Monday, 12 January 2009
New Year, New Drama - Demons and Hustle...
Despite the fact the British media are all over the New Year new series of ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ and ‘Dancing on Ice’ like a rash (the return of the latter of which is being treated by some very down-market tabloids as if it’s actually the resurrection itself, not in fact another series of a tacky rip-off of an already-tacky BBC dancing show), there’s cause for some celebration because the early days of 2009 have seen the arrival of two much-anticipated new drama series to British TV screens for those of us not remotely interested in the trivia of reality TV. Over on ITV on Saturday nights we have commercial TV’s latest attempt to capitalise on the huge BBC success of ‘Dr Who’ with their second weekend family fantasy series, following on from the success of dino-romp ‘Primeval’ (back for series three in a few weeks). Over on BBC1 on Thursday nights it’s time to welcome back Mickey ‘Bricks’ Stone and his gang of crafty grifters in a surprise fifth season of the slick and glossy con artists drama ‘Hustle’.
I was tempted to jot down a few thoughts on ‘Demons’ after last week’s debut episode ‘They Bite’ but thought discretion might be best as it often takes high concept shows like this time to find their feet and opening episodes sometimes don’t show new series in their best light. But we’re on to episode two now, ‘The Whole Enchilada’ and I’m so sorry to say that things don’t look too good for ‘Demons’; they really don’t look too good at all.
The simple fact is that ‘Demons’ just isn’t working. There are many reasons for this but the main one seems to be that the show doesn’t have one original idea in its head. This is all stuff we’ve seen before, done far better elsewhere (generally in American imports) and churned out again here supported by a cast who are clearly almost all utterly uncomfortable with the show they’ve signed up for and the lazy, underpowered, derivative scripts they’ve been given to work with. Here’s the recipe the ‘Demons’ creative team (made up of many of the people who brought BBC1’s ‘Merlin’ to a rather more successful life); take two parts of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ chosen-one portentousness, add a bit of ‘Smallville’ teen appeal and mix liberally with some low-grade ‘Supernatural’ bad guys and stir into a thoroughly turgid cocktail of mumbo jumbo, badly-choreographed fights and creaky dialogue. Despite all its fizz and pizzazz, ‘Demons’ just doesn’t come to life; it’s not exciting, it’s not a thrill-ride, it’s got no characters the audience can care about much less believe in as real people. I have a feeling ‘Demons’ may become a bit of a stinker, possibly even of ‘Bonekickers’ proportions – and that’s sad.
Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke, most recently seen as UNIT grunt Ross Jenkins in last year’s ‘Dr Who’ Sontaran two-parter) is an ordinary teenage kid living with his widowed Mom (just like Buffy was). Rupert Galvin (Rupert Giles??), a mysterious man with an atrocious American accent and access to a huge underground library called The Stacks (not a bit like Rupert’s library in Buffy, oh no) meets Luke and explains that Luke is the last descendant of Abraham Van Helsing, the notorious vampire slayer from Stoker’s Dracula novel. Thus Luke is the ‘chosen one’ and it’s his destiny to fight the demons and vampires and half-lifes which swarm, unseen, below the streets of London. So far so what. In episode one Luke meets up with Mina Harker (Zoe Tapper, recently seen as Anya in ‘Survivors’) who is blind when she and the script remember; I’m not quite sure why she’s in the series and I’ve certainly no idea what she’s supposed to add to it. Then there’s Ruby, Luke’s potential love-interest who inadvertently finds herself involved in all the spooky-dos when the Vampire King Gladiolus Thrip (what kind of a name is that for a scary bad guy?) captures her in an attempt to trap and destroy Luke, the new Slayer in town. Thrip has a ridiculous ivory nose and he’s played by Mackenzie Crook who relishes the halfway decent dialogue he gets – but then, despite all his power and threat, he just gets shot and turned to dust the end of episode one. Galvin’s secret weapon against the ‘freaks’ is a pulse gun and already, by episode two, this looks like a narrative crutch which is going to become far more irritating that the Doctor’s oft-used sonic screwdriver.
Episode two seemed to have the potential to be better – but sadly it wasn't. Here a statue-like angel creature (and yes, I was briefly wondering if we were in for a cheap rip-off of Who’s ‘Blink’ episode too) kidnaps children for reasons of its own. Luke and his gang run around for a bit, there are one or two clumsily-staged action sequences (I’ve no idea what was supposed to have happened in the ‘ring of fire’ scene) before they find the kids chained up in a church (why would a demon chain kids up anywhere, much less a church?) and, in a fight scene which can really only be described as feeble, Luke…shoots the demon with his pulse gun.
If I sound less than enthusiastic about ‘Demons’ it’s because I just don’t find it interesting. The show looks as if it’s been flung together without care or caution; there’s no decent character interaction, Cooke may be a nice lad but he’s not series-lead material and if Philip Glenister wasn’t already established via a string of much better dramas, his disastrous American accent here would be enough to kill his career stone dead. One can only assume he chose the bizarre accent to try and throw the audience off the scent. The whole thing is characterised by its lack of visual dynamism; it has the requisite surfeit of seen-it-all-before special effects (CGI sprites leaping about the place, monsters disappearing into dust when zapped), which are decent enough, but the directors who’ve worked on the series so far don’t have any feel for or understanding of the sort of energy programmes like this need if they’re to stand a chance of working. The ham-fisted,laboured scripts don’t help but ultimately the whole series is just scuppered by the fact that it’s got nothing new at all to offer its subject-matter. Vampire and demon-slayers have been done to death, in all honesty, and by being so obviously ‘Buffy’ by any other name, ‘Demons’ can only be found wanting. I’ll keep watching because I really try to support this sort of show but I’m far, far from impressed so far (even the cheap-looking title sequence and dreadful cod-rock theme music are disastrous misfires) and with ratings sliding already – less than 5 million tuned into episode two and that’s not good for a high profile drama launch – I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a second series. There’s so much wrong with ‘Demons’ that it would take a miracle to fix it – and I really don’t think there’s anything here that would make the effort worthwhile.
