23 November, 2006

What the Papers Say

The Innocence Project
BBC1, Thursdays, 8:00pm

Kathryn Flett,
The Observer:

"There ought to be a law against this.

A recipe for drama: take one random murder conviction it is impossible to care very much about because we never got to know the victim or the perpetrator; blend with a bunch of smug young law students rooting out dull miscarriages of justice; whisk up some sexual chemistry between 'cool cute guy' and 'prissy uptight girl' (around which orbit 'nerd', 'feisty northern bird', 'babe' and 'bloke') and lace with exchanges such as ...

Cool Guy: 'I thought parole wasn't conditional on admitting guilt?'
Feisty Bird: 'Oh he's Category B. Parole's only available to category C inmates!'
CG: 'How do you get reclassified?'
FB: 'By demonstrating a readiness, by addressing the enormity of his offence and expressing contrition!'

... while cleverly attempting to disguise the teeth-grinding tedium of it all by having 'Feisty' deliver her lines in a tight top, tighter jeans and accessorised by a raised eyebrow, as if to say: 'I may look like I'm auditioning for The X Factor but in my spare time I read great big boring books!'

After several hours overheating, courtesy of the BBC1 Drama pressure cooker, these wilting ingredients will somehow combine to form a new primetime TV series, entitled The Innocence Project, which is as blandly forgettable as at least half a dozen or so other legal procedurals. Tired of my weary 'recipe' metaphor yet? Yeah, well I only used it to make you feel as annoyed and bored as I felt about 15 minutes into The Innocence Project.

I appreciate that 8pm is a tricky slot for drama, characterised mostly by what has to be left out rather than by what can be let in, but surely the 'no-swearing, no-bottoms' clause needn't automatically equate to the punkily nihilistic 'no plot, no plausibility, no point, no hope, no future ...', even if it necessarily feels a bit like a waiting-room for something at 9pm (in this case The State Within).

8pm: home of the soap and docusoap; the place for panto-villainry, stuff with speed cameras, bad holidays, animals, gardens, property, Trevor McDonald, and of course the 'News Where You Are (You Sad Little Regional Souls, You)'. It's a slot I mostly ignore in the real world (I'll eat dinner and read the paper instead, occasionally keeping half an eye on a C4 miserydoc) but on balance I'd probably rather BBC1 brought back Davina than gave us Hollyoaks with A-levels.

Would law students even watch The Innocence Project? Nah, too busy being called to the bar. But if they're smart they'd be better off catching up with This Life, currently re-running on BBC2 and looking in surprisingly good shape after 10 years."

Gareth McLean,
The Guardian:

“Get past the inappropriately jaunty titles and the incredibly annoying music and there's the prospect of a good drama here. A team of aesthetically pleasing law students rectify miscarriages of justice under the tutelage of handsome Lloyd Owen. A tad self-conscious and laboured - its homages to the walking-and-talking of The West Wing are a little irksome - but it's nevertheless slick and watchable. Whether audiences will stray from their diet of the whodunnit to this whodidntdoit, we shall see.”

Strictly Confidential
ITV1, Thursdays, 9:00pm

Ian Johns,
The Times:

“Ah, what an emotional tangled web Kay Mellor loves to weave. In her new series Strictly Confidential (ITV1), the author of Band of Gold, Fat Friends and the recent vet melodrama The Chase (no, I can’t remember much about that one, either), gave us the emotional hang-ups of a sex therapist, Linda, and her clients. Linda was desperate to have a baby but her husband was infertile (cue first ad break after this revelation), so she approached her married brother-in-law colleague to be a sperm donor. From all the knowing looks, you knew she still fancied him from their student days. What’s more, Linda was an adviser to a lesbian CID officer and seemed over-eager to head to a crime scene whenever she was summoned.

Mellor loved to mix up the babies, bodies and bonking. The result was an odd bumptious broodiness. The clients’ problems didn’t prompt a serious examination of sexual desire and anxiety but became an excuse to intermingle the farce of a mother smothering with affection her virgin-bride daughter and the steadily darker story of a sex-addicted sales manager.

Frank sex talk and breathy bare clinches shot in the borrowed bronzed glow of Basic Instinct ensured its post-watershed slot. Instead of Sharon Stone with an ice pick, we had the manager ending up as the possible second victim of a serial killer who’s into auto-erotic asphyxiation. And if you don’t know what that is, you’ve obviously managed to avoid every other sex documentary on Channel 4.

Having graduated from Coronation Street to become Ray Winstone’s sidekick in Vincent, Suranne Jones took the lead as Linda but wasn’t given much to do except look feisty and concerned where required. But then the actors might have been wondering what kind of drama they were in.

It kicked off as another of Mellor’s “earthy” ensemble pieces in which everyone has quips such as: “He’s like a public toilet, vacant and full of s***”, then went all Lynda La Plante and suggested it might turn into Priapic Subject. One moment someone was remarking that “I’ve been treating him for retarded ejaculation. He’s been coming for months”, the next Linda was throwing up near a trussed-up corpse. So far this series needs a shrink rather than a sex therapist to sort out its multiple personalities.”

