Zen arcade 2016

Behold, the promised Telly Addict: Zen Roundup of The Year! Officially Telly Addict #26, the 26th Telly Addict of my half-year contract with UKTV, who resurrected the show and treated it with care, attention, love, personnel, marketing and doughnuts during that allotted time – so a big thanks to all who sailed in her, not least Dave, Joel, Matt, Cherish and Justine (upstairs). It’s not over yet, but there will be a hiatus, during which I shall endeavour to maintain the blog, and with a prevailing wind and a bit of luck, the Telly Addict brand will continue in a modified form. You watch this space, and I’ll keep watching the glowing box in the corner of the room.

Rather than spoil the show, here are a few screengrabs in the traditional style that, I think, cumulatively say “the second half of 2016 in televisual terms”. If you want to ease our passage into the New Year, all comments, views, thumbs-ups, “likes” and shares either here, on YouTube, or on Twitter, will help make the case for its free-to-air return. There will be no crowdsourcing – I don’t feel comfortable begging for money – but where there’s an audience, there’s a way. If you haven’t watched all the 25 previous Telly Addicts yet, why not go back and do so: every hit helps. If you find a TA with a lowly view-total of around a thousand to 1,500 , give the runt a glance.

Thanks for watching thus far. See you on the other side.

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Severe readies

We’re almost at the six-month mark. Telly Addict has been under the new roof of UKTV for almost half a year. We’ll be taking a break after Christmas, but you know what to do if you want it to bounce back in 2017: like, share, view, Tweet, lobby. I’ll be doing a review of the second half of 2016 in two weeks, including a Montage of Zen. Until then, two more “regular” Telly Addicts. This week’s begins with a celebration of Top Of The Pops (BBC Four), currently exploding with moments from 1982. Like this unique leg move from Shakin’ Stevens, which needs to be seen in action to be believed. The past is a foreign country. They do things better there.

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Anybody else spot a similarity between Shaky and the translucent tree frog on Planet Earth II (BBC One)? Just me. OK.

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Who Do You Think You Are (BBC One) returned for its 13th series with the sort of series opener that money cannot buy. Not even, in the words of its subject, “severe readies.” Investigate this hour of cherishable telly on the iPlayer forthwith. This will involve you putting aside all prejudices about Danny Dyer, who exists in the grey area between reality and fiction, and in many ways plays himself; but as his bloodline back to royalty unspools, his reactions are priceless. And it’s really quite moving. And when Handel’s Zadok the Priest kicks in, your mind will have been changed.

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Another song of praise now: a nod to The Coroner (BBC One), back for a second series based on audience love in the Daytime, where murders are committed but not in dark alleyways, violently, by serial killers. Hooray for Sally Abbott, the show’s creator, for taking a route through the whodunit that’s as picturesque as it is involving, and gentle. Not all crime drama can have men drilling other men’s heads with power tools. In the grab above, the coroner (Claire Goose) and the detective (Matt Bardock) are discussing the case, while the rest of us gaze longingly at Devon. It’s Escape to The Country with forensics.

If you fancy something more expensive and self-regarding, there’s always season three of Showtime’s The Affair (Sky Atlantic), which I keep saying is an HBO drama, even though it technically isn’t.

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I’ve tried three times now to love it – once with the first season, once with the second, and again with the third – but I just can’t. I don’t buy Dominic West as this irresistible “Mr Lover Man” of New York academia, and that’s difficult to get over. (He shaves that simian beard off in Episode One, by the way, which is a boon, as it isn’t helping.)

The object on the coffee table is an heirloom: the NME cassette compilation C86, from 1986. I treasure it, even though I have no large piece of electrical equipment that will actually play it.

This week’s Moment of Zen comes from The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic), which is quite unlike any other drama I have seen all year, and occupies a special place in my heart. If you just want to look at Jude Law’s torso, you can.

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Oh, and I was perplexed by the new Walliams & Friend (BBC One) sketch show, in which its star, David Walliams, takes a humble back seat to his guests, almost wilfully giving up the spotlight. This seems self-defeating for a David Walliams vehicle.

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The tube

The return of Telly Addict. Can it really have been a whole week since the first “soft launch” broadcast pilot went live under my new roof at UKTV’s YouTube site? I have yet to wean myself off the “refresh” key, as it’s a new toy to me. There was no way of monitoring views on the Guardian website, but YouTube make it too easy to fixate and tap. We’re also under a whole new dictatorship of stats, so when I ask if you wouldn’t mind awfully clicking on “like” and “subscribe”, be gentle with me. I’m new here. It’s fortuitous that Celebrity Masterchef gets a nod this week. Regular viewers will know that I have no defences against this brand and have even succumbed to Masterchef The Professionals, thus swelling my portfolio. It’s a tired old dig to remark that you have not heard of some of the “celebrities” on Celebrity-prefixed formats, but having been on Celebrity Mastermind myself (I came second), I can hardly mither. Not knowing who this young gentleman was is my failing, not his.

