TV review: It’s A Sin

It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.

Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.

All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.

This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.

It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.

The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.

Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.

All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.

TV review: A Teacher

He was a boy. She was a girl. Can I make it any more obvious?

Well, in fact, the answer to this question would have to be “yes,” as this is emphatically not a simple story of ordinary teenage romance. For while Eric Walker (played by Nick Robinson) is definitely a boy, a 17-year-old attending high school in Texas, the girl in question is not actually a girl at all but a grown woman. She is Claire Wilson (Kate Mara). She is married, around thirty years old and she is Eric’s new English school teacher.

And if you don’t want to know any more about this ten episode series, I would suggest you stop reading now.

Eric sees to be a fairly typical high school ‘senior.’ He is attractive, sporty and popular. Although he struggles a little academically, he is not stupid and has ambitions to be a doctor. At home, his mother is a single parent who while never neglectful has her hands full bringing up both Eric and his two younger brothers. Eric has a few friends at school, none of whom are terribly interesting.

Claire Wilson, meanwhile, is an unusually attractive young woman, something Eric and his other male classmates quickly note, although possibly using slightly different language to express it. Claire’s motivations remain a source of interest throughout. We realise she is very attracted to Eric early on but simple lust does not really explain her reasons for embarking on an affair with him, as indeed (belated spoiler alert) is what eventually happens. Such a course of action risks her job, her marriage, her reputation and even criminal prosecution. Such things do happen in real life, of course, but why on Earth does she do it?

Right from the outset, we get a few indications that there is something rotten in the state of Claire. Early on, she steals some lipstick from a shop. It is a minor misdemeanour and she boasts to her disapproving husband about it later. But there is no suggestion she needed to do it. Had she been caught, she would probably have been prosecuted. It was a reckless and unnecessary act. We later learn her early life was blighted by her father’s alcoholism. An amateur psychiatrist might speculate that her emotional development was frozen at that point. Or at the very least, that she might feel like she wants to enjoy a teenage experience which she feels she missed out on the first time round.

Claire and her husband Matt (Ashley Zukerman) are trying for a baby and their love life has become strained by the need to have sex at specified times to maximise Claire’s chances of conception. Intercourse has become more of a chore than a joy. Matt also shows signs of being preoccupied with forming a rock band with his friends, a perhaps slightly adolescent interest at a time when he should be focused on starting his and Claire’s new family. Neither of these issues seem insurmountable, however. Matt seems like a perfectly nice guy throughout. He doesn’t deserve what ends up happening to him.

Viewers are free to judge for themselves at what exactly what point Claire and Eric’s relationship crosses the line into ‘inappropriate’ territory. Is it when, having crossed each other’s paths several times, Claire offers to help Eric with his SATs revision out of school hours? This doesn’t seem inappropriate in itself, but Claire’s motives already seem suspect. Perhaps it is when Claire tells Eric there is no need to call her ‘Miss Wilson’ when they are not in school: he can call her ‘Claire?’ Maybe it’s when Claire accepts a Facebook friend request from Eric (the story is set in 2014). Or it could be when Claire takes Eric on an impromptu day trip to visit the college Eric is hoping to attend. When they run into some of Eric’s friends neither question their assumption that Claire is just a girl Eric is seeing. All these initial moves by Claire make an affair more likely. When Eric kisses Claire unexpectedly after class, she makes a show of being scandalised and disapproving. But before long, their affair begins in earnest.

For a while, the two co-exist in their fantasy world together. But soon, inevitably things fall apart as news of their dangerous liaison gets out. We are spared the full scandal which sees Claire losing her job, marriage and going to prison. The series picks up events afterwards.

The series deals nicely with the aftermath. Eric initially seems to have got off fairly light escaping to college and even gaining some superficial kudos from his friends who react in a predictable, “Woah dude, Miss Wilson? Awesome dude. She’s totally hot” type fashion. But he hasn’t got off lightly at all. He is tortured by residual confused feelings for her and a sense of unwarranted guilt over her fate. He dislikes the notoriety the aftermath of the scandal gives him and soon embarks on a self-destructive course of drinking and reckless behaviour. His career plans are derailed in the process and he still seems a mess emotionally years later.

