Two shows worth a watch for the political thriller junkie:
The first is the German thriller “Deutschland ’83″ (RTE and Channel 4) which is about an East German spy in the mid-1980s placed into the West German army as an aide to a senior NATO general. The East German perspective, where the KGB/Stasi are absolutely terrified that Ronald Reagan means what he says and is planning a secret first strike with Pershing II missiles on the Warsaw Pact is fascinating. With the benefit of hindsight, the idea is ridiculous, but one could see how they actually believed it at the time. The plot neatly ties in with actual events of the time, the cast is great, and the soundtrack of 1980s hits really adds to the authenticity of it. Unlike similar concept show “The Americans” this has a hint of humour.
“Spin” (More4) is a French political thriller following two spin doctors, the old master and his protégé, battling it out over a snap French presidential election caused by the murder of the President of France. Made in 2011 (why did it take so long to get over to us?) it’s stylish, and has that look that comes from actually being filmed in France, the world’s most photogenic country. You might recognise Gregory Fitoussi from the French cop show “Spiral”.
From 1981 to 1991 mention the island of Jersey to anyone watching British television and they’ll almost certainly mention “Bergerac”. The detective show, set on the island, starred John Nettles as recovering alcoholic detective sergeant Jim Bergerac of the Bureau des Etrangers of the Jersey police, a special unit that dealt with tourists but more often with the many very wealthy foreigners who lived on the island.
By today’s standards, the Jersey of the 1980s all looks a bit naff, but at the time the wealth of the island, its sunny location and the French connection made it all seem very exotic and even glamorous indeed, and for ten years it was a Saturday teatime favourite.
As with many successful shows, Bergerac had a breakout character, Charlie Hungerford, played by veteran character actor Terence Alexander, who was a north of England bovver boy made good, a sort of Arthur Daley who had done very well for himself, thank you very much. One of the running jokes of the show was that Hungerford seemed to know absolutely everybody on the island, or at least was connected, often without his own knowledge, to every criminal enterprise on Jersey.
The show was a huge hit, and was responsible for boosting tourism to Jersey, with Nettles himself heading up the campaign.
Nettles went on to achieve a rare success for an actor in having played a household name for a decade as Jim Bergerac then went on to do it again for over a decade as Chief Inspector Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders”.
If you like spy shows, politically incorrect humour and sexual vulgarity, Fox’s cartoon show “Archer” is for you.
It’s based around brilliant but incredibly self-centred and over-sexed agent Sterling Archer, operative of ISIS (Yeah, they’ve since changed that. Ahem.), and his battles against the KGB, terrorists, his domineering nymphomaniac mother/boss (played by the brilliant Jessica Walter of “Arrested Development” fame), his fellow agent/ex-lover Lana Kane, his dysfunctional/sociopathic/perverted co-workers and people who stole his Black Turtleneck Is Cool look.
Try it. But be warned. This is not one for the kiddies or the faint hearted. Think “The Man from UNCLE” but with a lot of dick jokes.
Watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and also seeing the new Star Trek trailer got me thinking recently about how society is ordered in both systems. Admittedly, the Empire existed when humans were still in dwelling in caves, and so a like-for-like comparison isn’t quite fair, but as models go they’re worth comparing.
Which works better? Depends on the question.
Economic Freedom: there’s no comparison. The Empire is a free trade Caveat Emptor kind of place, with huge discrepancies between rich and poor. Slavery is tolerated. On the negative side, private property rights don’t seem to be respected by the state as much as just tolerated. Imperial stormtroopers can burn down your farm without as much as a “by your leave.”
The Federation, on the other hand, is almost the opposite, in that it is in effect a Communist society where possibly all property is owned by the state. Having said that, civil rights seem to apply to a home and individual once it has been allocated. Slavery is banned in the Federation, as is discrimination based on many criteria. Many of them. The Federation seems to have more laws than the Empire has stormtroopers.
The Political System: both systems seem to devolve a lot of non-military power to local decision making, however it is chosen locally. There is a tendency in the Federation towards only permitting members to join that govern with the broad consent of their people and involves detailed negotiation and examination of a candidate. The Empire, on the other hand, just annexes planets. Think British Empire. vs EU.
The Empire is a dictatorship. The Federation Council is chosen by member states, with the Federation President being a low profile bureaucrat. Russia vs EU. Neither hold galactic elections. Only one has a leader who personally murders people.
