TV reviews

Review: Ransom 1×1 (US: CBS)


In the US: Saturdays, 8/7c, CBS

Canada has spent more than a quarter of century doubling for “Washington State” and other woody parts of the US in countless primetime American TV shows, but the number of such shows that are actually set in Canada is actually perilously small. But following the likes of Flashpoint and Rookie Blue on this largely untrodden path is Ransom, a CBS procedural that’s almost indistinguishable from any other CBS procedural bar the fact it’s set in Montreal.

The show is actually a heinous co-production between CBS, Canada’s Global, France TF1 and Germany’s RTL that follows the golden rule that the more co-production members you have from this international team of banality, the worse your show will be (cf Transporter: The Series). Indeed, the show is produced by the king of the bad international co-production Frank Spotnitz (HuntedStrike Back). Transporter: The Series was one of his, too, and this is almost as bad, albeit a lot duller.

Supposedly based on the experiences of real life negotiators Laurent Combalbert and Marwan Mery, Ransom stars secretly British actor Luke Roberts (Black Sails, Wolf Hall, Taxi Brooklyn, Holby City) as the head of a private sector firm of negotiators, who use their awesome negotiating powers to help rich people recover their children from greedy foreign kidnappers. Oh, but if only he could have used his powers to save his wife…

Nothing quite says “filmed in Canada” like the presence of Nazneen Contractor (The Border, 24, Covert Affairs, Heroes: Reborn) or Brandon Jay McLaren (SlasherGracelandThe Killing (US), Being Erica, Falling Skies) in your cast list, so kudos to Ransom for getting both of them in the credits to make up the show’s now-traditional procedural ensemble, with McLaren playing a psychological profiler and Contractor playing Roberts’ deputy. Or stooge. Or something. At least, she gets to explain the plot to McLaren when Roberts isn’t around.

When Roberts is around, he gets to explain the plot to newbie Sarah Greene (no, not that one – the one from Penny Dreadful and Rebellion), a job applicant whom McLaren has rejected for A Dark Reason That Will Be Revealed At The End of The Episode But Which Will Show How Tormented Roberts Is.

And it’s all bobbins. Everything is completed half-arsed. The show wants to be Canadian, but is so bad at even something so simple that despite being set in Montreal (56.9% French speakers, 18.6% English speakers), no one speaks French or has a French accent and there was only one piece of writing actually in French. And that’s despite being filmed in Canada – I shudder to think what level of authenticity the show will stoop to when it starts going on its promised globe-trotting.

Ransom also wants to be about crises while still being different to Flashpoint so makes its crisis people private sector. Except it still wants to be a procedural, so everyone still goes round interviewing people, finding dead bodies, doing DNA analysis et al like they’re the police, except without warrants et al. It all actually gets a bit creepy when they’re snooping around schools trying to extract pupils’ home addresses from unsuspecting teachers by pretending to be famous soccer players.

On top of that, they have to sort out the affected rich family of the week’s marital/parenting problems (“You need to tell her about this”), while still being terribly nice when it turns out that the rich family aren’t rich enough any more to pay their bills. Because we all know how well that usually works out in the US.

The show is stupid enough it makes Criminal Minds look genuinely smart. As well as constantly having to explain basic human social interactions to the audience (“If you offer them something, they might offer us something in return”), the show also gives us Greene explaining that judging from a kidnapper’s accent, he’s “Mediterranean, probably Greek”. Because Spanish, French, Italian and Greek accents are all very similar, aren’t they? Almost indistinguishable. To be fair, the actor is Greek-Canadian and does speak some passable Greek; to be less fair, his accent sounds like a Canadian putting on a Greek accent and he’s also supposed to have been born in Yugoslavia.

If you’ve seen any other CBS procedural, you’ll have almost certainly seen something much better, from its CSI: Miami-style sci-fi screenless computer displays through to its NCIS-grade inept fight scenes. Did they really drop Limitless for this mildly blander Crossing Lines?

