The flipside of watching a tonne of films during lockdown is that I haven’t watched much TV — I’ve still not even finished Picard, ffs. But I did make time for Quiz (which, as a three-parter, was basically just a movie anyway), another animated Doctor Who, a season of Archer (“a season” sounds like a lot, but it’s only 13 easily-digestible 20-minute chunks), more of the worst of the original Twilight Zone, and a few other bits and bobs — including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein, which the National Theatre made available on YouTube last week (sorry if you didn’t know; it’s gone now).
Adapted by James Graham from his own West End play and directed by Stephen Frears almost as if it were a movie (note how only the first episode has a proper title sequence), Quiz is the story of Major Charles Ingram, who in 2001 went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and — allegedly — cheated his way to winning the million-pound jackpot with the help of his wife and someone in the audience coughing to indicate correct answers. But Quiz takes its remit wider than this, showing how Millionaire was born and spawned a nationwide community of quiz enthusiasts determined to game the system and make it onto the programme — and once on there, cheat in their own ways.
Obviously I knew the basic story of ‘the coughing major’ from all the news coverage, but I had no idea about all the stuff with the networks of dedicated fans. Quiz only touches on it as a side element in the Ingrams’ story, but it’s a fascinating aspect. The Ingrams were only passingly involved with it, but it makes you wonder: did that organisation cheat more successfully? Were the Ingrams caught and prosecuted because the programme had been driven to be hyper-vigilant but, in fact, were not cheating? They protest their innocence to this day. And while Quiz doesn’t come down on one side or the other, it throws enough doubt on the accepted narrative that you wonder how they were ever convicted.
The enthusiasts’ network; the lengths people went to get on the show; the media storm around the Ingrams… it’s all a reminder of what a phenomenon Millionaire was at the time (at its height, it was watched by a third of the UK population). The best thing about the first episode is how it digs into that, with the backstory of the show itself, the pitches and its early success. This stuff could be seen as an aside to the main story — as padding to make Quiz a three-parter — but it really isn’t: it was that very uniqueness, the specialness of the programme, that led to the ‘cheating’. It also makes for a fun drama, pillorying the behind-the-scenes world of television. Respect to ITV for commissioning a programme that takes so many potshots at ITV itself.
Indeed, even as there are serious events (watch out for the undeserved fate of the Ingrams’ pet dog), Quiz is consistently very funny. There’s a gag in the closing seconds of episode two (punctuated by a smash cut to black) that is golden. Michael Sheen’s uncannily spot-on impersonation of Chris Tarrant will also tickle anyone familiar with the man — i.e. UK viewers, but I guess it won’t translate internationally. Matthew Macfadyen is more understated but also excellent as Charles Ingram, while Helen McCrory burns up the screen as their barrister later on. Those are the obvious standout performances, but the whole cast are on form, in particular Mark Bonnar as one of Millionaire’s exec producers. He’s consistently superb in everything I’ve seen him in (if you haven’t, you should definitely watch Unforgotten series 2), and here adds a lot of nuance to what could’ve been an inessential bit part.
Ultimately, this is a pretty excoriating examination of what went on. Very few people come out if it well — certainly not ITV, the show’s producers, the media, the police, the general public, the jury, the British legal system… Maybe only the Ingrams. Did they do it? Possibly. But the evidence of their guilt is rather thin and, in some cases, ludicrously biased. Quiz itself doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other, but it certainly seems to have convinced a lot of viewers of their innocence.
In the UK, Quiz is available on ITV Hub for another few days. In the US, it airs on AMC from Sunday May 31st.
As theatre goes, this is a blockbuster: directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the actors alternating who played Victor Frankenstein and his Creature for each performance. One of each was filmed for the National Theatre Live cinema screenings, and for the lockdown National Theatre at Home release they also made both available.
Cumberbatch-as-the-Creature came out first and consequently attracted the most YouTube views, but the consensus seems to be that Miller-as-the-Creature is the better version, so that was the one I watched (I’m curious to see both, but watching it twice in a week isn’t really my way).
