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October 18, 2014

Review: The Affair 1x1 (US: Showtime)

Posted on October 18, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Affair  

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime

Oh imagine the irony: Detective McNulty – the son-in-law to Commissioner Rawls! For fans of The Wire at least, this is probably the most exciting thing about Showtime’s The Affair, in which Dominic West plays a New York novelist/teacher married to successful businesswoman Maura Tierney (The Whole Truth), but still forced to leech off her rich father, John Doman.

Because The Affair is slow stuff. Very very slow stuff. So slow that every so often it pretends to kill a child, just to ensure the audience stays awake.

But the fabulous BeTipul and In Treatment – which were created and written by The Affair’s co-creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem respectively – were equally slow, and The Affair is as psychologically engrossing, albeit in a very different way. It sees West going out to visit Doman with Tierney and his four kids in a resort town in Long Island for the summer, where he meets waitress Ruth Wilson (Luther), who’s recently lost her own child and is married to the abusive, cheating, embittered Joshua Jackson. West and Wilson hit it off and despite West having avoided all previous temptations to stray, he and Wilson end up having an affair.

So far so French, right down to the Gauloises, albeit with two English protagonists faking American accents only intermittently successfully.

The big twist is that the story is told in flashback, from both West and Wilson's points of view. Literally told, because both West and West are relating their sides of the affair separately to another person for quite a surprising reason – but if I told you what that was, I’d be spoiling one of the first episode’s big surprises that don’t involve the fake-out deaths of one of West’s kids.

As a result, the episode is told in two parts, the first West’s, the second Wilson's, and we see the same scenes told from two different perspectives and with two different build-ups and follow-ons. More importantly, we also see differences, since West and Wilson’s stories sometimes differ – for reasons that become clearer as the episode progresses.

Whom can we believe, when for example West portrays Wilson as a seducer, him as innocent, while she says the opposite? What is the true story? What actually happened?

All good questions, none of which gets answers before the end of the episode. Indeed, for all I know, we might never get answers, which to a certain extent might well be the point of the show: the real world's lack of an objective truth, only subjective truths. But the show is also less about an affair per se, as about the fall out from an affair and how that emotionally impacts both those involved and those close to them.

Now, how much you’ll want to watch this may well depend on how much you’re likely to be interested in regular-type people doing regular-type things, albeit regular-type people with perhaps a bit more money than you or I have. You’re also asked to sympathise with adulterers, which might be something you can’t do – particularly with West’s character being a cock in both versions. The fact that Wilson so successfully played a sociopathic liar opposite The Wire’s Idris Elba in Luther – to the extent that a spin-off show based around her was planned by the BBC – throws in an additional supertextual element of doubt for the viewer aware of her past and the possible reasons for her casting.

But this is gripping stuff if drama rather than just explosions and ray guns* interests you. While West for once is the weakest acting link, Wilson and Jackson are both on excellent form and Doman is clearly relishing being more Borgia than Baltimore cop opposite West. Compared to the likes of Satisfaction, it’s considerably more grown up, while still avoiding the Rectify trap of absolute and tedious mimesis.

Probably the best drama of the fall season so far. If you’re in the US, you can watch the whole first episode on YouTube; if not, here’s a trailer.

* I loves explosions and ray guns, me. But there’s more to me than that.

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Third-episode verdict: Gracepoint (US: Fox; UK: ITV)

Posted on October 18, 2014 | comments | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerGracepoint.jpgA Barrometer rating of 3

In the US: Thursdays, 9/8c, Fox
In the UK: Acquired by ITV. Will air in 2014

Three episodes into Gracepoint, Fox’s remake of ITV’s acclaimed Broadchurch, and it’s becoming clear that the show works best when it’s not a murder-mystery. Now to a certain extent, you’d expect that. In common with The Killing, the first episode of the show focused on the reaction of a small community to the murder of a child, the grief of the family and how the murder affected everyone involved, right down to the police who knew the affected family. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, it was obviously several notches above the ordinary crime show, which treats such things as incidentals that can at most add an extra couple of scenes to an hour-long episode.

On top of that, fresh from Broadchurch came David Tennant to reprise his role as the investigative detective, a traumatised city cop who has to deal with small town thinking and small town people, not to mention the resumed glare of the media’s eye which affected a similar previous case of his and his own demons. True, Tennant seems both verbally and physically out of place next to the American cast - although much less so than the mysteriously English Sarah-Jane Potts, who runs this small American town’s hotel for no particular reason and no one seems to notice that she’s English either - but he’s as good as always, otherwise.

