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Thursday, 24 March 2016

Matt on the Box: Line of Duty, The A Word, Follow the Money and Masterchef

We've come to the end of yet another week of telly and that means one thing, another Matt on the Box to recap all the highlights.

I felt that we would be slightly bereft of decent drama following the finales of both Happy Valley and Trapped which ended their runs last week. But thankfully the BBC aren't resting on their laurels and have brought back one of the finest drama franchises of the last five years; Line of Duty. Line of Duty's second series featuring Keeley Hawes' Lindsey Denton was absolutely astounding so writer Jed Mercurio had a lot to live up to during this third run. Under the spotlight this time was Sergeant Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays) a rather cocksure leader of an armed response unit. Line of Duty is known for its thrilling opening segments and series three was no different as we saw Danny's team head off to confront a criminal suspect. However the showdown has unexpected consequences when Waldron shoots the man at point blank range despite him seemingly not posing a threat. The rest of Waldron's team; Rod (Will Mellor), Hari (Arsher Ali) and Jackie (Leanne Best) soon arrive on the scene and are basically bullied into making the scene look like a case of self-defence. It's not long before the case comes to the desk of Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) who puts AC-12's finest into action in order to expose Danny's lies. Just like in the last series, episode one of Line of Duty features an intense cat and mouse style interview sequence featuring Hastings, Matthew Cottan (Craig Parkinson) and Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) interrogating their lead suspect. However, although Danny acts like a cool customer, there are suggestions that he is more than a little unhinged. These suggestions are later heightened in a very disturbing sequence in which Danny strikes again with his latest victim being linked to his earlier target. At the same time AC-12 send Kate Fleming (Vicky McLure) into Danny's team in an attempt to get to the bottom of what happened in the opening scene. However, in a shocking opening twist, during another raid Danny is found shot by Kate with only the three members of his team standing over his bloody body.

Although Line of Duty's series two opener featured a similarly shocking ending, that being the death of Jessica Raine's Georgia, the conclusion here was even more startling. Despite having suspicions that Danny Waldron possibly wouldn't make it through to the end of this series, seemingly killing him off this early was a brave step even for a writer as daring as Mercurio. In a way this makes more sense as I feel stringing out the intrigue of what happened in the opening scene would only get us so far. But by having Waldron as the murder victim it creates a lot more potential intrigue as suspicion now arises among his three closest colleagues. Additionally there's the mystery of why Waldron killed his two victims which appears to have some links towards a supposedly tortured childhood. I also liked how, for the most part, Line of Duty's more established characters stayed in the background as their personal lives got very little time in the spotlight here. Instead we saw Steve, Dot, Kate and Hastings all do what they do best and that's attempt to get to the truth of a dodgy investigation. I did initially feel that my high expectations for Line of Duty's third series weren't going to be met especially after a rather suspense-free opening scene. However, as he often did, Mercurio drew me in with some great character-driven set pieces and some fantastic lines of dialogue. If this is already the end for Waldron then I think that's a shame primarily because we won't get to see any more fantastic work from Daniel Mays. Mays makes Waldron seem both charming and sinister in equal measure whilst excelling in both the episode's quieter and more intense scenes. I feel that the character of Waldron allows Mays to showcase his wonderful talents and in a way it feels like a waste of talent. But at the same time it's because Mays was so good that the ending came as even more of a shock as the actor had already made the character such an multi-layered figure. Coming back for round three Compston, Parkinson, McClure and Dunbar were all superb with McClure particularly being stunning in the two scenes in which she joined Waldron's team. Meanwhile new cast member Polly Walker made a fantastic first impression and Arsher Ali was great as the member of Danny's team who distrusted his boss the most. There's not enough I can say in Line of Duty's favour but it seems that Mercurio still has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to reeling in his audience. I'm just hoping for five episodes as good as this opening instalment but I already have a feeling that we're not going to be disappointed.

