News

The F-Word’s coming back – with tweaks

Gordon Ramsay in The F Word
Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word has been recommissioned for a second season. However, it’s going to be tweaked, apparently.

I can’t imagine what they’re going to do with it. I liked it as it was, a kind of mélange of every other food show under the sun: a bit of Naked Chef as Gordon shows you how to make something, while roaming around at home; a bit of Watchdog, with that Giles Coren reporting on something we should all be concerned about (food in bins, double tipping, the sewers); a bit of Masterchef, as Gordon tries to make a better dessert than a guest celebrity; a bit of a Nigella, as Gordon chats briefly with another group of celebrities; and so on. There was nothing outstanding about any of these amuse-bouche, but together they made something reasonably tasty and fun to watch.

In shows like this, without resorting to a dozen focus groups, it’s hard to see what people might like and what they might dislike, there are so many different things. All I can imagine they’ll do is strip out a few parts, give it a bit more focus and maybe add in a few things to see if they might work instead. But that’s why I just write about this stuff rather than make it.

PS If you’ve arrived here via a Google search looking for the theme tune, it’s Babybird’s The F Word

PPS Went to Gordon’s restaurant in Chelsea on Wednesday. He wasn’t there. Damn.

US TV

24 – Season Five: The Jack Bauer power hour is back full force

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24

The fifth season of 24 (aka ‘Day 5’) has been airing in the US for a couple of weeks now, so it’s time for a review. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.

After a stupendous four-hour premiere spread over two days, we’re into the standard weekly drip-drip-drip of hours and the initial ratings grabbing gimmicks have been dispensed with for now. We’re into serious plotting and this year’s season can reveal its true colours.

So far, I’m pleasantly impressed. Compared with season four, season five is a model of restraint. Fox News plugs have been kept to a minimum. The first fifteen minutes of the show was packed full of surprises that would have shocked many long-term fans of the show in a “I can’t believe they just did that” kind of way – and not just because Chloe gets a boyfriend. And in the whole of the first four hours, there was no torture, no decapitation, no anything that could remotely be construed as excessive in a show like this. Indeed, Jack “softy” Bauer, as he should now be called, even promises to get a suspect medical aid rather than shoot him in the leg until he confesses everything. It’s a world gone mad, I tell you.

24 alternates its terrorists between years. Odd years we get European terrorists, even years we get Muslims, so we’re faced with Russians at the moment. Or are they Chechnyens? Or are they Canadians, given that Geraint Wyn Davies of Airwolf (Canadian fourth season only) and Forever Knight ‘fame’ is chief baddie?

Whoever they are, they’re not as threatening as Muslims. Last year’s über-terrorists had the best planning ever, with a back-up scheme even more impressive than the previous scheme ready to go at a moment’s notice: kidnap the Secretary of Defense. Damn. He’s rescued. Okay, we’ll blow up all the nuclear power stations in the US. Oh they’ve stopped us. Okay, let’s steal a stealth fighter and shoot down Airforce One. Ooh not quite. How about we steal a nuclear missile and blow up Los Angeles? Curses. Und so weiter… I’m sure Osama would be happy with just one of those, so to pull them all off in 24 hours is pretty impressive.

This year, we’re on a slow burn. These terrorists really don’t have the drive of your fundamentalist, apparently, and they like to pace themselves. That’s the trouble with us Europeans: no sense of work ethic. But it’s all going reasonably well and they’re being modestly quiet about it all. My hat’s off to them. Let’s hear your demands, Mr Wyn Davies, and we’ll consider them over a leisurely cappuccino.

Despite this slowish start by the terrorists, which is still packed with 10 pounds worth of C4 surprises (you can tell I’ve just finished watching an episode, can’t you?), we’re in recognisable 24 territory: lots of cyber-talk for the techies, a demonic mole in CTU for Patriot-Act supporters, lots of kung fu-ing and weaponry for the martially-minded, and a little bit of soap (and a fruit-flavoured beverage) for the ladies as various men and women pine for each other while routing IP phones and discussing protocol filters. For Hobbit-lovers, there’s also Sean Astin.

If you can put aside your brain for an hour, 24 still gets your adrenal glands pumping like nobody’s business. Season five has kept to the traditional 24 formula, refined it and made it better. I’m still waiting for the real kicker of a plot thread that every season has, but I can be patient. The bad guys might not be so evil yet, but the show’s the better for it since it becomes ever so slightly more believable.

I’ll leave you with one last thought: if you don’t have a Keifer Sutherland poster above your bed by the end of the series, no matter what your age, gender or sexual orientation, I’ll be very, very surprised. That man is just the coolest.

The West Wing is coming to an end

The West Wing's cast during its first season

NBC has announced that the current season of The West Wing will be the last. I won’t be mourning its passing that much, since I mourned its death at the start of the fifth season. After writer/creator Aaron Sorkin was fired at the end of the fourth season, we were all waiting to see if the show could carry on with even a tenth of its former presence; it was no surprise to see that it couldn’t. Sorkin really has a gift with dialogue that demonstrates so clearly that writers have far more of an effect on the quality of US TV and film productions than they’re given credit for.

