McMafia (UK-US, 2018)

Victim of circumstance?

This is another series that has benefited from the globalisation of the television industry that has seen an increasing number of co-productions meaning bigger budgets. A few years ago if a TV drama needed the American market the narrative would likely have been compromised to suit its apparent needs. However, since the growth of cable, which unlike the Networks will run ‘adult’ drama in terms of content and concept, this is no longer the case. McMafia is a BBC-AMC production with an international cast; the main creative personnel, with the exception of Hossein Amini, are British. Amini is Iranian but has lived in the Britain since he was 11. The director of all eight episodes, James Watkins (of the excellent The Woman in Black), and Amini are credited as ‘creators’ of the series based on Misha Glenny’s brilliant nonfiction account of the globalisation of gangster capitalism; it was published 2008.

McMafia was broadcast on the BBC at the start of the year in the prestige Sunday evening slot (actually New Year’s Day) and then ran the next two episodes on following days before the last five ran weekly. Ratings were high at the start (7.5 million) but had fallen by two million a week later. This isn’t surprisingly given the relatively complex and ‘unsexy’ subject matter of money laundering which requires the drama-sapping image of the protagonist staring at a computer screen. Credit to the BBC for giving the star treatment to a drama that does show the realities of 21stcentury crime that, in Russia, is state-condoned. In the west, the corruption of power is less obvious (unless you’re the Tory party of 2018 or in Trump’s America) because the sham of democracy is an effective smokescreen; in Russia Putin’s one party rule is too obvious.

The big budget allows location shooting in around the world and key locations include Mumbai, Moscow, Prague, Tel Aviv and London. Hence an international cast is needed and the quality is high: plaudits to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Merab Ninidze, Karel Benes and David Strathairn. Women are unsurprisingly sidelined but there is a distressing subplot featuring Sofya Lebedeva as a teenager kidnapped into prostitution and the attempts of a bodyguard, played with steely intensity by Oshri Cohen, to help her.

As the series progresses the narrative focus switches away from the machinations of high finance, and its brutal global implications, to the moral degradation of its protagonist, Godin, played effectively by James Norton. Although the latter episodes lose something in terms of educating us about ‘how it all works’, in dramatic terms it is very effective with ‘edge-of-the-seat’ chases and clever plot turns. Hopefully those who enjoyed the series will read the book.

McMafia is a superb drama that is both politically aware and honest in its depiction of moral corruption. There will be a sequel and it will be interesting to see how low he can go.

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The City and the City (UK, 2018)

Not really there

Is anything ‘unfilmable’? Probably not because everything can be adapted but it was brave of the BBC to put China Mieville’s intriguing novel in a primetime Friday night slot. The premise of his novel, that two cities exist in the same place but it is illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other, is obviously a major challenge for the visual medium. Director Tom Shankland conveys the division brilliantly by blurring the forbidden parts and using the excellent David Morrissey’s troubled expression, in shot-reverse/shots, to indicate he’s trying not to see. Tony Grisoni’s script moves mountains to convey the weirdness of the place whilst keeping the detective narrative going. However, I’m not sure whether audiences without knowledge of the novel will cope.

Mainstream television narratives require momentum because if it stalls the remote is too close to impatient viewers. When reading a novel a stalling narrative is less of a problem because (my tendency at least) it’s easy to put down and have a break; very few of us expect to consume novels in one sitting. The same could be said for pre-recorded television though I suspect few break up individual episodes very often. Apparently the trend is for binge viewing where many episodes can be consumed at once. So in the weird world of The City it is essential that the strangeness does not get in way of comprehension.

I can’t imagine The City in the City being produced, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of ‘quality television’ has shown there is an appetite for complexity; for example, series three of Twin Peaks (2017) was typical Lynch in that events are never fully explained and he does shoot some scenes as longueurs. The second season of Twin Peaks failed because this weirdness was not allowed by the network.

The art direction (David Bowes) is superb, a scuzzy noir world that is a melange of times and places. The mixture of iconography (including I think East Germany (GDR) and Turkey), numerous accents and ethnicities give the programme a modern edge that is beyond postmodern eclecticism. In our world where borders are a key issue The City and the City is a timely and must-see broadcast.

Kiri (UK, 2018)

Home sweet home?

This Jack Thorne scripted four-parter (Rachel De-Lahay co-scripted one episode) touches a number of bases and bravely ends unhappily. Sarah Lancashire is her usual mesmerising self as a social worker who makes a human error with fatal consequences; the cast is uniformly strong, especially Lia Williams and Finn Bennett as mum and son in a family torn apart by Kiri’s murder. In addition to how the press cover social workers, which tends only to happen when it goes wrong and then they sit on a high horse and condemn, race is key as Kiri is black and her estranged father, an ex-drug dealer, is unsurprisingly a key suspect.

Of course not all is what it seems which could be a motto for middle class values and Thorne steers the focus toward the collapsing bourgeois family. The final scenes, where the son Si is taken to a private boarding school, show the true corruption at the heart of the narrative. The entitlement of the upper middle classes poisons public discourse (in the UK) in the press and politics; the ridiculous smear campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn this last week is the latest example. Corbyn’s politics do present a challenge to the status quo and those in power, both the press owners and conservative (of all parties) politicians, will do everything they can to hang on to it at the expense of everyone else.

Thorne, and director Euros Lynn, present the press as an undifferentiated pack that chase its prey for a story and not because they are interested in the truth. In a powerful scene Kiri’s foster mother (Williams) walks into their centre and gives them all photographs of the young girl reminding them of humanity. A powerful series.

Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

The Bridge – series 3 (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark-Germany, 2015)

Saga's character tells a tale

Saga’s character tells a tale

Unsurprisingly this would have been in my top ten of last year if I’d seen it then; it will be in this year’s. The brilliance of the series is in the protagonists, though the elaborate plotting – this one is built around parenting – is also impressive. Sofia Helen’s autistic Saga is extraordinary in both the former’s performance and the latter’s personality as she strives to empathise but is ‘imprisoned’ by her difference.

After the demise of Martin as her partner, in series two, the producers had to be careful with who became Saga’s foil; he (or she) couldn’t be like Martin. The team’s sure-footedness was apparent by initially having an older woman and then introducing the unsympathetic, at first, Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) who works both as a foil and a man with his own traumatic past.

Apparently the ratings, on BBC4, reached 1.4m showing an appetite, albeit a minority one, for subtitled brilliance. Long may Nordic Noir continue.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany, 2014)

War as it was and is

War as it was and is

I can’t find enough superlatives for this Danish TV series; simply, it’s the best TV I’ve ever seen. Ole Bornedal’s creation manages to  show the brutalities of war at the front, the consequences at home and the political stupidity that leads to pointless brutality. Bornedal, who wrote and directed the brilliant Just Another Love Story, uses the big budget to exemplary effect; I haven’t seen more terrifying war sequences and the performances are utterly engaging. The use of a framing story to link the events to the present is an effective device and the right wing backlash, in Denmark, showed it hit the mark. Those on the right like to live the myth not the reality.

The ending of the narrative is philosophical, accompanied by a tour de force use of sound. Another memorable moment was the blood running down the window to form the Danish flag as the PM had a breakdown. Throughout the direction is cinematic, that is using the image to tell the story rather than simply convey the script. Of course, the division between cinema and television is blurred these days; possibly the only distinction we can safely make is that serial form suits the latter. It’s not only the best TV I’ve seen but one of the best audiovisual texts I’ve ever experienced.