Just in case for some insane reason you don’t already have them on DVD, this is just a quick reminder that possibly the best TV programme ever made, Callan, is getting a very rare repeat, thanks (of course) to Talking Pictures. I think the last time it was repeated was on UK Gold in the early to mid 90s, so don’t expect it to come round again for another 20 years.
The action starts with the original Armchair Theatre production that launched it, A Magnum for Schneider, which coincidentally again is this week’s Weekly Play. It sees working class ex-spy David Callan (Edward Woodward) blackmailed by his former boss Colonel Hunter into returning to ‘the Section’, SIS’s dirty tricks department responsible for everything from extortion through to assassination. His task? The murder of the titular Schneider, a German businessman who may be more than he seems. But has Callan’s nerve gone? And if it has, will his former employers kill him?
It’s a brilliant, unshowy piece of work, with Woodward showing his star credentials from the outset. But Russell Hunter as his informant ‘Lonely’, Ronald Radd as Hunter and Peter Bowles as Callan’s posh fellow agent Meres are all stand-outs. In an era of spy escapism, Callan was a welcome bit of gritty, down at heel British drama.
After A Magnum for Schneider, Talking Pictures will continue airing the series proper with the show’s surviving black and white episodes (no, the BBC wasn’t the only broadcaster to wipe its archives from time to time), in which the marvellous Anthony Valentine took over from Bowles as Meres, and a legion of other great actors eventually took over, Number 2-style, from Radd as ‘Hunter’.
After that, we head into the colour Thames episodes, which thankfully still survive. If you miss it, you’ll be sorry!
UPDATE: Actually, checking Talking Pictures schedules, it looks like A Magnum For Schneider isn’t getting an airing, so it’s straight into the black and white episodes tonight with The Good Ones Are All Dead at 9pm. That means you should definitely watch this week’s Weekly Play!
I feel sorry for some TV producers, you know. Sure, there are some that make television shows that are just bad. Often, as with Ghost Wars say, that’s down to all manner of obviously poor choices behind the scenes.
But with something like Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*, Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re The Millers, Central Intelligence)’s first TV show, you can tell that everyone’s really, really trying, there’s some real smartness to the writing, yet for some reason, nothing quite works.
As the name suggests, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* is a hyper-aware, highly meta TV show in which Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars) plays ‘Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars)’. An unnoted actor whom everyone confuses with Ryan Phillippe, he’s just landed a pilot episode on the new YouTube Red subscription service in which he tags along with LAPD detective Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) as she investigates ‘real’ murders. Her no-nonsense cop skills combined with his insights into the LA social and acting movie scene enable them to solve crimes others can’t.
What’s the format?
So the format is slightly Castle, although with Wiley so focused on the Angry Black Woman persona she’s saddled with, there’s no romantic chemistry between her and Hansen whatsoever. But the show is far, far more It’s Garry Shandling’s Show than it is Castle.
For starters, it obviously knows it’s a television show that’s being filmed for a subscription TV series and so do all the characters, who can, of course, see the cameras and even talk to camera.
The asterisk at the end of the title has a different self-aware explanation each episode, too (eg “Though you’re probably watching this on your phone and that’s cool too”, “Though you’re probably watching this on stolen Chinese Internet and that’s cool too”).
There are constant digs at the network, whether it’s because no one’s ever heard of it, they have but are actually confusing it with RedTube or YouPorn (“It’s exactly like YouTube but it’s not free.” “Great business model”) or the fact it costs the same as Netflix but doesn’t have The Crown, Stranger Things or anything else anyone might want to watch.
There are digs at Hansen’s lack of TV success. There are digs at his cluelessness, such as when he goes for an audition in a movie version of Hamilton (“I know in the musical they’re all black actors, but the original guy was white apparently, so I guess I’m just going back to the source material”). There are cameos from other actors playing versions of themselves, with Eric Christian Olsen (NCIS: LA) recurring as Hansen’s more successful, mean arch-rival ‘Eric Christian Olsen (NCIS: LA)’.