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He’s Marcus Butler, 24, and he has over 4.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, despite not enunciating his words very well. He seems nice enough. hey, I am over the moon to have had 817 views of the first Telly Addict. But give me time. (Oh, I watched the first of Marcus’s clips, and it seemed to be about him saying that men should be more empathic of women, and then trying to put on a pair of tights as if to prove what a hard life women have. It was pretty thin stuff.) I am not in competition with Marcus Butler. I’m not in competition with anybody. I review three or four programmes that I watched last week, which this week also includes: the series finale of Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic), the series finale of The Good Wife (More4), and, to please my UKTV overlords, the new series of format-of-formats Taskmaster (Dave), which I raved about on Telly Addict long before UKTV came to my rescue. Also, a tip of the hat to The Secret Life of a Bus Garage (ITV), which is on ITV Hub here. It’s a heart-warming, pre-Brexit vision of a functioning South West London multicultural utopia, in a place of work where 50 languages are spoken. I hope everybody we see on the show still has a job and has not started getting sly abuse from emboldened thickos.

Get clicking.

Dracula meets Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man meets Dr Jekyll meets Mr Hyde meets Dorian Grey

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I wasn’t sure about Penny Dreadful (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) at the birth. Something about the random-seeming audacity of mashing up Frankenstein, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Grey into one over-the-top show. (That Victorian reading list has since expanded to include The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and incorporates The Wolf Man, which was a film.) But it came alive and fell into place for me in episode two when Eva Green’s apparently possessed protagonist crawled over the seance table of Helen McCrory’s spiritualist like a potty-mouthed Dickensian Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the very same audacity revealed itself not to be random after all, and clicked. Created by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall), this was actually a flamboyant, costumed challenge to purists, and a gift from one horror aficionado to another. It was in the spirit of Universal’s mercenary 1940s brand-offs like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man – except deadly, if not at all times deadly serious.

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Now, three episodes into season three, I believe it has entered its baroque period. It’s as if the show itself is a manifestation of Simon Russell Beale’s continually finessing facial topiary. After what I felt were a couple of longueurs in season two (I zoned out of the Cut Witch diversion, even though I accepted that it had backstory ballast, as I wanted to get back to the thrilling present with the wax museum, the Pinkertons and the Verbis Diablo), this one swaggers with an inflated confidence and seems to want to break its own taboos. (Without giving too much away for latecomers, there was scene in episode three that involved three-way sex and enough blood to fill a barrel.) John Logan is the presiding genius, creator and showrunner, the Frankenstein to Penny Dreadful’s monster, and his has been the only ever writing credit. That’s 21 hour-long episodes thus far without the visible fingerprint of another writer on them. Producers are credited, but never specifically as writers. I’m certain it’s tabled and punched up, but it’s a rare example of an “authored” US show. It exhausts me just to think about Logan typing every single word. Boardwalk Empire was written by around 20 people over its five seasons; Breaking Bad at least a dozen; even The Knick, which was written predominantly by its two creators, had another loyal captain standing by to take up the slack. Logan makes me think of the Tom Waits song, in which he repeats, “What’s he building in there … ?”

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Penny Dreadful warns of adult themes and scenes of a sexual nature, and has had them from the start (remember Rory Kinnear’s entrance as the creature?), but it is fundamentally a whole heap of fun. Blood is spilled. Blood is smeared. Blood is sucked. Blood rains down on a ballroom full of dancing Victorians and paints the walls of an inn after a massacre. But what season three does, already, is to get out of town. Previously confined to London, which looked suspiciously like Dublin, it has lately exploded into the Wild West, the Arctic (a direct nod for scholars to Mary Shelley’s text) and Africa – what Logan describes as “different geographies” – and it’s quite a treat to see the sky at last. Just as films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre challenged the precepts of “noir” by heading out into the baking sun, Penny Dreadful has pushed back the perimeter fence of Gothic.

