Monday, 28 February 2011

The Killing

It seems as if BBC 4's Danish crime-thriller 'The Killing' is about to transition from its current cult-viewing status to attracting a more mainstream following.

After catching up with the first six episodes on iplayer, I too spent the following two Saturday evenings in my current 'unemployable & never-leave-the-house' mode watching the show on a proper television screen, where it really shines.

But it's also hard to know what makes the programme so watchable. Having indulged in The Wire and subsequently developed a critical and cruelly-cynical eye for any sub-standard television, The Killing shouldn't necessarily make the grade. It's solidly produced and displays impressive acting from those involved, but you can't shake the feeling that if it were an English production it would only be middle-of-the-road grade material.

The language barrier gives it a strange exoticism, but there is something darker at the heart of the show that gives it a real appeal. It's dark both literally (you'll be scrabbling for the contrast settings on your set within the first ten minutes) and spiritually. There seems to be little hope for the parents of the murdered teenage girl at the centre of the plot, and little evidence for detectives Sarah Lund and Jan Meyer to work on bringing the case to a successful close.

The plot is also completely unpredictable, which both gives the viewer no chance to work out in advance what will happen next (cheating, but in an entertaining way) and a sense of being lost within some bigger picture. Indeed as the show goes on, more and more significant political figures are somehow dragged into the vortex that the murder case becomes.

The combination of perpetual darkness, chilling musical minimalism and frustration and tension involves the viewer like few other shows I've had the pleasure of watching. I had to resort to watching the latest two episodes again on the internet this weekend after being elsewhere on Saturday night. It says plenty for the programme that leaving the house for a night out when The Killing is on is a tricky decision to make.

If you haven't yet had the privilege, catch up online and treat yourself to a rare Saturday night in this weekend. There's every chance you'll be hooked.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Seven not out

Peep Show reached the end of its seventh season over the festive period, and it's just about holding together as one of Britain's strongest comedies.

What is strange about the show is that it can have reached such a landmark whilst still attracting what's just about fair to call a cult following. Talk to enough people about their favourite television shows and you can often share plenty of common ground. But when Peep Show enters the conversation, half will fall silent, look to the floor and mutter: 'Yeah, never really got into that.'

It's partly the two characters involved, intraverted nerdish-type who's reasonably nice but has the unnerving habit of picking fights with boilers, or deluded musician wannabe who's slipping slowly into the unsatisfying mid-life crisis with nothing to show for it.

Unless you can identify with certain attitudes, opinions and traits of either Mark or Jeremy (not a problem here- delusion, vaguely sociopathic etc), maybe there's a lot less to entertain the bored channel-hopper.

It has definitely become more 'mainstream'. The opening series was darker, more oppressive and moodier. But the development curve hasn't damaged the quality of the writing, and no matter how near it has come to 'jumping the shark' - season four's episode with Jeremy eating a dog perhaps came perilously close - I have hung with it with unrelenting loyalty.

It does need to stay away from the more slapstick elements though. The concluding New Year's episode in the latest series would have benefited from the awkward separation of Mark and Jeremy left hanging in the air as the finale, rather than Super Hans returning to beat Jeremy in revenge for an earlier transgression. And Mark feeding Christmas Dinner into a paper shredder in the penultimate episode was equally extreme.

But to have reached this point where it feels as though the show still has plenty more to offer and the characters are so well established in the viewer's psyche is huge credit to writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain. I'm still in for the long haul.

Good cop, bad cop
As a recent graduate I've spent plenty of time over the last several years watching mindless police-based reality shows at strange hours of the day. Road Wars, Police Interceptors, Motorway Cops- you know the sort. So I was pleased to see that my opinion of the utter hypocrisy the shows unintentionally promote was intact on the latest edition of 'Motorway Cops' on BBC One.

After spotting an oblivious citizen driving whilst talking on a mobile on the opposite side of the road, traffic officer Adam Toal waxed lyrical with a straight face about the dangers of such an action, before performing a speedy U-turn across the street, accelerating harshly and nearly clipping a parked car, and screeching off at high speeds through a residential area in order to catch up with her.

