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Monday, 16 November 2015

Matt on the Box: London Spy, Unforgotten, Josh and Peep Show

Hey folks, welcome back to another review of some recent TV highlights as I cast my withering gaze over what the small screen as offered us recently.

We start with a drama that has been the subject of several news reports due to the single complaint one of its scenes received. I'm talking about BBC Two's new espionage drama London Spy; which is the first small screen offering form novelist Tom Rob Smith. The main bulk of the plot revolves around Ben Whishaw's Danny, an aimless young man in a dead end job who spends his days surfing Tinder and his nights on the hunt for Mr. Right. Danny eventually bumps into the dashing Alex (Edward Holcroft) who he meets whilst the latter is out jogging. The pair begins dating with Danny attempting to get his new lover to open up about his past and in particular what he does for a living. Alex's presence in Danny's life also raises the suspicions of Danny's friend Scottie (Jim Broadbent) who still holds a candle for his young companion. The revelation of how Danny and Scottie met seems to be the impetus for Alex's disappearance which comes eight months into their relationship. However, a rather tense final act reveals a different story which contains a dead body and several lies coming to light about Alex's past and his actual occupation. With all of this subterfuge in the air I'm shocked that one member of the public thought it necessary to complain about the sex scene between Danny and Alex which occurred about halfway through the episode. Having read about the complaint before watching the episode I was expecting some sort of sordid drawn out affair. In actuality what I received was quite tame especially when compared to similar scenes that have been included in some American cable shows. Maybe people still aren't used to seeing this sort of thing on the BBC but I felt it was relevant to the plot especially when it came to portraying the intense nature of Danny and Alex's relationship. In fact if the rest of this first episode of London Spy and had included this much action then I wouldn't have found it as slow-moving as I did.

If anything this felt like a thirty minute prequel to the series spread out over the course of an hour and therefore several of the scenes felt like filler. Whilst I understand Smith's need to establish the aimless nature of Danny's lifestyle I thought that the main plot took a while to get going. Once Alex and Danny started dating the pace of the episode did start to pick up even if things were still slower than I would've liked. London Spy finally gripped me in its final third in the long sequence in which Danny was guided to a flat by the electric scanner he used at his tedious warehouse job. There was a real intensity to these final scenes and the subsequent revelations about Alex's true identity added intrigue to the plot. One thing I can't fault in London Spy was Ben Whishaw's central performance as he drew me in from the start of the episode and was particularly strong in the scenes that contained little to no dialogue. Whishaw has come out recently and said that London Spy was the most demanding job he's ever had due to the fact that he's on screen constantly. However you wouldn't know it from watching his effortless performance as he turns the aimless Danny into a sympathetic protagonist who now needs to get to the bottom of who is lover really was. I felt that Whishaw was ably supported by Jim Broadbent whose Scotty shared an interesting relationship with Danny that was revealed throughout the episode. However I didn't warm to Edward Holcroft's portrayal of Danny as he never once made me care about the character. The fact that some of the series' biggest names, such as Charlotte Rampling and David Hayman, are joining the story in episode two does go along with my theory that this opening instalment was simply the prologue. While I have no problem with this concept in theory in practise it resulted in an inconsistent opening episodes which contained a few scenes that I simply viewed as filler. That being said the ending was intriguing enough for me to watch at least one more episode if only to see if the pace of Smith's spy thriller picks up now Danny has started to poke his nose into Alex's secret life.



While London Spy did show promise I'm not sure if it will be as great as one of my favourite TV dramas of the year; Unforgotten, which finished its current run last week. Chris Lang's cold case crime saga is undoubtedly ITV's best drama of the year primarily as there are no other contenders for that title. What I've liked about the show throughout is the way in which Lang has been able to make us doubt each of the four potential suspects in the murder of young Jimmy Sullivan back in the 1970s. As the penultimate instalment concluded, former handyman Eric Slater (Tom Courtenay) revealed that he knew who murdered Jimmy after he had already been arrested for the crime. The revelation that it was it was his mentally unstable wife Claire (Gemma Jones) who had killed both Jimmy and the other boy who was buried in their back garden actually made sense when were given the full explanation. Although I thought I would be disappointed if one of the central four suspects hadn't ultimately been declared the killer I was pleased with the result. Lang had been pointing the finger of suspicion at Eric for weeks as he was the only one of the four not to have a clear reason for getting rid of Jimmy. However this week Lang presented Eric in a new light as he had actually been protecting Claire throughout their marriage partly to hide his own homosexuality. The majority of the other character arcs were perfectly wrapped up with Lizzie (Ruth Sheen) being given her happy ending after a failed suicide attempt. Meanwhile Robert (Bernard Hill) reconnected with his family and was able to introduce his secret daughter Thea to his other children and wife Grace. Only Trevor Eve's Sir Philip was given a rather unceremonious exit after committing suicide whilst awaiting trial for murder. In my opinion Sir Philip was the weakest of the four suspects and his storyline petered out some time before this final episode.


