Review: The Rook 1×1 (US: Starz; UK: Virgin)

In the US: Sundays, 8pm ET/PT, Starz
In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, Virgin TV Ultra HD. Starts tonight

I can’t tell if Starz is a bit limited or has a David Cameron-esque ‘one in, one out’ approach to TV series. If you recall, until quite recently, it had a sci-fi spy thriller set in a major European capital: the rather good Counterpart. It cancelled that before the end of the second season for no really good reason.

But could the explanation for this insanity have nothing to do with quality or ratings? Could it simply be because Starz had The Rook coming and it didn’t want two very similar shows on at the same time? One clearly a lot, lot better than the other?

Joely Richardson in The Rook
Joely Richardson in The Rook

Rookie mistake

Adapted from Daniel O’Malley’s novel of the same name, The Rook is set in frequently rainy London and sees Emma Greenwell (Shameless US) waking up next to the Millennium Bridge, surrounded by a host of internally exploded dead bodies. She doesn’t remember how she got there or even what her name is, let alone how everyone died, so legs it.

In her pocket, she discovers a letter – from herself. In it are two keys to a safety deposit: one red, one blue. If she uses the blue key, she can start a new life with a new identity; if she uses the red key, she can re-enter her old life. Be warned, her previous self warns her, your old life is dangerous.

Guess which one she picks.

The Rook

By hook or by rook

Soon, ‘Myfanwy’ is learning that she works for a secret branch of British Intelligence called the Checquy that deals with people with special powers. Everyone in Checquy is given a rank based on chess and she’s a ‘rook’ and works for ‘queen’ Joely Richardson.

All she’s got to do is find out what happened to her and not get found out –and not let guest American agent Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) learn that she’s the one who exploded her boyfriend by the bridge. Oops.

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Review: Reef Break 1×1 (US: ABC)

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Although France has a reputation for being a bit anti-American, its TV schedules suggest a different story. They’re packed with US imports, the popularity of which can endure for far longer than in their own countries.

We’ve recently discussed France’s love affair with Starsky & Hutch, but a far more recent hit, far more popular in France than it was in the US, was Unforgettable, starring Without A Trace‘s Poppy Montgomery.

Small surprise, therefore, that Montgomery is the lucky star of Reef Break –the latest project from that most Americophilic of the French channels, M6, and ABC Studios International’s second international show following Harrow.

Reef Break

On reefer

Created and written by both Montgomery and Numb3rs‘ Ken Sanzel, Reef Break is set on the fictitious US Pacific territory of ‘Reef Island’ and sees Montgomery playing a crime-solving surfer.

No, really.

Of course, episode 1 explains how Montgomery becomes a crime-solving surfer. Previously a hot-shot crime-committing surfer, she ran into hot water when she accidentally married undercover FBI agent Ray Stevenson (Rome, Punisher: War Zone, Thor, Dexter) and ended up testifying against various mobsters.

Returning after an absence of five years to explain why one particular mobster she testified against shouldn’t be granted parole, her notoriety lands her on TV and she’s soon dragged into the kidnapping of a local rich girl.

Soon, her rule-breaking, criminal acuity, observational skills and downright sassiness endear her to powerful people on the island.

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Review: Jett 1×1 (US: Cinemax)

In the US: Fridays, 10pm, Cinemax
In the UK: Not yet acquired

The writing genre known as ‘Elmore Leonard’ is very hard to emulate. Leonard was a blackly comedic but gritty crime writer, but if you get try to do Elmore Leonard and are too comedic, you end up doing ‘Quentin Tarantino’ and if you get too gritty, you end up doing… everyone else.

Small wonder then that even projects based on Leonard’s own work have failed to capture his style, by moving a gnat’s wing in either direction. Indeed, both Get Shorty and Get Shorty failed to embody the essence of Get Shorty.

Interestingly, though, Jett is possibly the closest we’ve seen to a true small screen Elmore Leonard production, despite not being based on any of Leonard’s work.

Carla Gugino in Jett
Carla Gugino in Jett

Jett sexy

Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Roadies, Wayward Pines, The Haunting of Hill House) plays Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, a world-class thief recently released from prison who has every intent on staying out of prison.

Unfortunately, former boss/pal Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, Revolution) has a big job that only she can do and he’s willing to pay her $500,000 to do it. All she’s got to do is go to Cuba with no back-up and switch for a duplicate a ring currently residing in a safe in Eastern European criminal Greg Bryk (Bitten)’s house.