Now, frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of Frankenstein. I like the concept a lot — it endures for a reason — but I found the novel an interminable slog, and faithful adaptations fare similarly. Fortunately, this one jumps right to the birth of the creature, thereby improving things considerably by getting to the meat of the issue. It also serves to almost completely refocus the narrative away from Frankenstein and onto his creation. After a brief appearance at the start, it’s another 45 minutes before Frankenstein enters the story properly. This feels like a very modern choice — siding with the downtrodden and oppressed, making him the protagonist rather than the genius inventor. Of course, the Creature is not without his crimes, and the production plays up the mirroring of creator and creation — as if the fact they’re played by the same actors alternating roles didn’t clue you in to that theme.
It’s an impressively theatrical production (a reason why, like One Man, Two Guvnors last week, I’m not counting it as a film), with some clever and effective staging, in particular a rotating multi-level centrepiece. That said, being able to view it from different angles via camerawork does add to the production at times, in particular with one or two moments that seem to have been staged for a bird’s eye view; but then, at others we’re clearly missing something of the atmosphere created in the physical space (for example, sometimes we get to see the massive lighting rig made of hundreds of individual bulbs, but some of its uses and effect is lost by not being in the room). Also, this YouTube release has been censored at one particular moment for the sake of a wider audience, which is a shame. It’s clear enough what’s happened, and some will be pleased not to see that depicted, but unfortunately the edit is wholly unsubtle and therefore completely jarring.
Whatever its other qualities, this production will remain best known for its role-switching gimmick. Some people do think it was just a gimmick — a way to show off and stand out, but not worth much else. I’m not sure that’s fair. If you only watch it once then obviously you’ll only see the actors one way round, even the mere existence of the alternative is somewhere in your mind, informing how you view the play, the notion that these two characters can be played by the same actor in the same production. It’s a neat way to underscore the connection between the two character, which, as much as they would both like to sever it, is seemingly unbreakable.
Doctor Who The Faceless Ones
The most recent missing story to be animated (see last month for the history of all that) has the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie arrive at Gatwick airport in 1967, where there are mysterious things going on around the offices of airline Chameleon Tours, including young people flying off on holiday but never coming back…
The Faceless Ones gets off to a strong start, with suspicious alien-connected murders, disbelieving authority figures, Polly seemingly mind-wiped, and the Doctor and Jamie playing at Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson — a bit of mystery, companions in peril, the TARDIS team on the back foot as they have to investigate while dodging the authorities. Unfortunately, this is a six-parter. There are many great Doctor Who six-parters, but there are at least as many (especially in the early days) where they seem to have commissioned six episodes by default and the writers didn’t really have enough story to fill them. The Faceless Ones is among the latter: as it heads into the second half, you can feel the plot begin to stretch itself out. There are some great cliffhangers to perk things up, at least.
Nowadays Who fans have a tendency to watch whole stories in one sitting, almost like a movie — most of them are about that length, after all. But someone once observed that a lot of overlong, awkwardly-paced serials suddenly make more sense if you watch them one episode at a time; that each part works as a 25-minute chunk of TV, and when you watch them in one go you don’t see the trees for the wood. The Faceless One is almost a case in point, because each of the earlier episodes are enjoyable in isolation, and the later ones have their moments; but, with hindsight, there is a lot of back-and-forthing, and I can well imagine that, watched all in one go, it feel long, slow, and spread thin.
The last two instalments are the worst culprits. The writing’s quality dive-bombs in the penultimate episode as other characters basically explain the plot to the Doctor and Jamie, while episode six offers a rather sedate finale, with a bit of drama early on giving way to a lot of protracted business to resolve the situation. It also features the most bored-sounding delivery of the line “you fools, how can you trust him” imaginable. To cap it off, this is Ben and Polly’s last episode, and they’re written out poorly. It’s nice that they decide it’s time to return to their own lives, rather than being forced to go or stuck with a thin romance or something (as other companions would be), but it’s terribly handled: they’ve not been in it for weeks, then suddenly realise it happens to be the same date they first joined the Doctor so, hey, why not leave now? And the Doctor’s goodbye speech: “Ben can catch his ship and become an admiral, and you, Polly… you can look after Ben.” Eesh.
