Crimetime viewing

As a change of pace from technology and social media, I thought I’d do a post of quick television reviews, using as a linking theme the 9pm slot on Monday evenings which seems almost overwhelmed with crime shows.

There are three very different and contrasting series on at this time slot at the moment – ITV1’s Whitechapel, Sky One’s 24, and BBC2’s Moses Jones; and I end up watching one, recording another and then relying on BBC’s iPlayer to watch the third later in the week. So how do the three shows compare?

Whitechapel

With ITV axing a swathe of it of drama output at the moment, it’s actually surprising to see an original drama on the channel, let alone one that’s any good. While the basic premise is nothing new (the “Jack the Ripper” copycat idea has been used dozens of times over the decades), this actually manages to do it pretty well. A respect for the actual history is vital, as is a good cast – Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davies in particular, who manage to breath life into what otherwise would have been simplistically broad and unsubtle characters – two chalk-and-cheese policemen (one a wet behind the years Oxbridge graduate, the other an experienced copper from the streets). Because they are played so well, the moment when these two actually find a brief moment of understanding or mutual appreciation work far better than they really should. There’s also some consciously sharp direction, with my favourite moment in episode one being when a Molotov cocktail thrown by a mob toward a line of rank-and-file police officers neatly cuts direct to ice cubes being thrown into a whisky glass at a swanky gathering of the police command elite.

On the downside, the first episode lingered almost pornographically on some of the Ripper’s most savage work on his female victims. And there was no female character in the entire show other than the victims; even the one sympathetic Community Support Officer, Mary, ended up lying dead in Mitre Square. I thought we’d come further with TV shows offering a more diverse and representative line up of characters (there are no ethnic characters to be seen either), but this show felt like it was channelling the 1970s Sweeney even more than Life on Mars (intentionally) did.

Still, it’s entertaining, well made, and for the most part engrossing. It’s not a great work of art, it has flaws, but it’s the kind of thing that ITV used to do really well – entertainment for the masses – which has been so conspicuously lacking in recent years rammed full of quiz shows, reality programmes, soaps and comfortable middle-brow crime shows like Poirot, Midsummer Murders and Taggart.

24

When 24 debuted in 2001, just weeks before 9/11, it seemed both prophetic for the times and also a true revolution in the way TV action series could work. So successful was the real time format that it became the show that practically created the DVD boxset market so that people could sit down and mainline it all in one go rather than be frustrated by the stop-start weekly nature of episodic network TV. Even more astonishingly, the format kept feeling fresh and alive for at least another two or three years.

But that’s long past, and the current series on Sky One just seems very old and dated. Everyone’s going through the motions, but we’ve seen it all before. The same old characters return from the past doing the same old things, and new characters just remind us of similar but far better ones who have been killed off. Simply moving the show to Washington DC and running it out of the FBI offices rather than the fictitious CTU doesn’t really make much of a difference if all that’s changed are the labels.

Not only is is eating its own past, 24 is busy gobbling up anything else it can find: how anyone can have failed to notice that most of the series so far is a rip off of Die Hards 2 and 4 is beyond me. And that’s the problem with 24 these days – it struggles to be entertaining, it’s old and tired and past its prime. If only it had known when to stop and gone out with style, rather than limp along like a sad old vet that didn’t know when it was time to pack it in. The main theme of torture and violence being acceptable against suspected terrorists seems especially out of place now in the post-Bush, Obama years.

Moses Jones

This is a quite remarkable show, and it’s a shame that it’s not getting the ratings that it deserves, because it’s a true class act. For years now the TV intelligentsia have been saying that HBO’s Baltimore-set series The Wire is the best show on TV of all time – and they’re right, by the way, so if you haven’t seen it yet then stop reading now and go watch it! While Moses Jones isn’t quite up to that mark, it is – I reckon – the nearest that British television has come to that sort of quality and ambition of showing how life is like for a section of society living and working below the mainstream radar.

In this case it’s the immigrant and ethnic community, and the picture it paints of what it is like to exist in a sub-culture of hate, derision, fear and violence is truly chilling and rings utterly true. It has that same shocking feel to it that you’re being allowed to see a real corner of society that you had never dreamed about, just as The Wire lifted the lid on what it really was like to be on the front line of the drug war in a major US city, from both the police and criminal perspectives and that of the luckless citizens stuck in the middle of it because it was happening on their doorstep.

Like The Wire, Moses Jones might be superficially a cop show, and borrow many of the crime genre’s conventions, but the cop duo are leads in name only – this is a genuinely ensemble piece from multiple points of view and the cop/crime aspect is rapidly marginalised and irrelevant just as it is in the real daily lives of immigrants and the underclass. There are some fantastic performances here as well, from Shaun Parkes in the title role to Eamonn Walker, Indira Varma, Jude Akuwudike, Wunmi Mosaku and Obi Abili. I only knew Walker (who was in ER, Oz and Justice in the US) and Varma (who was in the Torchwood pilot) before, and the others are new and astonishing talents. It’s unfortunate that the pre-show publicity mainly centred around the relatively minor role of one of the cops played by one of the very few white actors in the show: but it’s because that actor is Matt Smith, the newly-cast Doctor Who. Don’t get me wrong: he’s good, too – everyone is in this.

Like The Wire, this is not a show that makes things easy for the audience. If you miss something or don’t follow a plot twist, then don’t expect some neat exposition, or a music cue to let you know what you should be thinking or feeling. This is a show that respects our intelligence in just the way that the other two shows don’t, and it’s a shame that far fewer people will watch this because they’re too busy tuning into one of the others with their vastly lower ambitions.

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