Screen Shots: 29 February 2016

Weekly segment in “reaches second edition on this blog” shock.

This week in television, I developed a new obsession with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and spent a frighteningly large chunk of the week watching all the songs on YouTube, so I probably didn’t spend as much time watching actual television as I perhaps should have done. So expect a lengthy post in praise of Rachel Bloom (with whom I am slightly in love) at some point in the near future, but for now let’s get on with the things I did actually manage to watch.

TYRANT (SEASON ONE) (FOX)

Tyrant

Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that I write about television for a living, my Sky+ box is a terrifying wilderness. It is full of entire series that I have recorded on the assurance that I am “definitely going to watch that at some point”, only to get distracted by something else. One such series was Tyrant, Fox’s US drama set in a fictional Middle East state (Abbudin, which at least half of the cast rather amusingly pronounce as “Aberdeen”) from whence our hero, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, fled to escape his despotic father and become a paediatrician in California instead. Many years later, Barry reluctantly returns for his nephew’s wedding, but when he witnesses the brutality of the regime (and also his dad dies), Barry decides to stick around to stop his brother Jamal from becoming a tyrant just like their dad.

Most of the reviews I read of the show weren’t terribly favourable, citing the inherent problems of casting a white actor as Barry and the saviourism aspect of having someone who is – to all intents and purposes – an American portrayed as the only one capable of bringing democracy to the country. (The show is from several of the creators of Homeland, its portrayal of the Middle East is about as nuanced as you’d expect.) I think the idea, judging from the title at least, was to show Barry as corruptible by the lure of power, and certainly that’s where the second half of the season takes things, as Barry decides to stage a coup against his own brother, claiming it’s for the good of the country when it’s almost certainly just because Barry himself quite fancies being in charge. This sounds like it ought to be quite dramatic but it was actually disappointingly inert, because Barry isn’t a terribly engaging central character. I thought Jennifer Finnegan did good work with an underwritten role as Barry’s wife Molly, as without her I’m not sure I’d have even been able to tell that Barry was being tempted by the dark side, but her character wasn’t central enough for her to be able to shore things up by herself. Ashraf Barhom was also heaps of fun as Jamal, but there’s a limit to how much I want to root for a character who is a tyrannical racist, no matter how many woobie “I never really wanted to be the president and also my dad always loved Bassam best” moments he was given.

The biggest misstep for me, however, was Barry’s kids. I can only assume that the writers felt they had to give Barry some children, because viewers would ask too many questions if a happily-married man of his age didn’t have any, but the kids were so inessential that they disappeared for several episodes at a time without anyone even wondering or explaining where they were. Barry and Molly’s son Sammy felt ill-conceived to me: a teenage boy who isn’t out to his loving, liberal parents but has no problems openly soliciting cock in a repressive regime where homosexuality is punishable by death? I mean, I get that teenage gays often do have a dangerously high sense of bravado, but he just didn’t ring true to me. Still, at least the writers made more of an effort with him than they did with Emma, who was such a non-entity that I could never remember her name when someone wasn’t directly addressing her. The brief for the character seemed to be “Grace Florrick, without the edge”, and the only thing of any note she did all series was disappear on a shopping trip with her aunt and get mugged on the exact same day that the Al-Fayeeds were supposed to fly back to Pasadena to avoid being caught up in Barry’s coup. So, not so much a character as an actual plot device.

Worryingly, despite all this I still have the entirety of season two still on the box, and will probably feel obliged to watch it at some point.

CRASHING (CHANNEL 4)

Crashing

I didn’t have high hopes for Crashing. I thought that Phoebe Waller-Bridge was one of the weaker elements of series two of Broadchurch, which was a fairly sizeable catastrophe in the first place, so the idea of her writing and starring in her own sitcom didn’t exactly get my pulse racing. Even when I watched the first episode, it felt a bit manic – a load of sexy twentysomethings living in a disused hospital, falling in and out of bed with each other, and then someone’s wacky friend (Lulu, played by Waller-Bridge) turns up to throw a spanner in the works. It felt very consciously Channel 4, with lots of jokes about periods and orgasms and Lulu playing a ukulele far more than was strictly necessary.

