There are three major series for me to review this month, thanks to the UK’s highest-rated drama launch for a decade, Bodyguard; the debut season of Amazon’s heavily-promoted version of Jack Ryan; and a second season for the runt of the Marvel/Netflix litter, Iron Fist. Plus, shorter reviews of other stuff. All spoiler-free, of course.
So, without further ado…
Bodyguard Series 1
A massive hit for BBC One from writer Jed “Line of Duty” Mercurio, Bodyguard follows copper David Budd (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) as he’s assigned to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), who’s trying to push through a tough new anti-terrorism act. As multiple terrorist attacks begin to take place, and Montague cosies up to the intelligence services, the series quickly morphs into a conspiracy thriller, with Budd struggling to know who can be trusted as he hunts for the truth about what’s going on and why.
Like Line of Duty, Mercurio excels at Big drama: this is a busy, fast-moving story that churns through plot. Not much here of the gradual, slow, “it’s really more about these characters as people” stuff we usually get from British drama. That’s not to say there isn’t fine character work, mind: Budd, in particular, is a complex and nuanced hero, who starts out calm and capable and is revealed to be… well, something else; so much so that you begin to wonder if he’s an unreliable narrator… The other thing Mercurio is great at is set pieces. In Line of Duty they’re often lengthy, jargon-filled police interviews, although he’s pulled off a couple of big action ones too. Bodyguard kind of merges the two, in that they’re talky but also usually involve bombs and guns. The series is bookended by them: episode one boldly devotes its opening 20 minutes to what initially seems like a prologue (unsurprisingly, it has more relevance later), and a massive chunk of the middle of the finale is taken up with another.
Some have criticised the series for being OTT, implausible, or having too many plot holes. Well, individual mileage will vary on that. It’s not a slice-of-lice drama, after all — the larger-scaled storytelling is a genre thing, not an inherent flaw. It’s no more implausible than hundreds of other thriller TV series and movies, just perhaps not the kind we make much in the UK anymore. I’m always wary of accusations of plot holes — it’s a term that gets thrown around too liberally nowadays by, frankly, people who either don’t know what they’re on about or have a failure of imagination (“we didn’t see that happen on screen so how can it have happened” is, genuinely, the root of one prominent complaint about Bodyguard’s finale).
Still, I think the series’ main aim was to be an exciting guessing game — it’s a whodunnit, really, with a multitude of suspects and motivations. As that, I thought it was a success; and, based on the ratings and chatter, it looks like the public at large agreed. No second series has been commissioned (and, anyway, Mercurio is busy on the next Line of Duty until sometime next year), but I’d be surprised if we don’t see more.
(If you’re outside the UK, it was announced last week that Netflix have snapped up the international rights, where it will be available from October 24th.)
Jack Ryan Season 1
The latest reboot of Tom Clancy’s CIA hero sees him get the TV treatment, which is perhaps the best place for a hero who is more about solving problems with his mind than his gun, and a storytelling style that cuts between lots of concurrent plots before later revealing how they interrelate. That’s something this season has done rather well, incidentally — it’s an original story, taking Clancy’s characters but not directly adapting any of his novels, but they committed to trying to emulate his “mosaic storytelling style”. I’ve never read any Clancy, so I’m not an expert on this, but they seem to have evoked it well. (Considering there are multiple Ryan novels that haven’t been adapted, it seems a shame to abandon them entirely. Maybe in a future season.)
The actual plot concerns — what else — Middle Eastern terrorism. On the bright side, it devotes as much time to the villains as to the heroes, painting a more detail picture than just “some foreign-looking people want to blow us up”. I don’t know if it has anything deep or new to say about terrorists and those who hunt them (we’ve had ten seasons of 24, seven of Homeland, and goodness knows how many other shows on this theme since 9/11 — it’s well worn), but it’s still effective as an intelligent thriller, bolstered by having a desk-jockey analyst as a hero rather than a trigger-happy soldier. Nonetheless, episodes are packed with incident, tension, and excitement. It’s not quite “a thinking man’s thriller” because I don’t think it ultimately has enough to say about things, but it is a lot more measured and realistic than your usual action-thriller fare, while still creating exciting (but also plausible) sequences.
Naturally, the season takes the form of “an 8-hour movie” (to be precise, it’s actually 6.6 hours long), because that’s what’s popular with prestige TV nowadays, but it also works on an episodic level. Put another way, it’s in parts that build to a whole, rather than a whole sliced up because it has to be. That’s not to say the series isn’t heavily serialised, mind (for example, there’s a random murder in episode two that doesn’t seem to relate to anything else, but then pays off at the end of episode four), but this is only a problem if you dislike non-episodic storytelling. I tend to agree that some shows take this too far, seeming to go nowhere on an episodic level because everything’s designed to be “one long story”, but Jack Ryan is one of those serialised shows that strikes a healthy balance between the two — it is one long story, but each episode conveys a solid amount of plot.
