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.
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.
Oh the BBC is so very proud of being able to bang on about Jodie Whittaker in the role of a doctor. Haha! Ho Ho! What japes! But not that Doctor, not yet. Hold your horses folks. First we see her in Trust Me, a new 4 part drama as a “doctor” – quotation marks very much intended.
As the first curtains swished open and the first bed sheets were turned down, I realised this is the first hospital drama I’ve watched since leaving hospital (10 days in May, nice people, nice room, but extremely painful procedure and that will let them down on the overall TripAdvisor score) and I’m actually watching it ill, so it’s all very relevant. The nurses who looked after me were absolutely fantastic, but literally did get the shit jobs, and the piss jobs, and the puke jobs and so on. It’s no wonder people aspire to more.
If you’ve not yet heard anything about the The Handmaid’s Tale, let me give you a hand getting out from under that rock where you’ve been hiding. This is an MGM production being show on Hulu in America. They seem to be a good 7 episodes ahead of us. Sadly, even in 2017, sometimes America is ahead of us in tv land. It’s great to have synchronised start dates, but it’s still not the norm. Avoiding spoilers for this much talked-about show is going to be a killer.
A few weeks after starting in the USA this 10 part drama series has been picked up by Channel 4 in the UK, which, as the young, intelligent, and left-leaning political channel is a really good fit for their brand and a bit of a coup. The series is based on a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and despite its startlingly relevant content was actually written in 1985. So this dystopian future Atwood envisaged is 30 years closer than we’d have hoped for, and none of her themes are any less relevant or possibilities presented any less realistic. In interviews Atwood says that none of these war crimes in the fictional Republic of Gilead are entirely made up – all have happened somewhere on the globe. This really is extremely dark stuff. Do we as the audience have the stamina to get through it?
The series opening is distressing, as our heroine Offred is violently parted from her husband and daughter, but it’s not a tense escape. We know she’ll get caught. The rippling tension comes from her social position at her new posting with the Commander (Joseph Feinnes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
The Legacy is a Danish drama from DR Fiktion, but quite a different beast to stable-mates The Killing and Borgen. Series 1 was described by The Guardian as “utterly addictive” and I’m pleased to report that while the characters have grown and changed, this remains true.
Instead of dark political intrigue or dark and bloody murders in grey dockyards The Legacy offers up an enormous rambling farm-house in rural Denmark and an off-kilter family drama. This series spins out from the death of artist and domineering matriarch Veronika Gronnegaard and the after effects on her children. The Legacy in Danish is Arvingerne which literally translates as “heirs”. As these kids squabble over Veronika’s house, her reputation and her art we can see why Sky Arts picked it up rather than Sky Atlantic, the more traditional home for drama.
In series 1 we were rooting for Signe, Veronika’s fourth child adopted and brought up by normal down-to-earth people. She’s the surprise beneficiary of Veronika’s deathbed will and we’re willing her to get her share of the inheritance from her argumentative, entitled and just plain rude step-siblings. Lovely Signe learns her secret family history and is excited, but not about the money. She’s lonely and wants to be their sister. But this simple story of trying to be a blended family quickly gets messed up. Money changes people. Signe started believing her own hype.
After last year’s Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, hopes were set high for short story turned into two-part drama special Witness for the Prosecution, but this was quite a different beast. No mansions, no dinner guests being offed one-by-one, no detective twirling his enviable moustaches and not a normal Christie ending. Much interfering had been done, and there wasn’t much in the way of original Christie to be seen.
We’re transported to the roaring twenties and Kim Cattrall is Ms French, a wealthy widow living it up and having a fine time with her fancy man Leonard Vole much to the disgust of her loudly disapproving maid Janet. These days Emily French would be mocked as a cougar, a woman of a certain age who is attracted to younger men and has the nerve to go after them. These prejudices are certainly represented and Emily knows her actions make her unpopular and looked-down on in high society, but she doesn’t really care. Money is a pretty good insulator against what people think of you. Cattrall, famous for a strikingly similar character in Sex and the City, is essentially playing Samantha 70 years earlier.
This extremely strange new drama from Sky Atlantic, created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is the story of little Lenny Belardo who grew up to be Pope Pius XIII. He’s young, handsome and sure to be a rock star pope. His adoring crowds and awkward clergy and lay staff are totally lapping it up. Lenny is one part politician, one part dictator and one part gangster. Quite often he’ll offer up to the camera a cheeky grin – Jude Law is having a whale of a time.
In the opening few minutes Lenny spectacularly undermines the whole Catholic church in a nutty dream sequence of his first address – “We have forgotten… to masturbate!” It’s clear this guy is going to shake things up. The whole show looks like a dream; a totally surreal ‘real’ Vatican city populated by odd figures in even odder uniforms, who all know the drill and work to unseen schedules. Around the next corner could be a group of nuns playing amazing athletic football or elderly Cardinals gossiping in ornate robes with large sun hats. Anything is possible.