HBO’s Chernobyl.

Chernobyl.

So, who wants to watch that new series on Chernobyl”, has to be pretty much the least enticing invitation imaginable. And yet, remarkably, HBO’s Chernobyl is comfortably the most exciting and the most brilliantly realised television series of the last four or five years. 

On one level, this oughtn’t to have been a surprise. We all know, at least in theory, that stories have nothing to do with their unadorned content, and depend entirely for their success on how they are told. The base material is irrelevant, what matters is how they are moulded into being.

Mad Men.

After all, who wants to watch a series in which the police department of a nondescript, US city tries to deal with its inner city drug problem, and all the social issues that that creates? Or one about a bunch of privileged, white, mostly unpleasant marketing professionals, worried about what to spend their inflated salaries on, and who next to be unfaithful with, at the turn of the 1960s? And yet.

Nevertheless, the prospect of spending five, hour-long episodes watching the Soviet Union dealing poorly with the accident at one of its nuclear power plants in Ukraine, in 1986, was an especially unappealing one. How wrong I was.

Jared Harris in Chernobyl.

The first mistake was to assume that I knew what the story had been. Like, I imagine, the vast majority of people, I actually knew next to nothing about what had actually happened at Chernobyl. And the first thing to say is that Chernobyl is meticulously, indeed exhaustively researched. Because of which, it constantly surprises. 

But even more impressive is how cinematic it is. There is a visual confidence and ambition to the directing that matches the tension and drama created by the script. So that episodes frequently nod to some of the genres that have most successfully populated our screens of late, like the zombie flick and horror in general. 

The eerily deserted streets of Pripyat.

But when you see the eerily deserted city streets in episode 2, it’s rendered genuinely unnerving because you know that this is not some genre piece. This is what actually happened to the city of Pripyat. Its 50,000 inhabitants were forcibly evacuated in less than two days. And that creature in the bed is not some fiendish ghoul or invading extra terrestrial, it’s a human being in the later stages of extreme radiation sickness. 

There are a constant stream of wonderfully subtle, visual flourishes. As we leave on one of the myriad buses that are transporting the people of Pripyat to God knows where, a dog bounds down the street behind us. Someone’s family pet is trying forlornly to join them and jump on board. 

That nondescript US city police department show.

As – the excellent – Jared Harris steps up to give his evidence at the trial that the series culminates with, the camera drunkenly tilts in slo mo. Partially, this is because his own radiation sickness has begun to kick in, and partially this is a reflection of his nervousness at the prospect of having to give evidence at a Soviet show trial. But they refrain from lingering on this tricksiness, and they quickly move on to the evidence itself. 

Nothing is overdone, and everything is exactly as it should be, which is what makes it such a triumph. And its director, Johan Renck, and writer, Craig Mazin, are names to be watched. 

You can see the trailer for Chernobyl here

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David Simon’s latest TV series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and immediately approached HBO about adapting it for television. But he got sidetracked with the phenomenally successful and justly lauded The Wire, and then by Generation Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has finally made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Haggis signed on as director without having to see any of the scripts beforehand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvious fact that it was Simon’s latest venture.

Haggis wrote and directed Crash in 2004, which explores the complexities of race and colour brilliantly, and could have been a masterpiece if only they’d held out against tacking happy endings on to three of its stories, those of the detective’s mother, the shop keeper and the TV director.

Crash.

Crash.

One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watching Show Me A Hero is its apparent artlessness. A great deal of time and effort has been invested in rendering it entirely transparent. So that instead of using the medium to mirror the subject matter, as they did with the amphetamine fuelled fidgeting of The Wire, and the laid back languid southern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is Strindberg’s dream of being presented with something as if we were the fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the story is set in is seen not as the sort of stylized, immaculately dressed era that something like Mad Men would have presented it as. Rather, it looks and feels exactly as it did when you were actually living in it. Utterly, unforgivably vile, and cheap in a somehow expensive way. That hair, those shoulder pads, and the way that everything, even the architecture, all looks thin, insubstantial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The story centres around Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor in America when taking up the reins at Yonkers, a suburb of New York City and a city in its own right within the larger state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its residents were up in arms over the social housing development that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s so great about Simon is that he manages to keep his liberal sympathies in check without ever letting you lose sight of them. He focuses instead on showing us the multifaceted complexities that lie behind all apparently black and white issues.