Sadly, the BBC's shows generally fall short of the high standards of Channel 5's Police Interceptors, which features various Essex policeman verbally masturbating over their new Mitsubishi Evo squad car, and driving it like the boy racers they spend their days chasing for the benefit of my viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Trip

After one episode of the BBC's new series 'The Trip' starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon I can safely say I enjoyed it.

Others weren't so keen; Sam Wollaston in The Guardian describing it as 'wanky' and 'self-indulgent'. I find that tagging something as 'self-indulgent' is difficult to justify; all projects have to begin with at least an element of self-belief to get off the ground, and the opening episode here showed more than enough quality and potential to rise beyond mere indulgence.

It is certainly a slow-burning show, and the comparisons to Curb Your Enthusiasm have done it no favours. It is not the same ratio of comedy to drama; Curb makes use of slapstick and absurd humour alongside the subtleties of Larry David's exaggerated sociopathic tendencies.

The Trip relies more on reading into Coogan and Brydon's interactions and an appreciation of the dialogue between the pair. They revealed in last week's Review show that the filming of several scenes, which are largely improvised, had to be abandoned when they became too personal. Coogan noted with a hint of disapproval that director Michael Winterbottom's editing of the show had removed several of the funnier parts to create something that was more 'prosaic'.

It struck me that because of the slower pace to the episodes, reviewing it at this early a stage is almost an impossible task. But there were moments of great humour here too; the impressions face-off with Coogan's anger channeled through his best Michael Caine, and the camp eyebrow raising that followed Brydon's example of how to taste wine amongst the highlights.

Most importantly it was never formulaic or predictable, which can be fairly leveled at too many modern comedies. I eagerly await the next episode.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


It's difficult to know what to make of the BBC's new comedy 'Whites'. On one level it's a very formulaic comedy show that's utterly predictable, but it somehow just about captures your interest until the inevitable conclusion.

This is partly down to the show's underlying potential. If it were less about the clunky plots and more about the characters the show would doubtless be far stronger. Davies' character Roland White, is played subtly and has intriguing mood swings and energy changes across each episode, whilst nervous sous-chef Bib, played by Darren Boyd, is similarly watchable.

There are hints that if this show had been made less for a mainstream evening slot, it could have been darker, edgier and a cult classic.

It is co-written by Matt King, otherwise known as Peep Show's Superhans, who appears in the kitchens as dodgy meat-supplier Melvin. King has the best lines in the show ('I hit a horse on the A4. Big, beautiful bastard he was, too.') and if the plots were more dialogue-driven than the use of slapstick body-language acting, it would be quality television.

It's worth sticking with Whites to see if this early potential is developed on and realised, or whether it remains slightly too simplistic to be memorable.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Reviewing the new Nike Pro Combat range

Nike has launched its second year of their 'Pro Combat' line of uniforms for various college football teams to the similar vague disinterest that their 2009 set mustered.

For those unaware, college teams in American football have for the most part retained very minimalist and classy looking uniforms for long periods of their existence, such as the blue on white of Penn State, and the crimson of Alabama.

In an effort to sweep all of that aside and line their pockets in the process, Nike last year introduced a set of uniforms for ten teams it provides equipment for to use in their rivalry games, traditionally the last week of the season.

The results were mixed, with Ohio State's white on grey throwbacks looking relatively stylish, Missouri's black on carbon looking like something out of Transformers, and others offering so little difference as to appear just plain unnecessary.

Clearly not content with producing fairly inoffensive first designs, Nike went back to the drawing board for this year intent on making jerseys that would be unavoidably garish and in your face, and the resulting sets are pretty vomit-inducing. Virginia Tech's burgundy stripes on black helmet is particularly sickly, but take your pick from Miami's orange pyjamas, Pitt's Dark Knight inspired robotic look and Boise's metallic grey.

There is something strangely appealing about the shamelessly bombastic marketing however. Wander around the Nike website and you are bombarded with images of players exploding out of fires, emerging from swamps to roar next to alligators, and taming wild Broncos. Accompanied by hyperbolic audio tracks that attempt to claim that Pitt's uniform is inspired by the tough guys from the steel city, the effect is laughably entertaining.

There is an element of frustration with Nike's constant website reminders that the uniforms remain true to the spirit of whichever city or area they represent, when in reality a designer in the office has been let loose to run riot with Photoshop and indulge whichever fantasy their mood provoked that day.