As I already mentioned we recently waved goodbye to Happy Valley which means that the Tuesday night drama slot is now vacant. Filling that gap is The A Word, a new drama from Peter Bowker based on the Israeli series Yellow Peppers. The drama is set in a small town in the Lake District and follows the relationship between Alison and Paul Hughes (Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby) and their son Joe (Max Vento). The opening scene of the drama brilliantly introduces us to Max as we see him listening to the Arctic Monkeys on his headphones as he sings along to the tune and is almost oblivious to the world around him. The big set piece that then introduces us to the family is Max's birthday party where his parents have laid on every treat imaginable to try and ingratiate their son with his classmates. The party is also the time where Alison's brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) returns to run the family brewery after his business in London failed. Alongside Eddie is his wife Nicola (Vinnette Robinson) who cheated on him with a colleague, something that Alison and the town in general have not yet forgiven her for. It is Nicola who notices there is something wrong with Joe after seeing him act out at his party and having to be coaxed back into life by Paul. The rest of the episode sees the growing concern that the family as a whole have for Joe including his grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) who seemingly doesn't understand the bigger picture. The second half of the episode sees Alison and Paul try to tackle their problem head on and after going for some tests with the doctor learn that Joe is on the autistic spectrum. I feel The A Word was definitely at its best when Alison and Paul struggled to come to terms with the news with both having different short-term solutions. The most heartbreaking moment came when Paul tried to have a family picnic next to the birthday party of one of Joe's classmates which he himself wasn't invited to. The sight of Paul trying to get his son to play with a football and act just like a normal five-year-old was utterly believable whilst also being incredibly hard to watch. In my opinion if all of The A Word had been like that then it would've seemed like the perfect drama however various subplots stopped this from being the case.

One subplot in particular that I had an issue with is the one that concerned Eddie and Nicola's relationship with both struggling to make a new life following her affair. The fact that the couple had returned to his home town didn't seem to suit Nicola especially in a close-knit community who were all aware of her infidelity. In fact in one scene it appeared as if she had lost out on a job simply for cheating on Eddie, something that I didn't think a character like Nicola would get away with. Another issue I had with The A Word was, for a series that was predominantly about a child with autism, it seemed oddly obsessed by sex. Between Paul's constant need to bed his wife at any possible moment and Eddie and Nicola's liaison that went wrong quite quickly there was a smutty tone to The A Word that didn't really seem to fit. This was most evident in the scene in which Maurice is approached by his singing teacher Louise (Pookie Quensal) about possibly become friends with benefits. The fact that Maurice is learning to sing is never explained in the first place and this proposal is oddly delivered as part of another plot thread that never goes anywhere. In fact I do feel that Eccleston was ill-served in a role which was essentially comic relief with Maurice's outdated views representing a certain generation's outlook on Joe's condition. Furthermore it seems that between Safe House and The A Word, Eccleston will now only take part in dramas that are set in and around the Lake District. Similarly I found that Greg McHugh and Vinette Robinson were never believable as a married couple with the latter struggling to cast off his Scottish accent in favour of a more local accent. Thankfully the weak performances of the supporting cast are more than compensated by the brilliant work done by Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby. Christie in particular has impressed me this year, following up her superb turn in the first episode of Murder with her performance here as the worried mother who doesn't know how to cope with her son's news. Ingleby was equally impressive as he made the audience sympathise with Paul's predicament and I felt he particularly shone in the aforementioned football scene. Praise must also go to newcomer Max Vento who was absolutely captivating as Joe especially in the scenes in which he was simply asked to sing along to various indie tracks. Whilst not perfect, I think The A Word certainly showed promise and despite some dodgy supblots contained an involving central story coupled with a trio of excellent lead performances.

