Deep State
International TV

Review: Deep State 1×1 (UK: Fox UK)

In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Fox UK

The words ‘Deep State’ and ‘Fox’ in near proximity should normally trouble you. For the uninitiated, the idea of the ‘deep state’ is that secretly, behind the scenes there’s a new world order of sorts, trying to ensure that specific policies happen. So far, so illuminati. However, in the US, Fox News, Donald Trump et al have used the phrase ‘deep state’ to suggest that anyone potentially working against President Trump – for example, to impeach him for various criminal offences he might have committed – is really a member of the deep state trying to frame him, is a traitor and should probably be executed. This includes members of the FBI and other government organisations who might be doing what others would call ‘obeying the rule of law’.

Want to know if someone’s a crackpot? If they use the phrase ‘deep state’ to talk about Robert Mueller, they’re a crackpot.

Fortunately, we’re in the UK, Fox UK isn’t Fox News and Fox Networks’ first European/African commission Deep State isn’t suggesting that Alex Younger is a pawn of Goldman Sachs. Sure, there are hints that the Iraq war was started by big business for its own needs and engineered David Kelly’s suicide, but that’s not really deep state or the government of the day, and at least it’s all fictionalised. Robert Mueller’s real. So’s Donald Trump.

Untrumped

Deep State sees Mark Strong (Low Winter Sun) playing a former MI6 officer who’s retired to France and is now living happily with his new French wife Lyne Renee and lovely moppets. Then he gets a spooky calling card from his spooky former boss (Alistair Petrie), demanding he return to London. There he’s told that son Joe Dempsie (The Fades, Skins, Game of Thrones) is dead, having decided to follow in his dad’s spying footsteps. Worse still, he’s been killed by Strong’s protégé Zubin Varla (Strike Back).

Strong’s mission, which he decides to accept: head off to Beirut to kill Varla and the rest of his team, as they’ve clearly gone rogue. But is everything as it appears to be? And whom can Strong trust?

Joe Dempsie in Deep State
Joe Dempsie in Deep State

Lofty ambitions

Just like dopey old The State WithinDeep State has lofty ambitions to be a smart spy show, does its best, but ends up getting drowned in a sea of spy clichés. Filmed in both Morocco and London and with a supporting cast that also includes Anastasia Griffith (Trauma, Damages, The Cazalets) and Amelia Bullmore (Big Train, Scott & Bailey), Deep State has obviously had a lot of cash spent on it. True, although Morocco works fine as Iran or Beirut, it’s less fine as France, but it’s not Scunthorpe at least and they also hired a few French speakers. The fact there are references to ‘The Section’ clearly suggests that writer Matthew Parkhill is a fan of Callan, and thus an appreciator of the classics.

But it’s spy dramas, rather than spy fact that are the reference points here and if you’ve watched some decent spy shows, almost nothing about Deep State will surprise you – other than when it goes for something blindingly stupid that seems beneath it.

You can forgive stupid names for covert sections, such as ‘the Bank’. You could even forgive the ‘key to a safety deposit box containing top secret footage on a USB drive’. But if all it contains is a minute-long confession to camera, what’s the point of that, hey? What’s that going to prove?

Then you get supposed top-tier secret assassination units learning that a member of their team is in league with the baddies (thanks to a timely observation said member should have known about) and rather than heading off their own separate ways, falling back to plan B, etc, they decide to go back to the safe house their treacherous friend knows about to discuss all of this and then pick somewhere else to go to.

Worse still, every ‘twist’ is one you’ll see coming. Do the goodies all trust precisely the wrong people, every single time? Yep. Is everyone going to fall for every single trap laid for them? Yep. I’m hoping it’s all an elaborate bluff and later episodes will play on this, revealing how the audience have been fooled. But putting it all in the first episode? That’s either brave or stupid. Or more likely, it’s not a bluff.

So, sure, it’s smart. But it’s smarter than the average generic spy show in the same way a £4.99 bottle of wine is better than a £1.99 bottle of wine. That still doesn’t make it a premier cru.