There’s a reason the residents of Yonkers are so dead set against allowing public housing units allocated to black families into their area. Wherever that had been done before, the buildings that resulted all too quickly developed into Stygian centres for drugs and prostitution, and the organizational fulcrum for a network of petty, and not so petty crime.

Proponents of the scheme, which Wasiscko inadvertently came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been handled in the past. That this scheme would be different (which, unusually, it was), and that in any case, they were only talking about a paltry 200 housing units.

Treme.

Treme.

I’ll not say anything more, other than that I just about managed to avoid looking up what the actual outcome was, so drawn in was I with the story, and so should you. But if you recognize the Fitzgerald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

The one thing I can say is, and forgive me for sounding a little smug, but the whole sorry story is a dreadful reflection on that era and, dare I say it, America. Happily, the idea that the good people in the larger community might shun a minority to such a degree that they refuse to let them even live amongst them is, happily, not something that could possibly happen in this day and age. And certainly not in Ireland. Obviously.

You can see the trailer to Show Me A Hero here.

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Series 6 “Mad Men”, Drugs and a Rare High.

Twin Peaks' dream sequence.

Twin Peaks’ dream sequence.

In retrospect, the arrival of Twin Peaks onto our screens in 1990 changed everything. On the one hand it exploded the possibilities of what a television series could aim for and encompass. And on the other, it marked the beginning of what would become a complete exodus of serious, grown-up populist drama from cinema onto television.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

You can still see serious drama in the cinema. Films from Atom Egoyan, Asghar Farhadi reviewed earlier here, Julio Medem, Jafar Panahi reviewed earlier here, Lynne Ramsay, Tod Solondz, and Tran Anh Hung. And of course David Lynch. But they are very much the exceptions. The vast majority of what is on offer these days at the cinema is aimed at teenage boys and pubescent girls.

Television on the other hand has produced, to pick but four of a long, long list, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And it all began with Twin Peaks, which was the precedent, the blueprint, and the inspiration for them all.

Of the many, many things that Twin Peaks did so effortlessly well, the one thing that most people probably think of is dreams. Specifically, the dream sequence that so memorably ended the second episode.

Lynch got his actors to memorize and say their lines backwards, which he filmed, and then reversed in the editing suite. Similarly, he got them to perform some of their actions – but crucially not all of them – in the same way. It’s dazzlingly unsettling, and you can see it again here.

Lynch has always had a sensational handle on dreams. David Thompson astutely writes in his entry on Mulholland Dr. that the Dr of the title refers not to Drive but to dream here. It’s striking how often dream crops up in the dialogue. And his career began of course with the all too convincing portrayal of a living nightmare in Eraserhead.

So intimidated was David Chase by Lynch and his facility with dreams that he was rendered creatively petrified. Dreams are the one thing that The Sopranos failed to dazzle on.

If Chase is the televisual son of Lynch, then Matthew Weiner is his spiritual grandchild. But Mad Men has mostly avoided dreams. What it’s done instead is to tackle the one area that’s even more difficult to get right than dreams; drugs.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

After all, at least in theory, anything’s possible in dreams. But for anyone who’s ever taken opiates, amphetamines or hallucinogenics, there’s only ever one way that that looks or feels. And it’s cringe-inducing to watch whenever anyone tries and gets it wrong.

Impressively, on the few occasions that drugs have surfaced in Mad Men, they’ve got it brilliantly right. There was that brief scene in series 2 when Don had his – and the show’s – first joint. There’s was the justly celebrated scene in series 5 when Roger does LSD here.

And now in series 6, there’s a whole episode, 8 The Crash, when a Dr. Roberts type figure gives Don and the rest on the creative team a shot each of speed. I’ll not spoil anything by giving any of it away, but it captures perfectly that misplaced sense of certainty that some drugs cause you to fix on otherwise meaningless ephemera. And it’s absolutely, and horribly hilarious.

