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June 9, 2016

Review: Secret City 1x1-1x2 (Australia: Foxtel Showcase)

Posted on June 9, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Secret City

In Australia: Sundays, 8.30pm, Foxtel Showcase

As we all know, US networks have a marked tendency to copy one another. No sooner is one network commissioning a time travel series then all of them are. Period dramas beget more period dramas. Hangover knock-offs beget Hangover knock-offs. And so on.

Of course, the US isn't unique in this. For every Doctor Who and Atlantis in the UK, there's a Primeval and a Beowulf. Australia isn't immune either. Although last year was a bit of special case, we saw not one but two dramatisations of the events at Gallipoli, and following on from the political intrigue of ABC's The Code, we've had Ten's Party Tricks and now Foxtel's Secret City.

But a copy needn't be inferior to the original and surprisingly, Secret City is easily the best of the lot. Adapted from journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis's The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin CodeSecret City has huge amounts in common with The Code but is far better. Also set in and beautifully filmed in Canberra (part of a concerted effort by ACT to get more Australian shows filming in the city), it sees Anna Torv (Fringe) playing a top political journo who's mysteriously sent some incriminating photos featuring Australian defence minister Daniel Wyllie (The Beautiful Lie) when he was just a lad in China, hanging out with the state police as you do. As Wyllie is surprisingly pro-Chinese, anti-US, there's the suspicion that he's possibly a Chinese plant. But who sent the photos and why? And how is it all related to the murder of a young student with similar Chinese links? 

In contrast to The Code, which was all flashy computer hacking, trendy Asperger's kids and running around in the countryside, Secret City is shoe-leather journalism. The first two episodes sees Torv doggedly ploughing her way through documents and interviewing witnesses and her contacts in order to expose the truth. In this she's helped (and also hindered) by her trans ex-husband Damon Herriman (Battle Creek, Justified, Flesh and Bone), who works for the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), and who handles all the techy stuff involving mobile phones et al. 

While not 100% accurate when it comes to either newspaper journalism or computing, the show is close enough to reality that it feels real, almost like an Australian version of State of Play. Rather than pseudonymous political parties in the style of Byw Celwydd (Living A Lie), the show is happy to deal with and satirise real parties (particularly the Greens). There are references to real political situations that affect Australia, such as China's ambitions in the South China Sea, and China and its manipulations are explicitly Chinese, not YA "Asian country". 

It's also quite subtly written - Herriman's trans status isn't explicitly mentioned and is handled sensitively, yet is also a plot point. I'm not quite sure why ASD only has a male security guard - you'd think it might have more than one female employee, wouldn't you? - but the show manages to handle trans issues without coming across like a piece of 'social justice' propaganda.

Despite being a thriller, Secret City is also funny at times, particularly thanks to Jacki Weaver, who plays Labor's straight-talking, foul mouthed power broker - the Peter Capaldi of the piece - but also because Torv's newspaper editor is none other than Huw Higginson (for 10 years, PC George Garfield on The Bill) and the American ambassador to Australia is Mekhi Phifer, who hasn't improved as an actor one jot since Torchwood: Miracle Day. It's also amusing to hear from his mouth talk of the singular importance of the special relationship between the US and Australia. And, of course, Jim from Neighbours (Alan Dale) is the Australian Prime Minister now.

I really enjoyed the first two episodes; I'm hoping the next ones will be just as good, particularly as we're at a time of year when we face a plethora of new shows that are rarely worth our time. No word yet on a UK pick-up of the show, but since both The Code and Foxtel's own Deadline Gallipoli eventually got acquired by UK networks, I'm hopeful.

June 8, 2016

Review: Feed The Beast 1x1-1x2 (US: AMC; UK: BT Vision)

Posted on June 8, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Feed The Beast

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, AMC
In the UK: Acquired by BT Vision. Available in Autumn

We are, I'm sure, all knowledgeable, media-literate gentlemen and ladies of the world who have at least seen The Player so know what a pitch-meeting is. In case you don't here it is:

Now, I'm wondering exactly what the pitch was to AMC that made its commissioners think, "Yes, let's do it!" I've tried all sorts of permutations:

"I'd like to remake the Danish series Bankerot, which is about two friends who decide to set up a restaurant together."

No bite. So then the pitch progresses.

"The mafia is involved. One of the friends, the chef, has been in prison. He owes them money. The restaurant is how he's going to pay them off."

Stoney faces. After all, would you be commissioning at this point? It's already at nearly double the 25 word count, too.

Time for a plot dump. "The chef friend was coked up and burnt down the restaurant they were working for, which is why he's in jail. The other guy is a sommelier. His wife has died. His son has become selectively mute. He lost his job and so has become a travelling wine rep and hates it. He's living in a disused factory in the Bronx. He doesn't speak to his rich dad any more because his dad's an epic racist and his wife and son are black. But then he has to borrow money from him to set up the restaurant."

I'm still not seeing anyone commissioning it, are you?

So I'm therefore guessing, since we do actually have a show called Feed The Beast on our screens as a result of said pitch meeting, is that what happened was it either ended with or entirely consisted of: "I'm Clyde Phillips. I was the showrunner of Dexter when it was good. David Schwimmer from Friends will play the sommelier and I've got John Dorman from The Wire to play the dad."