Civil liberties: There are pretty much none in the Empire, whereas the Federation has probably the most civil liberties in any galaxy. The Empire executes people. The Federation does have the death penalty, but very rarely uses it. Instead, prisoners tend to be exiled to New Zealand. That’ll learn ‘em. Finally, Imperial forces seem to be limited to humanoids and clones, whereas Starfleet is multicultural. It might explain why stormtroopers are such dreadful shots.
Military power: Although the Imperial fleet is much bigger than Starfleet, the Federation’s ships are technologically more advanced, with both cloaking (unofficially) and transport technology. Most Imperial weapons seem to be crude energy blasters, whereas Federation weapons are targeted and sustained beams. Both sides boast a superweapon. The Empire has a Death Star, the Federation the Genesis Device. The Death Star has superior range, whereas the Genesis Device would have to be delivered from orbit by a cloaked ship. Having said that the GD leaves the planet intact and devoid of life, ready to be reseeded with plant life. It is the neutron bomb of the galaxy.
The Empire has far superior ground forces, with the Federation having a very limited Military Assault Command capability. It also has better psychics who can actually do stuff aside from sense that people are stressful.
So, of the two systems, where would one choose to live? It’s a simple enough choice. If you are a swashbuckling scofflaw with a belief that you can make your own way and outrun any other ship (and do, maybe, the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, say) then the Empire is for you.
If, on the other hand, you want order, dignity, and enough money to live a nice middle-class life but no more, the Federation is the one. You can become very rich in the Empire, but also have it taken off you at a whim by the starving underclass or the shady Ayatollah who runs it. And they’ll either freeze your ass off or feed you to some sort of giant sand sphincter with teeth.
In the Federation you can work your way up through the fleet by meritocracy, or sit on your ass writing light operas. Whatever floats your boat. You won’t go hungry, and neither bounty hunters nor the military will bother you.
Unless the Empire decide they quite fancy owning the Federation, of course.
Repost: The American chatshow host Conan O’Brien remarked last year that he had noticed a significant change in audiences who attended the recording of his show on TBS. He pointed out that in the 1990s a guest who was the star of a successful show could assume that the great majority of the studio audience not only knew who he/she actually was, but would get references to their character and the plotline of their show. Everybody knew who Ross and Rachel were.
O’Brien pointed out that now, going by audience reaction, it is now possible to be the star of what is deemed a successful show and yet still have a large proportion of the audience have only a vague if any knowledge of the actor or their show.
Consider two numbers: “Game of Thrones”, arguably the most popular TV show on the planet, gets around 7m viewers in the US for new episodes. Now consider that “Only Fools and Horses” used to get up to 14m viewers in the UK alone. Sure, don’t go all mad: I know, I’m not comparing like-with-like. GoT appears on a cable network, OFaH was free to view. But the fact is, the huge choice we have now has completely fragmented TV viewing. There are exceptions: in the US the Superbowl gets over 100m viewers, but even that has to be taken in the context of the time. Why? Well, here’s another wild figure. The finale of “MASH” in 1983 got nearly 106m viewers, in a country with nearly 100m less people than the Superbowl broadcasts to now.
The media lock onto shows like “The West Wing” or “The Sopranos” or “Madmen” or “The Wire” but the reality is that relatively small numbers of people actually watch these shows, in whatever format they watch (Cable, download, etc). The finale of “Friends” 10 years ago got stateside 52m viewers. Seinfeld got 76m. Today, the biggest drama show on American TV (both cable and terrestrial) is “NCIS”, which gets, in a country of 320m people, an audience of between 16 and 20 million. True, they were finale shows, with huge amounts of publicity surrounding them, but the figures are still stark.
So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that we now live in a “television” (I use the word loosely, given the impact of Netflix and downloads) age where a huge increase in quality and choice has almost shattered the shared experience. It’s true that people now watch “Doctor Who” or “Downton Abbey” with one eye on Twitter, and that is a shared community, but the reality is that most people are not watching the show you are watching. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But we all (of a certain vintage) remember Ross and Rachel’s first kiss. On the other hand, I’m afraid to write about Ned Stark out of fear that some of my readers don’t know who he is, or his destiny, because they haven’t experienced it yet.
I was in New York just before “Studio 60″ debuted in 2006, and it was a big deal. The major US TV networks had gotten into a major bidding war to secure Aaron Sorkin’s new show, based around a late night “Saturday Night Live” comedy show, and when NBC won the rights, they pumped huge money into advertising it, with billboards, magazines and bus stop ads. This was to be the biggest show on TV that season.
