Just for Play-Play: the best of catch-up TV

In Search of Science iPlayer (first episode available until 27 August)

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This Brian Cox fronted series was first shown but unfortunately missed back in 2013. Yes it’s all about scientific wonders, but as it deals with the history of British science pioneers there are fewer gorgeous desert sunsets and less opportunity for attractive lens flare than in most of his TV shows. The fascinating stories highlighted here show how science and public perception have often been at odds with each other. It was just Darwin and his monkeys offending public sensibility. The lesson here for all is the importance of proper public engagement – sharing knowledge and showing the benefits of new scientific breakthroughs to assuage any misgivings about strange and startling discoveries. Science needs good PR, and that’s just as true now with the outcry over GM crops as it was with Professor Giovanni Aldini whose research on corpses inspired Frankenstein.

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‘Sacred Games’ – Netflix

The hero of Netflix’s first Indian drama is Sartaj Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan) who cuts a rather lonely figure. He’s a honest and honorable detective who refuses to be intimidated by his corrupt colleagues in Mumbai’s police force. Probably because he refuses to tow the line he’s never landed a big case. He’s trapped in a corrupt system with no way out. In good cop show style, he’s unhappily divorced, scarred, gaining weight and taking medication for anxiety. No wonder as he’s under immense pressure from his station chief to lie under oath about a unarmed teenager shot down right in front of him.

This seems like more than enough to be dealing with, but no. Right from the outset Sacred Games is a game to be played by two. His opponent is Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a notorious gangster and a fugitive in hiding for 15 years. He makes contact with Sartaj out of the blue seemingly to spill his guts about his extraordinary life.  He also has a cryptic warning. Mubai’s time is numbered – there’s 25 days until the whole city is destroyed. Is he threatening the city both men say they love or is he tipping Sartaj off in the hope of saving them all? His personal god complex is clear; his first words to Sartaj are “Do you believe in God?”, but after all he’s been through he thinks he might really be immortal. And the way the show sets him up, he really could be.

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‘Witnesses’ – Series 2

As you may have noticed I’m still waiting on the next big Euro drama to cross my path. All the Scandi stuff recently has me feeling a bit flat, with fairly promising starts leading to confused middles and ‘meh’ endings. It’s fine to have a beautiful backdrop of lakes and mountains, but you need to populate it with original characters leading interesting lives. The story needs to be multi-layered, but not too complicated; zoning out and playing with your phone is the absolute death knell for a subtitled drama. Both the good guys and the bad guys need to have clear motivations that we can relate to.

So with a Gallic shrug it might well be time to bid au revoir to the northernmost corners of Europe and see what France might have to offer; after all, the daddy of the noir resurgence in the past decade has been the Emmy award-winning and much loved Spiral. The most memorable dramas I’ve watched recently have been French, or part French; the balls-out action heros in Braquo, stylish super spies in The Bureau and the best character in Midnight Sun was the deeply troubled French detective.

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‘Acquitted’ – Walter Presents

It’s been a long while since I started a new Scandi thriller. I’ve been struggling with some pretty serious health problems. Turns out concentrating on anything when you’re really ill is extremely bloody difficult. I guess it’s why mindless daytime tv does so well. And concentrating on high-quality drama with subtitles is completely out of the question. My top tip for sickies is fairly short YouTube content, but avoid ones that make you laugh too hard, so you don’t bust any stitches, or ones about eating nasty things, so you don’t start puking again.

But the wonderful Walter Presents peaked my interest in Norwegian drama series Acquitted. Aksel Nilsen is a very successful Kuala Lumpur based businessman who returns home to little Lifjord after 20 years away to finally confront his unhappy past. Aksel is pouty and good looking, extremely well-groomed and manicured to a shine. In his beautiful bespoke suits he looks like a Ken doll crossed with a perfume advert (pour homme, pour femme, pour Norway). He’s done alright for himself in KL, with a corner office, a beautiful successful wife and a bolshy teenage son. His colleagues all have perfect English spoken in English accents; Nicolai Cleve Broch as Aksel does very well, but it’s his swearing that lets him down. He gets a call for help from Lifjord’s major employer, drops everything and chases off to the other side of the globe to try and save the town.