But it goes deeper than that, as Hansen constantly gives Wiley notes on the nature of the show, such as the use of West Wing walk-and-talk scenes and whether she should have ‘a mouth prop’ and deliver lines in the style of the great David Caruso. Other characters can see the programme is being filmed, too, and can critique the show itself, including Hansen, such as when he’s attacked with a sword by a woman in her underwear (“I’m not sure whether this is misogynistic or empowering for women”).
And since the programme’s format is allegedly still in flux, the directorial style frequently changes, from cameraphone at one extreme to multi-camera studio comedy at the other – at the end of each episode, Hansen returns home to his ‘wife’ Aly Michalka (Hellcats, iZombie) and their children in their ‘house’, which comes complete with live studio audience – much to Wiley’s surprise, of course. ‘Neighbour’ Jon Cryer even drops by for the end scenes, too, so that studio sitcoms can be satirised (“Great cameo, Jon. If the pilot gets picked up, we could make this a regular guest spot”).
Perhaps most amusing of the regular jokes is that the Angry Captain who chews out Hansen and Wiley has a touch of the Prisoner/Callan to them – it’s a different famous black actor each time (Barry Shabaka Henley, Steve Harris, James McDaniel, Frankie Faison, Leslie David Baker, Yvette Nicole Brown and Reginald VelJohnson) but they’re always ‘Captain Jackson’.
Not much cop
Tragically, all of that is for naught, however, since when it’s not being meta and sending up LA and TV in general with accurate barbs, it’s not got anything left. For far more of its still-long 30 minute runtime, each episode is a cop drama that isn’t much cop. Most exchanges of dialogue between Hansen and Wiley involve Hansen saying something and Wiley hating/swearing at him in return without any wit whatsoever. Wiley doesn’t really get to contribute much to the show beyond being the straight woman, either.
All of which makes Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* a slog, albeit one that’s peppered with a considerable number of jewels. Is it worth it? Well the first two episodes are free, but in the UK, there is no YouTube Red subscription service, so you’ll have to buy each subsequent episode for £1.89 a shot. For eight episodes in total, six paid for, that’s nearly £12, which even with guest appearances by the likes of Kristen Bell and Joel McHale (“Who are you playing?” “Ryan Hansen” “He’s playing me?”) is a bit of an ask – certainly compared to Netflix.
So watch the freebies if you like, although don’t expect to love them, but paying for the rest is probably a bad idea.
Every month, TMINE lets you know what TV the BFI will be presenting at the South Bank in London
Oh, I do love October-November. All the leaves, colours. And, of course, all the lovely TV events that the BFI will be hosting. This ‘month’, in fact, there are a few doozies that I will shortly be booking, I suspect.
For most people, the appeal will be two previews with Q&As: the first of the fourth season of Inside No.9, at which Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith will be in attendance; the second of the forthcoming Hard Sun, written by Luther‘s Neil Cross and starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn.
For me, though, the big draw is Saturday 25th November’s ‘thrilling television’ day, which will include:
A ‘Callan at 50′ panel discussion
A ‘Sixties Spies and Beyond’ discussion that will include clips of The Avengers, The Man From UNCLE et al
That’s me sorted for the day. How do you reckon I break it to my wife?
Or that there’s a talk on the Wednesday evening about the state of conspiracy thrillers on UK TV, comparing them to classic shows like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Edge of Darkness? Ah, waddya gonna do?
Walter has been napping. Supposedly watching hours of foreign-language TV every week to find the best shows from around the world for Channel 4, somehow he managed to avoid watching any of Canal+’s 2015 output – despite Canal+ officially being France’s good TV channel. That means Amazon have had the chance to poach Canal+’s Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) from out of Walter’s hands. Oops.
In that curious way these things happen, we’ve coincidentally been talking a lot about both verisimilitude and spy shows in the past couple of weeks, taking in along the way both Legends and The Night Manager. The latter is the epitome of modern British spy shows, departing from the glorious semi-realistic days of Callan, The Sandbaggers, et al to give us nonsensical, cliched but glossy affairs that convince almost no one.
