Best new TV shows to stream: 20 July
- Brian Donaldson
- 20 July 2020
Including Fort Salem and A Suitable Boy
From witches on the run to the mob in decline, here are new shows for your small screens.
A Suitable Boy ★★★☆☆
Trumpeted in various places as the BBC's 'first period drama with an all non-white cast', this would be great if it were true. While it might seem petty to note that episode two of A Suitable Boy features spoken lines from two posh white diners, there is another larger blooper in the works. While the brilliant Mira Nair directs this six-parter, it will be disheartening for some that she does so armed with a script written by none other than Andrew Davies. The former go-to guy for big-budget BBC period fare (Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House, War & Peace et al), Davies' pedigree is unquestionable, but this surely was the moment for a writer of South Asian descent to get their chance to shine.
Still, perhaps it's unfair to target the BBC for criticism as that question should be more directed at the book's author Vikram Seth who insisted upon Davies taking his Booker-winning novel from page to screen. Either way, whoever was on script duty should not have allowed this exposition-drenched line to be the drama's first exchange: 'Lata, what are you doing? Come inside this minute; you have to get dressed for your sister's wedding!' Did Lata need to be reminded that today was the day of her sister's wedding? Could she have just been asked to get her wedding garb on before we are then shown a scene from the celebrations? Or was there a fear that viewers were bound to switch off in their droves at such a bamboozling opening line?
Thankfully, matters do improve as the opening episodes carefully lay out this sprawling tale (the book ran to over 1300 pages) of love across the barricades. Characters are drawn to other people despite the prevailing attitudes in 1950s India stating that people shouldn't get together unless they are in the same class, religion, or age-grouping (there are also hints of a gay love story that Seth insisted was part of the novel's subtext). A Suitable Boy certainly looks lavish and there are some enjoyable musical interludes, while the backdrop of unrest in the recently partitioned, post-independent India keeps the story bubbling along.
BBC One, Sunday 26 July, 9pm.
Fear City: New York vs The Mafia ★★★☆☆
Fans of The Sopranos will be tickled by some of the references and real-life influences within this three-part Netflix dissection of the New York mob's 1970s fall. As the net closes on the 'five families' after decades of gutting the Big Apple's spirit and finances through corruption, extortion, blackmail and murder, we hear tales of people like Tony 'Ducks' Corallo, and the intricate campaign of surveillance on one Angelo Ruggiero (the New Jersey-set drama had an episode called 'Mr Ruggiero's Neighbourhood' which centred on the FBI's ill-fated attempts to plant bugs in the Soprano household).
Shot like a tense crime thriller, Fear City features interviews with former Mafia figures, and the cops and lawyers (including Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani) who finally broke the Mob rule. With representations of organised crime being such an integral part of western culture over the last few decades, this might seem all-too familiar in places to many. But it's still a satisfying and entertaining romp through a world that feels both bygone and wholly relevant.
All episodes on Netflix, Wednesday 22 July.
Fort Salem ★★★☆☆
In the first of two witch-based shows this week, Fort Salem (entitled Motherland Fort Salem in its American homeland, in case you needed to know), kicks off with a moment of deliriously high drama that the remaining 400-ish minutes struggle to keep up with. Aided somehow by a weird blue balloon, a young woman appears to trigger a mass suicide in a shopping mall before heading to her car. While driving way from this scene of carnage she sets fire to her face in order to reveal her true identity. Truly incredible stuff on a par with those pulse-pumping opening scenes which Scandi dramas specialised in for a while.
From there, we hang with the young female recruits at a US military camp which is training up witches to battle a shadowy terrorist organisation called The Spree, which as well as causing death and panic in town centres later targets swimmers at a lake and fans at a football game. Trouble is the perpetrator of that initial outrage has managed to ensconce herself into the camp.
Thereafter come many episodes of mildly entertaining but brain-sapping plot twists and 'conversations'. During one episode when some exclusively hunky male trainees are whooped and whistled onto the camp, there ensues an outdoor prom and softcore orgy which as well as jarring for their own sake reminds us that all this is going on while terrorism is ripping apart America. Shouldn't they be somehow fast-tracking these young warriors to have them prepped for battle rather than letting them get it on with their peers?
All episodes on BBC iPlayer, Sunday 26 July.
Our Cartoon President ★★☆☆☆
How do you lampoon the unlampoonable? Donald J Trump has been so adept at making a total mug of himself (and continues to be so with every passing public utterance, media interview and typo-riddled tweet) that satire almost bounces off him. That hasn't stopped some excellent online attempts to spotlight his lunacy from the likes of Sarah Cooper, Michael Spicer and The Lincoln Project, but a show such as Our Cartoon President feels largely impotent.
Now on its third season, this show takes aim at plenty other targets, but if you're not au fait with the flotsam, jetsam and Jared Kushners of contemporary US politics, then it might fly a little overhead. More than a passing knowledge of life on The Hill is required to understand the gags about media commentators such as Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity and Chuck Todd, while most will get the gist of the comedic jabs towards Trump's awful offspring.
Regards the man himself, you could argue that Trump gets off a little lightly, coming across as a very nearly likeable fish out of water, and Homer Simpson-like in his inability to fully grasp the consequences of events swirling around him. While it's full marks to the animators and the voice artists behind pinpoint impressions of Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and AOC, you might have to turn the volume down on the scenes where no one can say anything without bellowing it (this is pretty much most of the scenes).
Despite (or because of) a large writing pool including Stephen Colbert, Our Cartoon President has a problem with focus, adding little value to the vast volume of political humour out there. And with episodes based on Trump's impeachment and the race for the Democratic nomination, Our Cartoon President feels massively behind the times.
Sky Comedy, Tuesday 21 July, 9.35pm.
In a recent interview with Malcolm McDowell, the veteran and prolific actor admitted that he had no recollection whatsoever of some of the lesser screen affairs he's appeared in. As time goes by, you have to wonder if Peter Mullan might feel the same way about Cursed. As you'd expect from such a consummate pro, he puts everything into his role as mad malevolent monk Father Carden, leading his crew across the countryside in his red robes while they pillage and burn villages and people. But there's something behind his eyes that gently transmits to the viewer that he just knows this six-parter is probably not good enough.
Culled from Frank Miller's graphic novel, Cursed is an Arthurian prequel with Katherine Langford as Nimue aka The Lady of the Lake, a Fae witch who has a haunted past and a troublesome present to cope with as she attempts to capture and keep the mythical Sword of Power away from various antagonists such as Carden, King Uther (a sort-of quasi-Joffrey), a nasty young maverick archer called Sister Iris (a sort-of Bad Arya), and Skeletor (no, wait, that can't be right). Merlin is in there, with a Skarsgärd playing him as a drunkard whose own magical capabilities are seriously on the wane, as is an utterly charmless version of Arthur. Plus we meet other future legends of the Camelot crew who are currently larking around under various noms de plume.
The finale's electric showdown set on a very thin bridge is reasonably exhilarating but many viewers are likely to have checked out well before then. Cursed is riddled with bad dialogue, dodgy acting and an overall sense that it can't decide whether it wants to be the next Game of Thrones (clearly, it really wants to be) or an old-school sword and sorcery epic. Ultimately, it drops slapbang and headfirst in the middle with mud, blood and egg all over its face.
All episodes now on Netflix.
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