I don’t know whether this really qualifies as a ‘guilty pleasure’ at all, because we are dealing with two brilliant creators, the author John le Carré and the director Park Chan-wook, and a totally believable cast. In this case, therefore, I believe that my only guilty pleasure is in spending so much time in front of the TV.
The first episode might deter some watchers, because it is intriguing to the point of bafflement. Young, left-wing actress Charmian ‘Charlie’ Ross (Florence Pugh), is recruited into a Mossad team by a process of quasi-courtship on the part of Israeli agent Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård); the ‘courtship’ includes visits to the floodlit Acropoplis, half-kisses that lead nowhere, and a break-neck car ride… and he never reveals his true name. Believe me, it takes ‘intriguing’ to the point of surreal, and you will progress beyond the first episode only by asking “Why? For heaven’s sake why?”
But on the way Park will have seduced you by his style, his use of spaces and colours, his way of planting the action squarely in the late 1970s by subtle but totally accurate references.
The premise of this story is that the Mossad team, led by Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) needs someone who can act convincingly, to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist organisation. The irony is that once embedded she is such a brilliant actor for the Palestinians, that one wonders why they don’t suspect her embedded persona. In fact – inevitably – Charlie becomes deeply conflicted the more she learns of the Palestinian struggle. Le Carré’s story and, especially, Park’s direction convey this by constantly playing with the viewer’s loyalty. The Israeli characters are, in equal parts, noble and despicable; Kurtz is a sociopath, but even he can see the irony of someone who is a child of the Holocaust interrogating and murdering in cold blood a young man who has only ever known life in a refugee camp. The Palestinians are, in equal parts, noble and despicable, though the latter is perhaps more visible in their European fellow-travellers. Who do you root for? Eventually you may find yourself merely hoping that Charlie makes it through in one piece.
If you are hoping for another Night Manager, then your hopes will be exceeded. That was a bit too James Bond. The Little Drummer Girl hits the same spot that le Carré’s Cold War novels did, especially in their TV adaptations. There is a larger vista than rain-soaked London and Eastern Europe, but without the sense of globetrotting. Guilty pleasure be damned – this gets a full row of stars from me!
Well, American television has done it again – seduced me with a prime piece of Capitolatry. By that I mean the idolising of the centre of US statecraft. The funny thing is, I can see this going down much better in Banjoburg, Redneck County that it does in Liberalville, simply because there is something… well… aspirational about the lifestyle portrayed that would raise an eyebrow and pinch a pinch of salt amongst urbane, liberal viewers, whereas someone less sophisticated might simply enjoy it as a) an adventure series, and/or b) Dallas-on-the-Potomac. Neither set would, I think, dig the clothes.
So far I’m playing catch-up. I’m only half-way through series 1. That’s season 1 to my American readers. But anyhow, there are going to be some spoilers, so if you don’t want that, stick your fingers in your eyes and see the words “La la la la!”
Beth McCord, the eponymous Madam Secretary is played by Téa Leoni with one single facial expression throughout. Add to that the fact that she never seems to brush her hair, even for special occasions, and is wardrobed in the least flattering collection of blouses I have ever seen, and she ought to stink. Somehow she doesn’t, although I hated her mocking put-down to an importunate student in the very first scene.
It might have something to do with how the rest of the show is structured around her. Ostensibly it’s another seat-of-power drama that lurches from crisis to crisis. There’s a lot of scenes that are shot while characters are walking fast through busy corridors and through busy offices – you know the sort of thing, it’s been a cliché since L.A. Law – there’s the inevitable life/work balance for a main character who is dragged out of academia by the ex-CIA boss (now POTUS) to be Secretary of State. It also could have something to do with her husband in the show being played by Tim Daly, whom she is dating in real life. They have, it has to be said, a lot of chemistry.
Tim Daly’s, Dr. Henry McCord, is very well drawn. The character is a Catholic, a former Marine aviator during Desert Storm, and a Professor of Ethics at a religious college. He provides much of the conscience of the show, and has a quiverful of subtle one-liners that defuse family tensions. Here I’ll offer a caveat. At the point in the show where I currently am, his position has shifted. He accepted a position as Professor of Military Ethics at a military college, where at least he could debate St. Augustine’s concept of a ‘just war’, even though it was made plain to him that part of his job was to groom potential ‘assets’ for the CIA. Now he has joined a small group of counter-terrorist experts in a small office as they try to track down the latest manifestation of Islamist terrorism. What this has meant, however, is that the story arc is moving forward with less and less chance for him to be the conscience of the show – beyond occasionally frowning before doing something. I don’t know whether this changes over the next seasons, but I hope so. The (fictional) fight on terror is one thing, the loss of a character’s balancing function is another.