An advantage the show has in this regard is its short length: with just eight episodes, the plot moves at a fair lick. It gets better as it goes on, too, as the various plot lines and characters begin to build and resonate with one another. Indeed, it’s something very rare, possibly unheard of, in direct-to-streaming series: one where I wished the season was a couple of episodes longer. Not that it’s rushed per se, but one or two subplots might’ve been even better with just a little more room to breathe; the main stories might’ve been even better with just a beat or two more in them. But in an era where streaming/prestige series are gaining a reputation for being bloated and not having enough story to fill their running time, maybe it’s better to leave people wanting more.
And I certainly do want more — season two’s already in production, and I’m looking forward to it. Although I enjoyed this season a lot, I do hope the next one takes us somewhere a little more original (and therefore interesting) than Islamic terrorists. I mean, how about those Russians and the tech espionage shit they’re pulling nowadays? Now that sounds Clancy-esque.
Iron Fist Season 2
The first season of Iron Fist attracted a lot of criticism, and, thankfully, the people behind the Marvel/Netflix series have listened. This second season doesn’t suddenly revamp the show into the best thing on TV or something, but it is a big improvement. They were hamstrung to an extent — as new showrunner M. Raven Metzner has said in interviews, you can’t reboot something like this: it has to keep to the continuity of what happened in season one, and in The Defenders, and in the other Marvel/Netflix series, and go from there — but they’ve made a fair fist of it, (there’s a good piece about what changes they made here), and by the end of the season the show is in a much better place.
It starts a little iffily, mind. I mean, the hero is a rich, privileged white guy with anger issues who appropriated another culture for his own ends, while the villains are the Asian guy who wants back his birthright that the hero took, and a businesswoman who wants her due from the company she helped build. If I was confident the show was going somewhere with that it’d be one thing, but it also feels like it can’t’ve been deliberate (considering the heroes also include a Japanese-American woman investigating her heritage and, later in the season, a black female cop), but it’s a definite reading of episode one. I began to worry it was going to accidentally pan out like some kind of Men’s Rights / White Supremacist show. Well, it’s not that bad, thank goodness — the season does make some nods towards tackling these issues (there’s a scene in episode six where Davos specifically calls Danny out on his privilege meaning he values nothing), but I’m not sure it truly engages with it, more hopes that if it’s acknowledged and sort of moved on from (I won’t say too much because of spoilers!) then we’ll let it slide.
So, even with that, a lot of things are improved over season one. Most things, even. But the show is at its best whenever its title character is off screen. Every member of the supporting cast and their relationships to each other is more interesting than Danny. At best he’s a bit nothingy, at worst an irritant. In fairness, I also suspect the show knows this, given its focus on Colleen — look how she shares the marketing. She makes a better lead character than Danny — her conflictedness about being a vigilante is certainly a richer seam than his privileged certainty, and Jessica Henwick excels in some properly kickass fight scenes, too. Among the supporting cast, Ward and Joy Meacham get some interesting material as well, again developing from what they went through in season one. Where back then it was just Plot Stuff to provide a story and twists, here there’s a genuine attempt to explore what the psychological fallout of that might look like. Plus, there’s a lot less stuff about the running of Rand Enterprises, something I called out the first season for ballsing up.
Ironically, while the MCU movies became renowned for their poor villains, that’s the area the Netflix series have always excelled in. This season the star turn comes from Alice Eve as a version of Daredevil villain Typhoid Mary, who (spoilers if you don’t know the character!) has dissociative identity disorder (DID), aka multiple personality disorder — so she can be both sweet, timid, kind Mary, and hard, stern, violent Walker. It’s the kind of role that’s a gift for any actor, of course, and Eve is fantastic. Similarly, Danny’s childhood friend Davos gets to combine many of the traits I’ve described in other characters: motivated by past events; complex relationships to other characters (not only Danny, but, as the end of season one teased, Joy). He’s the kind of villain whose goal is almost relatable; where you almost side with him over the hero.
Across all of the characters and storylines, I think the season wants to be about addiction, but it doesn’t execute it as a throughline particularly well. Early on we see Danny being a little bit out of control with the fist; then, many episodes later, he explains he was addicted to it; in between, there’s a subplot about Ward being in NA and struggling to stay on the wagon. These two plot threads should be mirroring each other, not tag-teaming — and in a way that sometimes leaves the theme untouched for an episode or two, at that. It’s a shame, really, because if they’d managed that kind of cohesion in what the show was “about”, it may have been able to lay claim to being a genuinely very good show, rather than just a marked improvement on season one. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked a lot of it, and I do think it’s a big improvement; but you can see signs that maybe it could’ve been something even better. But hey, even if it can’t offer depth, at least it can offer thrills. And really, it’s a superhero show — good vs. evil punch-ups are the order of the day.
