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Friday, 15 January 2016

Matt on the Box: Shetland, Tracey Ullman's Show, Crashing and Brian Pern

Welcome back to Matt on the Box as we recap a week that offered up a mixed bag of TV highlights.


Last week saw the return of many crime dramas to the box with heavy hitters like Death in Paradise, Endeavour and Silent Witness all presenting new series. Joining their number was Shetland which returned for its third series on Friday night with very little fanfare. Unlike other crime dramas, Shetland really hasn't made much of an impact but at the same time has attracted a big enough audience to justify a number of return trips. Although I've not watched every episode of Shetland, I've dipped in and out over the past two series but haven't really seen any flashes of originality. I was optimistic that there might be some change on the island but it was the same old same old as Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) and his small team of coppers had to deal with another mystery. It appears as if the first two episodes of the series will deal with a case involving the importation of drugs to the island as well as the disappearance of a care worker who went missing after coming back home on a ferry. Possibly connecting both of these cases is domineering security consultant Michael Maguire (Ciarin Hinds) who is seen to be arguing with the missing man in question just before he ends up in a shipping containing. Whilst assuring us that Michael is guilty of something, writer Gaby Chiappe has keeps us guessing if he did actually have hand in murdering young Robbie Morton. Chiappe also introduces another plot thread in the form of a sinister resident at the care home Robbie worked at who seems to be terrorising some of the other old folks. What I liked most about this episode of Shetland, and the series as a whole, is the relationship that Jimmy has with his daughter Cassie (Erin Armstrong). While Jimmy isn't Cassie's biological father he was married to her mother before she died so she sees him as as much of a parent as she does her real dad Duncan (Mark Bonnar). The friendship between Duncan and Jimmy is another unique aspect of Shetland but unfortunately the scenes featuring the two characters are few and far between.


I do feel this is a shame as the chemistry between Mark Bonnar and Douglas Henshall is fantastic and the relationship between Duncan and the man who ended up marrying his ex is friendly rather than hostile. Although the two characters do share the odd cross word, as they do here when discussing Cassie's decision to leave university, there generally harmonious relationship is quite interesting to your writer. What I didn't find that interesting was the whole story of Robbie's disappearance, kidnap and eventual death all of which I saw coming a mile off. I do feel part of the reason for my disinterest is the fact that we knew very little about Robbie before he was kidnapped and therefore it was hard to care about his ultimate fate. Similarly the token villain of the piece Michael is too over-the-top to take seriously and actor Ciarin Hinds doesn't help matters with his scenery chewing performance. Just like the eternally popular Silent Witness, Shetland mainly offers up two-part stories but unlike the long-running drama we have to wait a week for the conclusion. I do feel this is a mistake and nothing about the cliffhanger, which involved the police not being able to investigate Robbie's body, made me want to tune in next week. In fact the only potential reason I'd have to tune in next week would be to see the fantastic Archie Panjabi, who appeared briefly in this first episode as the mysterious Asha Istrani. I'm a massive fan of Panjabi's and was a little bemused by her decision to make Shetland her first project after completing filming on The Good Wife. It won't be hard for Panjabi to act her co-stars off the screen as everyone in Shetland gives solid if unremarkable performances. Ubiquitous Scottish actors such as Bonnar, Henshall, Julie Graham and Stephen Robinson all put in able turns but nobody ever really makes that strong an impression. One element of Shetland I do have to praise is the strong direction which gives an atmospheric edge to the island and makes the drama stand out from its contemporaries. Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan deserves particular praise for the one scene in which several bags of drugs drift up onto the beach only to be sampled by a young boy who we later find fighting for his life. But impressive visuals aside there's very little to write home about Shetland as it's a rather average crime drama with a generic storyline and characters that just feel a little tired at this point.


With Shetland's tone and setting being about as moody as the weather we're currently getting I thought I'd devote the rest of this article to some of the comedy shows that I've been watching in attempt to cure my winter blues. Sticking with BBC One we welcome the return of Tracey Ullman to back to the channel for the first time in thirty years. Due to the promotional clips I watched of Tracey Ullman's Show I expected it to be a sketch show featuring the comedienne performing a number of impressions. However Ullman only impersonated three famous faces with the sketches in which she played acting Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench not feeling particularly original. I certainly didn't find Dench's secret kleptomania or Smith auditioning for sci-fi roles to be that funny and the supposed jokes from these two sketches fell flat. Conversely I felt that Ullman was in her element when portraying German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was on her way to and from a conference in Cardiff. The scenes between Ullman's Merkel and her assistant played by Samantha Spiro were the funniest moments during the half hour as the imagined conversations between the pair felt oddly realistic. In fact I would've loved to have seen a Veep-style sitcom starring Ullman as Merkel as I feel it would've been funnier than about 95% of the sketches here. Everything else Ullman did provoked little laughter from the female MP whose decision to go topless impressed the male electorate to the female beautician who almost set her massage parlour on fire. Even the sketches involving a woman who had been freed from an East Asian Prison after thirty years all featured obvious gags including one scene in which we were delivered a rather sad list of all the iconic British retailers that had shut their doors during her incarceration. Aside from the Merkel material the only other part of Ullman's show that raised more than a titter was the closing satirical song and dance number about the closure of a Welsh library. Unfortunately this finale came a little too late to change my opinion of a sketch show that had plenty of opportunity but didn't really deliver in terms of laughs. Whilst I like Ullman and many of her supporting players I won't be returning to this show again as nothing apart from the Merkel sketches really left an impression.