Needless to say, not everything goes to plan. However, everyone has their own plan, including Esposito, Bryk and Gugino, and no one’s quite what they seem, so exactly whose plan does go to plan and whose doesn’t is debatable…

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Perpetual Grace

Review: Perpetual Grace LTD 1×1 (US: Epix)

In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, Epix
In the UK: Not yet acquired

There’s a strange overlap between theatre, independent cinema and small TV networks trying to make a name for themselves. Certainly, when you watch “a neo-noir thriller” with long two-handed scenes of deliberately unnaturalistic dialogue delivered by “actors’ actors”, in long-shot and black and white, you know you’re not watching NBC – this is going to be Epix, Starz, IFC or SundanceTV, AMC at a push.

Epix is an odd addition to that list, since so far, it’s been content with more accessible programming, such as Berlin Station, Get Shorty and Graves. Actually, that’s basically been it as far as it goes in the three years since the network decided to give scripted a whirl, so Perpetual Grace LTD feels like a distinct change of direction and attempt to reframe the network.

Jimmi Simpson and Damon Herriman in Perpetual Grace LTD
Jimmi Simpson and Damon Herriman in Perpetual Grace LTD

Perpetual grace and favour

Written and usually directed by Steven Conrad (Patriot, Wonder, The Pursuit of Happyness), Perpetual Grace sees Jimmi Simpson (Breakout Kings, Westworld) playing a former firefighter. Former because he quit the fire brigade after a rookie firefighter was killed through his negligence.

One day, he’s approached by Damon Herriman (Secret City, Quarry, Squinters, Mr InBetween) who’s looking for someone to help him get some money out of his estranged god-bothering parents. All Simpson has to do is get into their good books and send them looking for him down south where a friendly policeman (Code Black‘s Luis Guzmán) will lock them up for a fortnight. During that time, Simpson can assume Herriman’s identity, declare them dead and then take over their assets.

Simple, right?

Oh yes, one more thing – he’s got to get addicted to methadone so that they’ll take him in.

Trouble is, Herriman’s holding back on a couple of secrets and Simpson’s really not the ruthless criminal type.

Worse still, Herriman’s parents are Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver.

Oh dear.

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Swamp Thing

Review: Swamp Thing 1×1 (US: DC Universe)

In the US: Fridays, DC Universe
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Swamp Thing is one of the most oddly popular characters in the DC comic book universe. So-called because creator Len Wein couldn’t think of a name for that “swamp thing I’m working on”, Swamp Thing was originally just a horror comic character, with scientist Alec Holland seemingly dying in a swamp, but thanks to a chemical, ending up a plant-monster instead.

Gosh, wouldn’t you want to read that?

Not even two movies by Roger Corman persuaded people that Swamp Thing was worth reading. Instead, as with most things comics in the 80s, it wasn’t until Alan Moore was let loose on the title that a seemingly ordinary comic book character could become extraordinary.

Moore had already subverted Marvelman/Miracleman into a quasi-scientific analysis of superhero powers, their status as a new Greek pantheon and how they could transform the world if they so wanted.

With Swamp Thing, he was able to muse on the hidden horrors of US society, deconstruct the right-wing and Christian values at the core of comic book morality, and enable Swamp Thing to transcend his slock origins. He even introduced the world to John Constantine along the way, and ironically, it’s his run on Swamp Thing that gave Constantine its first season ‘big bad’

In his hands, Swamp Thing was no longer Alec Holland transformed into a plant beast – he was an elemental, a supernatural protector of nature, intended to preserve the balance in ‘the green’. He wasn’t a man: he was the plants themselves thinking they were a man, but actually borrowing his consciousness and creating a similar form – no more the true Alec Holland than the nearest tree or rose bush was.

That proved a successful enough interpretation of the character that the USA Network was able to resurrect Corman’s version of Swamp Thing for a three-season run from 1990.

Andy Bean and Crystal Reed in DC Universe's Swamp Thing
Andy Bean and Crystal Reed in DC Universe’s Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing (2019)

Oddly, though, it doesn’t yet feel like DC Universe’s take on Swamp Thing is going to follow the successful Moore interpretation. Instead, Swamp Thing is very much a show rooted (ho, ho) in the horror genre, particularly the “things that go bump in the swamp at night” genre, but with a slight hint of Cronenbergian body horror.

It sees Crystal Reed (Teen Wolf, Gotham) playing Swamp Thing’s comic book main squeeze, Abby Arcane. Now a CDC doctor, she returns to the home town she thought she’d left behind forever, when a strange haemorrhagic disease breaks out in the swamps and people start dying.

In the hospital, she meets scientist Alec Holland (Power‘s Andy Bean), who hints that stranger things are afoot that might at first appear. He’s been hired by local bigwigs Will Patton and Virginia Madsen to see if there’s anything financially exploitable in the swamp. However, he’s discovered something else much stranger.

Together, Bean and Reed investigate the swamp – as well as the local town – and grow closer. But there’s a murder on its way that’s going to change everything…

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