It bombed. In fact, it bombed so badly that hardly anybody saw the final few episodes as its viewing numbers dropped from 14 million to 4 million, and it was quietly cancelled after 22 episodes.
When I first saw it, I was quite underwhelmed. It had all the Sorkin stuff, and was jammers full of ex-West Wing alumni like Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry and Timothy Busfield, but overall, it was all a bit, well, “meh”.
Yet, watching it now, having bought it cheap on DVD, I ask myself: would I watch a second season? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes I would. With the benefit of hindsight I think I know what went wrong with the show. Firstly, it came after “The West Wing”, which reinvented political drama. There were huge expectations on this extremely expensive ($3m an episode cost to NBC) to produce show, which could never be met. After all, people discovered “The West Wing”, whereas they were waiting for this.
Secondly, it’s about a subject (effectively SNL) which is revered by comedians, writers and The New Yorker crowd but is just a funny TV show to everybody else. It is hard to make drama out of something that people do not regard as important. It’s like setting a show in the competitive world of show jumping. A big deal to some people, but…
Funnily enough, I could see it working as an HBO show now, especially with it’s angle about the politics of television. Wait, isn’t there a show on HBO about a TV show written by Aaron Sorkin? Oh well.
Give it a go, all the same. Whitford and Perry have genuine onscreen chemistry, and I’d like to see them in something together again. It’s also set during the paranoid days of the Bush administration, before that nice well-spoken young man from Hawaii rescued us all, and you can notice it.
One other thing: it was this show that finally made me try to write stuff professionally, and watching it reminded me of the very first cheque I ever got for writing, and thinking “Really, people are going to pay me for this?”
When I was growing up in the 1980s, “Hart to Hart”, starring Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers and Lionel Stander seemed to be on every bleeding day, and this when there was only six channels.
Running for five seasons from 1979-1984, and then ten years later as a series of TV movies, Hart to Hart held a special place for me. My parents marriage was actively disintegrating before my eyes, two people who had loved each other now swung from disdain for each other to loathing, all played out in front of me and my younger brothers.
Then there was Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. Even then I knew their smoochy childless marriage was too good to be true. Of course they were happy. They’d no kids, a nice dog, a gravelly voiced chef/driver/factotum named Max, and Jonathan was worth about $200 million, back when that was a lot of money. Watching their globe trotting holidays (where every bar, hotel and restaurant manager knew their name), I’d happily have put up with the fact that every week someone would try to murder them, Max, their friends or even their dog. To me the novelty was that here were two married people who still loved each other.
Having said that, the show was shockingly formulaic, with the following lessons constantly applying in HartLand:
1. Jennifer Hart was a lovely, beautiful, kind and well-read woman. She was also as dim as a bag of broken bulbs down a sealed well. She was forever getting kidnapped, more often than not escaping and then flagging down the car driven by the people who kidnapped her in the first place. In the opening credits, Max would announce that she was a “lady who knew how to take care of herself” That was a lie. She was rubbish at it, having to constantly be rescued by her husband. She also was incapable of detecting anyone sneaking up behind her with chloroform, a gun or even dressed as a f**king mummy. She’d just stare blankly ahead, never look behind her, and scream “Jonathan!”when someone would sneak up behind her and grab her. Looking back, I wonder was she just looking for attention.
2. You can’t help wondering if she married him, at least initially, for his money, given that every episode seems to involve the two of them on obscene spending sprees. Having said that, given that nearly every bed scene involved her letting out an “Oh Jonathan!” when the lights went out one suggests he might be one kinky bastard, and she just lies back and thinks of Tiffany’s. One shudders to think what he’d take out of the bedside drawer once the lights went out.
3. The Harts had a drinking problem, constantly quaffing champagne at inappropriate moments. Jennifer was constantly being “drugged”. If you watch the show from the point of view that it’s the drunken imaginings of a rich man’s bored wife at home getting pissed on gin, it’s a whole different show, always ending with her ever-patient husband “rescuing” her from her latest adventure.
4. Hart Industries seemed to make money, or at least Jonathan was constantly signing deals for mergers and the like. On the odd occasion you see what his companies actually make, it’s shite. HartToy Inc made, yes, toys, including a shitty version of Simon Says (that had a bomb in it. I don’t recall if that was part of it’s charm), and an even shittier robot which he was convinced was going to be a huge success, a plastic pony and a “Snake in a Box”. No, I’ve no idea either. Funnily enough, Jonathan was always terrified that other companies might be stealing his toy plans. Looking at this crap, you can’t help thinking that maybe he was drunk most of the time too.
