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.

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.