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 2

Third-episode verdict: 11 22 63 (US: Hulu; UK: Fox)

In the US: Sundays, Hulu
In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, Fox International. Starts 10 April

Three episodes into Hulu’s first long-form drama, 11.22.63, an adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a time-travelling teacher who wants to stop the assassination of JFK but doesn’t know how, and three things have become clear:

  1. It’s possible to be very shallow while still having oodles of screen time to work with
  2. It’s possible to be a great author and have a great idea, but to still not bother doing anything with it
  3. That doesn’t necessarily matter that much if you can create a decent enough atmosphere

The first episode threw a whole bunch of things at us: James Franco’s teacher discovering pal Chris Cooper has a portal to the past; said portal being semi-useless as it only goes to October 1960; Cooper giving Franco the task of preventing the JFK assassination, as well as all his research, a guide to living in the 60s and a list of winners of sporting events to fund journeys into the past; and the fact that the past doesn’t like being changed so does its best to stop people from doing just that.

All of which could be the basis of a fun and exciting two hour movie. However, since then, 11.22.63 instead has given us the frankly idiotic Franco going into the past… and living there for two episodes, so that we can experience the nostalgic thrills of living in the sanitised 60s – a sort of vaccinated time travel for those who want to think about noble white men helping the grateful oppressed deal with racism, homophobia, sexism, fundamentalism, domestic violence et al, with just the occasional punch and bit of bad language, without having to worry about intersectionality or being shot as a result of increasingly lax gun-control legislation.

Since the first episode, Franco has at least picked up a native helper monkey (George MacKay) to assist him in his endeavours. We’ve also seen the arrival of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, with the fleshing out of them as people. Franco’s also got himself a job and whiled away a year or so, while bumping into love interest Sarah Gadon (The Border, Being Erica, Ruby Gloom).

However, more or less all of episode two was about Franco’s attempts to prevent the family of a future pupil of his being murdered. It was a dark, quite nasty interval, in which Franco was once again epically stupidly, but it didn’t really push the narrative along much. 

While Franco’s performance is so muted, he seems like he’s on quaaludes the whole time, the rest of the cast are more interesting and have fun characters, so it’s much easier to spend time with them than him. It can also be quite funny when dropping in future references, such as when Franco claims to have served in Korea with the 4077th MASH.

But this is not a show intending to grip us with his plot. Neither is it in a hurry either to have any time travel fun or to really get to grips with JFK’s assassination and its fall-out. To some extent, that’s by design, since it’s a nine-episode ‘event series’, and everything is leading to a twist or two, I’m sure. But it’s relying on the King name to bolster the viewer’s patience enough to get them through to the end.

If you like genre dramas that are more about atmosphere and nostalgia than about ideas, and if you want a show that investigates conspiracy theories without saying anything much definitive about them, 11.22.63 is certainly already delivering. But if there’s anything great about it, the writers are saving it for the final episodes and I’m sorely tempted just to Wikipedia the ending at this point. I think I’ll stick with it, but the show needs to up its game soon to prevent death-by-online-encyclopaedia.

Barrometer rating: 2
Would it be better with a female lead? Yes. Or even simply a different lead
Rob’s prediction: It’s a limited series so a one-off, but I can’t imagine it setting the world on fire with its one season. However, as a first effort by Hulu, it’s very good and could lead to more dramas being commissioned.

TV reviews

Review: The Romeo Section 1×1 (Canada: CBC)

In Canada: Wednesdays, 9pm, CBC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

If there’s one thing Canadians can’t seem to get enough of, it seems to be spy shows. Whether it’s as a stupid comedy (Insecurity), a reasonably smart cross-border politicking drama (The Border), or as a very smart undercover cop show (Intelligence), sneakiness and lies have been a mainstay of Canada’s TV output for the best part of a decade. 