Graphically the production is spectacular, and if the designs remained mere concepts they would probably be perfectly palatable, but in the glare of a real game, they just look slightly out of place, like a child's crayon drawing that somehow found its way through the development process.

Maybe more importantly, at the Uniwatch website, ESPN writer Paul Lukas took issue with the use of comparisons between football and real military combat, arguing convincingly that such casual references for merchandising purposes are more than a bit tasteless.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Comedy podcasts

In addition to the recommendation of the Russell Brand Show as listening material a few weeks ago, here are several other shows worth catching up with:

Peacock & Gamble podcast

This developed in the aftermath of the Ray Peacock podcast, in which the eponymous Peacock and fellow comedian Ed Gamble mocked former Eastenders actor Raji James in what was half classic comic stooge conceit and half sincere frustration.

What made the original show so rewarding were these moments that the loose setup was lost and we saw behind the curtain, hearing stories of incidents involving the three and occasionally leading to what felt like genuine disagreements.

The show eventually began to feel as if it had run its course, and its fate was sealed when some listeners began to stray beyond the comic 'bullying' in the podcast to simply abusing James through other virtual channels.

It still remains worth listening to though, and the collection can be found here:

The Peacock & Gamble podcast that launched in 2009 loses James and has a distinctly different feel, with more reliance on both riffing on each other's material and taking turns to play the straight man and the foil. It is very funny, with an interesting mix of the puerile, wacky, intelligent and knowing humour, and seems to be getting stronger with every episode. Download if just to hear Ed Gamble's explosive laugh:

Collings & Herrin

This podcast, originally intended to be a comic breakdown of the week's newspapers, was a slow-burner that began to pick up momentum as the two writers/comedians Andrew Collins and Richard Herring found their feet.

Collins initially played the straight character with Herring providing more of the comedy material through his increasingly outrageous suggestions and reactions. In more recent podcasts we have seen Collins develop his own style of comedy, and this has contributed to and culminated with his recent Edinburgh fringe stand-up show.

At the same festival, the podcast produced ten live shows which should be listened to solely for Herring's daily heckling of select members of the audience in increasingly imaginatively abusive ways, later put down as the work of his comic alter ego 'Herrin'.

It's a podcast that is perhaps not as immediately accessible as the Peacock & Gamble material, but rewards the listener for sticking with it through multiple episodes with moments that will suddenly have you laughing out loud.

In addition, the duo have a 6 Music radio show which has a distinctly different feel, as Herring is suddenly reigned in by broadcasting regulations, a comic tension that he relishes pushing to the limits of its acceptable boundaries.

Gervais, Merchant, Pilkington XFM
All of their more recent work is well-known, but the real joys can be found in the entire back-collection of four series-worth of radio material they presented back in the early 2000s. All of the stories later rehashed on the podcasts made their first outings here in what Gervais frequently refers to as 'the most shoddy radio show' every produced.

The live factor leaves no doubt as to Karl's real character, occasionally knife-edged studio tension and anger, as well as moments of hilarity.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Travel hangover

There's something deeply unsatisfying about when traveling comes to a jarring end. Arriving back into a Yorkshire town after wandering around in the sweltering heat of New York in what felt like the same hyper-extended day is hard to both comprehend and accept.

It's not just the cultural differences between America and England, but the perceptions of people's ambitions having radically altered once you arrive back in your depressingly familiar home-town.

And it doesn't hit you until you reach that station, until you are finally stationary for the first time in what feels like the length of the entire trip. It hits you again when you wander out into the street and see the same places you've seen for too long already in your life, and once more when you wake up the following morning and don't have to make plans, don't have to fire yourself across into some distant part of an unexplored city simply for the sake of it, just because that's what you should do.

It hurts more when people you are now surrounded by, rightly or wrongly, have the look of those happy to be settled into the 9-5 routine, to trudge around the streets staring at their own feet, snarling at others and waiting until an hour early enough for it to be acceptable to start drinking.

To not be walking across New York today, standing swaying on the Subway or sitting in the shade to get away from the oppressive heat just feels mad. And horrible. Pass me a beer.