Far more agreeable is the return of BBC1’s ‘Hustle’ to Thursday nights. When the rather drab fourth season stuttered to its end a couple of years ago, with Adrian Lester having jumped ship, it looked like the end of the road for Tony Jordan’s gang of lovable long con fraudsters. The fourth series tried to replace the immaculate Lester with ex-So Solid Crew rapper Ashley Walters – with disastrous consequences. Walters killed every scene stone dead with his flat delivery and he just looked totally out of his depth amongst professionals like Marc Warren, Robert Glenister and the legendary Robert Vaughn. So it was a bit of a surprise last year when the BBC announced a fifth series of ‘Hustle’, with Lester back on board but Warren and Jamie Murray (Stacey) out of the picture to be replaced with two young new faces.
If you’re not familiar with the series – and I admit I only caught up with it on DVD – it’s a slick, stylish show full of lovely visual tics and gimmicks and it’s shot in a way which actually makes London look fab, groovy and glamorous, packed with glitzy hotels and super-rich people just ripe for the ripping-off. Mickey Stone and his gang rarely target the man in the street; their targets are greedy, gullible businessmen, crooks who themselves deserve to be ripped-off and often, just really irritating people who’ve gotten too big for their boots. Episode one of series five sees the series back and in rude health; Mickey’s attempt to sell the Sydney Opera House has failed and he hotfoots it back to the UK where he finds his old crew scattered to the winds. Ash (Glenister) is back working the short con, the suave Albert Stroller (Vaughn) is locked up at Her Maj’s pleasure, having been rumbled during a casino con, and Danny and Stacey are still on the loose in America. Mickey sets about putting together a new gang – with Albert secretly pulling the strings from the comfort of his cell.
‘Hustle’ is wonderful, tongue-in-cheek fun. The scams are usually labyrinthian in their complexity and probably don’t stand up to close scrutiny but the enjoyment is in watching the show, as visually colourful and dynamic as ever if the first episode is any indication, and relishing the cast’s little asides to camera, the slow-mo sequences, and, in the first episode, director James Strong’s impressive visual feel for London which he captures almost breathtakingly in several sequences not least the final scene where the new gang – there’s a couple of new kids on board now, former soap stars whose names escape me but they seem competent enough – gather together on the Embankment with London in sharp relief behind them looking like some exquisitively-detailed painting.
‘Hustle’ is sixty minutes of glorious, forgettable nonsense. The performances are superb, the storylines are inventive if occasionally baffling and it absolutely looks a million dollars. It won’t ever win an award, the dialogue’s nothing to write home about, but it’s always a joy to watch and one of the few shows on British TV which actually looks as if it’s got American TV production values. Take my advice – give ‘Demons’ a miss and lose yourself in the world of ‘Hustle’ – it’s a far better bet.
Also seen on TV: Channel 4 is dead to me since it cancelled 'Brookside' and prostrated itself at the alter of cheap, horrible reality TV but it can still find the odd decent comedy when it makes the effort. 'Peep Show' and 'The IT crowd' remain unmissable (although the laugh-ratio in the latter can vary extraordinarily from episode to episode) and new to that list comes Plus One, a series which has sprung from a collection of comedy pilots C4 aired last year. 'Plus One' is the bizarre story of a bloke whose girlfriend leaves him and then get engaged to Duncan James from the boyband Blue. She invites her ex to the wedding...with the invite stating 'plus one'. The series, just five episodes, will see our cuckolded hero battling to find someone appropriate asnd dazzling he can take to the wedding. Episode one got off to a great start with the surrealism of 'Peep Show' welded to the bizarre situations of 'The IT Crowd'. Plenty of earthy swearing, a good supporting cast (good to see Steve John Shepherd from the classic 'This Life' back on TV) and some genuine laffs. One to watch. Over on BBC1, an extraordinary wildlife two-parter entitled 'Swarm'; I don't usually watch stuff like this (creepy crawlies, yeurgh) but the second episode was astonishing stuff, demonstrating the amazing and uncanny ways birds, animals and insects communicate and 'swarm' to find new homes and new food supplies. The sequences with the wildebeest and zebra crossing the river was just incredible and my hat is off to the cameramen who manage to capture such mind-blowing footage.
Finally, sad to hear of the death of actor John Scott Martin who passed away on January 6th. Not exactly a household name John remains a legend to longtime 'Dr Who' fans as one of the operators of the Daleks throughout twenty-odd years of the TV series. John also appeared on screen in other episodes and found himself jammed into all sorts of uncomfortable plastic costumes over the years, suffering in the name of his art. John was most recently seen as the befuddled Grandad in Russell T Davies's ITV comedy-drama 'Mine All Mine' a few years back.