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A word on the cast. Eva Green has always been a challenge, as her character, Vanessa is by factory setting an unsmiling, unapproachable “project” of a woman, but she inhabits it like Helena Bonham Carter might do, except without the knowing smirk. Vanessa does not smirk much. Her current window of romance is set to slam shut, and her mania to revisit her past through Patti LuPone’s therapist promises much. (Logan describes the series as being about “one woman’s journey to faith” – hers.) Timothy Dalton has found the role of his life as the grizzled, grieving Sir Malcolm, an amalgam of every retired 19th century adventurer and the motley cast’s father figure; as has Josh Hartnett, a former lightweight who rises to the challenge of the lycanthropic cowboy. A thrill, too, this season, to see Wes Studi (Last of The Mohicans, Dances With Wolves) with his striking features seemingly carved from a rockface, and the promise of Brian Cox to come, no slouch either in the geological physiognomy. The lithe, panda-eyed Harry Treadaway now spars in the lab with Shazad Latif (the IT guy from Spooks and Clem Fandango from Toast!), while Billie Piper and Reeve Carney as the Bride of Frankenstein and Dorian Grey get to grips with new kid Jessica Barden – their story is only just coagulating. Rory Kinnear had an intriguing story in season two, leading to self-exile, but in digging into his past, season three seems to have somewhere deep to go – a rhyme with Vanessa’s rebirthing, perhaps. Oh, and Samuel Barnett as a boyish Renfield – there are no flies on him.

I find the show heady and preposterous, fine and dandy, dark and troubling; in going over the top it gets under the skin. I think Lou inadvertently summed up Penny Dreadful in 1951 in Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man: “I went to shake his hand, his hand was gone. I looked up to speak to him, his head was gone. Then he took off his shirt, his body was gone. He took off his pants, his legs were gone! Then he spoke to me, I was gone.”

Writing for money

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I met Damien Lewis, socially, at the Peaky Blinders BFI event last week. He was there to support his wife Helen McCrory. I’ve known Billions (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) was coming since January when I read this lengthy profile of Lewis in the New Yorker. We chatted about Billions, and about working in America, which he predominantly has done since being cast in Homeland. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how rigorous and bracing the American writing method is for an actor. We all know that the crucial difference between British and US drama (and comedy) is money: that is, they can afford to hire teams of writers and put them on the payroll; we can’t. As a result, our drama and comedy has an authorial “voice”, but theirs has an industrial fine-tuning that we can’t match. (And nor, I suspect, would most British-based writers want to match.) Having now watched episode one of Billions, created by three men, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Cornejo (they can’t even have ideas on their own!), and co-produced/co-written by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Willie Reale, Peter K Blake, Heidi Shreck and Wes Jones, it’s clear to see how much polishing and “punching up” goes into these team-written shows. It’s like the difference between a car being washed, and a car being washed and waxed.

Many of my all-time favourite US dramas are produced this way, writers’ room style, and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m glad they do. Just listen to some of the finely honed lines in episode one of Billions.

“The decisions we make, the judgements we bring, have weight.”

“My cholesterol levels are high enough, don’t butter my ass.”

“A good matador doesn’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s stuck a few times.”

“You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass.”

These are lines you can quote. Whether anyone in real life would ever say anything like this is debatable, even in the testosterone circus of high finance, the world Billions is set in. Steven Knight, creator and “author” of Peaky Blinders, told me that he hates the idea of working in a room full of writers. “I think writers’ rooms work with comedy,” he said. “But I’m not so sure with drama. It becomes about social interaction and who can dominate that room. The person who sits there doing nothing might write the best scripts. And if one person wants to do it this way and another person wants to do it that way, you end up doing it the middle way. Writers’ rooms do produce some brilliant stuff, but I don’t know how. It must be an American facility for that.”

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It’s learned behaviour. Sure, it’s entirely possible that “You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass” was written by a single writer. But it’s much more likely to have been re-written by the room, until every cadence and every syllable works like a well-oiled machine. Ever since The West Wing, I have been captivated by these kind of hyperreal, almost vaudevillian speech patterns. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, by the way, doesn’t appear to be related to Aaron Sorkin, the monarch of this kind of stuff.)

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The first episode of any US series feels like a product. It’s more often than not the pilot, which sells the whole series, and the next, and the next. But if it’s done as well as Billions, all that effort feels like light work. We can just stretch back and enjoy the show. And with two leads like the almost feline Lewis, as the happily-married rags-to-riches hedge funder (he eats White Castle burgers at his desk), and character heavyweight Paul Giamatti as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, facing up against each other from the off, there’s plenty to enjoy. The genius bullet-point is that Lewis’s billionaire, Axelrod (“Axe”) is the fund’s only surviving partner from 9/11 – he literally rose from the ashes – and while that haunts him with survivor guilt, it also gives him the altruistic cover any predator in Wall Street needs (he’s actually based in Connecticut): he started a foundation for the families of his deceased partners and carefully keeps it just out of the public domain enough to make it seem like he’s not doing it for publicity points. Without this aspect, Billions would be worth less.