As well as saying goodbye to Happy Valley last week we also saw the end of brilliant Icelandic drama Trapped and now BBC Four are hoping to replicate the success they had with that series with another Nordic offering. Follow the Money comes from the same Danish broadcaster that gave us both The Killing and Borgen although in my opinion didn't have as strong an opening episode as either of those brilliant series. In fact Follow the Money does have something in common with Trapped in that they both begin with a body being fished out of water. In the case of Follow the Money the body belongs to a Ukrainian worker at a Copenhagen wind farm owned by the energy company Energreen. Just like with other Nordic programmes, the drama then follows several plot threads including that of Police Detective Mads (Thomas Bo Larsen) who is keen to get to the bottom of the mystery. Just like any good TV show detective Mads has his fair share of personal problems namely that his wife suffers from MS and therefore he has to do the bulk of the work when it comes to looking after their two children. Mads' investigation into the mystery at the wind farm soon attracts the attention of his superiors who suggest that he might want to take some leave due to his wife's condition. Meanwhile the drama also looks at events in Energreen most notably an investigation of insider training carried out by the company's ambitious young lawyer Claudia who is out to impress the group's CEO Andrew. Circling on the outskirts of the story we have a young car thief turn mechanic who is eager to buy a flat for the mother of his unborn child and may have to break the law to do so. Whilst this youngster has a connection to Energreen he is currently on the periphery of the action so at the moment it's unclear how much importance he has to the main mystery. What I can tell you is that I wasn't too impressed with Follow the Money and in fact it struggled to keep my attention throughout the hour. Rather than having the gloomy atmosphere of The Killing or Trapped, Follow the Money had more of a slick presentation which I found rather off-putting. Whilst the central investigation was interesting enough, the scenes at Energreen failed to grab my attention even though Natalie MadueƱo who played Claudia was absolutely gorgeous. Despite being a solid drama, I don't think I'll be sticking with Follow the Money as, oddly for a series that follows the financial world, I failed to invest in the fates of any of the characters.

Finally this week we leave the scripted drama behind and instead head to the drama of the kitchen as the twelfth series of Masterchef is upon us. Masterchef is one of those shows that follows the same format every year and garners a lot of success. One massive change though, that several people pointed out, was that co-host Gregg Wallace's catchphrase 'Cooking Doesn't Get Tougher Than This' has disappeared from the opening titles. Maybe Wallace was about to be arrested under the trade descriptions act but I feel the intro is lacking a bit of oomph with his new line 'I've lost some weight, now it's time to get fat again.' Indeed Wallace's sweet tooth was back in full effect during the latter stages of Wednesday's episode but first up was the calling card round in which the quality was notably better than in previous years. I, just like John Torode and Gregg, was particularly taken with contestant Chris's Indian Sushi in which he served traditional curry dishes in bite size form. Oddly neither John nor Gregg decided to take John through so he had to cook again in the invention test in which he mistook pigeon for quail. Taking an early bath was Yanique who was doomed when she found out she'd be partaking in the invention test as she kept saying she didn't want to cook again. As has been the case for a while now, the second half of the episode sees the contestants cook for former Masterchef finalists. In this case it was last year's final three who applied a firm but fair approach when judging each contestants' offering. Once again it was Chris who was in the firing line after he knocked up an almost inedible plateful of nut gnocchi. Luckily Chris was saved by a theatrical dessert that particularly piqued Gregg's interest as it contained both oozy chocolate and plenty of caramel. Also play to Gregg's weakness for pudding was Cae who made an intriguing whisky and tea rice pudding which the former finalists also loved. One big twist this year was that only one of the four contestants goes home at this stage and unfortunately John was sent packing after overcooking his liver. Every year I find myself getting sucked into Masterchef and the first instalment had me almost as soon as I saw Chris' plate of Indian Sushi. One thing I'm glad about is that Masterchef isn't straying into prime time territory this year with the 8pm timeslot suiting it perfectly. The only thing I'm upset about is the lack of a decent catchphrase for Wallace but maybe he'll bring his famous line back in this year's finals.

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

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