In contrast to the first four seasons (the latter two admittedly not as good as the first two), the fifth season was dismal: the plots were dire, dialogue merely functional rather than entrancing and characters behaved inconsistently.The sixth season – the one currently airing on More4 in the UK – was a definite improvement, although nowhere near the heights of the Sorkin years, while the seventh season has had to deal with obvious budget-cutting. It has had a couple of good moments, though, but it’s still lacked the elegance and style of the early years. Ironically, the best episode so far was written by Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman and who obviously can remember quite clearly what made the show great in the early years.

The only things the later seasons had that Sorkin’s work didn’t were realism – the earlier seasons being obvious Democrat wish-fulfillment fantasies – and coherence: you could tell the man never planned what he was going to do until the last minute, resulting in characters and story arcs that got picked up, dropped and forgotten willy nilly. Mallory, Ainsley and various other first-rate incidental characters would just disappear without anyone asking where they’d gone. Even Sam (Rob Lowe), who was originally planned as the central character of the show, disappeared during the Orange County elections in the fourth season, never to be mentioned again.

Still, the ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’ theme got repeated in different guises at least twice during the first four years and got repeated two more times during the sixth and seventh season, so this attention deficit wasn’t limited just to Sorkin’s time.

It’ll be sad to see it go, but with most of the main characters relegated to guest parts of late, it won’t be the passing of old friends any more, just the disappearance of new acquaintances.

House’s “Failure to Communicate” failed to communicate correctly about aphasia

My wife would like me to point out that unlike the depiction of aphasics in House MD‘s latest episode, A Failure to Communicate (aired a week ago in the US), they do not usually communicate in code. The words they substitute tend not to be related to the replaced words until at least six months after they first get the condition and even then, only infrequently.

More importantly, they tend to have comprehension issues as well, so they can’t understand what’s being said to them. Those two complaints combined tend to knacker the whole episode in fact.

Damn. That’s ruined my faith in Sherlock Holmes Gregory House, now.

Third-episode verdict: Life on Mars

Life on Mars, starring John Simm and Philip Glennister

Although I review US pilots as they come out (cf ‘Screening Screeners‘, ‘More Screeners‘ and ‘US shows: what to watch and what to ignore completely‘ to see which ones now ring true), I usually reserve my final verdict on new shows until the second or third episode’s aired.

Which explains why I’m only now talking about Life on Mars, the new nostalgia cop show starring John Simm and Philip Glenister. The basic plot: a cop from 2006 gets knocked down in a car accident and wakes to find himself in 1973. Is he in a coma, mad, dead or has he genuinely travelled back in time? We don’t know and neither does he, but until he finds a way back, he has to make the best of it. The trouble is, the police in 1973 appear to think they’re in either an episode of The Sweeney or the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.

It’s actually pretty enjoyable, despite the fact the show’s from Kudos, who do the glossy but banal Spooks and Hustle. As with all shows where the heroes visit the past, you can get a kick out of the natives’ ‘ignorance’. Most of the show revolves around the gulf between Simm’s expectations of how policing should be done and what his 1970s’ counterparts actually do. Fingerprints take two weeks to be processed, interviews take place in the canteen and aren’t recorded, witness protection is for mafia grasses and Glenister keeps a pile of “bling” and acid in his filing cabinet for when he needs to plant evidence.

The biggest shock is the illiberal attitudes on display (AA Gill said it was as though the main character had woken up in a Richard Littlejohn column). The 70s isn’t that long ago. Most of us can remember the 70s: we’ve lived through it and we have a certain rosy view of the era of our early childhood. But watching Life on Mars, you realise the 70s might as well be one hundred years ago. Watching the treatment a deaf character gets in the second episode brings home to you just what isn’t acceptable these days: anyone ruing political correctness clearly doesn’t remember what things used to be like in the ‘good old days’. Similarly, you realise just how reconstructed today’s police are in comparison with the police of 1973, amazing though that may seem to some.

Of course, Life on Mars isn’t 100% realistic – nor is intended to be. There are hints throughout the show that Simm is still in his hospital after his accident, with mysterious voices talking about his condition and the sun always shining outside, no matter what time of day it is. Any historical slips such as policewomen being called WPC instead of PWs can then be put down to his faulty recall of the era, as can the occasional overly comedic moment such as a mass chase in swimming trunks, which even Simm’s character realises is implausible. Like Lost, though, until the ending is revealed, we won’t know how much slack to cut it on such matters.

Simm and Glenister, last seen together in the outstanding State of Play, get to ham it up a little and seem to have a great time doing it (Glenister more than Simm, who has to be constantly pained by his new colleague’s predilection for punching anyone who annoys him). There’s a rip-roaring 70s soundtrack, including, naturally enough, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. It’s great fun to watch and while it’s not going to strain the brain too much, there are enough subtleties and unexpected twists to keep your interest piqued.