‘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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‘The Legacy: Series 3’

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.

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‘Midnight Sun’

If you trust my recommendations dear reader, stop reading right now and just watch this. If you need a little more convincing, read on. It’s only March and Midnight Sun has quite possibly staked the claim for most gripping episode 1 of a drama series this year. It’s an hour of tv that’s up there with The Killing and The Bridge. All the praise to Sky Atlantic for serving up this slice of stunning high-end noir. My only criticism is they’re portioning it out into weekly helpings, and I can’t bosh the lot in a weekend. Because I very definitely would.

This is a French-Swedish coproduction (yes, it has the Canal+ mark of quality) which follows Kahina Zadi (Leila Bekhti), a French police officer, as she heads to a small mining community in remote northern Sweden to lead an investigation into the spectacularly grisly murder of a French citizen. Her Swedish sidekick is local DA Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten) and his rather more jaded boss Rutgar (Peter Stormare). Even with just a few minutes under the belt we can see that all of these characters are fully fledged with their own particular quirks and histories just beginning to be hinted at.

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‘The Young Pope’

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.

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‘Westworld’ – On the Box

Big things were expected for Westworld, the telly reboot of the 1973 sci-fi film, and big things were achieved. It was HBO’s biggest series debut in three years. And it looks magnificent!

Westworld is a theme park – the newcomers are the players, the high-paying guests who get to live out their cowboy frontier town fantasy. Sex and violence is the top two reasons people seem to play, and sexy violence is probably competing for third place. The innocent townspeople who populate the game are extremely advanced androids (incredibly beautiful and faces full of character), who live in a Groundhog day-dream state, to please the guests and keep them entertained.

Through wholesome Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her cowboy lover Teddy (James Marsden) we briefly glimpse a clichéd romance fantasy before life quickly turns sour. It’s horrific to watch, and worse still she wakes in blissful ignorance the next day to be preyed upon all over again. Despite how real these androids seem these are just toys programmed for paying customers pleasure. We know this and yet our sympathies lie squarely with the machines from the opening moments.

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Couch Potato Digest – jerks, shirts and shows in the works

Some seriousness to start your digest this once. Don’t fret – I won’t make a habit of it.

Amy Schumer is in a sort of rolling non-story of the week. She’s on her book launch publicity junket but this has been derailed by controversy surrounding Kurt Metzger, a writer on her Comedy Central show. This guy has a self-admitted history of violence against women and an “alarmingly vicious tendency to defend men accused of rape”. She sort of distanced him with a stock PR phrase, then she says he’s not working on her show Inside Amy Schumer any more, but he’s not fired – this is just because it’s on hiatus. Much confusion…

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