Lucy Mangan,
The Guardian:

“Strictly Confidential (ITV1) was a production of the Lancashire mafia. This means it was written by Kay Mellor (writer of Fat Friends, Band of Gold and Playing the Field), half the cast are former Coronation Street stars and anyone who doesn't learn her lines properly gets a clip round the ear wi' a battered clog and a whippet's head left in her bed.

Suranne Jones (formerly Karen McDonald of blessed Street memory, wife of Steve and terror of the north-west) is Linda, a psychosexual therapist married to Richard. He runs corporate activity weekends but it turns out this is the least of their problems. Among the biggest is overcoming some of the clunkiest exchanges ever written. For example, Claudie, one of their weekend participants, asks Linda if her husband is the father of her children (eh?). No, mutters Linda, said children were just part of a script they use for corporate-activity purposes. A look of intense pain comes over Linda's face. "I want kids," she announces to Claudie, a perfect stranger hardly looking for in-depth info on the state of a new acquaintance's reproductive system but unfortunately finding herself at the epicentre of an exposition earthquake. "It just hasn't happened yet."

Linda works with Greg, Richard's brother, at the sex-therapy clinic ("It was Greg you first had the hots for, wasn't it?" says her friend, a line measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale). He has two children and a pregnant wife. Not only that, but they all have an annoying habit of arranging themselves into a backlit family tableau whenever Auntie Linda comes to visit, thus causing her intense pain again, especially when Richard reveals himself to be infertile. Ever the optimist, he reckons that at least this will mean they can keep the house tidy and go on more holidays. Linda remains firmly of the opinion that she would rather have a baby than a fortnight in Fuengirola and thinks they should ask Greg to contribute the necessary instead.

In Mellorian dramas, the women are always the prime movers. Perhaps, as Alan Bennett once surmised, it is the result of growing up in homes where men weren't allowed to speak. "I just don't have their voices in my head," he explained. It seems a pleasingly logical progression that the bulk of the men in this latest offering have been reduced to the status of mere sperm donors.

While Richard is mulling this over, Linda is called to the aid of Angie, a policewoman played by Eva Pope (formerly barmaid Tanya Pooley at the Rovers Return), who is investigating a suspected death by auto-erotic asphyxiation. Angie is a lesbian and we think she fancies Linda. I would have thought there were rules against roping in anyone you've got the hots for to help you with a murder investigation instead of, say, some kind of trained forensic team, but maybe they have a more robust approach to evidential matters in these parts.

In the meantime, we meet some of Linda and Greg's patients. Tiffany (Candice from you-know- where) has vaginismus, which means that her nether regions are virtually indistinguishable from a bulldog clip, and her new husband is starting to tense up quite considerably, too. This is solved by Tiffany forcing her mother to return her door key. No, me neither. Something to do with growing up, I think.

Claudie is a sex addict. At first it looks like a happy ending for her when she meets a rich man suffering from retarded ejaculation, which ensures they can go at it all night long. But then he buys her a stallion, which she decides, while symbolically neat, is in practice useless, and so dumps him for thoughtless gift-giving. I think the moral is that slags have feelings too. Soon she is swinging from a light-fitting with a hanky in her mouth and Sapphocop is beginning to suspect skulduggery.

Richard agrees that Greg can donate sperm to Linda. Greg professes himself keen to do so. The three inform his wife of the idea. I confess I am not quite sure of the polite way to go about asking a woman if she minds her husband ejaculating into a cup for the purposes of sister-in-law impregnation, but I think they could have used something more in the way of delicate preamble. If she refuses, I predict unsanctioned sperm donation using traditional methodology. Greg, I urge you to call Steve McDonald before you embark on such an undertaking. Few emerge unscathed.”

The State Within
BBC1, Thursdays, 9:00pm

Ian Johns,
The Times:

"Life with too much diplomatic baggage

My attitude to television thrillers is like that of a constantly betrayed lover. I’d like to trust again — to fall in love, even — but I’ve been let down so often that it’s hard to drop the defences down. At the same time, my expectations are so low that if the small talk is passable and I’m not immediately asked to strain my credulity, I think it might be worth having another go. My faith was restored by Paul Abbott’s State of Play three years ago so I was willing to cast a sympathetic eye over Lizzie Mickery and Dan Percival’s thriller The State Within (BBC One).

Jason Isaacs starred as Mark Brydon, the British Ambassador to Washington, who arrived back from Britain only to have his car showered by the debris of a commercial flight apparently blown up by a British Muslim. The tension between him and a hawkish US Secretary of State (Sharon Gless) intensified when the Governor of Virginia ordered a trigger-happy National Guard to round up British Muslims. A sacked ambassador (Alex Jennings) was also stalking Brydon about the War on Terror and human rights. And did a Falklands war hero (Lennie James) on Death Row in Florida, the cover-up of a British soldier’s death in Virginia and information being secretly fed to Brydon’s aide (Ben Daniels) have anything to do with the explosion? They better have — I hate the smell of herring, red or otherwise.