As for this animated reconstruction, it looks a lot stiffer and flatter than Macra Terror, which feels like a disappointing step back. Some of the animation models are quite poor, suffering from Thunderbirds syndrome (i.e. too-big heads) or with odd posture, and sets are basic in places. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes details — maybe it was made on a reduced timescale or budget, or maybe it’s the strain of having to do 50% more episodes, or maybe they were trying to be more faithful to the live-action originals (two episodes of Faceless Ones survive, although they’ve been animated too, for consistency), or maybe it’s just that a ‘60s airport is visually duller than a far-future colony. Whatever, it does nothing to enliven the mediocre script. Still, I personally find these animated visuals better than nothing (others disagree), and I’ll happily buy every one they produce.
Archer Season 6
When I watched Archer’s fifth season (aka Archer Vice), I was picking it back up after years away and was set to continue it. That was in 2018. Although I was quite positive in that initial review, I was less positive by the end, and that was my enduring memory of it. Well, I’m happy to report I found season six to be a return to form.
I observed of Archer Vice that the change of setting from spy agency to drug dealers was immaterial because it was the characters not the situation that mattered. That’s true to an extent, but I suspect not entirely, because here they’re back to being spies and it all seems to have sparked back to life. That’s kind of ironic because, as anyone who follows the show will know, they eventually moved on from spies to rotate through a different setting/genre every season, which was because they’d run out of spy stories to tell; and yet comedic spy stories are clearly what these guys do best. So, I’m wary of where it’s going to go in seasons I’ve not yet got to, but, for the time being, I’m enjoying it again. This time I don’t think it’ll be years before I watch the next season.
The Twilight Zone ‘Worst Of’
In last month’s initial selection of The Twilight Zone’s worst episodes I found one or two that weren’t wholly terrible. I’m not sure this selection fares even that well…
Going from worst to ‘best’, the episode placed 155th (of 156) on my consensus ranking is The Mighty Casey. It’s a very silly story about a robot baseball player, which substitutes loopy sound effects and the incredulous expressions of onlookers for its lack of special effects, and I guess also to cover for its lack of adherence to the laws of physics. The only interesting aspect of the story is the reactions — or lack thereof — from characters when they learn Casey is a robot. It appears to be set in the then-present of 1960, but no one’s like, “holy shit, you built a lifelike robot who can pass for human and play baseball!” No, they’re only concerned with whether his roboticness needs to be reported or kept secret. That dilemma ultimately leads toCasey needing to be given a heart, but once he gets one he’s too compassionate to keep playing. So the ultimate message is… you need to be heartless to be a sportsman? I mean, I don’t care for sports much myself, but even I think that’s stretching it. Maybe baseball fans would get a kick out of this episode, but for the rest of us it’s just rubbish.
Equally as daft is Black Leather Jackets, in 154th. A trio of young bikers move in next door to a nice all-American family, but there’s more to the lads than meets the eye. The kindest thing I can say about this episode is that some of it is nicely lit. Unfortunately, the script is pretty crap, with the dialogue being particularly awful. “Do you know the word… love?” Seriously. It’s like a spoof of bad ’50s sci-fi, but it’s real and it was made in 1964. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer says it’s “arguably the most dated of The Twilight Zone’s 156 episodes” and I think he might be right. And after 20 minutes of uncomfortable ludicrousness, it comes to an entirely unearned bleak ending. Twilight Zone may be most famous for its last-minute surprise reveals, but when they were bad, they were really bad.
In 153rd is The Whole Truth, which is about a car that’s been haunted since it came off the production line — although this one’s considerably less threatening than Christine. Instead of a murderous machine, this ‘haunted’ car merely compels its owner to be completely honest at all times. Unfortunately for used car salesman Harvey Hunnicut, he only learns this fact after he’s bought it. It’s an obvious idea — forcing a used car salesman, that most dishonest of individuals, to tell the truth — but it doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it, other than a totally far-fetched and implausible finale. Yes, far-fetched and implausible even by Twilight Zone standards! Singer calls it “the dumbest twist in the history of The Twilight Zone” and, again, I’m inclined to agree.