However that may be one of the only criticisms of a drama that has become appointment viewing for yours truly and it's one of the only series that I make time to watch when it's on. Lang's writing is perfectly paced and it's been interesting to see how brilliantly he can craft characters given time to do so. The central duo of Cassie Stuart and Sunny Khan have been a particular joy to watch and one of Lang's best decisions was to just make them feel like normal characters. Most TV cops today are presented as damaged or suffering from personal demons however Cassie and Sunny were simply there to do their job. Sanjeev Bhaskar was a particular revelation as his performance as Sunny was almost flawless and I'm hoping in the already announced second series we get to see some of the bickering between he and his teenage daughters. However Unforgotten has been Nicola Walker's show and I've found her utterly captivating as the detective on a mission to get to the truth. I've also enjoyed the scenes in which we've poked into Cassie's home life and have particularly enjoyed the interactions between her and her father played by Peter Egan. These segments have provided the perfect buffer to the main action of the rest of the series and it's a testament to Lang that they've been as involving as everything else he's written. I, like many others, am glad about a second series of Unforgotten already being in the works but at the same time I'm worried that it just won't be as good as its predecessor. However if the producers can assemble a cast as good as the one in this first series then I can easily see it being a match for one of the most compelling crime dramas I've watched in a long while.


Moving onto the more light-hearted side of this week's TV now starting off with new BBC Three sitcom Josh. This debuting comedy has both been written by and stars Josh Widdicombe who seems to be portraying a heightened version of himself. The fictional Josh is a loser in love and lives with two of his former university cohorts Owen (Ellis James) and Kate (Beattie Edmondson). I personally didn't buy the friendship between the trio which was one of a number of problems with the show. The lead story of Josh being afraid to swim was rather clich├ęd as was the subplot in which Owen tried to teach Kate to be a better kisser. There was nothing that felt particularly true to life about these scenarios and instead they felt like they simply existed in the sitcom world. Jack Dee had seemingly be flown in to play landlord Geoff for the simple reason that people know who he is. However the interactions between Dee and Widdicombe fell flat and just made me remember how much better Dee's Lead Balloon was than this sitcom. Every punchline was predictable and every situation was rather weak especially the final moments involving a rather bizarre conversation about dip. The only thing that Josh really has going for it is the likeable Widdicombe who is a rather endearing central figure however he's hampered by he and Tom Crane's script. After serving us up the rather wonderful Together, BBC Three don't appear to have another hit on their hands with Josh a sitcom that didn't even raise a titter from me in its thirty minute running time.  As we've seen on The Last Leg, Widdicombe is much better than this and the sooner this incredibly lame sitcom is put out of its misery the better.

Whilst one flatshare sitcom failed to dazzle another returned for its final run I'm talking of course about Peep Show. In fact Josh could learn a lot from Peep Show as it contains a realistic central conceit and two characters who you can believe in. Even though I've found the last couple of series of David Mitchell and Robert Webb's sitcom to be rather mediocre it's still been consistently funny. This final series opened six months after Mark's beloved Dobby departed for New York partly thanks to Jeremy with the pair not having talked since. Reunited at Super Hans' stag do it was business as usual for the passive aggressive pair with Jeremy having been hit the most now living in the groom-to-be's bathroom. Mark meanwhile has seemingly moved on and is now living with his bank colleague Jerry (Tim Key) with the pair enjoying documentaries about William Morris on a nightly basis. But it's clear that Mark doesn't quite know how to quit Jez and by the end of the episode they were back together and Jerry had literally been rolled out of the door. Judging from this opening instalment of the last series Peep Show is going out on a high with both Mitchell and Webb at the top of their game. Mitchell is particularly strong as the mentally weak Mark who knows his relationship with Jeremy is no good for him but keeps going back to him nonetheless. Meanwhile Webb hasn't really changed his performance of Jez since the first series which I think is part of the character's charm. The end scene in which Mark, Jez and Super Hans bundle Jerry into the lift was a classic Peep Show moment and I was laughing all the way through it. I'm just wondering how writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are going to end the series and more importantly if Mark and Jeremy are ever going to get their happy ending. In my opinion Peep Show isn't a sitcom that particularly necessitates a joyous conclusion but I wouldn't be opposed to see the El Dude Brothers finally experience some good fortune.

That's your lot for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll see you all again soon.

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