Post-prison, Claire struggles too. She has a ‘scarlet woman’ reputation, cannot get a job and her marriage is over. She remains even at this stage a fundamentally unsympathetic character, however. Although ultimately the architect of not only her own misfortune but the downfall of several other people too, she remains in denial about her responsibility for what has happened. She has abused her power, thrown away her marriage with no regard for her husband’s feelings and emotionally traumatised a minor placed in her care. In the final scene, set ten years on (although don’t expect any ‘President Harris to attend King Charles’s coronation’ style headlines in the background), Eric and Claire meet again. Eric himself now effectively fills the role of teaching, teaching the older woman exactly what she has done wrong.

Adapted by Hannah Fidell from her little seen 2013 film of the same name, A Teacher is available on FX, Hulu and the BBC iPlayer.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 4

A whole TV programme dedicated to exposing the behind the scenes lives of the British Royal family! Can you imagine such a thing ever occurring?

Yet this is exactly what happened when, in 1969, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), determined to demonstrate that the Windsors were good value for money in the face of growing muttering from left-wing elements within the ruling Labour Government, agreed to let TV cameras have unprecedented access to their lives. The result was a special one-off documentary called ‘The Royal Family.’

As demonstrated here, from the Windsors’ point of view, this exercise didn’t really work. The Royals came across as stiff and unconvincing. At the same time, the overall effect was to shatter the air of mystique surrounding them. In one amusing scene, we see the nation’s first family being recorded watching TV together. As Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) wryly notes, they never do this in real life anyway and are now effectively in the banal position of being on TV, watching TV. To more modern eyes, it is as if the Royal Family have become The Royle Family.

Matters are complicated by unexpected mother-in-law problems for the Queen as Philip’s elderly mother, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is uprooted from her life in a Greek convent following the 1967 right-wing military coup in Greece. She finds temporary residence in the palace. Philip (who she refers to as “Bubbikins,” the episode’s title) undergoes a difficult reconciliation with her.

Meanwhile, Colin Morgan (Merlin) plays a fictional Guardian journalist who at one point, in an unconvincing scene, reads out his own scathing review of the documentary to his enthusiastic colleagues. The episode also sees the introduction of Erin Doherty as the Queen’s dry and sharp-tongued teenaged daughter, Princess Anne, a perhaps slightly flattering portrayal, which nevertheless becomes one of the best in the series.

Ultimately, the Queen (Olivia Colman) learns a few valuable lessons in media relations from the documentary experience and from her wily old Prime Minister (Jason Watkins: perfect). Wilson has gradually transformed himself from a high-achieving but uncharismatic numbers man who smokes cigars privately into a seemingly thrusting , witty and dynamic moderniser never seen without a pipe and perfect for the TV age. It is Wilson who articulates the essential paradox facing how the public view the Royal Family. They want them to be essentially normal, relatable and like them, while at the same time, fundamentally unusual and different from everyone else.

TV review: The Politician – Season 2

Payton Hobart is back.

Having licked his wounds after the bruising San Sebastian High School presidential battle, the ruthlessly ambitious Hobart (Ben Platt) now sets his sights on one of New York’s State senate seats for what will be his first real grownup political campaign. Incumbent State senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) initially seems secure, but her re-election campaign is soon threatened by rumours of the middle-aged veteran politician’s “throuple” polyamorous relationship with both her husband and boyfriend.

Hobart, now supported by most of his allies and a few rivals from his earlier campaign, soon appears to be making headway, despite the potential risk of exposure over his own three-way relationship with his girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his former rival, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton). Ruthlessly exploiting the environment issue in a bid to establish a foothold among younger voters, Hobart soon becomes engaged in a protracted dirty tricks campaign waged against and also by, his more experienced political opponent, Standish.