But the mistake the second episode then made was to assume that we’d be interested in finding out more about the personalities of the supporting characters and that a great big shoal of red herrings was what we really wanted, as we’re all busily trying to work out whodunnit and a few twists and turns always go down well. That didn’t work for The Killing (US) and it didn’t work for Gracepoint.

Fortunately the third episode returns to the concerns of the first episode - the grieving family and friends, and Tennant interactions with local detective Anna Gunn. Tennant’s character is a multi-layered thing, not a traditional maverick cop but someone who’s simply not good with people, thinks being good with people stops you solving crimes since you make allowances, thinks local policing is inferior to city policing and indeed hates small towns and everything about them completely. In return, Gunn hates Tennant and doesn’t accept his methods, and it’s in their arguments and conflicts that the show finds a unique perspective as a crime drama, with both Gunn and Tennant being shown to be both correct and wrong, depending on the situation. It’s their dialogue and mutual antagonism, rather than the case itself, that are truly interesting and different.

My worry is that the original eight-episode first series of Broadchurch is now a ten-episode story and that the show hasn’t got enough grief, depth and analysis to push everything out to that length and avoid numerous run-arounds and yet more red herrings. The temptation is clearly there, as the second episode shows, and there could well be more to come.

All the same, as it stands after the first three episodes, Gracepoint is still an excellent TV show. It’s not a happy little thing at all, full of misery and pain, people struggling with problems and secrets, with barely a smile or a joke in the first three hours, so if you’re hoping for something a little lighter, this really isn’t your show. But if it can maintain the quality and you’re prepared to deal with the misery, it’s a rewarding piece - surprisingly so, given it’s in on Fox. But then the same could be said about the original ITV show and look how well that turned out.

Barrometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: Will undoubtedly make it through to the end of the first season unscathed, but it’s not getting the ratings Fox was hoping for, so I’d be surprised if it makes it through to a second season. And given the reaction to the original’s ending, despite the changes, there’s always the possibility of a similar backlash with Gracepoint

Preview: Benched 1x1 (US: USA)

Posted on October 18, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Benched

In the US: Tuesdays, 10.30/9.30c, USA. Starts October 28

And lo! It came to pass that the USA Network, the motto of which was “Characters Welcome”, decided that it was going to make comedies. Because if you make hour-long dramas and comedy-dramas, surely half-hour comedies are just as simple, right?

And first it did commission a weak-arse adaptation of Channel 4’s Sirens that still managed to be one of 2014’s best-rated basic cable comedies. And then it did commission Playing House, which made the weak-arse Sirens look like Fawlty Towers.

Then after a mere eight months of thinking about whether it was sure about this whole comedy thing, it did commission a third comedy, Benched, which apparently was enough for USA because although they’re ‘fully committed’ to it (translated: will drop it like a hot potato as soon as possible), there are going to be no more USA comedies for the foreseeable future.

So let’s appropriately enough start shouting “Dead man walking!” as Benched trundles across our screens, waiting for its imminent execution. It’s a shame really, because it stars Eliza Coupe, who after starring in both Scrubs and Happy Endings, would normally be onto better things than her Happy Endings colleague Casey Wilson, yet who has the (slightly) superior Marry Me on NBC. Coupe plays a corporate lawyer who’s first dumped by her fiancé and then overlooked for partner at her firm, prompting an outburst (and demolition) at her firm so strong that she’s not able to work in corporate law any more and is forced to take a job as a public defender. There she meets a motley collection of similarly failed lawyers and demented defendants, and has to do her best to both survive and look after those she’s charged with defending.

And there’s a guy. There’s always a guy.

Coupe does her best and the script does explore areas of the law that most legal shows don’t bother with, ranging from why you should be nice to security guards to the shoddy treatment that the poor get at the hands of the law. But despite all Coupe’s delivery as well as physical comedy skills, the show is woefully unfunny, with a script bereft of any jokes that might cause you do anything more than smile or titter. While the characters are at least more bearable than those in Sirens and have greater maturity than gnats, unlike those in Playing House, a particularly sarcastic judge that Coupe has to deal with is really the only one you’d voluntarily see again, and basing a series on Coupe’s legal wrangles with her ex- as a proxy for their relationship issues doesn’t really make you want to watch more than another one or two episodes tops.

Benched could get better over time, but we’re talking about a pretty poor foundation for everything. And given how little USA apparently wants to stay in the comedy business, I doubt the show will get renewed after its first season unless it gets some very, very good ratings.

So pray for Coupe to get something better, but expect Benched to be benched before the year is out.

Here endeth the lesson, but starteth the trailer. You may titter at it a bit.

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Preview: Benched

Dead man walking