Another female performer starring and writing her own comedy was Phoebe Waller-Bridge who brought new ensemble sitcom Crashing to Channel 4 this week. In many ways Crashing is like a traditional house share sitcom with plenty of mismatched characters having little in common other than the space they live in. However what separates Crashing from the plethora of past flatshare sitcoms is that the characters are all living as property guardians in a disused hospital. I did find the way that Waller-Bridge introduced this concept was quite heavy-handed in some respects as the strait-laced Kate (Louise Ford) and obnoxious estate agent Sam (Jonathan Bailey) attempted to explain their situation in one of the opening scenes. Meanwhile Waller-Bridge's Lulu arrived at the hospital as an old friend of Kate's fiancée Anthony (Damian Molony) and was presented as a possible threat to their future together. Of the characters my initial favourite has to be the uninhibited French artist Melody (Julie Dray) whose one-liners provided some of the only highlights of this first episode. Rounding up the group were nervous diabetic Fred (Amit Shah) and Kate's recently divorced colleague Colin (Adrian Scarborough) who has already formed an odd bond with Melody. I did feel that Waller-Bridge was fighting somewhat of a losing battle with the first episode of Crashing primarily as she had so much plot to get through and so many characters to introduce. As the opening episode was only about twenty-three minutes long I don't think I really got to know any of the leads and therefore I wasn't as invested as I possibly should have been. That being said there were flashes of greatness layered within the patchy first episode as Waller-Bridge revealed the complexities that lay behind the seemingly annoying Sam and the highly strung Kate. I personally feel that Crashing deserved a longer amount of time for its opening instalment as it suffered from rushed storytelling and under-developed characters. I think that Waller-Bridge's script showed flashes of promise and that's why I'm going to give Crashing a second go however it feels that if her show had a longer running time then the characters and story would be given more room to breathe.


Finally we come to a comedy character who has been toiling away on BBC Four for a couple of series now with little fanfare. I'm talking about Simon Day's Peter Gabriel tribute Brian Pern who returned this week for another mockumentary-style series. Having watched most of the previous two series from Day and co-creator Rhys Thomas I can definitely say that Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll is the character's strongest outing thus far. That has a lot to do with the fact that Suranne Jones has joined the cast as Brian's new feisty American wife and manager Astrid who brings a whole new energy to the comedy. Once again Thomas stars as his documentary-making alter ego who has been called upon to make a new programme celebrating Pern's forty-five years in the music business. Day proves what a good sport he is by showcasing Brian's new surgically-enhanced look complete with new jet-black fake hair and a set of sparkling veneers. The first episode documents what happens when Astrid stars managing Brian and gets her new husband to sack his long-time partner-in-crime John Farrow (Michael Kitchen). Astrid's mismanagement means that Brian has to endure a cruise with some of his biggest fans and later suffering the indignity of being lower on the bill at the V Festival than his former Thotch bandmates. I've always thought Brian Pern was a fantastic comic creation and I think this latest series showcases the deluded rocker perfectly. Day is utterly committed to presenting Brian as an out-of-touch rocker whose obscure album concepts sell particularly poorly. Suranne Jones' note-perfect American accent is as brilliant as her deadpan comedy timing especially in the scene in which Astrid is trying to have it off with Martin Kemp whilst on a Skype call with Brian. But it's Michael Kitchen who steals the show as the foul-mouthed Farrow and the final set piece involving a stranded train full of cameoing ageing musicians is laugh-out-loud funny. The biggest compliment I can pay the latest Brian Pern series is that it was the only comedy I watched this week to provide consistent laughter for thirty minutes. Maybe it's just because the old-fashioned humour appeals to me or maybe it's because Day and Thomas know how to present classic character comedy with a modern twist. Whatever the case may be I do know that Brian Pern deserves as many viewers as possible and it's a shame that one of the funniest comedies on TV has seemingly been banished to BBC Four.

That's your lot for now, remember you can follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll see you next week for more of the same.

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