Series 6 is currently hidden away in the depths of RTE2’s  Tuesday night schedule, like a former hippies’ final acid tab buried deep in a secret draw.

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“Masters Of Sex” and the death of the Soap Opera.

Masters Of Sex.

Masters Of Sex.

The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Homeland, The Shield, The Killing, The Returned reviewed here, Top Boy reviewed here, our own Love/Hate, 24, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, House Of Cards, Six Feet Under, Lost, Game Of Thrones, Glee, Buffy, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviewed here.

They all give us believable characters in a recognizable world that you really want to invest your time in. Because what they are all about is the relationships that are forged between the individuals who live there, and the brilliantly told stories that connect them and bring them all into conflict.

In other words, they all do what soaps used to do in days gone by. Except they’re much, much better written, acted, directed and produced.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

Which isn’t merely because they all have far more money to spend than a conventional soap ever did. Rather, it’s a reflection of the radical transformation that television had undergone over the last decade or so. It’s part of what’s come to be called box set culture.

Television programmes have to be so good today, that they demand to be seen on our ever larger and louder television sets. So that downloading them or streaming them onto your phone just isn’t going to be enough.

Not only that, they have to be so good, so remarkable, and to generate so much talk and interest, so much noise,  that you’re going to feel an uncontrollable urge to buy the box set and watch them all again. So good in fact, that when then they’re all repeated, repeatedly on cable and satellite, you’ll happily watch them all again.

On the job.

On the job.

The latest in the current line of Olympian television is Masters of Sex. Based on a revolutionary study into sexual mores and mechanics in the late 50s and 60s, it revolves around Michael Sheen as the sexually prudish but scientifically driven doctor, and the partnership he strikes up with the sexually liberated but completely unqualified Lizzy Caplan, who he takes on as his assistant.

He by the way is called Masters, and she Virginia. Which could easily have been an example of how cleverly yet simply the different dynamics of sexual politics are delved into and inverted on the show. But that really was what they were called.

In many ways, it’s little more than Mad Men lite. But it’s so well acted and written, and the stories and their arcs are so carefully and cleverly plotted, and it and they all look so fantastic – soft porn has rarely looked as plush, lush and refined – that you happily sit back, relax and let it all wash over you.

One more reason to stay in of an eve. And one more nail in the Soap Opera coffin.  You can see the Masters of Sex trailer here.

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Channel 4’s “Top Boy” Makes Triumphant Return.

Series 2 of Top Boy.

Series 2 of Top Boy.

When Channel 4 aired the first series of Top Boy over four successive nights in 2011 it felt like something of an aberration. Here was a brilliantly illuminating window on a corner of inner city life, dramatizing a part of Britain that conventional television traditionally ignores. Compelling, believable, impressively visual and all too real, series 1 was reviewed by me earlier here.

Hardly the sort of programme in other words that one normally associates with a station like Channel 4.

But since then, programmes like Southcliffe, the dystopian Utopia, the brilliant French import The Returned (which I reviewed earlier here) and now this, series 2 of Top Boy suggest that Channel 4 might finally be getting some of its mojo back.

The Returned.

The Returned.

It’s pointless trying to talk about Top Boy without comparing it to The Wire. That is manages to stand up to and merit that comparison is remarkable. Even if, for the moment, it doesn’t quite scale those kind of heights. But then again, neither has it so far been given scope to, with just the four episodes per series to play with.

As with all the best drama on television, it’s all down to the writing. Ronan Bennett’s scripts are brilliantly structured and wonderfully nuanced. They’re given life by a collection of remarkable performances from a mixture of veterans and new comers. And once again the direction is notable for its sense of style and grandeur as much for its gritty realism. And the whole thing is given a wonderful sheen thanks to Brian Eno’s quietly menacing score.

Series two has just begun on Channel 4. Watch it. This is the best and the most important drama produced for television on these islands this decade.

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