In the US: Sundays, 9pm ET/PT, Epix. Starts October 16 2016
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, More4. Starts October 2015 2018
‘Peak TV‘ is the name given to the idea of there being too much TV for us to consume. Thanks to the Internet, cable, et al, it’s a lot easier for a company to ‘transmit’ content; also, more and more people want to make content. As a result, that means there’s an awful lot of TV out there being made by an awful lot of people. However, there’s only so much talent in the world and it’s starting to get spread pretty thinly, particularly around the world’s media industry, which means that there’s a lot of bad TV made by people who don’t actually know how to make good TV.
A while ago I came up with the idea of ‘cargo cult TV‘ – TV going through all the motions of a genre but without really understanding the rules of that genre. As a result, it’s missing something essential. I’d like to expand that to encompass the idea of people making TV but not really getting TV.
Take Epix. Until recently, Epix like AMC – aka American Movie Classics – before it, was content to air other people’s content before suddenly deciding to make some TV shows of its own. The first to make it out of the gates is Berlin Station, created by spy novelist Olen Steinhauer and set in… well, you can probably guess.
Now Berlin Station goes through all the motions of being both a proper spy show and a proper TV show. Nevertheless, it’s cargo cult TV. Something intrinsic’s missing from it, preventing it from being either a spy show or a good TV show.
Like other cargo cultists, Steinhauer and Epix have done their best to emulate TV producers. They’ve recruited a great big, top notch cast. The hero of the piece is our very own Dick Head, Richard Armitage, who’s no stranger to spying thanks to Chris Ryan’s Strike Back, Captain America and Spooks. They’ve got Michelle Forbes (Homicide, The Killing (US), In Treatment), Rhys Ifans (Elementary, Twin Town), Tamlyn Tomita (Babylon 5, The Joy Luck Club) and Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under), too.
They’ve found a German co-production partner, hired some actual German actors and flown all the way to Berlin to film everything. They’ve even done what every other political show has done of late and ‘stolen from the headlines’ – and, of course, since there are very few headlines about spying these days, that means Yet Another Edward Snowden whistleblower plotline. And they’ve hired a proper European film director for the first two episodes – Michaël Roskam (The Drop)
All of which is designed to fool the viewer into somehow thinking they’re watching a top, premium cable TV show.
Except they’re not. They’re watching pure cargo cult TV arse.
CIA Officer Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) arrives in Berlin on a clandestine mission to unearth an anonymous whistleblower, alias Thomas Shaw, and reunites with his old friend Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans). As Daniel gets closer to Shaw, his quarry reacts in murderous fashion. The talented ensemble cast also includes: Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser, Tamlyn Tomita, Caroline Goodall, Bernard Schütz, Mina Tander and Sabin Tambrea. (TV-MA)
Is it any good?
Episode two is better than episode one, but it’s all still pretty laughable.
It’s hard to put your finger on one individual problem as being the root of it all, since there are so many small problems and they all add up into one big problem.
For starters, there’s the cast, with Armitage and Ifans both playing Americans. Not even Americans pretending to be Brits, but Americans who are supposed to speak excellent German, Armitage being an army Brat who grew up in Berlin. Given that it’s a heinously long time through the first episode before anyone who can even pronounce ‘Zeitung’ correctly turns up, it’s not really surprising that Armitage speaks faux American English all the way through the first episode. When he’s actually allowed to speak German in the second episode, he’s actually not half bad – I even understood what words he was trying to speak most of the time. But he’s not exactly someone who “learnt German the right way”, to quote Forbes (I’m guessing Michael Fassbender was busy).
Meanwhile, top handler Ifans spends most of his time either snogging his boyfriend or hanging out in the most decadent gay clubs in Berlin in a suit and tie, while everyone else dresses like fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Actually, laughable isn’t even close to the word.
Similarly, there’s the general pretension of spy verisimilitude without much real understanding of what that involves. Armitage is supposed to be just an analyst who’s worked out who the Snowden-alike’s German go-between is, which would explain his distinct lack of tradecraft, at least. Tailing someone you later plan on getting close to? Well, hey – why don’t you just tail them for hours, by yourself, about 10m behind them at all times, while wearing a baseball cap? They’ll never spot you then. But then these are people who set up meetings using secret messages created by cutting up word puzzles to use as templates to put over publicity fliers.
Bobbins, bobbins, bobbins.
Then there’s direction. Sure, Roskam is European, but he’s Belgian, not German, and when he’s not borrowing from The Bourne Supremacy, he directs like any other tourist director in Berlin. Taxis just have to go past the Brandenburg Gate, everyone has to hang out near the DB building – if they’re not sitting out on the lawn on Museum Island by the end of episode three, I’ll be very surprised.
Then there’s the 80s, Equalizer-esque soundtrack and montage title sequence, the fact that scenes don’t feel like they actually follow on from one another or even from previous parts of the narrative, and simply moments that look ridiculous, such as when Armitage is twatting about town on a push-bike with a great big grin on his face as he heads off on a date.
Berlin Station tries hard. It has a good main cast. It has a good supporting cast, including a whole bunch of Germans who are actually allowed to speak German. Some proper money’s been spent on it.
But it’s clear from the choice of director, writer and leads that no one really has a good idea yet at Epix about how to make TV. Give them time and maybe they’ll get there. Just not with Berlin Station.