In part, that’s down to Chris Haddock, the Canadian writer/producer behind cop shows Da Vinci’s Inquest, Da Vinci’s Town Hall and CBS’s The Handler, who first launched the genre in Canada with the slow-moving Intelligence. He’s now back in the game with The Romeo Section, an even slower-moving spy show. 

It stars the inexplicably Glaswegian Andrew Airlie as the equally inexplicably named Wolfgang McGee, a globe-trotting Vancouver university professor who runs ‘the Romeo Section’ – a group of male and female undercover spies involved in sexy time with various intelligence targets, international and domestic. It’s their job to inflitrate the Triads, crime rings, cartels and other criminal groups, to get the information Canada needs to destroy them.

To get them to do this, Airlie goes around Hong Kong and Vancouver, visiting shops, libraries, dark gloomy places, racetracks and numerous other places, where he has mumbly, Glaswegian-accented conversations with people that are so arch, you can’t tell if it’s bad writing or some kind of spy code. Then he goes away again, information gathered, so he can brood back in his office or mumble with his handler (Eugene Lipinski from Intelligence, Da Vinci’s Town Hall et al, but also the original BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), while his assets go off and have more sexy times. Main asset is the conflicted and bearded Juan Riedinger (Narcos), who spends a lot of his time shagging mental mob wife Stephanie Bennett (UnREAL, iZombie).

The whole show has the veneer of quality and intelligence, except it’s one of those veneers where you assume that it’s good and intelligent because nothing much happens for great long chunks of time and no one talks above a whisper, not because it’s telling you anything you don’t know or because of the gripping plot and characters. Not by a long chalk is this another Rubicon. You want it to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I’m about 90% sure it’s actually A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

It’s not badly written, it does avoid the excesses of a lot of spy shows, it does have some smarts to it and I’m sure it’ll have its proponents and fans, who’ll be addicted by episode eight, when something might actually have happened. But I won’t be sticking around until then, I’m afraid.

 

Monday’s “pilot ordering” news

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TV reviews

Review: Braquo 1×1

Braquo

In the UK: Sundays, 10pm, FX UK
In France: Canal+. First broadcast 2009

Once upon a time – i.e. five or six years ago – FX was the place to go to if you wanted to watch the best, most niche US TV shows. The Wire was on FX years before DVD and BBC2 showings made it nearly a household name, while Dexter and numerous other top-quality shows aired only on FX or aired on it first.

Then along came Sky Atlantic and screwed all that up. Have a look at the roster now and yes, there’s The Walking Dead, True Blood and American Horror Story, but that’s three horror shows, only one of which is any good and everything else is just re-runs. And let’s not start on the fact The Defenders is on there. That’s just embarrassing.

So FX came up with a cunning idea: let’s see what countries other than the US have to offer. So it started with Canadian TV. Along came The Border, which wasn’t half bad, The Listener, which was, and ReGenesis and The Booth At The End, which I admit I’ve never seen but which I also admit I don’t feel inspired to watch, either.

But hunting for good quality Canadian TV can be tricky. For every, The Border, jPod, Being Erica or Endgame, there’s a The Line, Men With Brooms, InSecurity, Good Dog or XIII waiting to make you regret your TV-watching decision. FX can’t exactly pack its schedules to the rafters with Canadian TV, particularly since E4’s started nicking Canadian shows as well.

So FX has cunningly decided, just as BBC4 is cutting back on its acquisition budgets and focusing on Scandinavian shows, to capitalise on one of that channel’s other innovations and look close to home for its shows. To France, in fact.

So not only has it been showing the two-part movie Mesrine, starring Vincent Cassel as the eponymous gangster, it’s also acquired Spiral/Engrenages‘s sibling show at Canal+ Braquo, a dark policier about a cop with broad definitions of legality and what he’s allowed to do.

The question is – has FX found the new The Killing or is it about to discover what those of us who have watched French TV for some time now have found: that French TV drama, by and large, sucks?

Here’s a trailer.

Continue reading “Review: Braquo 1×1”