More sustained than the first season which began promising much, but imploded fairly quickly, The Politician – Season 2 is enlivened by an enjoyable turn by Bette Midler as Standish’s passionate campaign manager, Hadassah Gold. Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), one of the most memorable characters in the first season is back too (although doesn’t do a lot), while Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Hobart’s mother, herself engaged in a somewhat far-fetched campaign to become Governor of California driven by a plan to lead the state out of the USA entirely.

While Season 1 was almost wrecked completely by the terrible sixth episode The Voter, the sixth episode here (The Voters) deploys similar tactics to look at a mother and daughter’s separate experiences of Election Day. Thankfully, this time, it works. While as its Season 1 equivalent was derailed by its determination to show the unusual vices of its drug, sex and violence-obsessed subject, this time the tensions between the two more rounded characters provide us with a more valuable insight into the generational battles surrounding the campaign.

Ben Platt is good as before as the charismatic, scheming Payton Hobart, a sort of younger, better looking Richard Nixon for the 21st century. No less self-serving and paranoid than the disgraced 37th US president, Pitch Perfect’s Platt’s potential president is certainly a better singer than Nixon ever was and slightly better on the piano.

A fine series then, if perhaps not a great one. Not quite a full Obama but better than a Ford, this is a welcome escape from the real life horrors of the Trump era.

And the title sequence is still great.

TV review: Spooks Series 1 (2002)

Spooks first appeared amidst a blaze of publicity on BBC One in April 2002. Promoted with the catchy slogan, “It’s M-I5, not 9 to 5,” the show was an instant success and with it’s exciting, edgy story-lines and watchable performances, it’s not hard to see why. Eighteen years on, it’s three original stars, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo are all still a regular presence on our screens . Macfadyen, who married his co-star Keeley Hawes in 2004, was indeed, briefly seen as the favourite to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, before Daniel Craig got the part instead.

Spooks introduces us to the world of spies. In the US, where the word ‘Spooks’ is sometimes used as a racial insult, the show was simply called ‘M-I5.’ Although nobody ever actually says, “it’s M-15, not 9 to 5″ in the show, this phrase aptly sums up the central dilemma experienced by Tom Quinn (Macfadyen) as he tries to juggle his demanding but secret career with his developing relationship with single mother Ellie (Esther Hall) and her young daughter. Quinn is initially known to the family as ‘Matthew,” of course, the actor’s actual first name.

Broadcast only a few months after the 2001 September 11th attacks, these first six episodes appeared at a time of heightened tension with story-lines including a bomb attack in Britain by a Far Right US anti-abortion group, a siege at the Turkish consulate by Kurdish rebels, some shenanigans involving the late Tim Pigott-Smith as a Jonathan Aitken-like disgraced minister and Anthony Head playing a veteran M- I5 agent who goes rogue while attempting to infiltrate a group planning to disrupt a visit to Britain by unpopular US President George W. Bush.

Veteran actress Jenny Agutter (now also known for Call The Midwife) also appears as does Hugh Laurie in a role which bridges the gap between the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster comedy roles he was then best known for and the more serious parts in House MD and The Night Manager which lay ahead of him. Future celebrity chef Lisa Faulkner also makes a flash in the pan appearance as agent Helen Flynn.

Much of the technology in the early days of Spooks now seems almost laughably dated with the characters relying heavily on CD-ROM discs, old-fashioned looking mobile phones and very slow downloads in a number of scenes. Macfadyen recently starred in Quiz, a dramatisation of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal and ironically the title sequence and music to Spooks, while presumably seen as flashy and hi-tech at the time, now feel very much like that of a daytime quiz show.

That is not to say Spooks – Series One is only now entertaining for its unintentional comedy value. Far from it. With this and all nine subsequent series now available on the BBC iPlayer (the show ended in 2011, later spawning a moderately successful film version Spooks: The Greater Good in 2015), this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy or enjoy again the opening episodes of a long-running British spy series which essentially got off to an excellent start.

Begin your own surveillance campaign immediately.

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

TV review: The Politician – Season 1

Payton Hobart really wants to be president. He really, really wants it, in fact. He seems to have planned out every detail of his two terms in the White House already. And he is only seventeen years old. He seems to the living example of why anyone who wants to be president enough to successfully go through the process of being successfully elected is probably precisely the wrong person to be doing the job.

