After a couple of disappointing weeks in terms of TV highlights, it feels like 2018 is beginning to deliver when it comes to new shows. This week in the column I’ve got a diverse range of programming to cover from two new dramas to a couple of returning Channel 4 shows as well as the latest comedy from Sky.
This week is certainly a big one for John Simm fans as he had two new drama both debut on Monday night the first of which; ITV’s Trauma, aired over three consecutive nights. Created by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett, Trauma saw Simm portray Dan Bowker; a working-class father-of-three who was having an awful day after finding out he was being made redundant. Meanwhile, we followed Dan’s fifteen-year-old son Alex on an evening out from which he would never return thanks to the presence of some threatening lads on bikes. Dan’s story was interspersed with that of consultant surgeon Jon Allerton (Adrian Lester), who we first meet rock-climbing with his daughter Alana (Jade Anouka). Whilst Dan is having an awful day, Jon is celebrating his birthday with friends and family before receiving a call from work asking him to operate on his night off. It transpires that Alex has been stabbed and Jon is the surgeon tasked with operating on him, meeting Dan in the hospital corridor just before his son is due to have a scan. Somehow, Dan follows the medical team into surgery where he witnesses Jon faltering as Alex begins to bleed out. Director Marc Evans beautifully captures the stress that Jon feels as the surgery starts to go wrong whilst also displaying the pain on Dan’s face. Alex later dies during surgery and Dan believes that Jon is holding something back when he informs the boy’s family that he did all he could. From there, Trauma becomes a thriller as Dan attempts to get Jon to reveal the truth through a mixture of lodging a formal complaint and mildly stalking him by getting a job at the hospital’s coffee shop. Dan’s presence in Jon’s life has an adverse effect on his life, making him irritable in front of other patients, but he’s eventually able to get the grieving father sacked from the hospital. The final instalment of Trauma sees Jon attempt to hit Dan where it hurts by kidnapping both his psychiatrist wife Lisa (Rowena King) and Alana to force the surgeon into the confession that he’s wanted to hear since Alex’s death. The aftermath of this showdown seemingly has long-reaching consequences for the Allerton family who appear to have been fractured after Dan and Jon’s final confrontation.
ITV’s decision to strip Trauma over three nights appeared to be an odd one on the surface especially considering the calibre of the talent both in front and behind the camera. However, after watching Trauma, I believe ITV made the right call as Trauma was a drama that you instantly wanted to see the next instalment of and I think that if I’d had to wait a week between episodes then this would’ve lessened my enjoyment of the piece. What I liked about Trauma was its simplicity, this was a story of a man from a working-class background who believed he was being lied to by someone who had more money and success than him. Bartlett perfectly wove themes of class and privilege into a story about grief and the lengths some go to discover the truth behind the lies that are thrown around so easily by those who can get away with it. Trauma felt more like a play than a TV drama at times as its three acts were perfectly paced with the drama building up to a rather tense confrontation between Dan and Jon’s family. Although there were several moments in which you had to allow Trauma a certain degree of dramatic license, especially when Alana brought Dan’s flimsy backstory which gained him access into the Allerton home, I found Bartlett’s script to be engaging throughout. However, what made Trauma work best for me were the performances especially that of John Simm who hasn’t been as good on the small screen since 2014’s Prey. Simm played Dan with a mixture of down-to-earth realism combined with a sinister edge which was utilised when the character went undercover to contact Jon’s family. Meanwhile, Adrian Lester brought a confidence to Jon that was believable as was his slight fall from grace when Dan appeared in his life. The scenes between Lester and Simm were electric and I felt these two actors bounced off each other brilliantly as the tension between the characters grew. Great support was provided by Lyndsey Marshal who, as Dan’s wife, had a brilliant confrontation with her husband in the second episode, although she was sorely under-utilised elsewhere. Although it wasn’t on the level of something like Kiri, Trauma provided constant entertainment over three nights and kept my attention throughout its run. Ultimately, I’d equate Trauma to a summer holiday read; an involving if slightly unbelievable that keeps you hooked at the time but one that you’d struggle to remember in a few weeks’ time.
