In which I briefly review the telly what I watched this year so far, on various platforms. In this edition: Deutschland 83, The Honourable Woman, Agent Carter, The Fades, Love, Jack Irish and Fake or Fortune.
This irregular feature Content Sponge returns to philjengkane.com after a long slumber. Blinking the sleep from its eyes to discover a new world where Malcolm Turnbull is Australian PM, iPhones are the size of mini iPads, Australia has an entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest and Donald Trump is the Republican front runner for Presidential nominee. So many changes. Disoriented, Content Sponge looks to the past, specifically back thirty-three years…
This eight-part television series is the creation of a German and American couple Anna and Joerg Winger and co-produced with German and American investors. It tells the story of Martin Rauch an East German border guard in 1983. The Cold War is still being fought. In East Germany the Stasi (secret police) have a comprehensive spying program operating in West Germany. One Stasi operative, Leonora Rauch (Maria Schrader), realises her nephew Martin would be an effective choice to go under cover in West Germany and pose as the new aide-de-camp to a Major-General Edel (Ulrich Noethen). This would give them a conduit to NATO and its operations.
Jonas Nay, the young actor who plays Martin, does a terrific job as the series’ lead. In the beginning, he has some belief in his mission and wants to impress his family and his superiors. As time goes on, when he has to perform more morally questionable tasks, he begins to question what he is doing. The series veers from the comedic differences between East and West into the serious consequences of constant deception. This is the thematic counterpart to the US series THE AMERICANS. It begins brighter than that show, but becomes bleaker as it moves towards its season 1 conclusion. Some of the interiors for the Stasi HQ were shot in the actual building itself (it is now the Stasi Museum in real-life). This gives those scenes a certain visual authenticity.
I found the series compelling. I enjoyed seeing actors I didn’t know from numerous other television shows. The tone is uneven at times, but the historical details are fascinating. The series is in German with English subtitles. Oddly the German version has New Order’s Blue Monday as its main theme music. The UK/US version has the rather catchy Euro-hit Major Tom (Coming Home) by Peter Schilling. Remember him? Me neither.
THE HONOURABLE WOMAN
Memory and history are also at the forefront this next series. The story begins with a senseless killing many years ago in London. It is the death that shapes the worldview of Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a wealthy English woman who has recently been elevated to the peerage. She is the head off her family business, a telecommunications company with an international reach. They are working on a controversial West Bank optical fibre project that involves Israelis and Palestinians. The Steins’ Anglo-Jewish heritage means they are constantly accused of betrayal and favouritism. Nessa considers her business to be integral to the Middle East Peace process. Two major events, another murder and a kidnapping throw her project and her worldview into question.
This eight-part BBC series written and directed by Hugo Blick has great ambitions that are thwarted by its overly complex plotting and a severe lack of characters one can care about. Veteran actor Stephen Rea gets to be rumpled and pathetic in the Le Carre-esque spy part of the story. Unfortunately this also involves a wonky characterisation from the usually great Janet McTeer. She play’s Rea’s scheming boss with a lot of unconvincing sex-talk sprinkled among the hip and equally unconvincing spy-lingo. Nessa Stein is a fairly terrible creation, too, moving uneasily between unpleasant A-type assertiveness, dazzling people skills and complete emotional surrender. Gyllenhaal does all of this brilliantly, nails the accent flawlessly and deservedly won a Golden Globe for her pains. The series is hard work, though, and the occasional good bit of drama did not make up for its confusing storytelling and unlikeability.
AGENT CARTER (Season 2)
The diametrically opposite on the likeability scale is AGENT CARTER. The series is spun off Marvel’s Captain America movies and focuses on the character of British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). For two seasons, the show has run during the midseason break in Marvel’s AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (AOS) Carter is a mostly straightforward two-fisted hero differentiated mainly by being in a woman in a man’s world. She is constantly underestimated by her enemies and her brother agents. Carter works for the S.S.R., a forerunner to S.H.I.E.L.D. and her allies include Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and the original Jarvis (James D’Arcy). She fights the rise of Hydra and various other post-war criminal conspiracies.
The feel of the series is very like its Captain America source material and other adventure entertainment of the 1940s. Carter could stand with The Phantom and early Batman. She uses cunning and subterfuge when necessary but is just as likely to choose a frontal attack on an enemy. In comic book terms, this story is pre-X-Men, pre-Watchmen and pre-Dark Knight. It is also set in a pre-Civil rights, pre-E.R.A., pre-Watergate world where the study of psychology is not yet a commonplace. Carter relies on her unerring sense of integrity to get her through any situation. The makers of the show have chosen the lens of old-fashioned heroism with a feminist twist and it works surprisingly well.
I note that Peggy Carter may be turning in her badge and Walther PPK. Hayley Atwell has apparently signed on to a US procedural drama called CONVICTION.
Jumping sideways and tangentially to the 2011 six-part UK supernatural drama series THE FADES. I came across this because certain AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. fans reference it constantly because it stars AOS’s Iain De Caestecker (Leo Fitz).