Netflix’s new comedy drama begins with Peyton (Ben Platt) launching his campaign for election to the position of student body president of his Santa Barbara high school. This proves to be a surprisingly big deal fought with almost all of the intensity of the actual presidential elections, Hobart imagines one day fighting himself. Indeed, that’s the plan for the series too: future seasons of The Politician aim to focus on different political campaigns occurring throughout Peyton’s life. The brilliant opening title sequence (which uses the excellent 2005 song, Chicago, by Sufjan Stevens) depicts Peyton the politician being created by a Frankenstein-like process of alchemy, before offering his hand to greet the viewer.

The opening episodes of Ryan Murphy’s series are very twisty and bubble over with exciting story possibilities. Imagine Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) in 1999’s film Election magnified by ten. Peyton is slick and like Kennedy, Bush and Trump before him has been born rich. He seems to inspire a phenomenal amount of loyalty in both his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his campaign team (played by Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine). But he also seems erratic and clearly has skeletons in his cupboard. What is his exact relationship with his handsome rival, River (David Corenswet)? Are they gay or bisexual?  In fact, this probably isn’t a problem: everyone seems to be bisexual here. The whole thing is a bit like a 1980s Bret Easton Ellis novel at times.

There are other intriguing elements notably potential running mate, Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch: daughter of Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson), an apparently sweet-natured character dominated by her horrendous, gold-digging grandmother (an excellent Jessica Lange). Peyton himself is dominated by his own bohemian Lady MacBeth-like mother (Gwyneth Paltrow, another Oscar winner, like Lange and also great here). River’s girlfriend, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) also seems like a potentially interesting character, at least at first. The fine actor Bob Balaban also gets a high billing here as Peyton’s step-dad, but is barely in it.

Sadly, like a morally bankrupt politician, the series does not live up to its early promise. Perhaps that’s the problem with planning several seasons in advance like this: the creators seem to have lost interest in this story and started setting up the next series a few episodes before the end. The election story-line fizzles out. The mid-season episode, ‘The Voter’ depicts an apathetic student totally ignoring the election day events occurring around him. This is an interesting idea which might have provided a fresh new perspective on events: not everyone at Peyton’s school (or in society generally) is obsessed with politics, after all. But the voter (played by Russell Posner) is clearly anything but typical. He is far more drug-obsessed, girl-obsessed (a point over emphasised with far too many shots of him checking girls out) and violent than anyone around him. The episode is a complete dud.

Despite these flaws and too many irrelevant musical interludes from the talented Platt, however, The Politician is still well-acted and compelling enough to make it worth viewing. But as Peyton himself is once cruelly described, this is more Gerald Ford than Barack Obama.

The Politician is on Netflix now.

The Returned: unanswered questions

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Few recent series have so captured the popular imagination as eerie French drama The Returned (Les Revenants) which ended its Channel 4 run yesterday. But with a second series and indeed an English language remake planned, many questions still remained unanswered as the first series ended.

Chiefly:

Why exactly did some people in the town start coming back to life? What’s the connection with the dam and the water supply?

Why didn’t everyone who had died come back? Why was Camille the only one to return from the crashed bus, for example?

The boy Victor seemed to cause the bus crash in the first episode. Why was this?

Why did Camille’s older sister Lena (not actually one of “the returned” herself) develop horrible symptoms on her back? And how come these seemed to go away?

How did religious loon Pierre come to be involved in the murder of the Victor’s family?

How many times can the dead be killed and come back?

Why exactly did Simon die on his wedding day? Was it suicide? Or something else?

Is Julie, who was attacked in the underpass seven years ago dead? (Probably not).

Did Victor kill Julie’s nosey neighbour?

Is Adele dead?

What was the story behind Monsieur Costa’s suicide in Episode One? Why didn’t he come back?

Why couldn’t Julie and Laure leave the town at the end of Episode Seven? Is everyone in the town dead? Are they in Purgatory?

What happened to The Returned at the end?

And…the town’s flooded. Merde!