John Simm’s other big drama this week was Collateral, in which he plays the part of labour MP David Mars who is one of many characters who is connected to the murder of pizza delivery driver Abdullah Asif (Sam Otto) in south London. It’s not long into David Hare’s four-parter that Abdullah is shot outside the house of Karen (Billie Piper) who is the mother of Mars’s daughter. Hare makes the audience question whether Abdullah was the intended victim from the outset after it appears as if the pizza parlour’s manager Laurie (Hayley Squires) gave him Karen’s order that was initially meant to be delivered by another driver. The only witness to the shooting is Linh (Kae Alexander) an Asian student who was high at the time and gave the police a fake name, leaving the station before she was questioned. Linh’s partner is the area’s vicar Jane (Nicola Walker) who herself has a connection with David, asking him for advice when she learns of Linh’s connection to the murder. Attempting to join the dots is forthright DI Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan) who is met with resistance when she aims questions at Laurie and later when she tries to get information from Abdullah’s sisters. As Abdullah was a Syrian refugee there are several questions about whether this was a hate crime and it’s not long before MI5 start to get involved. One thing Collateral definitely isn’t a whodunnit as, throughout the episode, the killer’s identity is slowly revealed leading up to one of the final scenes where the perpetrator is unmasked as high-ranking army official Sandrine Shaw (Jeany Spark). Whether Sandrine has a connection to Abdullah, or any of the other central characters in Collateral, remains to be seen but it appears to suggest that Hare is telling the audience that who committed the crime isn’t important. Indeed, Collateral is as much a social commentary as it is a procedural piece with Hare giving a snapshot into the lives of many of the characters which I found provided enough intrigue to keep me invested. Over the episode Hare explored themes of class, ethnicity, the press and politics whilst tying it all back to the murder of Abdullah Asif.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Collateral after the first episode as there was so much going on I didn’t know what to focus on. The investigation into Abdullah’s murder forms the basis of the plot with Carey Mulligan getting the most screen time as plucky former pole-vaulter Kip Glaspie. However, it was the side characters that appeared to have more interesting connections with the most intriguing relationship being between principled MP David and gay vicar Jane, who appear to have some sort of romantic past. Similarly, I found Laurie to be a very interesting character who seemed to know that something would happen to Abdullah when he delivered Karen’s pizza and who later is seen caring for her mother. Laurie was a character who I would’ve like to have spent more time with primarily as she’s played by the excellent Hayley Squires who is fabulous in every scene in which she appears. In fact, with the possible exception of Billie Piper who had very little to do, the cast were uniformly excellent with Simm, Walker and Mulligan all excelling at various points during the piece. Meanwhile, SJ Clarkson’s direction was slick with Collateral having the feel of a big-budget production rather than a four-part BBC Two drama. However, this style was also part of the problem as I felt like I was watching Collateral from a distance and felt a disconnect from the piece as a whole. Despite being intrigued by the characters, I don’t feel we spent long enough in anyone’s company to be willing to empathise fully with one particular individual. Compared to Trauma where I felt I knew who Jon and Dan were after thirty minutes, I still couldn’t describe any of the characters in Collateral in any great detail. Furthermore, having no real knowledge of Abdullah was another issue as Hare gave us very little reason to care about Glaspie and company eventually bringing the murderer to justice. Additionally, I thought that some of the dialogue in Collateral was clunky with the scene that introduces Kip’s pole-vaulting past being a prominent example. However, Hare and the ensemble created enough intrigue to make me at least want to tune into one more episode of Collateral just to see if I can connect with at least one of the many characters that populate the drama.
