Damien Loves reveals the TV shows to look out for between April 20 and April 26.
Sunday, April 20
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9pm, Channel 4
From Flipper to The Terminator Chronicles, there's a long and chequered tradition in American television of series spun-off from movies. The reasons are easy to understand: if audiences have fallen in love with characters and a situation once, surely they'll want more? Often as not, though, these things fail, through diluting, inflating, palely echoing and in a million other ways simply not being the movie, and there's no exact science in predicting which will work.
With hindsight, it seems obvious that both the 1950s and 1980s attempts to make a TV show out of Casablanca (starring, respectively, gravel-voiced noir tough guy Charles McGraw and a post-Hutch David Soul) were doomed to fall flat on their it's-not-Humphrey-Bogart faces. On the other hand, the apparently suicidal decision to try and wring a primetime series from Robert Altman's subversive, anti-war black comedy, M*A*S*H, resulted in one of the most beloved sitcoms in history, albeit by contradicting much of Altman's spirit. More perplexing yet are Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, which resurrected films buried in obscurity (Buffy) and cheese (Battlestar), to eclipse their sources in every respect.
The trend fell slightly from fashion across the late 1990s and early 2000s, but recently a reflex to grope after the movies for ideas has been on the rise again, with Hannibal, Bates Motel and Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD already with us, and more coming, including a series based on the stubbornly popular bad movie From Dusk Till Dawn.
Among these, Fargo, based on the Coen Brothers' brilliant, deadpan cruel 1996 film, is a curious beast. Unlike those other shows, it doesn't feature any characters from the parent movie. However, loud echoes persist: it's another tale of tiny desperation and deceit snowballing into mayhem and tragedy amid the wintry, empty landscapes of Minnesota; much of the humour comes from fond observation of regional ticks of language and politeness; and once again, focus falls on a humdrum local loser and a female cop. Set in 2006, Martin Freeman, in a fine performance of frozen panic, plays the doomed shlub, Lester Nygaard, a salesman who realises how miserable his life is, then watches it spectacularly derailed, when he shares a chance conversation with an impassive but intense stranger, who turns out to be a hitman, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton).
The series cops the movie's static mood. It unfolds slowly, quietly, although, sometimes, as if nervous, falls back into unfortunate blurts of "TV-comedy" music. Mostly, though, it's like some strange, extended tribute to the white look and blank atmosphere of the original, and the Coens' work in general. A sign advertising White Russians winks to The Big Lebowski; the opening shots of a car travelling an ominous night road stir sense memories of Blood Simple. More blatantly, Thornton's assassin has less in common with the original Fargo's killers than the demonic destroyer Javier Bardem played in No Country For Old Men, including weird hair. As he begins infecting the community with his malice, the story becomes almost a Devil Comes To Town fable.
It's involving, it twists and it will keep me tuning in. Maybe it will come into its own. Still, I can't yet shake the feeling that I'm going to end up watching something that's really quite like Fargo, except not really quite as good. And five times as long.
Monday, April 21
Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This
BBC One's glossy three-part adaptation Jamaica Inn begins tonight (see Tuesday), but, in the spirit of Bank Holiday Mondays gone by, there's really only one show in town, and it wears a fez. Everyone born before a certain year has done the impression at some point, but it takes a big man to attempt to fill Cooper's enormous shoes and David Threlfall throws himself into that kamikaze mission heart and soul for this evocative biodrama, disappearing inside a performance that's half impersonation, half interpretation. Covering the period from the mid-60s to his blunt and haunting death on live TV in 1984, Simon Nye's script nibbles at the bleak details of Cooper's career and private life - the ceaseless drinking and drunkenness, his often unhappy relationships with wife Dove (Amanda Redman) and mistress Mary (Helen McCrory) - but never loses sight of the balancing factors that made friends, not to say a nation, love the man. It's Threlfall's show, though. He relishes restaging the iconic acts and bits of business, but what's remarkable is how he brings Cooper close, and yet keeps him held off at a woozy, unknowable distance.