Marvel’s Netflix shows have often faced accusations of being too long, of not having enough story to fill their 13 episodes. That’s a problem of story, not episode count, as The Defenders proved by not having enough plot to fill eight episodes. Nonetheless, Iron Fist now only has ten episodes, and it seems to have helped. The plot moves so fast that by halfway it feels like it must be nearing its end, but instead of going in circles, it has some more twists and tricks up its sleeve. And to complete the indication that the show is making an effort to head in new directions, the finale devotes about half its running time to wrapping up the main plot (via a whole load of fighting, natch) and then the second half to what happens after — not just the necessary “wind down” type aftermath stuff, but also a fair chunk of time into establishing where things will go in season three. Netflix hasn’t commissioned that yet, but I hope they do because I’m actually looking forward to it. Wonders will never cease.
Upstart Crow Series 3 Episodes 1-3
Ben Elton’s Shakespearean sitcom commences its third run as funny as ever, if not more so — I’ve always enjoyed it, but it feels particularly on point this series. I guess its on-the-nose satire of modern life by transposing it to Elizabethan society (e.g. Will’s woeful carriage journeys between London and Stratford are an unsubtle riff on the problems with British railways) won’t find favour with everyone, mainly because it seems a little easy and there’s a monologue about it pretty much every episode, but I still find that stuff amusing. When Elton applies the same strategy to other aspects of modern life, it’s similarly as rewarding/obvious, depending on your predilections. But there’s also a solid vein of mining Shakespeare’s own works for humour, the best one so far this series being an extended bit about how all of Will’s friends think Hamlet is a comedy due to its farcical plot. There’s also a running subplot about Will’s nemesis, Robert Greene, trying to discredit him by making people think he doesn’t write his own plays, which nicely pillories those ridiculous theories, and includes a guest appearance by Ben Miller doing an amusing riff on Mark Rylance.
Reported Missing Series 2 Episode 1
Not normally my kind of programme, this — a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows police as they search for missing persons — but the ‘plot’ description for the first case piqued my interest. A dad reports his five-year-old son missing after having not seen him for two years due to a custody dispute with the mother. When the police track her down, she says the boy doesn’t exist and she doesn’t even know the man who made the report. Who is telling the truth? What’s really going on? It plays out like a low-key thriller. If you have access to iPlayer (the episode is here), it only takes up the first half of the episode and I’d say is worth half-an-hour of your time.
Daniel Sloss: Live Shows — A pair of live stand-up shows, recorded at different times and places, that Netflix have lumped together as a ‘series’. The first, Dark, is a masterpiece; it lives up to its name though, so avoid if pitch black humour isn’t your thing. The second, Jigsaw, isn’t quite as exceptional, but is still excellent. A definite cut above most other stand-up specials I’ve watched.
Hang Ups Series 1 Episodes 4-6 — I was praiseful of Hang Ups last month, but if anything it improved as it went on, with the finale a riotous farce.
The Imitation Game Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — ITV’s impression-based panel show is a bit odd (everyone’s busy pretending it’s improvised when much of it is clearly scripted) and dependant on the skills of the guests (some of these so-called impressionists should find a new job), but it’s pleasantly diverting. Plus it gave us this skit of Andy Murray singing I’m So Excited, which is spot on.
Magic for Humans Season 1 Episodes 4-6 — Like Hang Ups, there’s even better stuff here than in the first half of the season (which I also wrote about last month). Episode four, Seeing is Believing, is not only a fun magic show but also kinda profound.
Things to Catch Up On
This month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, BBC America’s critically-acclaimed, Emmy-nominated thriller about an MI5 officer hunting for an assassin. It aired in the US back in April, and it feels like ever since I’ve been hearing praise for it flowing across the Atlantic. It finally made its way to this side of the pond this month (for an organisation with “BBC” in their name, BBC America productions do take their time getting over here). As I’ve only just (as in “as of last night”) finished making my way through 24 episodes of Jack Ryan, Iron Fist, and Bodyguard back-to-back, maybe that’ll be up next.
Although likely to get in the way is Maniac, Netflix’s miniseries starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone that looks inherently interesting (based on the trailer — like Inception made by someone with a wilder imagination than Christopher Nolan) and is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, aka the recently-announced director of Bond 25. I’ve never seen anything he’s done, despite almost all of it being on my “to watch” list, so it’s about time I started. Expect reviews of both of those next month, then, alongside the return of a certain time traveller…
Next month… Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor!