In the UK: Mondays, 9pm, ITV1
In the US: Not yet acquired
Once upon a time, ITV ruled the roost of action TV. With the classic shows of ITC such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Danger Man and The Avengers, ITV pretty much dominated the 50s and 60s. Then there was The Sweeney, The Professionals, Out et al during the 70s and Robin of Sherwood in the 80s, as well as all those glorious US action imports that almost always ended up on ITV first.
In the 90s, post-franchise change, it all went pear-shaped. Now ITV1 is a bit of a gamble when it comes to action shows. You might get lucky and find a show like Sharpe's Progress/Plimsolls/Whatever that starts off well and continues to be good. Or you might find a show that starts off well then becomes a bit of a turkey (eg Ultimate Force). Most of the time, though, you'll come across something dismal like The Outsiders that's so bad it has a biohazard warning next to it in the Radio Times.
But ITV1's turned over a new leaf. It wants to be known for quality programmes. Can it do quality action TV? The Fixer, which started last night, is actually a very good attempt at a quality action show.
John Mercer is ex-Special Forces serving a double life sentence for the murder of his aunt and uncle. It was a crime he committed out of revenge for the years of physical abuse his sister Jess suffered at their hands.
Released from prison unexpectedly early, John is introduced to the shadowy Lenny Jameson, a police officer retired on grounds of “ill health.” He quickly learns that his freedom comes at a price. Jameson runs an unofficial operation with a simple brief: remove untouchable criminals and disorganise crime. Mercer’s role is that of hitman.
Blackmailed by Douglas into killing for the state, Mercer struggles to come to terms with his mission. Desperate for any chance at a normal life, he attempts to reconcile himself to the task in hand. But each new assignment only brings him further and further into conflict with his taskmasters and his conscience begins to take over.
To help him on each hit, Mercer is introduced to his new colleagues. They include Calum McKenzie, a petty thief, whose main interests are girls, drugs and music. He is worlds away from the intelligent, thoughtful ex-soldier.
Things are further complicated by the final member of Lenny’s group of misfits: the beautiful but duplicitous Rose (Tamzin Outhwaite). A disgraced ex-copper who has always used her sexuality and guile as her primary weapon, she is more than a match for Mercer.
Was it any good?
Okay, so the initial set-up is about as daft as they come. No government, especially the British government, needs to blackmail anyone into becoming an assassin to kill major crims. I imagine there would be a mad rush of volunteers if they ever put an ad on Monster.co.uk.
The premise is merely a nod of the head to La Femme Nikita and to a lesser extent Callan (cf conscience-stricken government assassin with a love-hate relationship with an irritating sidekick) – an attempt to create Drama for our hero, who wouldn't be quite so heroic if it turned out he really loved the job (although at least one member of The Unit has fessed up to rather liking the killing thing, so maybe not).
Nevertheless, within the terms of its daftness, it's actually really good, as you'd expect from something put out by Kudos. It's wonderfully downbeat and never resorts to explosions to life the pace. The dialogue, while not exactly what you'd call realistic, is interesting, it defines character and it doesn't feel like you'd heard it before – it comes across more like the dialogue from a crime novel rather than a TV show. John Mercer isn't a massively emoting soap character in the wrong genre and he's not serenading eagles with a cello. He's a smart, taciturn killer with normal human emotions. His new colleagues are equally well drawn, even when they're being shady.
Direction and cinematography are both top-notch, with some lovely compositions and the taste to turn away from anything too unpleasant. Acting from our hero (Andrew Buchan) and his new boss (Peter Mullan) are equally good, with Mullan just the precise amount of Glaswegian to out-hard even the most taciturn of action heroes without really trying - clearly a leaf has been taken out of The Professionals' Good Scottish Bosses Guide. Sidekick Jody Latham gives a performance that's hard to classify: it's about right for the character but feels naff for some reason, although he has moments.
Women, I'm afraid to say, come out of this badly. If you were looking for a good female role here, you might as well go off and take up unicorn hunting instead – you'd waste as much time. Women either provide the standard justification for male violence (as per Shane, The Seekers, Death Wish, etc), chiefly in the form of Liz White, Mercer's abused sister; or they're there for shagging. Even Tamzin Outhwaite has little to do except take her clothes off and put them on again. Then take them off. Then put them on again.
It's a good bit of escapist fun for adults who like a bit of a thrill and whose brains haven't yet switched off completely. So I'll be tuning in next week, as, hopefully, will the 6.2 million viewers who tuned in this week. Well, I'll be setting Bastard the PVR anyway - it's America's Next Top Model on Living.
- May 26, 2008: The Fixer - Series Two
The Fixer has been recommissioned for a second series
- October 11, 2013: Preview: The Tunnel/Tunnel (Sky Atlantic/Canal+)
A preview of Sky Atlantic and Canal+'s The Tunnel, starring Stephen Dillane and Clemence Poésy
- September 16, 2016: Review: Quarry 1x1 (US: Cinemax; UK: Sky Atlantic)
A review of the first episode of Cinemax/Sky Atlantic's Quarry
- September 28, 2016: Third-episode verdict: Quarry (US: Cinemax; UK: Sky Atlantic)
A third-episode verdict on Cinemax/Sky Atlantic's Quarry