Sunday, 24 May 2009

Stuff TV Update: Primeval, Ashes To Ashes, Dexter, 24, Dollhouse...

Not much in the way of rich pickings at the moment as British TV drifts towards the summertime televisual draught and the schedules continue to be clogged up with various tedious Apprentices and Britain’s Got Talents which, as you may have gathered, are most definitely not the stuff of Stuff. But there’s some decent viewing to be had out there if you wade through the tabloid trivia of this week’s celebrity break-ups and five-minute singing sensations. I’ll be revisiting a few shows I’ve already touched upon to see how things are progressing as their latest seasons trundle on, and pointing out one or two other treats which might be worth your while seeking out with your remote or other channel-surfing device.

Primeval is rushing towards the end of its third Saturday night ITV series and whilst there are conflicting reports as to its future even in the short-term – ratings are down but it’s stabilised at around 5.5 million per week – the show’s find a new spring in its step in its latest ten-week run and, whilst the show is never going to break any new ground or win any awards, it’s settled into a nice routine as it provides literally non-stop bang for your buck and some real thrills as you dread the arrival of the far more monstrous C*w*ll and his band of weirdos. Primeval began its upturn in its second episode when Jason Flemyng added some much-needed sparkle when he made his first appearance as DC Danny Quinn, a police officer haunted by a tragedy from his past and curious about the activities of this bunch of scientists wandering around with fancy gadgets and behaving mysteriously, usually trailing peculiar creature sin their wake. Episode two, by Dr Who/Torchwood scribe James Moran, evoked memories of Dr Who's ‘Blink’ with its tale of a desolate riverside house ‘haunted’ by an unearthly predator which has been slinking through one of the show’s favoured anomalies. Episode three saw series lead Douglas Henshell, as Professor Nick Cutter, bumped off by his scheming duplicitous wife Helen (Juliet Aubrey). Not a moment too soon, frankly; Henshell was never the right leading man for this sort of action series and in series three particularly he looked bored out of his skull, a man who couldn’t wait to be off doing something more respectable. Flemyng quickly stepped into his shoes and the show’s energy levels instantly went through the roof. The storylines are the same as ever – monster comes through anomaly, the ARC team chase it back amidst much carnage and loud music – but the whole pace and speed of the thing has been ramped up a notch, largely due to the fact that the presence of the hugely-physical Flemyng has allowed the writers to up the show’s jeopardy factor with more chases, fights and stunts. There have been a couple of seriously-impressive episodes this year (damn Primeval for having no episodes titles!) including the giant ‘terror-bird’ yarn which saw the group trapped in a forest terrorised by giant ostrich-type beasties and in recent episode, the best yet, the group travelled into a desolate, post-apocalyptic future to rescue Abby’s irritating and rather pointless brother who wandered through an anomaly after being attacked by a giant spider-creature, the creation of a young Primeval fan who won an online competition. This was a superb instalment with the show’s production team working wonders on a probably-not-enormous budget, creating a nightmare vision of a desolate future world ravaged by spider-monsters and the show’s signature future predators. What really made the episode work was the edgy, disorientating camera-work and the stark bleached-out look of the future-world sequences and - tell your friends – a really quite nice performance from the usually-bland Hannah Spearitt as the show’s other slow-burning storyline – the coy relationship between between Spearitt’s Abby and Andrew Lee-Potts’ Connor – finally started moving. Only one real duffer of an episode so far where the series blew the long-awaited ‘man from the past’ plot device in a silly, unbelievable story about a medieval knight and a dragon. The penultimate episode's just screened and a rather routine but jaunty run-around with some prehistoric rhinos quickly became something a bit more interestin as a face from the past (or should that be the future?) returned to wreak havoc, bump off another regular, and set things up nicely for the season (series?) finale which, due to C*w*ll and his money-grubbing antics, we have to wait ane xtra week to see. Grrr...

Series three of ‘Primeval’ has been the best so far (bearing in mind that, if the rumours are true – and ITV seems to be changing its mind over its commissioning decisions the way most people change their pants – there may not be a fourth series for some time if at all). The show not only seems more comfortable in its skin now, especially with Flemyng aboard adding a bit of comedy as well as the derring-do, it’s also at peace with the limitations and restrictions of it’s the-same-story-every-week format. With ITV’s ‘Demons’ having been still-born, BBC1’s ‘Robin Hood’ fading fast and ‘Merlin’ not really catching fire, ‘Primeval’s become the best of the post-‘Dr Who’ Saturday night family dramas and it’d be pretty tragic if senseless ITV budget cuts rob the Network of the one decent adventure drama it’s produced in years.