In the episode titled The Chaser, the eponymous character is a young man in love with a woman who doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but through a coincidental contact he meets a fellow who sells him a guaranteed love potion. The scene where he purchases the potion is really quite good, but on the whole it’s painfully obvious that this is going down a “be careful what you wish for” pathway, and all we can do is wait for it to play out. They’re not even nice characters to spend time with — he’s a pathetic obsessive and she’s a bitch. And after he gets what he wished for and doesn’t like it, he considers a spot of murder. It’s a bit… much. And the morals of it all are a little foggy, to say the least — as many commenters observe, it’s dated into being uncomfortably sexist. There’s an angle that could make this storyline worked (critical of the guy trying to drug a woman into loving him), but that’s not what’s played here.
The Incredible World of Horace Ford is one of The Twilight Zone’s most interesting failures thanks to its production history: the script was previously performed as an episode of a different show in 1955, and by the sounds of things it was just restaged wholesale for TZ. That’s probably why it doesn’t feel like it quite fits in properly — it’s something broadly Twilight Zone-ish that’s been recycled rather than a bespoke episode. It’s about a 37-year-old manchild toy designer who constantly reminisces about stuff he did when he was 10… and yet somehow he’s managed to find himself a caring wife, friends, and hold down a job for 15 years. Maybe we’re supposed to think he wasn’t always so stuck in the past, but the way other characters indulge him makes it seem like he was, even if he’s getting worse as the episode begins.
The lead actor is Pat Hingle, of Commissioner Gordon in Batman ’89 fame. He gives a convincing performance… if this was about a Big-style situation of a stroppy 10-year-old boy trapped in a 37-year-old’s body, but that isn’t what’s actually happening. There’s an equally misaligned performance from Nan Martin as his wife: it constantly feels like she knows more than she’s letting on about what’s really happening, like the twist might be she’s responsible for, or at least knows, what’s going on… but she isn’t and she doesn’t. Honestly, I don’t blame the actors for struggling with how to play their roles, because it’s not like the story makes it clear for them what’s meant to be going on. At first it seems like another of the series’ “you can’t go home again” episodes about a man in love with nostalgic memories of his childhood, but then it turns out it’s some kind of time-loop thing… or… not. The resolution is maddeningly, deliberately inexplicable. And, yeah, turns out it is just another version of “you can’t rely on your memory of good times”. To compound the problem, it’s a season four episode, so of course it takes its sweet time playing out a storyline over 50 minutes when it only needs the 25 minutes of other seasons; and the time loop factor makes it literally repetitive.
Finally for now, Four O’Clock, which is about a mentally deranged man who wears a far-too-tight waistcoat — and, more importantly, arbitrarily decides he’s going to eradicate all evil in the world at 4pm that afternoon… he just hasn’t worked out how yet. You see, he’s spent his days investigating bad people (i.e. those whose lifestyle choices he personally disagrees with) and trying to rat them out to their employers and the like, but he’s not really getting anywhere. Naturally, it comes to an appropriately ironic ending. Paste’s Oktay Ege Kozak reckons it’s “like lazy Twilight Zone fan fiction: it exploits every pattern the series had developed so far and executes it without much originality or flair”, which is a bit harsh, but also kinda fair. Aside from the predictability of the ending, the episode’s only real problem is that it’s like spending 25 minutes in the company of an internet troll. It might be an accurate portrait of a self-righteous busybody, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be around him.
Things to Catch Up On
This month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, the third season of which is currently airing between iPlayer and BBC One. For the first two seasons we had to wait until after it had finished in the US so they could put the whole lot up on iPlayer at once, which no one noticed during season one but drew a lot of criticism during season two (you can work out why, I’m sure). Consequently, I binged those first two seasons (indeed, I came to it late, so went straight through them both), so I wasn’t sure about watching it weekly now. Also, Devs, the latest work from Alex Garland, which frankly I wasn’t even aware existed until it popped up over here (when it had already almost finished in the US). I’ve seen very mixed reviews of it, but I still intend to watch it. But, as noted above, I still haven’t finished Picard, and I’m determined to get that done before I start anything else. Hopefully next month.
Next month… hopefully I’ll finish Picard and get on to some of the stuff I’ve been missing. Also, I’ve got my eye on more classic Doctor Who, plus a third (and, I think, final) selection of the worst of The Twilight Zone.