. When the announcer interrupted the end titles to tell us that we’d just watched the last episode of the season, I gave an audible, and impolite indication of my disbelief. How can it possibly be the end of the season when NOTHING HAS HAPPENED!?

The only thing that really happened all season felt less like a plot and more like a combination of an extended award submission clip reel and a massive PR engine. The rape of the ever-saccharine Anna was a moment of brutality that, like Sybil’s death last year, seemed completely incongruous with the rest of the series. While I’m in no doubt that this kind of horrible attack was uncommon at the time, I just felt that in the less-than-subtle hands of the Downton writers it was more about generating press for an otherwise pedestrian show than it was about highlighting elements of history that go uncommented on. Particularly by the time it got turned into being more about Bates’ anger than it was about Anna’s strength (just like last year they made Mrs Hughes cancer all-clear more about Carson than about her).

What else happened? Edith finally found a man that would marry her, then rather carelessly misplaced him in Nazi Germany, but not before falling predictably pregnant. Mary on the other hand was besieged with indistinguishable suitors like she was some combination of Helen of Troy from the Iliad and Penelope from the Odyssey (I have a proper classical education don’t’cha know). Which is frankly befuddling because she is neither a great beauty, she has absolutely no money of her own and is a “frightful bore”. Her only redeeming features this year appeared to be that she was able to scramble an egg and was willing to get a bit muddy.

There were plenty of minor twittery stories floating around, but nothing actually significant or unifying. New girl Rose came, fluttered about, fell in love with a black man, and then got her heart broken – and no one cared. O’Brien departed mysteriously – and no one cared. Kitchen maids got all in a fluster for various gangly footmen, Thomas schemed with the new lady’s maid whose name I never even registered, Tom sat next to a woman at a political meeting, Carson’s old friend came by, the dowager countess got sick then got better, Mrs Crowley got a gardener a job… it was all so tedious even Lord Grantham got sick of it and swanned off to America to avoid a couple of episodes.

I mean, it’s all still entertaining I guess. Settle in with a mug of something, a blanket to snuggle under and a crossword puzzle and you’ll be sufficiently entertained to transition you from your weekend towards an early night before going back to work, but that’s hardly the pinnacle of entertainment is it? It’s got the budget, it’s got the cast, it’s got the support… I just wish they’d do something with that!