Over on BBC1 ‘Ashes to Ashes’ increasingly-enjoyable second series is bouncing along nicely. Much tighter and tauter than the hurried, flabby first series, this is a show which has really found its place in the TV landscape. The stories are much stronger, performances more confident (although Gene Hunt, inevitably, is becoming a bit more of a caricature as the weeks roll by) and the mystery of Alex Drake’s predicament stuck in 1982 whilst, we assume, fighting for her life in 2008, has become much more intriguing with suggestions that there’s a connection between what’s happened to her and what happened to Sam Tyler in ‘Life on Mars’. If the show has much of a problem it’s that the 1980s are just a bit more anonymous, visually, than the 1970s of the earlier series. The series struggles to evoke the era by the use of some heavy-handed cultural references (Roland Rat, Fame, Skeletor, Bananarama) and year-specific (and sometimes not so year-specific) musical references. Without them this could just be another cop show as the episodes don’t give us a real sense of 1980s London and culture but that’s not really the point; we know Alex is supposed to be stranded in the 1980s and that’s really enough to carry the audience into and through the story. ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is good, solid stuff this year and I look forward to series three next year where, we’re promised, there’ll be a resolution which viewers will remember for years. Big talk; let’s hope they can deliver.

Elsewhere, over on the FX Channel, my favourite US import ‘Dexter’ is now well into its third series. This, you’ll recall, is the show about the blood-spatter analyst employed by the Police working out of Miami who, in his spare time, dispatches his own special justice to the bad guys who slip through the cracks. Dexter Morgan (the brilliant Michael C Hall) is a psycopath with a conscience, killing the bad guys whilst struggling to fit into a world he's really not designed for. Season three is ticking voer nicely; there's none of the pulsing urgency of the first two series but there's not dorp in quality either. Where season one saw Dexter battling the 'ice-truck killer', the one serial killer who seemed to keep one step ahead of the master and season two saw Dexter struggling to keep his secret from a fewllow officer hot on his trail, sereis three kicks off with dextrer doing the unthinkable - he murders an innocent. or so it seems. Said 'innocent' is, in fact, the brother of the local DA (Jimmy Smits) and he's determined that his brother's killer - assumed to be hideous sleazy slimeball drug-dealer Freedo - will not go unpunished. Dexter gets sloppy; he dispatches Freedo himself in the middle of the night but the DA catches him in the act. Dexter weaves another of his webs of lies as he tries to protect his own interests and meanwhile his own fractured personal life takes a turn for the perverse as his long-time girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) falls pregnant and Dex has to put his own independence on the line as he decides to try to live a normal life. but nothing's ever normal for Dexter. Dexter remains compelling television, its main strength being its talented and charismatic cast and its beautifully observed and characterised scripts. Then there's the backdrop of Miami too, practically a character in itself. The city's hot and muggy, a pressure cooker of cultures and moralties which, you sense, could boil over at any moment. We're five episodes into season three now - at least tow more seasons to go! - and there's a real sense that anything could happen here and that Dexter's approaching a crossroads or two in his life. Watch Dexter and weep for the fact that little else on TV even approaches its consistent quality.

I'd intended to devote an entire column to the latest (seventh!) season of 24, Fox's extraordinary ongoing real-time drama starring Keifer Sutherland as the desperately-unlucky ex-FBI agent Jack Bauer. But we're at the eve of the two-part series finale and, to be honest, this year has been so full of twists and turns and shoot-outs and explosions and bio-weapons and terrorists and Jon Voigt and car-chases and fist-fights and betrayal that I really don't think I'd know where to start.Iit's been a great year for the show, though, a step up from the patchy sixth series which sort of fizzled out halfway through a couple of years ago (there was no series last year to the American writer's strike). Sutherland's Bauer is one of the most remarkable action heroes in TV history; he appears to be indestructible despite the fact that, at the time of writing, he's been infected by a lethal incurable toxin and it looks like his bumber's finally up. But Jack has raced through this series like a man possessed; virtually beyond and above the law now he's killed, maimed, tortured and generally brutalised just about anyone who's got in his way and he's lost good friends too. 24's casual attitude to death can sometimes be a bit blunt and shocking but many, many episodes of this season have ended with me at the edge of my seat - really! - and cursing that damned timer as it clicks away towards the end of the hour. I'm looking forward to the series finale and to season eight next year with a new dynamic as 24 relocates to new York for what may be its final year. Go, Jack!

Finally to the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse which made its UK debut this week on the FX Channel. I pretty much worship at the feet of Whedon - Buffy! Angel! Firefly! I mean, come on - and despite the fact that Stateside reviews of this first episode (screened in February in the US) warned me not to expect too much - I couldn't help but be disappointed. This first episode, written and directed by Whedon, had none of the flair - visual or verbal - we've come to expect from The Man. Where was the sly, witty dialogue? Where were the sharp and sassy characters? Where were the kick-ass fight scenes? Episode one was a dull trudge of a thing as we meet 'Echo' (Eliza Dushku, best known as Faith in both Buffy and Angel) who has for some reason enrolled into a covert organisation which has the technology to erase minds and memories and replace them with entirely new personalities. It uses this technology on a gang of misfit girls - the Dolls - and sends them off on espionage missions. Yep, it's Joe:90 but with Eliza Dushki in a min-skirt (fair enough) instead of a firbeglass nine-year old with magic specs. There was really nothing to see here in this first episode (well, apart from Eliza Dushku in a mini-skirt but I may have mentioned that) but word from the States is that the series finds it feet after about six episodes so, if I can wait that long, I'll stick with it to see what's in store. I mean, I owe Joss that much at least...

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