5. Late seventies, early eighties California was a weird place. Solving the murder of rich people seemed to be beyond the purview of the LAPD who got irritated when Jonathan would ask them to solve a murder or yet another of Jennifer’s kidnappings. But then, one could hardly blame them. “She’s kidnapped again??? What’s wrong with you people? Have you considered locking her in the basement for her own good? Have you been drinking again Mr Hart? “
6. Additionally, every gun in California seemed to be adjusted to fire a bullet three feet away from whatever you aimed at. When the guy who played The Incredible Hulk tried to murder their dog on a golf course because the dog witnessed a murder (don’t ask, just keep going) they ended up chasing him in a golf cart at about 10 feet an hour, and he still couldn’t hit them. He should have stopped the cart and stood behind Jennifer. They’d never look there.
7. California also boasted the highest nationwide incidences of people bumping their heads and getting amnesia, evil hypnotists, and people who looked like Jennifer Hart only more evil and sluttier. In fact, Jennifer Hart seemed to resemble dozens of people from ancient Egyptian queens to the aforementioned slut.
8. Jonathan Hart loved jumping on people from a height. He could easily shoot someone from a safe distance (although those wonky Californian guns…), hit someone with a tire iron or just plain punch them, but no, he’ll climb on top of something and jump on them. It was his thing. And he had lovely hair. The man was trapped in a wind tunnel but his hair reset itself. Maybe that’s how Hart Industries made money. Their super hair gel subsidised all the other crap.
9. The Harts’ friends were mostly awful people, and a bunch of murderers. After the first twenty you’d think the Harts would start wondering how they surrounded themselves with these psychos. But then, they probably didn’t notice with all the drinking, sex, and Max constantly asking them if they wanted a sandwich, even when they were pawing each other on the sofa.
10. You were never sure whether Max was a higher functioning retard or not. He could drive OK, and was a pretty good chef, but seemed to be taken in by whatever passing fad was on the go at the time. You always wondered would they arrive home from some glamourous fundraiser to find him dead, hanging from a door with his belt around neck, trousers around his ankles and Freeway licking chocolate sauce from his balls. Max seemed the sort of guy who’d give anything a go.
I recently finished the final episode of “Sons of Anarchy”, FX’s violent motorcycle gang as criminals drama starring Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman. It’s excellent drama, and I’ve constantly been almost recommending it to people as one of the most political TV shows on in recent years. I don’t mean in terms of political systems, but in terms of how relationships between many competing interests are managed. SOA was not as much about motor bikes as relationships between people and groups.
I say almost, because I have to be careful who I’d suggest it to. Sons of Anarchy is exceptionally and unnecessarily violent, to the point of being literally eye-poppingly gruesome, and it’s indicative of a problem faced by modern television drama.
I’m old enough to remember when some people complained that “The Professionals” or “The A Team” were encouraging young people to be violent with the casual amount of gunplay in each episode. As one of those young people I thought, and still think, that those complaints were just plain silly. But today’s level of violence, on the other hand, is reaching a stage where one has to question is it just becoming gratuitous? Even non-cable network shows which are much more restricted in what they can show on camera, like “Criminal Minds”, up the ante by featuring scenarios where families and children are regularly menaced or tortured in disturbing psychological ways.
I’m not calling for any form of censorship, of course. People can make and watch whatever they want. But surely the real challenge for creative TV writers now is to create shows that can create suspense without the easy fall back of horror?
Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is “based” on the 1964-68 TV series. Based is a very loose word, especially when writing as a huge fan of the original TV series. Having said that, the movie deserves a review from the perspective of a non-UNCLE fan too, and in that context it’s very entertaining. The look and feel of the movie is very 1960s spy movie, more The Ipcress File than James Bond, and the soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton plays homage to the soundtracks of the period.
The cast carry the movie well, with Alicia Vikander in particular shining in a role that could easily have become the McGuffin object to be ferried around, rescued etc. It moves at a fair pace, the plot is pretty thin (who the baddies who want the atomic bomb are, and why is never really explained, although they seem pretty well resourced given they own a submarine). There are some quite funny moments, including a scene with an electric chair in the background, or Cavill sitting in a truck during a gun battle. Cavill and Hammer struggle to get past the slightly clunky tension of their respective CIA/KGB backgrounds but when they do, and they do, you do start to root for them as a team. Hugh Grant plays Hugh Grant, which is fine, because I happen to like Hugh Grant. Elizabeth Debicki has a nice screen presence, and could really have been given more to do other than waft in and out of scenes.