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The first concentric circle of supporting stars is also strong: Maggie Siff (Rachel from Mad Men) as the in-house shrink for masters of the universe who’ve lost their mojo, and Malin Akerman (Watchmen) as Lewis’s fightin’-Irish alpha-wife. David Costabile, as some kind of fixer, is also a welcome face – he was in Breaking Bad and Suits. The first episode also contained at least three solid reveals that show the confidence of the plotting (I won’t reveal them). There are some additional allusions in here, too that I dig – Axe’s dog territorially pisses in his kitchen and he admires it for doing so (explaining its instinctive actions to his two boys), and the sight of the same dog neutered, and with its head in a cone, which drives Axe to do something flamboyantly foolish in the public eye, which sparks the investigation that surely drives the first season.

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Sky Atlantic and Showtime have episode-dumped the entire season in one hit. I can’t wait to gorge on the remaining 11, which are already mocking me for not having seen them yet. This is already a series whose judgments have weight.

Sad men

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This series has been cancelled. Happyish (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) is no more. That’s your lot. It’s been and gone. What turned out to be the tenth and final episode of the Shalom Auslander-scripted gloomcom went out on Showtime in June last year, though happily all are now available to view on Sky catch-up. Happyish was axed. Which is a more melodramatic way of saying that the broadcaster declined to recommission it, which is in the broadcaster’s gift. Even cable is cut-throat. In the strong language of the show itself, “F— you, Showtime.”

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It had a troubled birth. A show about a depressed 44-year-old advertising executive who’s feeling his age in an increasingly youth-skewed industry, it was written by Auslander (a David Sedaris-like author and humorist) with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. He’d agreed to do it, and a pilot was filmed, but then he died. Which is a very Happyish thing to do. Steve Coogan was drafted in, and the character remained the same, except he was now an expat Brit with one of those frankly irksome, bendy transatlantic accents, which Coogan is very good at, as it’s one I think he slips into in real life as soon as he lands at LAX. (We’re witnessing John Oliver develop one before our very ears on Last Week Tonight.)  The key word here – and it’s a word that’s said A LOT in Happyish – is “asshole.” It’s pronounced as if it were a hole belonging to an ass, not to an arse. Asshole.

The first episode begins as the single season means to go on, with Coogan’s character, Thom Payne (geddit) saying “Fuck you!” to Thomas Jefferson, and raising the finger to camera. In a subsequent episode he does the same to God. It’s this kind of metatextual, Billy Liar-ish fantasy element that makes Happyish Marmite; Payne regularly consults animated characters from adverts, and in one episode he and his wife Lee (Katherine Hahn) join Moses (a Richard Kind cameo) in the Promised Land. I’m all for it, and am currently racing through the one and only season, wishing there were more, but knowing there isn’t, which is an odd feeling. (I remember watching the first episode of David E Kelley medical drama Monday Mornings, enjoying it, then reading that it had been cancelled by TNT after one season, and I instantly lost the will to carry on watching it. It’s like befriending someone on death row)

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Happyish is an “authored” sitcom, the kind of thing we do well over here, and it’s clear that the entire cast are speaking for Auslander, whether old, young, black, white, Jewish, not Jewish, American or English. Again, I don’t mind that. I love mithering, neurotic Jewish humour. The cast is tip-tip, with roles for Ellen Barkin as a cougarish headhunter, Andre Royo (Bubbles!) as Payne’s best pal, Carrie Preston as an agency creative and Bradley Whitford, particularly enjoyable as Payne’s alcoholic, colic fiftysomething boss (I think – they seem to be equals, but not). But you could take a line from any character except perhaps the Paynes’ son, and give it to any other character. Hahn manages to find her own brand with a force-of-nature performance. While Coogan (likeable no matter how grey the cloud above his head gets) is essentially depressed and cynically fatalistic the whole time, she has her art and grabs moments of free-spirited joy, which are then crushed by routine and parenthood and reality. It basically supplants Mad Men to the 21st century of Silicon Valley, throwing in viral marketing, social media and Google, and relocating its central couple to bucolic, organic but snowbound Woodstock, where Lee can nurture her utopian, anti-consumerist dream of not buying an iPhone. (She is the anti-Betty.)

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If you look at its ratings on Showtime, they go from 0.4 million to 0.2 million. I don’t think this is even workable on a cable network. (The Affair, albeit much more mainstream, tips 1 million on Showtime; Ray Donovan does 1.5 million; the more comparable Episodes only gets 0.5 but it’s been steady for four seasons. Meanwhile, Mad Men was getting at least 2 million on AMC.) I’m sad – if not as sad as Thom Payne – that my enjoyment of Happyish will be cruelly finite (I have three episodes to go and am trying to savour them), but TV is cruel. Fuck you, TV!