Mark Strong in Deep State

Strong enough

Strong does his best to be a stoic puncher of bad guys, jumping across rooftops and beating up guys half his age, in decently choreographed but unsurprising fight scenes. He also does well being a stoic punchbag for various wives of his, current and ex, as they berate him for being a spy.

“Tough job being a man, isn’t it, hey? But the world needs stoic, manly spies, prepared to sacrifice and not cry for their dead sons, even if women won’t understand that – until we save them,” the show might as well have stamped on Strong’s forehead. It’s not quite the worst spy characterisation since we evolved from slime molds, but it’s getting there.

But that’s virtually all the characterisation anyone gets, as the show is more geared up to deploying nonsense plotting to suggest that the ‘deep state’ is everywhere. Think you’re safe in France? Ha, ha! We can get your bank card blocked and your utilities switched off! Ha, ha again!

They could have emailed to arrange an appointment, you know?

Anastasia Griffith
Anastasia Griffith in Deep State

Conclusion

Strong and his strong Strong performance, as well as the production values, are the show’s main draws at the moment, although I quite like the fact that Varla’s probably a good guy for a change. But I’m not feeling enthused at all and I might not even bother with a second episode. Nevertheless, it could have been worse and given it’s already been renewed for a second season, some people clearly liked it.

Don’t go in expecting a new Bourne or even an old Bond and you might enjoy it. If The Night Manager is more your speed, again, this could be a show for you. Just don’t expect The Sandbaggers.

Altered Carbon
Internet TV

Boxset Monday: Altered Carbon (season 1) (Netflix)

Most science-fiction is an attempt to talk about the present. Stories that genuinely try to predict what the future will be like are far harder and inevitably of their time – we mock 50s sci-fi for imagining we’ll all have flying cars and rocket packs, but was 80s sci-fi any less fuelled by the nuclear concerns of its period?

So spare a thought for Altered Carbon, which does its level best to imagine a future in which bodies are completely replaceable, making death an optional rather than mandatory part of human existence. There’s some heavy thinking gone into it and it’s a show that really does make you philosophise.

Death becomes him

It’s the year 2384 and thanks to some fortuitous discoveries on an alien planet, human beings now have ‘stack technology’. Bodies are now ‘sleeves’ that you wear, while consciousness resides in a crystal disc or ‘stack’ that slots into the back of your neck. Take the disc out, put it in another sleeve and hey presto, you’re reincarnated. With cloning, cybernetics and other technologies, you can become fat or thin, black or white, man or woman, child, snake, robot or even someone completely different – it’s your choice, provided you have the cash for it, of course, otherwise you get nothing or maybe someone’s old hand-me-downs.

But if you do, you can become as old as Methuselah himself. When someone tries to kill one of these rich, all-powerful ‘Meths’ (James Purefoy), seemingly unaware he backs up his consciousness regularly, the reincarnated Purefoy decides he needs someone who can investigate his murder who is both exceptional and immune to all the norm societal pressures of the time.

So he ‘spins up’ Takeshi Kovacs (former Robocop Joel Kinnaman) in a new body, 250 years after he last died. Kovacs was an Envoy, a former space soldier capable of doing all manner of superhuman things, and now it’s up to him to solve Purefoy’s murder – assuming he wants to, given that he was once part of a rebellion that tried to stop the Meths getting the power that they now have.

Will Kovacs care enough to help in this new time and place? And if he does, what will he discover and who will try to stop him?

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And for a long time it is. Trouble is, there’s a moment where the whole show slams into a brick wall at 70mph, from which no one walks away alive. So much for stacks, hey?

Still, let’s talk about it after this shiny trailer and the jump. Spoilers ahoy, but hopefully nothing too serious.

Continue reading “Boxset Monday: Altered Carbon (season 1) (Netflix)”

Kelly Reilly in Sky Atlantic's Britannia
BAFTA events

What TV’s on at BAFTA in January 2018? Including Requiem and Britannia

Every couple of weeks, TMINE flags up what new TV events BAFTA is holding around the UK

We’ve already done January, but BAFTA is being its usual helpful self and not telling me about things until they have already sold out (Meet the Controllers – thanks, BAFTA!). So I’ve had a look and it turns out that they had some secret Welsh events they hadn’t told me about as well. Better still, they’re not sold out.