Fortunately, France seems to remember how to do a decent spy show, judging by Le Bureau Des Légendes. Set in the undercover section of France’s equivalent of MI6, the DGES, it sees Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) playing a top undercover operative who’s been working in Damascus for the past six years. He’s mysteriously summoned back to Paris at short notice, where very quickly problems emerge with ‘Cyclone’, the DGES’ top operative in Algeria. A devout Muslim, Cyclone is nevertheless mysteriously arrested for drink-driving and is taken away by Algerian police, before promptly disappearing. Has he been rumbled as a spy or has he been turned and engineered his own disappearance?
In common with its stable-mate at Canal+, Engrenages(Spiral), there are multiple wheels turning within wheels in Le Bureau Des Légendes. Despite being ordered to break off all ties with her, Kassovitz invites his married lover from Damascus (Zineb Triki) to visit him in Paris. His superiors wonder whether he has ‘Post Mission Disorder’ and can’t shake off his old life. But more importantly, Triki might have secrets of her own that jeopardise Kassovitz.
At the same time and seemingly unrelated to the main plot, Kassovitz is training up a new operative (Sara Giraudeau) to go undercover in Iran. There’s also a new psychiatrist (Léa Drucker) monitoring everyone and Kassovitz has to deal with his now grown-up teenage daughter, whom he left without explanation. And there’s a bunch of French spies out in the Sahara somewhere who are definitely up to something, but by the end of the third episode, may themselves not know what that is. Just to make everything even less clear, the third episode is told in flashback while Kassovitz is attached to a lie detector – all without explanation.
How it all fits together I suspect is something that will get revealed by the end of the season, but it’s merely happy to set up the puzzles in these first few episodes.
In common with the likes of The Sandbaggers, the show is admirably concerned with realism and tradecraft. Although it occasionally uses the likes of Drucker and Giraudeau to Basil Exposition everything to us, it does do its best to give us a look at how spies probably work and approach security in the 21st century in a way that most other shows ignore. Mobile phones are banned in the Bureau in case of remote exploits turning them into listening devices and operatives have to clean their own desks so that no one who doesn’t ‘need to know’ needs to enter the Bureau. But that’s basic compared to things like mapping mobile phone signals and using behaviour analysis of the data to get an indication of likely events.
As you might expect from the double meaning of bureau/office, also in common with The Sandbaggers, this is a show that’s mostly about talking and office work. Big chunks of it are people sitting around discussing what precious information they have from far away can mean, as well as internal and external politics with other agencies, divisions, superiors and allies. Although the second episode does give us a car chase of sorts through central Paris, it ends as a car chase in central Paris probably would end, rather than à la The Bourne Identity‘s. The show also does have the occasional moment of humour, such as an odd little side-plot in the third episode involving a mouse getting into the Bureau and Drucker’s analysis of her superior’s multi-coloured tie.
Linguistically, there are fun things going on in the French that for once, the subtitles actually do a jolly decent job of conveying, but occasionally miss out on. I quite liked the French ‘faire le ménage’ (to do the housework) being used to mean ‘remove anything incriminating from the house’, for example, but that gets translated as ‘clean the house’, which sort of works but not quite. More entertainingly, all the codenames for undercover operatives are derived from insults and expletives used by Captain Haddock in the French-language Tin Tin comics. But as befits such a globally-focused show, there’s plenty of Arabic and the occasional bit of English, too.
It’s not 100% realistic. While there’s some admirable computer expertise behind the scenes, for some reason everyone in France uses the same Windows XP installation, no matter where they work. It also seems unlikely that anyone who’d been undercover for six years would have been so senior or so readily accepted back into the fold.
But Le Bureau Des Légendes is certainly the best spy show I’ve seen this year and the first French show in quite some time that I’ve actually wanted to boxset (sorry, Marseille). There have already been two seasons in France, and a third is on the way, so give it a go if you can.
Barrometer rating: 1 Would it be better with a female lead? Yes, but is that ever going to happen in France? TMINE’s prediction: N/A
Here’s a French-language trailer, but if you want one with subtitles, you’ll need to go here, although there are a few spoilers from after the first three episodes by the looks of it.