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‘Chinese Burn’ – BBC3

A quick word about Chinese Burn, a new BBC3 comedy from the Comedy Slices series; what, back in the day, we’d call a pilot. This is a flatshare comedy about three Asian girls trying to navigate London life. This mainly consists of getting drunk, getting fired, getting into fights and keeping their slightly dodgy activities quiet from their parents back home. All the while they’re raging against stereotypes – “sweet, innocent, submissive Chinese girls. Conservative and virginal – good at maths, ping pong and looking after men. Screw that!” As a white girl from the ‘burbs I have much to learn about the Asian cultural stereotypes, but I can tell you straight-off if it’s funny.

It’s really short, clocking in at just over 20 minutes, but a lot is packed into this episode. Elizabeth (played by co-writer Shin-Fei Chen) is the failed Chinese daughter, filled with guilt for telling her family she’s a sommelier in a Michelin starred restaurant when she really spends her days in a degrading mascot suit hawking bubble tea, and trying to keep away from her grubby little boss who has a (tiny) boner for her. She’s delightfully self-destructive, a lot like Abbi in Broad City, frustrated and embarrassed at every turnThose girls would get on so well – Elizabeth would bring the wine and Abbi and Ilana the weed. What a party!

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‘I’m Dying Up Here’ – Sky Atlantic

I’m Dying Up Here was on my to-watch list for a long time before I took the plunge. I’m sorry I hesitated, because it’s exceptional television. It’s American comedy-drama television series created by David Flebotte and set firmly in 1970s Hollywood. It was made for Showtime in the US and picked up in the UK on Sky Atlantic (exactly where you’d expect quality imports to pitch up). It has comedy pedigree in its backbone as it’s based on a book by William Knoedelseder detailing the excesses of soon-to-be household names such as Jay Leno, Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman on Sunset Strip in the 70s. It’s also executive produced by Jim Carrey, and at the time of writing, the less said about him the better.

While based in reality, this is a fictionalised account of the premier Los Angeles comedy club, and the denizens who inhabit it, honing their craft to make it to the big time. That way real-life anecdotes can be revised, tweaked and magnified, much like the way a stand-up takes real life and makes it funny, constantly revising their act.

The comedy club is Goldie’s, owned and run by businesswoman and matriarch Goldie Herschlag (played by Melissa Leo, and loosely based on Mitzi Shore the founder of The Comedy Store). She has very little tenderness in her heart and is all about business. She cares for her comics in a way, but is very strict with them, and this tactic has proved extremely successful. What she says goes (even insisting one comic change his name after daring to play in another LA club). Goldie’s is only place where the talent scouts come from Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’, the big coast-to-coast American talk show. That slim chance at stardom is what keeps her comics loyal.

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‘Public Enemy’

Sky Atlantic are really stepping up when it comes to interesting Euro imports, and really competing with the big boys Walter Presents on Channel 4 and good old BBC4. Midnight Sun from Sweden was seriously amazing. Their latest offering is a dark drama that was hugely successful in its home territory of Belgium, and it soon becomes clear why.  When a convicted child killer Guy Beranger (Angelo Bison) is released from prison on probation, the monks of Vielsart Abbey offer him sanctuary in a small village in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. Creepy Guy is placed under the protection of a young Federal Police inspector, Chloé Muller (Stéphanie Blanchoud), who is herself haunted by nightmares of childhood trauma. Despite clearly not being mentally fit enough for this duty young Chloé is to be his babysitter.

Creepy Guy was convicted of five murders in 1990s. These were extremely high profile killings, mainly it seems of children, and he’s not been forgotten. On the way into the up into the forest we’re greeted with angry protests from Vielsart villagers and quite a few of the abbey monks. Father Abbot is on side, all about the Christian charity and forgiveness. Even among his own brothers he’s not made a popular decision. Will he be ousted because of this or will he teach his brothers that forgiveness isn’t easy but is always necessary?

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