Killing Eve
US TV

Review: Killing Eve 1×1 (US: BBC America; UK: BBC One/BBC Three)

In the US: Sundays, 9pm, BBC America
In the UK: Acquired by BBC One/BBC Three. Will air in 2018

These days, it’s perhaps hard to remember that the James Bond books were aspirational pieces of writing. Sure, they were about an MI6 spy – well, assassin really, given his licence to kill – but as well as being a classic example of ‘competence porn‘, their endless lists of foods, designer labels and airports were also windows on a world of luxury and international travel that a post-war generation of readers still on rations could never hope to see for themselves. Small wonder that the movies with their glossy location filming became huge hits for the pre-EasyJet generations, who now know full well that airports are not in the slightest bit glamorous.

Outside the John Le Carré world of spy realism, pretty much every male spy TV and film series has been the same aspirational idea, just redressed for a new generation or slightly different audience: the Bourne movie series is basically Bond again, but for liberal Americans, for example.

Aspirational female spies – and assassins – have been a little harder to find. Sure, there have been attempts, such as the Moneypenny books and Black Widow in comics, but possibly the best attempt so far has been Modesty Blaise, although the movie didn’t really set the world on fire, despite numerous charms.

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

Jane Bond

One could argue about what an aspirational female spy/assassin would be, but BBC America’s new series, Killing Eve, offers one really good suggestion. Adapted from Luke Jennings’s Villanelle novels by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it sees Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) playing a bored MI5 desk officer who begins to suspect that a series of assassinations around the world are the work of a female assassin. Even though, it’s not her job, she defies orders and investigates, resulting in tragedy – and possibly a new job thanks to MI6’s Fiona Shaw.

Rather brilliantly, even though the books are about Russian orphan-turned-assassin Villanelle – played equally brilliantly here by Jodie Comer (Doctor Foster) – Oh is the clear protagonist of the piece. That means we aren’t asked to identify as much with Villanelle and her job and can instead aspire to her rather wonderful lifestyle. She lives in Paris, speaks multiple languages fluently, and has designer bed linen and clothes.

But rather than be a simple blunt, character-less tool of the state like James Bond, or a seductive femme fatale without any desires of her own, Comer’s Villanelle has fun. She’s also fun herself. When handler Kim Bodnia (Bron/Broen) shows up at her apartment, she’s faked her own suicide – but not too well, as she doesn’t want him to believe too much, since it’s just a joke.

She’s also no mere male spy with the pronouns changed or a male fantasy. She does things that no male spy tends to do: she plays with children, for example. Can you imagine Bond doing that? She’s also more gymnast than ninja or member of the military. She shins up drainpipes like she’s in the circus, and when she’s forced to hide in a room without exits, she literally folds up her diminutive stature inside a suitcase. She listens to cool music, wears cool clothes, zooms around on motorbikes and is a delight to behold, even when she’s stabbing someone in the eye.

Small wonder that Killing Eve is all about the mutual fascination that Oh and Comer end up having for one another, Comer and her fun life being something that Oh could aspire to having.

Kim Bodnia and Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
Kim Bodnia and Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

Spy humour

But Killing Eve is as much a comedy as it is a drama. Nevertheless, unlike most spy comedies, such as Austin Powers, ChuckSpy or In Like Flint, it’s not a spoof. Instead, this is a comedy of everyday life, of the office and of relationships. Oh and work colleague David Haig are annoyed to have to come into work on a Saturday – and are still hung over from Haig’s birthday party from the night before. Oh snacks her way through this important meeting and is worried that she’s not making the right impression with Shaw. Important conversations happen while buying milk at the corner shop, rather than over a shark tank.

I have to admit to really loving Killing Eve, with its mixture of spy glamour and spy mundanity. Despite being made by BBC America, there’s location filming all over Europe and it looks great. Oh’s a great lead and fits in with the British tone and humour. Comer, meanwhile, is a revelation – I don’t remember ever seeing her in anything, but here she dominates every scene when necessary, while disappearing into the background whenever the story demands it.

Even if you didn’t like Fleabag, there’s a good chance you’ll like or even love this. And it might even make you want to become a top female assassin.

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.

What have you been watching? Including Spectre, Master of None, Flesh and Bone, and You’re The Worst

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

The first of the mid-mid season shows made their way on to our screens/Internet connections this week. Elsewhere, I’ve reviewed the first episodes of Agent X (US: TNT), Donny! (US: USA) and Blood and Water (Canada: Omni). However, they’re not the only new shows that have started this week:

Master of None (Netflix)
Aziz Ansari’s best known from Parks & Recreation, but here he’s playing a thinly disguised version of himself – Dev, a small-time Indian actor living in New York and trying to get his break in a business that’s still not ready to accept Indian actors as anything except taxi drivers, doctors and convenience-store clerks, and then only with Indian accents. This is something that Ansari has one or two opinions about, which he shares with his other Indian friends, as well as his Asian friend and black lesbian friend. 

It would be tempting to assume this is basically Ansari’s version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but actually, it’s far more reasoned, genteel, likable Curb Your Enthusiasm, with each episode almost self-contained and exploring not just discrimination against Indians by the media, but a different facet of modern life, during all of which Ansari tries to be reasonably respectful and thoughtful in extremis. The first episode looks at kids and parenthood, with Ansari discovering that being the fun uncle only works for an hour or so, and that a full afternoon looking after kids is more than he can bear. However, of the six episodes I’ve watched so far, it’s actually the least funny. 

Fortunately, things pick up after that, with some genuinely amusing episodes, particularly one that sees Colin Salmon doing a ‘Patrick Stewart on Extras‘, and Parents, which is a spot-on look at the relationships between older parents and young adults, particularly first-generation immigrant adults. Guest stars including Claire Danes, H Jon Benjamin and Noah Emmerich also give the show a greater pedigree than you’d otherwise have thought.