One criticism I’d have is that the set piece James Bond attack on the enemy base is almost wasted in a curious montage. It looks great, but you feel like you’d like to have seen more of it. On top of that, the movie ends curiously abruptly. The end credits, showing UNCLE files, contain a few interesting nuggets, and the movie sets up nicely for a sequel.
The usual Ritchie stuff, split screens, flashbacks to what REALLY happened, etc, are all there, and add to the entertainment. It’s not a classic. It’s no Snatch. But very enjoyable.
The UNCLE fan review. Warning: includes spoilers.
I’m not one of those fans who believes the original material is untouchable. There are people who have never forgiven JJ Abrahms for the Spock/Uhura thing, or refuse to watch Elementary because it’s set in the US and Dr. Watson is a woman. I’m happy to let each interpretation stand on its own feet. Having said that, I’m not sure if I were a huge fan of the Mission Impossible TV series I’d see much connection with the Cruise movies, as they miss the crucial self-sabotaging aspect of the original show. But that’s another story.
This movie was an interpretation of The Man from UNCLE, or rather, a view of UNCLE from such a distance that you can just about recognise a few familiar shapes. It’s an enjoyable movie, but could just as easily have been called “The Rome Caper”. Certainly, if it hadn’t been called The Man from UNCLE I’m not sure UNCLE fans would have recognised it.
Of course, you could argue that it is a prequel, and so obviously misses a lot of the original features of the TV show, and that would be a fair point. In addition, the UNCLE of the movie, a small team with east/west tensions is actually far more realistic than the TV show’s huge vaguely utopian organisation.
The one glaring difference between the show and the movie is Cavill and Hammer. Both physically impressive, (Hammer especially looks huge onscreen) are far removed from the Talk First, Then Fight approach of the original characters of Solo and Kuryakin. Also, making Kuryakin out to be borderline psychotic just isn’t the same character played by David McCallum.
It’s a different UNCLE, and I’d like to see a sequel to see where they take it. But I have serious doubts that there’ll be one.
I’ve written previously about my interest in old British and US cult TV shows from the 1960s and ’70s, and the recent passing at 93 of British actor Patrick Macnee, who played debonair spy John Steed in the 1960s British spy series “The Avengers” has triggered a few thoughts on the subject.
Two Christmases ago I treated myself to the complete Avengers TV series on DVD, which ran in its original format from 1960 to 1969. The show was a success in its day, being very popular as one of the few British shows to be exported to a US TV network.
But what struck me, watching it, was the number of then young actors in it who became quite well known later in life but have since passed away, with Macnee being the last male lead still living. Its main producer and de facto creator, Brian Clemens, also passed away earlier this year. Watching the show one realises that many of its original viewers have also since passed away (it was off the air three years before I was born) and that the show’s human hinterland, the people who made and watched the show are gradually vanishing.
This is actually a relatively new phenomenon given the fact that television as a medium is only really sixty five years old. Unlike music or movies or other aspects of culture, TV had, until quite recently, a large number of still living if elderly TV pioneers who had been the actors, writers, producers and directors. It was still possible to ask them what they had been trying to communicate, and what their stories meant.
That access, the ability to ask the actual participants, is rapidly dying out across the world.
We are now seeing a whole new avenue of cultural history open up as these shows go from being just old TV shows to a glimpse into the society and culture of a previous age. Watch spy shows from the 1960s and see how many of them like “The Man From UNCLE” or “The Champions” were about international cooperation to preserve peace. “The Avengers”, for example, had a number of episodes where the two heroes fought to stop some baddy trying to sabotage European unity (I’m not joking), the assumption being that it was obviously a good thing. By the 1990s, on the other hand, shows like “The X Files” or “Alias” were about how one’s own government was the enemy.
It’s the same with sitcoms. The 1970s sitcom “Maude”, starring a pre-”Golden Girls” Bea Arthur, was one of the first TV shows to address abortion, which in itself says something about changing culture. Imagine the hysteria that would have arisen if “Friends” had an episode where Rachel had an abortion. “Will and Grace” and now “Modern Family” both traced the changing social attitudes towards homosexuality. “Star Trek” allowed issues of segregation and race be addressed in a thinly disguised science fiction setting, including the first ever inter-racial kiss on US television. TV history is important.
That’s why programmes like the Emmy Foundations interview archive, where actors, writers and others talk at length about their experiences on these TV shows, is important.
RTE should be doing this, talking, for example, in depth to Gay Byrne and others about The Late Late Show. They are part of our living cultural history, and have a story to tell.