This week also welcomed back Jo Brand‘s Damned to our screens; a sitcom whose first series I watched but struggle to remember any memorable moments. Brand writes the show alongside co-star Morwenna Banks and The Thick of It’s Will Smith whilst also starring as Rose; the hapless social worker who spends most of the episode dealing with a shoe soiled by her family’s new puppy. This week’s episode was based on a tip-off the team the received which saw Al (Alan Davies) investigate the case of a sex-worker who was seeing clients whilst her two children were in the house. Rose and Al believed her children were truanting although the investigation later revealed that Elena was working to put her kids through private school. This story was an involving one, especially the conclusion which saw Elena’s children taken from her despite Al’s belief that she was a good mother. However, it didn’t fit in with an episode which also saw Rose dealing with dog faeces on her shoe and the newly-promoted Martin (Kevin Eldon) making vegan fudge for his colleagues which was predictably inedible. Unlike her previous caring-focused comedy Getting On, Brand struggles to incorporate the gags in Damned with the darker elements of the plot such as the investigation into Elena and her children. I think this is because the jokes are more obvious in Damned and it’s almost as if Brand, Smith and Banks feel that they have to create lowest common denominator humour for the Channel 4 audience. This is a shame as Damned is a sitcom that I want to succeed as I like everyone involved and the subject matter is one that I’m interested in. Damned’s best moment are the sequences where we hear the calls that the team at Elm Heath Children Services field on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the introduction of social work student Mimi (Lolly Adefope) provides another authentic subplot as Brand and company are able to demonstrate the disparity between her studies and the reality of children’s services. The pursuit of Mimi by the office’s oddball Nitin (Himesh Patel) also provides some humorous moments as he attempts to persuade boss Denise (Georgie Glen) then he should be Mimi’s mentor, a plea that falls on deaf ears. Overall, the first episode of Damned’s second series had its moments but I found that the obvious gags didn’t gel with the darker nature of the central storyline. However, I’m going to keep watching as it’s a comedy that never outstays its welcome and features likeable characters played by an ensemble cast of actors who I really like.
Conversely, Sky One’s new comedy Bliss had very little redeeming features and outstayed its welcome within the first fifteen minutes of its forty-five-minute running time. Written and created by Arrested Development’s David Cross, Bliss focuses on travel writer Andrew (Stephen Mangan) who uses his job to cover-up the fact he’s leading a double life. On one end of Bristol, Andrew is married to pretty American Kim (Heather Graham) who he shares a teenage daughter Christina (Hannah Milward). Whilst, in a separate part of the sister, he lives with long-time partner Denise (Jo Hartley) and their son Kris (Spike White); who is a little tired of his dad turning up with plane models from his faux work trips. Despite Andrew deceiving four of the people he supposedly cares most for, the character I felt sorriest for in Bliss was his boss as he was re-purposing Trip Advisor reviews of the destinations he was supposedly visiting whilst he was with his respective households. There was a myriad of problems with Bliss, which is one of the worst comedies I’ve seen in quite a while, starting with the fact that the show’s lead character is duping two women as well as deceiving his two children. Despite being played by the charming Stephen Mangan, Andrew is essentially a sociopath who is living so many lies that he’s struggling to keep up with various deceptions. Cross depicts Andrew as someone whose close to breaking down as we see him crying as he leaves Kim’s house for Denise’s at the start of the episode. In fact, Bliss’ other main crime is that it’s not funny in the least and almost functions more as a drama about a man whose double life is starting to affect his sanity. The key storyline in this first episode sees Andrew try to prevent both women from being at the same Italian restaurant at the same time, however his methods are incredibly questionable. From slinging racial insults at he and Denise’s dinner guests to slating the vegan friends of Kim, Andrew is a character who has very few redeeming features. Meanwhile, both Denise and Kim are presented as women who struggle to think for themselves and go along with what Andrew tells them to do. Kim is especially under-utilised in this first episode as Andrew spends most of his time with Denise whilst his wife struggles to cope with the Eastern European builders that are working on their new kitchen. Despite being a fan of David Cross, I have no interest in watching any more of Bliss; a comedy that isn’t funny and one that I’m shocked was commissioned in the first place.
That’s your lot for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I’ll be back next week to discuss a documentary-heavy week that also features the return of one of my favourite comedies.