While Ansari’s squeaky voice gets annoying after a while, this is the first Netflix comedy so far that’s been worthy of the name, and I’ll be trying to watch the rest of it as soon as I’ve finished writing this.

Flesh and Bone (US: Starz)
Short version: Showgirls meets Whiplash at the ballet
Long version: A surprisingly loving, beautifully shot, eight-part mini-series about an abused young woman (Sarah Hay from Black Swan) who runs away from home to make it big at the ballet. Her talent is spotted by the head choreographer (Ben Daniels), who decides to make her a star, but he has very strict training methods. 

All of which is lovely and beautifully done, with some excellent acting, and even though I’m absolutely not a ballet person, some of the dancing was absolutely stunning and even moving. However, so far, the long version doesn’t sound Starz enough, does it? 

So first add in copious nudity, sex and drug-taking, lots of mean girl scenes, maybe a hint of lesbianism. Then have new girl ballerina equivocating about whether to moonlight with another ballerina as a stripper to make ends meet. Then add in some truly hilariously bad scenes, such as when the choreographer is vigorously bumming another bloke over his desk while repeating to himself things like “I am the master of all I survey.”

I think I would have watched this were it not for that kind of epic stupidity and excess that tend to dog Starz shows. But I doubt I’ll get much further with it now.

I’ve passed a third-episode verdict on Supergirl (US: CBS; UK: Sky1) elsewhere, so after the jump, a look at the latest episodes of Arrow, Ash vs Evil Dead, The Beautiful Lie, Blindspot, Doctor Who, The Flash, Grandfathered, The Last Kingdom, Limitless, The Player and You’re The Worst. But first, a movie:

Spectre (2015) (at cinemas now)
I actually saw this last week but completely forget to include it in my round-up. That should give you a clue as to what I thought about it.

As the name suggests, this introduces old Bond’s eventual arch-enemy Spectre to us, except here it turns out that it’s been Spectre orchestrating everything from Casino Royale onwards, for all kinds of pointless personal reasons involving Bond. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) is a new surveillance-obsessed bigwig intent on unifying MI5 and MI6 and getting rid of the 00 section in the process.

It’s fine. Nothing great bar Craig and a marvellous four-minute long pseudo-tracking shot at the beginning, but fine, although there are parts of it that will make you feel like a great big chunk of story has been removed. It’s more or less the same structurally and thematically as Skyfall. There’s one age-appropriate Bond girl (Monica Bellucci), one age-inappropriate Bond girl (Léa Seydoux), a baddie who finally looks like he can take on this muscled incarnation of Bond (Dave Bautista), and Christoph Waltz does a homeopathically weak version of his usual routine, as the head of Spectre. I would give you the name of his character, but you can guess it.

Spectre‘s basically the conclusion of the Daniel Craig James Bond series, which has been setting up all the aspects of the Bond character from the previous films, just so that he can retire now it’s all been set up. Of the four Craig movies, it’s probably the second or third best, and like the previous Logan-Mendes Skyfall, it actually seems to enjoy the sexist and hokey aspects of the old series that it’s trying to reintroduce, despite the pains Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace took to try to make Craig’s Bond a modern hero.

Basically, meh.

Continue reading “What have you been watching? Including Spectre, Master of None, Flesh and Bone, and You’re The Worst”

US TV

Review: Agent X 1×1-1×2 (US: TNT)

In the US: Sundays, 9/8c, TNT

There’s been a decades-long quest in the US to create ‘the American James Bond’. This is somewhat ironic, since the first ever adaptation of a James Bond book was the 1954 US TV series Climax! Mystery Theater‘s Casino Royale, starring Barry Nelson as ‘Jimmy Bond’. (Let’s twopher this one and call it this week’s Wednesday Play… on Tuesday)

But ever since Bond hit it big at the movie box office, there have been attempts to create an equally lucrative and iconic US James Bond, such as Napoleon Solo in The Man From UNCLE, whom they even asked Ian Fleming to help develop, although all he ended up giving them was the name. However, so far, the US has had very little success, although many people argue that the Bourne series is the American equivalent of the Bond movies. 

It’s also ironic, because why would you want to create an American James Bond? He’s quintessentially British. And I don’t mean suave, sophisticated, good with women, etc – we’re really not any of those.

No, James Bond’s attitudes to his job are quintessentially British – there’s no real patriotism, no great love of country, no belief in the fundamental awesomeness of the British political system. To Bond, Britain isn’t best and there is no ‘British exceptionalism’. Instead, he is a blunt tool who risks all for Queen and country, because it’s a job and the alternative to the status quo would probably just be even worse than it already is. That’s peak British, that is.

So Agent X is probably the first TV series or movie that really offers a truly American version of James Bond. Created by William Blake Herron, who co-wrote The Bourne Identity, it stars Sharon Stone as the first female vice-president of the United States. On her inaugration night, her strong grasp of Latin and Masonic symbols enables her to discover the true reason the vice president has bugger all constitutional duties – there’s a secret article in the original US constitution that gives her the power in times of national emergency to command a nameless secret agent to do whatever it takes to protect the country from enemies, foreign and domestic. Agent X is that man, a self-sacrificing, small town, everyman patriot, foresaking any kind of personal life to defend the United States and her Constitution, all for no reward.

That’s peak American, that is. 

Shame that although it’s a step in the right direction, it’s still rubbish. Even worse than the worst Roger Moore James Bond movie you can think of. Maybe not the worst Pierce Brosnan movie, though.

Here’s a 13-minute trailer. I kid you not.

Continue reading “Review: Agent X 1×1-1×2 (US: TNT)”