Tuesday, April 22
9pm, BBC One
Rolling out from Monday to Wednesday, a suitably big and brooding take on Daphne du Maurier's eerie classic of tortured romance, set against a backdrop of murder, mystery, wrecking and smuggling in grim 19th-century Cornwall. Jessica Brown Findlay plays Mary Yellan, the newly orphaned young heroine travelled to the isolated pub on bleak Bodmin Moor to live with her aunt (Joanne Whalley). But her new home reeks of repression, brutality and secrets, most of it stemming from her imposing uncle, Joss (the great Sean Harris). His younger brother, Jem (Matthew McNulty) offers a friendlier welcome - but Mary can't shake the feeling something bad is going on. It's a decent job, benefitting enormously from Harris, a masterclass in unsettling stillness; when is somebody going to cast him as the good guy, though? Concludes tomorrow.
Wednesday, April 23
10pm, Channel 4
Like it, loathe it, or simply stare at it wondering, "what is this," you have to admire Ricky Gervais's stubborn tenacity in sticking with this divisive mock documentary sitcom, centred on his character Derek Noakes, a curiously vulnerable, childlike, sometimes chippy soul, working in a threadbare old folk's home. As this second series begins, it remains awkward and ungainly, but I'd rather see Gervais trying this stuff than the likes of the redundant Life's Too Short. Derek is awash in easy sentimentality, in contrast to the clear-eyed gaze that powered Jo Brand's astonishing Getting On. But it's built on a seemingly genuine care for the subject - what happens to the elderly, and the people who care for them - and, in the figure of the home's manager, Hannah (beautifully played by Kerry Godliman), there's another instance of the abiding interest in female characters that runs through Gervais's best work. There are echoes of The Office's dynamic as a cocksure, ex-Army new worker joins the staff tonight. But Derek himself is far more interested in welcoming the home's newest resident: his father.
Thursday, April 24
The edge-of-the-graveyard timeslot isn't a good sign, and any fans of the first series of Kelsey Grammer's political drama should probably be aware going in that the show was cancelled at the end of this second series, with plot points left hanging unresolved. It's a shame. Boss can be unconvincing and overheated, but the same could regularly be said for Kevin Spacey's somewhat overpraised House Of Cards, for which, it could be argued, Grammer's earlier show laid considerable groundwork. It doesn't always work, but there's a strange, swampy, Shakespearean noir tinge, and the best thing about it remains Grammer's full-blooded, theatrical performance as corrupt, bullying, possibly downright evil Chicago mayor Tom Kane, fighting to hold on to power as he secretly begins to succumb to a degenerative disease and dementia. As the new series begins, he's out to literally cement his legacy, with a controversial airport extension, but troubles abound - not least his own hallucinations.
Friday, April 25
The Trip To Italy
10pm, BBC Two
One of the curious things about the excellent second series of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's roadtrip comedy is how determinedly director Michael Winterbottom is staging it as a kind of inverted replay of the first. The feeling of things looping and repeating in a different key intensifies tonight, as the men are briefly joined by the same two women who looked on askance at them last time: Coogan's assistant, Emma (Claire Keelan) and magazine photographer Yolanda (Marta Barrio). With memories of their previous entanglements, and attempted entanglements, hanging unspoken in the air, the reunion brings initial awkwardness, but soon settles into the regular bout of one-upmanship, with a spot of duelling Brandos, and an unexpected bit of Jimmy Savile. Meanwhile, Brydon receives a call from Lucy, the woman from the yacht…
Saturday, April 26
9.30pm, BBC Two
A new European import. When broadcast in Germany last year, this three-part drama was a sensation, and it's easy to understand why, even if the programme remains flawed and debatable. Opening in 1941, it follows five young friends, three men and two women, across the war. Two of the men are headed for the Eastern Front, expecting it all to be over by Christmas; one woman is joining up as a nurse; the other is a singer with a Jewish boyfriend.
Moving between the assault on the USSR and the home front, as years grind by, and horrors pile up, all have their views of the war tested and changed. The series is clunky, melodramatic, rarely subtle, but it's compelling, and doesn't avoid atrocities. Some German commentators hailed it for dealing openly with the country's history and opening up a discussion, but the varnish of hindsight is heavily applied: we're largely presented with a generation of innocents seduced and brutalised by the Nazi regime, rather than complicit with it.
Still, the scope is ambitious, and as a muscular, tragic, broad canvas war soap, it should be seen, if only to be argued over: a genuine attempt at capturing what it was like for ordinary citizens caught in the maelstrom; or an exercise in guilty, self-pitying revisionism?