And yet, I went back to it and found myself strangely charmed by it. I don’t really know what the problem was in Broadchurch, but it can’t have been Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself because I thought she excelled here, both as a writer and performer. Actually, I thought the show had a uniformly strong cast, who took fairly stock characters (uptight and neurotic woman obsessed with organisation, moody French artist who’s sexually uncompromising, introverted gay nerd etc) and made them lively and fun – Louise Ford in particular gave the prim and repressed Kate a depth that many lesser actors wouldn’t have found. The standout by far, however, was Jonathan Bailey (who’s always been enjoyable in things like Broadchurch, W1A and even Me And Mrs Jones, but doesn’t get to be the lead often enough) as sexually omnivorous estate agent and massively narcissistic dickhead (tautology?) Sam. This character in particular could’ve been a nightmare in less assured hands, but Bailey made him strangely endearing no matter how awful his behaviour got. The slow-burn attraction between Sam and aforementioned shy nerd Fred (Amit Shah) turned out to be surprisingly touching (even if it was inevitably one of the most unhealthy relationships I’ve seen outside the works of Stephenie Meyer), with the deliberately aggressive pet names Sam came up with being a regular highlight – my personal favourite was “cummy bum”, even though my attempts to work it into everyday conversation have so far been unsuccessful.

I’ve no idea whether the show is likely to return for a second series – I’ve no evidence that it had impressive ratings or any great acclaim – but I hope someone at Channel 4 is fighting its corner because it grew stronger and more confident with each episode, and unlike a lot of shows like this, it seemed to have genuine affection for all of its characters. Six episodes weren’t nearly enough.

EUROVISION: YOU DECIDE (BBC FOUR)

Eurovision: You Decide

After years of having the decision taken out of our hands by the BBC, we were finally trusted with the responsibility of choosing which act and song we send to Eurovision this year for the first time since we sent Andy Abraham in 2008. (We got to vote for the singer in 2009 and 2010, but not the song.) I wrote about the songs themselves in detail here, but what about the show that hosted the decision-making process?

As was perhaps to be expected after several years of not having to stage anything like this, the show was a little bit rough around the edges: music cues were played at the wrong time, Katrina Leskanich’s microphone was rarely working, some of the sound mixing during the songs themselves was a little off. But host Mel Giedroyc did a fine job of holding the whole thing together, and incorporating enough wry humour to keep the Woganites happy while still treating the whole thing with a degree of reverence befitting someone who actually enjoys the whole process of the Eurovision Song Contest on a non-ironic level. I think my biggest issue with the show was the presence of a judging panel, which felt wholly unnecessary – perhaps people don’t feel comfortable staging a singing competition without judges in a post-X Factor world, but they really had nothing to add here. Carrie Grant kept trying to give constructive criticism that nobody – performer or audience – really stood to benefit from, since this was a one-off endeavour, while choreography and staging judge Jay Revell seemed superfluous and Katrina Leskanich, as previously mentioned, was mostly inaudible.

None of the performances on the night really did much to change my initial impressions of the songs, so I came out of it hoping for Bianca to win, but feeling that Darline would be an equally acceptable victor. In the end, however, it was Joe & Jake who, gifted with the pimp slot, won the right to represent us in Stockholm in May. Their immediate reaction to the news was to say that they planned to work on the song a lot in the meantime, which I think speaks a lot to their character and is broadly promising. If nothing else, the song is quite far removed from the sort of thing we’ve been sending to Eurovision for the last few years, so it’s worth a shot. At least this year we can say we at least put a little bit of effort in.

AND IN BRIEF…

  • This week on EastEnders, Abi was worried that she’d lied to Gay Ben about her pregnancy, so of course Aunt Babe suggested that Abi try to fix this in traditional Walford fashion: by shagging someone else to get up the duff. For some reason, they both decided that the best place to meet a suitable gentlemen for the task was…Paul Coker’s birthday party. I can’t be the only person seeing the obvious flaw in that plan, can I?
  • I know people say that Happy Valley is grim and gritty and all of those things, but nothing on TV in the past week made me laugh as much as Catherine’s fascination and horror at discovering that her colleagues had two (unflattering) nicknames for her that she knew nothing about, and her desperation to find out what they were by any means necessary. I’ve been so busy marvelling at what a brilliant dramatic actor Sarah Lancashire is that I forgot she has fabulous comic timing as well.
  • And over on Survivor, it appears that the insect that burrowed into Jenny’s head last week did more damage than we realised, because she proceeded to tank her entire game at tribal council by admitting she’d been conspiring against her own alliance and then trying to blame the whole thing on the obvious strategic mastermind that is…Alecia. My favourite part of all of this was the traditional “you win this show by making big moves” discussion that led to Jenny approaching Alecia about a new alliance in the first place. Jenny, not only is it perfectly possible to win this show without ever having to make a big move, but it’s also advisable to wait until you’ve at least made it to the merge. You tried to pull a big move on day six in a three tribe season when two-thirds of the players weren’t even around to see it. You twerp.
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