Since Oliver Stone’s film JKF (1991) convinced a generation that there were more gunmen than citizens lurking in Dallas when Kennedy was shot, every conspiracy has had to be a labyrinthine behemoth that, as they say, goes all the way to the top. September 11 generated more of them. Mickery and Percival had so many protagonists to introduce that the script became a conveyor belt of “I enjoyed your report on the Middle East” establishing shorthand.

The plot turned into a stream of interpersonal relationships. In the final 15 minutes we even learnt that Brydon had a romantic history with the daughter of a company chief blown-up in the aircraft and that his aide was having a gay affair with the US national security adviser. Phew, I think we all need a lie-down.

While State of Play deftly established rounded characters, The State Within gave us pawns at the mercy of the plot. Abbott’s cast also had a crumpled, lived-in quality. This had American-style good lookers and a 24 slickness without, thankfully, a split-screen addiction. At times it was like watching Spooks with a sugar rush, all swooshing pans and shaky-cam immediacy rapidly edited to a techno beat with lots of suits striding purposefully down corridors accompanied by urgent strings.

Yet the whole thing was bolstered by a terrific cast. Isaacs exuded a brooding integrity worthy of Bob Peck in Edge of Darkness. Gless was clearly having fun as a cross between Madeline Albright and Donald Rumsfield. And I’m sure there’s skulduggery to come from Neal Pearson as one of Brydon’s ambitious colleagues. He was a slight presence last night but you don’t cast Pearson in such a seemingly minor role, so look out.

There were effective scenes, too, particularly in an improvised morgue for the plane victims. And I’ve not before seen expressed so directly on television the dilemma of trying to balance the interests of British Muslims and our “special relationship” with the US. So I’ll be watching next week. And it’s nice to be allowed the pleasurable experience of seven days’ speculation about what comes next rather than have the second episode immediately afterwards on BBC Four. With five episodes to go, there’s also plenty of opportunity for the scene without which any self-respecting conspiracy thriller can be properly judged: the underground car-park meeting with a shadowy informer."

Kathryn Flett,
The Observer:

"The first episode of the BBC/BBC America six-parter The State Within was so pacy and taut and cool, even before the fabulous Sharon Gless popped up as an icy, Glenn Close-ish Secretary of State, that you could forgive its occasional lapse into genre pastiche.

For example, when the plane crashed on to Washington's Beltway, it was impossible not to sit back comparing and contrasting the quality of the CGI with that in the opening scenes of the first episode of Lost (Lost won). And when it inevitably came time for key members of the cast to stride purposefully around the White House's West Wing, the ghosts of CJ, Leo, President Jed and Sam Seaborn were never far behind.

Spoookeeee! That said, The State Within is so good and smart I fear it can only get a great deal worse over the next five weeks. Though as long as Lennie James and Jason Isaacs stay alive, there's hope."

Sam Wollaston,
The Guardian:

"At the start of The State Within (BBC1), an airliner is blown up by terrorists and comes crashing down on to the freeway outside Washington, narrowly missing the suave and dapper British ambassador who's returning from the airport. (TV British ambassadors are always suave and dapper; I wonder if they are in real life.) It turns out it was a British Muslim who did it, and that's not going down so well over there. The governor of Virginia immediately starts rounding up any Brit who doesn't go bright pink the moment the sun comes out.

So on top of the Islamic threat, there's a very tense British-US situation. You'd think that would be enough excitement for the opener of this conspiracy thriller series, but oh no, that's just the start of it. There's also a British ex-soldier, a Falklands hero, waiting to be dispensed with considerably less humanely than one of Hugh's chickens: he's on death row. And there's the glamorous lady from the embassy who's trying to save him. Then there are the steamy inter-party romances sizzling away behind the scenes. And what about the maverick diplomat, our man in Tyrgyztan - where does he fit in to it all? Is it just a coincidence that the guy who blew the plane up attended an Islamist training camp in Tyrgyztan? I suspect not.

It's as if they sat down to brainstorm a few ideas, and then at the end of it just decided: "Hey, what the hell, let's just put them all in." There are so many threads to be tied together, it's like a woollen scarf that's been put through the shredder. But it's classily done, and fun. I'm looking forward to finding out how it all pieces together."


TonyB said...

Kathryn Flett's review of the Innocence Project could have been written by me! (See my comments of a couple of weeks ago). I see also a reference to the awful music.

Are you still persevering Robin? If so, how is it progressing?

(PS Torchwood, can it get any worse!)

Robin Kelly said...

I lasted half-way through epi 2, and 15 minutes into epi 3. I am trying but I think that's enough.

I've just seen another quote from a review which sums up the Innocence Project for me: "It's a textbook, not a drama show, and the only people who could enjoy it are law students too idle to revise." (Matt Baylis, Daily Express & Daily Star)

I admire the research and the stories are passable but there's nothing to make me CARE and the best way of doing that is through good characters.

As it's different writers on Torchwood I thought the quality might be more variable but I'm moving from being shocked each week to being angry, angry at the waste of time and resources. The next episode seems inspired by Jane Espensen's classic Earshot epi from Buffy. I daren't watch.