Of course what marks Madam Secretary apart from The West Wing, House of Cards, and Designated Survivor, is that it does not revolve round the President. Yes, I know that is not how The West Wing was originally planned. The show does, of course feature a president, and again they’ve got a whopping name for this role – Keith Carradine! But in having the central character in an important job in the administration, the show can play with the need to manage up and down, and to be managed. In fact it successfully negotiates plots and sub-plots that take place in various semi-discrete environments – home, the relationship with superiors, the relationship with staff, the diplomatic world. The McCords have three children – offspring, rather – three exceedingly good young actors, playing two daughters and a son. The son is a self-proclaimed anarchist, as a result of which he occasionally gets to make pithy, socially and politically pointed critiques. Not too often, though, this is America, after all.
Beth’s staff are sharp and sassy. Geoffrey Arend as Matt simply reprises his character from Body of Proof – well, not the exact same character, but he is totally typecast. I can’t even begin to catalogue the rest of the actors in this show, they are all damn good by American standards. Watch also out for Morgan Freeman and René Auberjonois popping up from time to time, and cameos from Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Colin Powell.
There is a scene in which the re-opening of the US Embassy in Havana is played out. Someone has managed to find two veteran Marines who had been on duty in 1961 when it closed. At one point in the ceremony, after speeches, to serving Marines step up to them, exchange salutes, and accept the Stars-and-Stripes for hoisting at the flagpole. I found myself choking up. “Damn!” I thought, “I’ve been played!” And I had. Clever, if they can move a cynic like me.
I’m going to dish out four stars, because it is just so damn watchable. There are hints above that I am not confident how the series will develop from here. It has a distinct disadvantage compared to House of Cards or Designated Survivor, and that is that those two started from entirely extraordinary premises, so in both you are looking at a dystopian or recovery-from-dystopian situation. In Madam Secretary you are looking at a quasi-realistic premise, with the result that it is obliged to drift at a tangent away from current affairs whether we like it or not. The current situation in Washington you just couldn’t make up. Enough said.
Doctor Who – the Partition of India episode
This isn’t really a review, more a set of observations. So no need for stars at the end.
I watch a lot of TV.
Yes, this has been pointed out to me. Many times. I had three other shows recording while I watched Doctor Who tonight. It’s how I relax in the evenings, here in the little teepee on the Sidlaws.
The BBC drop us into a history lesson. Again.
It’s part of the remit, folks, so deal with it. Team Tardis play with an entirely South-Asian supporting cast, representing Hindus and Muslims, in a small rural spot, who may or may not want to live together in peace and harmony. Yes it was another homily on a division between people – remember we had Rosa Parks a couple of weeks back.
The Team are looking for the grandmother of Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) in Lahore in 1950, but land in 1947 in the Punjab countryside, to witness her marriage. Only it isn’t to Yasmin’s grandfather…
Oh yes, the Doctor is authorized to solemnise marriages. Didn’t you know?
Aliens. There has to be aliens.
Yes, there are. Bad scary aliens who turn out actually to be good aliens. I know, Doctor Who pulls that stunt time and time and time and space again.
It was broadcast on Remembrance Sunday.
Yes, and there were flashbacks to one of the Punjabi characters as a WW2 British soldier. Okay, so we know that a significant number of Indians who wanted independence fought for the Axis powers, and we know that the history of British India was, to put it mildly, a mixed bag – in fact someone pointed out to Team Tardis that they had arrived somewhere where it perhaps wasn’t all that safe to be British. But there’s history, and there’s history, so there is only so much of a history/morality lesson that Doctor Who can fit into one episode, okay?
Jodie Whittaker has had time to settle into the role. Or rather we have had time to settle into watching her now. How does she carry off the first female Doctor? Well, she’s an actor, so she carries it off how the Director tells her to. And once again that entails forgetting that she’s female, and that at many points in time and space men and women have to separate. Like in the Punjab in 1947, the night before a wedding.
But that’s the whole point about this regeneration of the Doctor. It has been achieved (eased in to the minds of the viewers, some of whom bitched like fury about it, for some reason) by de-gendering the Doctor.
The Doctor’s outfit, along with the Doctor’s persona – gabby, able to don a welding mask or assemble a chemistry set out of items normally found in a Punjab farm in 1947, gabby and scatty – is neither butch nor femme. It’s decidedly ki-ki. I don’t know whether this is a courageous stand against the performance of gender, or a cowardly way out of giving the Doctor a markedly (conventional?) female/feminine persona. It certainly does make it easy to focus on the Doctor as ‘The Doctor’.
It has been a mark of Doctor Who for some time that the Doctor and companion(s) never make any attempt to blend in with the society in which they land. They never put on the costume of the day. Nevertheless, and despite the de-gendering, I would love to see Jodie, just once, walk gracefully down a flight of stairs, wearing an elegant ball gown. And not trip up.
BBC, do it! We’re used to the de-gendering now, so just do it. For a giggle. To unsettle us again.
Oh all right, while we’re on about clothes…
… Graham (Bradley Walsh) really rocks that Belstaff!