Continue reading “What TV’s on at BAFTA in January 2018? Including Requiem and Britannia”

Counterpart
US TV

Preview: Counterpart (US: Starz)

In the US: Sundays, Starz. Starts January 21

Science-fiction and espionage seem at first glance to be a perfect combination. Think of how many successful spy shows and movies over the years have also been science-fiction greats: Total Recall, The Champions, Alias, Airwolf and more. Indeed, there’s even a name for the genre: spy-fi.

Look a little harder, though, and you’ll notice that the greater the emphasis on the science-fiction, the worse the show is. The more SF a James Bond movie contains, the worse it gets (invisible cars, anyone?). That’s because – to generalise broadly – the spy genre is fundamentally about people, whereas science-fiction is more about ideas. Those spy-fi classics? They were the ones that remembered to concentrate on both the people and the ideas.

Counterpart

Now we have Counterpart, a show that does its best to give us both big ideas and little people, while also invoking the magic blessing for any spy show: a Berlin location and obvious Cold War parallels. JK Simmons (Law & Order, Whiplash, The Closer, Oz) plays a very little person at a UN spy agency based in Berlin. For 29 years, he’s worked uncomplainingly in the ‘Interface’ department, where he goes up every morning in the same suit to read out sentences to another man from ‘the Other Side’ in a small room, before returning to his desk. His requests for promotion go unheard and he can’t even get an interview.

Meanwhile, his wife Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) is in hospital after being run over six weeks previously, and her brother Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica, Perception) is trying to get her returned to the UK and her ‘true family’. Simmons is passively nice and unable to say or do much in response to all these injustices.

Then one day, he’s dragged by boss Harry Lloyd (Robin Hood, Game of Thrones) to meet chief of security Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee). A top spy from the Other Side wants to defect. The Cold War that’s been going on is thawing and assassin Sara Serraiocco has come over to start killing people on this side – including Simmons’ wife.

Thing is, the Other Side is a parallel universe with which Simmons’ universe has been in contact with for decades but which has diverged over time, and the would-be defector is… JK Simmons.

Now the two Simmons, spy and Mitty, must work together to stop the assassin and whatever’s caused this thaw in the Cold War, while simultaneously looking at each other to see how their lives turned out so differently.

Regrets, I’ve had a few

Although similarities with Fringe are obvious, this is far more a well worn story of male wish fulfilment: the little man, over the hill, wishing for a more exciting life than he ever had, suddenly getting a chance to lead that life. It was the substance of many of the early Man from UNCLE episodes and it’s the essence of Total Recall.

Here, the difference is that firstly, Simmons is a much better, more plausible little man/spy than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Secondly, while there is action and excitement to be had, the show works far better as an examination of roads not taken, what choices you can make in your life that will take it in completely different directions and how much of who you are as a person is caused by external rather than internal factors. Great efforts are made against the overly-stylised sci-fi background to make Simmons and all the other characters seem like real people, albeit with variable success. It’s certainly helped by the supporting cast, with a range of Brits giving great, understated performances, particularly Lloyd, but Thomsen is as good as always and there are also some fine German actors in minor roles, too. More good actors are on the way, too, with the near ubiquitous Richard Schiff and Stephen Rea set to do a turn soon, too.

It works less well as a spy show than you might hope, though, and that’s because of the sci-fi throwing everything out of whack. The Interface department looks cool, for example, but seems ludicrous – why are they doing this? What possible reason could they have for it? Whatever it is, it’ll be nonsense when revealed, I bet you. There’s also far less of Berlin to be seen than you might hope and while the show avoids the tourism of Berlin Station, there’s the obligatory ‘exotic’ club scene.

All the same, Counterpart offers more or less the best of both genres. It’s not exactly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; neither is it Blade Runner. But as a moderately entertaining piece of metaphysical musing – with guns, parallel universes and a surprisingly kick-ass JK Simmons – Counterpart has a lot to offer.

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