Tuesday, 21 March 2017


Mini ETs eating the brains of politicians in Washington? That would 
explain everything.

On a Capitol Hill bug hunt... Mary Elizabeth Wanstead as
Laurel Healey. (Image copyright: CBS)

Last year, before Donald Trump was making the jaws of politicians and political commentators across the world hit the floor in astonishment/disbelief/disgust/terror, a rather enjoyable political satire called BrainDead debuted on the CBS network in America. 

At the time, some people thought the premise was a bit far-fetched: Surreptitiously, alien insects devour the grey matter of Democrats and Republicans, taking them over in the process and making them more extreme. To start with, people around them either don’t notice the change or try to laugh it off.

In the light of recent events, that seems more like reportage than science fiction.

BrainDead was a sweet little thing, created by Robert and Michelle King. The good-in-everything-she’s-been-in Mary Elizabeth Winstead played Laurel Healey, a documentary maker hard up for cash who agrees to work for her Senator brother, the randy Luke (suave Danny Pino – someone always has to play a randy Senator.) So far so West Wing, but the arrival of a meteorite infested by a minuscule extra-terrestrial life form pushes things in an enjoyably offbeat direction.

Notorious drunk and womanising Republican Senator “Red” Wheatus (the always watchable Tony Shalhoub, probably best known for Monk) is suddenly downing health drinks and becomes a Machiavellian political operator, engineering a Republican majority in Congress. He’s more than matched by the brittle, brilliant Democratic Senator Ella Martindale (stage veteran Jan Maxwell), who once she’s bug-ified refuses to compromise on anything the Republicans are involved in. 

From there, there’s lots of political send-up and comment to be enjoyed, such as Wheatus encouraging the alarmingly right-wing ‘One Way’ pressure group – who want to include information about bomb making on their website – the Senate Intelligence Committee approving the use of torture on ‘suspected’ terrorists and the reliably screwy Wheatus trying to engineer a war with Syria through dubious witnesses in Senate hearings… Hmm. See what I mean about the reportage?

There’s a parallel The X Files-style plot driven by the memorably batty conspiracy theorist Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill, underplaying wonderfully), a scientific maverick who discovers the bugs are intelligent, lethal and organised. Lots of heads explode – strong, resistant personalities, emotion or alcohol can cause the combustion – and this part of the story serves up some of the broadest comedy in the show. In one sequence Laurel, already on the cusp of a charming Romeo and Juliet-style romance with Republican Chief of Staff Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit, again underplaying wonderfully), is saved from infection when Gustav actively engineers drunken sex between the pair in Laurel’s flat. Confused but open-minded, Gareth eventually joins the bug resistance.

The nimble mix of US political machinations and Invasion of the Body Snatchers conspiracy thriller was very engaging, but had probably run its course by the end of thirteen episodes: the invasion-by-possession idea (which, to be fair, was a familiar one anyway) would only really work once before it became repetitive, no matter what the setting (and there were plans for three more seasons where the bugs variously took on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood). CBS did the decent, respectful creative thing and didn’t renew.

Having said that, I really admire what the Kings did with BrainDead (impressively, they were also responsible for the award-winning The American Wife). Alongside the serious political intent bound up with light repartee and gross-out humour, there’s their anarchic approach to the ‘Previously on…’ recap at the start of each episode. Over a montage of clips, the story exposition is sung by Jonathan Coulton, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. As the series progresses, his vocalising of events and strumming becomes noticeably more frantic (and funnier).

Perhaps the sharpest political point in the whole series is that when the bugs desert their Capitol Hill hosts leaving them with half-a-brain, the politicians continue their Washington careers as though nothing’s happened (covering the gaps in their skulls with an orange toupee, perhaps?)

Maybe seven months on is a bit late for me to flag BrainDead up as one to watch, but judging by what’s been going on in Washington since the Trump administration took over, you might be laughing even louder if you’re new to it.

Then again, it might make you even more terrified of where America’s heading.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

TELEVISION: Recent Stuff


OK. I’ve neglected the blog because I’ve been preoccupied with my latest book and the nightmare of moving house, but at last I’ve been able to start having a look around again at what TV drama I’ve missed. Here are a few of the shows that stood out for me...

The power of three... No Offence (2017).

HIM (late 2016)
An un-named seventeen year-old delinquent, ‘HIM’ (Fionn Whitehead) has supernatural powers, including the worrying ability to violently affect objects without touching them, generated by the acrimonious emotional fall out of his parents’ marriage.

Newcomer Whitehead gives an intense, charismatic central performance – by turns sinister, amoral, dangerous and insecure. There’s a memorably horrific scene where HIM is about to impale his step-father with a variety of hovering DIY tools, which he (just) backs down from. Complicated domestic drama with paranormal overtones is an unusual and disturbing mix, and the tension is kept at an uneasy pitch throughout because you’re always looking for when HIM will next lose his temper and unleash his destructive psychic force – over his step-mother telling him off, his impatient, estranged father, rejection by his step-sister, his jealously at seeing her romantically involved with a friend...

Throughout, the general theme is that, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, families fuck you up. It's nice, then, to see HIM end optimistically with, for once, a teenage delinquent getting a handle on his anger to bring on a sweet and life-affirming ending, leaving the families he’s caught between in a better place. There are only three episodes, so the series makes for a good evening’s entertainment. A special shout out for Alec Newman, one of my favourite current actors, who's excellent as the psychiatrist who looks out for the troubled teen’s best interests.

No Offence (2017)
The second series of the ribald police drama based in Manchester. There’s a great central triumvirate of DI Viv Deering (Joanna Scanlan), DC Dinah Kowalski (Elaine Cassidy) and DS Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach), in a female driven drama with a great female villain, Nora Attah (Rakie Ayola), a Nigerian gang boss. No Offence is a sharp drama peppered with dour humour which is necessary as, commendably, it doesn’t shy away from controversial subject matter: child slavery and rape, together with female genital mutilation.

Conversely, the series positively revels in a modern ambience of grand guignol: a bomb hidden in a body at a funeral blows up a church service, a teenager eviscerates an old Irish criminal’s kidneys by stabbing him in the back with two knives, and the head of Nora’s son Mani (Zachary Motoh) is sliced to pieces by the tail rotor blade of a helicopter. Best of all, an informer strapped up with Semtex is sent into a police station and the bomb is defused by a squaddie (handily) in custody on an assault charge.

I could watch the banter between the terrific Scanlan, Cassidy and Roach all day. The supporting cast is top-notch too, particularly Paul Ritter, endlessly entertaining as Randolph Miller, the bipolar scene of crime officer.

Stan Lee’s Lucky Man (2016-17)
Murder squad detective and gambling addict Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt) can control luck through an ancient bracelet on his wrist he can’t remove. OK, it’s a very comic strip idea (fittingly, Marvel supremo Stan Lee thought of it) but the confidence and slick style of the production, together with the quality cast – Darren Boyd, Steven Mackintosh, Amara Karan, Eve Best – make the whole thing convincing as a police procedural with a quirky twist.

Forget the convoluted back story, and enjoy instead plenty of cinematic action and violence in the style of Spooks. It’s not in the same league as No Offence, but Stan Lee’s Lucky Man is an easy one to watch – I devoured the first series after watching the first few episodes of the second – as there’s something very likeable about it. Maybe it reminds of the old, 1960s ITC show The Champions, where the main characters also had special powers and a cracking theme tune.

So far so good. Maybe next time I’ll get on to Taboo