Guilty pleasure – ABC drama Designated Survivor
Warning! Spoiler alert!
Over the past twenty years there have been three television series set in Washington DC and centered around the office of the President of the United States. All three of them have had front-rank actors in the role of the President: Martin Sheen in The West Wing, Kevin Spacey (ignoring the damage his actions have brought to his reputation) in House of Cards, and Kiefer Sutherland in Designated Survivor.
Broadcast at a time when the office itself has never been so degraded, and so – I would argue – because of and not despite the constitutional system, you would expect a drama that glorified, almost deified, the office of President, portraying him as a man thrust into power who, somehow, manages to find a solution and a dignified ready turn of phrase to deflect everything that fate and skullduggery throws at him, to be bloody awful. It ought to be a hollow attempt at being an antidote to House of Cards, a reminder that the President is to be accorded respect in times of adversity – such as an assault on his presidency by a liberal elite and enemies of the truth, eh? – and thus utterly two-dimensional propaganda. It ought itself to be a house of cards, what with thinly disguised East-Asian dictatorships posing a military threat (and the leader’s name is even Kim, fer chrissakes!), a Shia Muslim rogue state ditto, two – count ‘em, two so far – British villains (come on, America, that cliché is so boring, so annoying!), sinister Russians, and the obligatory insistence that America is “a beacon of freedom and democracy”. Yes, I kid you not, someone actually says that, in 2018. It ought to be dreadful, the same way that The Last Ship ought to be a wooden-acted glorification of the American military.
Except it isn’t.
For some unknown reason the TV pixie dust works. From the moment that a terrorist bomb at the US Capitol building kills everyone in the political hierarchy down to and excluding the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – yeah, I know, I know – who then has to step into the Oval Office as the next-in-line, this series is compulsive. In every episode there is the continuing threat of an elusive bomber or an elusive hacktivist, who, true to every dramatic cliché straight out of Homeland, remains one step ahead of the authorities. In every episode there is some kind of internal or external crisis, which the President manages to rectify, only for it to turn 180 degrees and go tits-up again, or for a fresh one to come out of the blue. Some, such as a decoy dirty-bomb or the fact that when the FBI raid somewhere the person they’re looking for is bound to be sitting there dead, you can see coming; others, such as the sudden death of the First Lady, are a total bolt from the blue.
The acting is first rate, and that helps, it helps greatly. There is, of course, a pronounced American ‘style’ of acting that is mannered, and that turns up in every American drama on TV; but we’re used to it by now, it is a convention that passes by unnoticed. Designated Survivor has that style, but it is well-honed. Even the cardboard cut-out villains hold their end up. Kiefer Sutherland’s President Tom Kirkman can be a tad sanctimonious from time to time, and that grates, but – hey! – he’s the POTUS and is allowed to stand on his dignity sometimes. Hark at me! It is difficult to pick performances that stand out. I’m convinced by Kal Penn as White House Press Secretary Seth Wright, convinced that here we have a man with the wit and articulacy we came to love in The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney). Maggie Q’s grim-faced FBI agent Hannah Wells, with her punch-yer-lights-out-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude, again, ought to be dreadful. But she’s not. I love her.
If there is a trace of humour in Designated Survivor, it comes from pedantic, obsessive-compulsive, brilliant Lyor Boone, played by Paulo Costanzo. Lyor is the White House Political Director, and as such what he says pretty much goes. However, he is abrasive and irritating, so he gets on everyone’s nerves, even more so because he is usually 100% right. Nevertheless there will come a time in an episode, there you will laugh out loud and say “I want to marry this guy and have his babies!” Honestly I sit there in front of the screen, when I’ve had enough of Tom Kirkman with a ramrod up his jacksi, just waiting for him to come on.
It was sad to lose Natascha McElhone as First Lady Alex Kirkman, beautiful and, like her colleagues in the cast, totally convincing, but as she was on her way to another starring role the actor was written out of the script with a bang – the sudden death of her character, one of the most unexpected turns of fate in the script up to that point.
Yes, I’m giving this four stars. One star is being knocked off because there are people out there in sofa-land who will be convinced that life at the top of the US political tree is like this. It isn’t. It isn’t even like The West Wing or House of Cards. This is great TV, though, just as long as you remember it’s a total fairy tale.
Despite plot weaknesses* this was one of the most memorable and currently relevant** episodes of Doctor Who ever. Vinette Robinson portrayed a beautiful and dignified woman, and did it without a hint of “I am acting a ‘historic figure’.” The dramatic irony in Graham (a bus driver), Ryan (a young British man of African heritage), and Yasmin (a police officer) as first-hand witnesses to the Montgomery bus incident was outstanding.
* Oh come on! The Doctor complains that little things can change history, and then sends some guy off to Las Vegas as a bogus raffle prize. But, hey!
** Do I really have to say why?