That would work, wouldn't it? 

Continue reading "Review: Feed The Beast 1x1-1x2 (US: AMC; UK: BT Vision)"

June 7, 2016

Review: Private Eyes 1x1-1x2 (Canada: Global)

Posted on June 7, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Private Eyes

In Canada: Thursdays, 9/8c, Global

Although few realised it at the time, one of the most enduring legacies of the Stephen Harper government in Canada was the Jason Priestley Full Employment Act. Passed midway during Harper's period in office, it had one basic stipulation those on the left described as 'croneyism' but those on the right regarded as essential to Canada's future economic development: the continuing, 24/7 employment of the likable but only averagely talented actor Jason Priestley by the Canadian entertainment industry.

At first, the obligations of the Act seemed relatively simple to abide by, with HBO Canada granting him four seasons of Call Me Fitz, despite it being a relatively obvious, largely unfunny twist on My Name is Earl in which a car insurance salesman is followed around by someone who claims to be his conscience. Lasting four seasons, it managed to keep Priestley sufficiently occupied that he only had time to appear in an entire season of Haven and a couple of theatrical productions. 

However, HBO's decision to end Call Me Fitz on the grounds of it 'not being very good' meant that the industry was now breaking the law, prompting the Harper government to fire a warning shot across Canadian TV's bows and to cut CBC's finances significantly. The industry took note and soon responded.

As well as significant voiceover work, Priestley was soon given not one but two new series: Raising Expectations and Private Eyes. Critics argued that with the arrival of the Trudeau government, there was no need for these shows. Indeed, they were quite clearly programmes that had only been created to give Jason Priestley a job. Yet so inured was Canadian television to the extrinsic need to employ Jason Priestley that many had succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, arguing that not only were these shows needed, they were even good - despite the fact that even a moment's thought would have shown them that Private Eyes in particular was truly awful. They really should have paid attention to that thought, because it would prove to be their wake-up call.

A combination of nostalgia for terrible 80s US private detective shows and a blatant attempt to copy the formula of Castle (or indeed any show, just as long as Priestley could remain in perpetual work - Castle just seemed to have the easiest formula to copy), Private Eyes saw Priestley implausibly playing a former ice hockey star turned scout looking after a young protege who's about to hit the big time. When the aspiring star implausibly has a heart attack on the rink, Priestley suspects foul play and begins to investigate, implausibly working alongside a private investigator (Cindy Sampson) recommended to him by his telephone engineer father (Barry Flatman).

Ultimately left without anyone to coach yet needing large amounts of money to afford his luxurious lifestyle and implausibly to be able to send his gifted blind daughter to private school, Priestley's still-implausibly named character, Matt Shade, decides implausibly that his best option is to become a business partner with Sampson in the notoriously poorly paid profession of private investigator.

Were it not for the requirements of the Act, such a laughable premise would have remained firmly on paper. Instead, it was commissioned as a 10-part series by the Global network, where almost minimum effort was put into its realisation - it was, after all, enough it be made, since the Act, quickly rushed through Parliament, had overlooked including a stipulation that required Priestley's government-mandated shows to be good.

The show's faults were so numerous, practically a new counting system was needed to list them all. There was its name - a staggeringly lazy name for a private detective show, more so given that there wasn't even the slightest sign of a double meaning to it. There was its lazy choice of theme tune, a cover of Hall and Oates already insipid 'Private Eyes' made even blander.

There was its lazy choice of co-lead, Sampson being possibly one of the worst actresses in the world, certainly of those who had never bothered leaving Canada, but who had got the job by virtue of having been available on the first day of filming.

There was its astonishingly weak dialogue, the complete lack of chemistry between its leads, the complete lack of attempts to break any formula of the private detective genre, the absence of any kind of understanding of police procedure and minimal tension.

Even the characterisation varied massively, just in the first two episodes, with Priestley being a smooth, astute, potential private investigator in the first episode, Sampson likely to put her foot in it, the two then swapping roles in the second episode for no good reason. Priestley, down on his luck at the end of episode one, is paying for expensive restaurant meals and the privilege of working with Sampson by episode two - ostensibly through having sold his championship ring on eBay.

The show made even New Zealand's Brokenwood Mysteries look fast-paced, thrilling and innovative. Many put that down to the writers' true desire to be making a TV cooking or sports show, guessing that the constant references to sport and restaurant food in Private Eyes were less an attempt to give Priestley's character background, more an attempt to create a subtextual, onscreen CV for future employers. Others assumed the show was a cunningly crafted backdoor pilot for a Canadian version of The Greatest Event in Television History, so slavishly did the title sequence follow the brainless conventions of late 80s syndicated US television.

However, more disturbingly, it was soon revealed that Private Eyes was in actuality the biggest protest against the Jason Priestley Full Employment Act since its passing through Parliament, the sole aim of the show being to ridicule the Act sufficiently that it be repealed, so that Priestley would never be employed by Canadian TV ever again purely because of government whim.

The Emperor really did have no clothes - the show was intentionally bad. How could anyone ever have thought otherwise?

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