It’s a basic hero’s journey for De Caestecker’s Paul character. Only he starts way behind Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker or the Matrix’s Neo, socially speaking. By the way, the series knowingly and annoyingly name-checks other geekery in a similar fashion. It does however have a Buffy-esque sense of humour (I will stop, promise) and a surprisingly offbeat dark tone. De Castecker and Daniel Kaluuya (SKINS) are a comically co-dependant duo of geek buddies. GAME OF THRONES’ Natalie Dormer also makes an impact here.
Paul is a bed-wetting teen who flies way under the radar, but he has been having dreams about the Apocalypse. And they’re turning out to be premonitions. The vengeful dead (fades) are rising and there’s seems to be no one who can stop them. The series was penned by Jack Thorne and it won a BAFTA, but somehow couldn’t get renewed for a second season. That’s a shame, because it deserved a second bite of the cherry.
LOVE (Season 1)
Man, I binge-watched the hell out of this ten episode Netflix comedy series. I almost can’t tell if it was good or not. This, by the way, is how I feel about Aziz Ansari’s recent Netflix comedy series MASTER OF NONE. I certainly liked some of that, but the bingedness of my watching, simply downloading into my eyeballs like others might ingest a can of Pringles, makes me wonder if I missed certain nuances of performance and theme. Or perhaps entire plot strands. I should probably start pacing these out a little, like a mature adult might do; which is the other way to Netflix and chill.
As for the boldly named LOVE it is the creation of the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, working with husband and wife team Leslie Arfin and Paul Rust. Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (Paul Rust) meet and feel some kind of attraction and then NOTHING happens between them for a number of episodes. We, the audience, get to know them better. They start off stereotypically enough; Gus, a put upon nice guy, Mickey a self-entitled screw up, but as episodes pass we see more of what is behind their facades. Both behave deplorably in their respective media jobs and in their friendships and when they get close enough to each other, the bullshit and game-playing is on in earnest. Both are so full of their own fears and deeply ingrained defences that they never get close to getting close. This is frustrating for anyone after a simple rom-com, but potentially fascinating for anyone who can travel with this couple on their cringe-inducing, maddening journey.
True things are observed in this series, and if you are prepared to wait, you may enjoy the exploration of these adult themes. Rust is a successful stand up whose work I didn’t know. His acting is solid enough and he goes all in when showing Gus’s dorkiness and awfulness. Gillian Jacobs is best known for her six seasons playing Britta Perry on COMMUNITY. Her talent was clear in that show and LOVE gives her the opportunity to play a more rounded character with some serious issues to overcome. Season 2 has been ordered by Netflix.
JACK IRISH (2016 series)
After three outings as telemovies for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Peter Temple’s private investigator character Jack Irish (Guy Pearce) returns in a series of six one-hour episodes. Written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios (who also wrote Russ Crowe’s THE WATER DIVINER) the series is the first not based on a Temple book. This has perturbed some of the writer’s fans. I felt the new format had a lot more breathing space for character development and was a better fit for the humour that Knight and Anastasios have considerable experience in writing.
Apart from Leonard in MEMENTO (2000), I don’t think Pearce has had a better role than the self-effacing, alcoholic PI who prefers to stay out of other people’s business right up until the moment that he has to stick his nose in. Brooke Satchwell, Marcus Graham, Sacha Horler, Shane Jacobson, Roy Billing and Aaron Pedersen are some of the new and old faces that pop up here. Claudia Karvan has a terrific role as a woman whose spiky artist persona is cover for being the privileged daughter of a judge (memorably played by New Zealand’s John Bach, great to see him back on Australian telly). Monarch of the ABC and Janet King of all she surveys, Marta Dusseldorp, also returns as Linda Hillier and has a separate storyline that takes her to the Phillippines.
Although the series loses a little puff towards its conclusion, this still seems like the better way to present the adventures of Irish.
FAKE OR FORTUNE (Season 4)
Not a drama, but a hyped up BBC reality-esque documentary series starring journalist Fiona Bruce and art historian Philip Mould. Not being a Brit I knew of these two only from The Antiques Roadshow, but here they couldn’t be further away from the dusty genteel world of Clarice Cliff knock-offs and Uncle Hugo’s reproduction Queen Anne Furniture. (They probably could be further away, but bear with me.)
In each episode, a punter brings Mouldy and Brucey a painting that is supposed to be the work of a great artist but because it is unsigned or has no paper trail (provenance) proving its origins, the artifact is worth 3 quid rather than 3 million. Fiona and Philip, whom I like to think of as the Emma Peel and John Steed of arts telly or perhaps the Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin of cultural programming, then go on a hunt across Europe (and sometimes North America) to establish the painting’s bonafides. They are aided immeasurably by another, even posher, younger, art historian Dr Bendor Grovesnor whose only television analog is from the 1970s British sci-fi series Blakes Seven. He is FAKE OR FORTUNE’s super-computer Orac. This trio of authenticators is assisted by various boffins from places like Aldi or The Tate using techniques that are way beyond me, but which I will now lazily portray as kirlian photography, gas chromatography and electronic microscopy.
By episode’s end they are either telling the painting’s owner the good news or gravely informing them that their masterpiece isn’t worth the canvas it’s painted on.
The only thing that could possibly improve this program for me is if they somehow shoehorned Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud into an episode.