Best new TV shows to stream: 27 July
- Brian Donaldson
- 27 July 2020
Including Muppets Now and Prodigal Son
From notorious murders to beloved puppets, here are new shows for your small screens
As the 15th anniversary of Anthony Walker's savage murder approaches, the time was certainly ripe for a deeper exploration of his story. And while some might have had reservations over the chosen screenwriter (à la the unsuitability of Andrew Davies to adapt Indian epic A Suitable Boy), there really seemed to be no better candidate than Jimmy McGovern. Anthony's mother Gee pretty much demanded that McGovern (a family friend of the Walkers for many years) be handed the task of bringing her boy's joyful life and brutal death at the hand of racists to the small screen.
McGovern has long been an apt chronicler of devastating real-life tragedies (Hillsborough, Dockers, Sunday), but the ability to turn his mastery to events with an original take has rarely been so poignant as with Anthony. Gee was keen for a drama which didn't merely focus on the murder but that reflected upon the fact that his was a life cut short. So, McGovern imagines the life that Anthony (played by Toheeb Jimoh) might have led, the 90-minute drama tracking back one year at a time from the age of 25, speculating on what could have been.
Initially, it threatens to feel gimmicky (Anthony attends an award ceremony hosted by Richard Osman, and alongside his girlfriend appears on an edition of Pointless), but as the clock ticks on towards him being an 18-year-old and closer to his death, the tension and sadness are unbearable. Holding little back in detailing his attack and the medics' struggle in the aftermath, the actors (particularly Rakie Ayola as Gee) give devastating performances, scenes delivered and lines spoken without the intrusion of a soaring, stringed accompaniment which a lesser drama would have included.
Anthony is not the kind of drama you'll seek to revisit in a hurry, so deep is the hurt from viewing it, but as a valuable document of a moment in time, and a work which sadly has plenty to say about today, this is a vital piece of television.
BBC One, Monday 27 July, 8.30pm.
Kill Chain: The Cyber War On America's Elections ★★★★☆
With Donald Trump insisting, as he did in 2016, that he won't necessarily accept an electoral defeat in November, fears that the US voting system is set to be rigged like never before are escalating. Americans probably thought they'd seen it all in 2000 when the Bush v Gore election was literally too close to call, leading to recounts in Florida and endless legal challenges while 'hanging chads' entered the lexicon. But the fall-out was huge from Trump's electoral college victory over Clinton four years ago amid a backdrop of voter suppression and the overwhelming belief that Russia, through state-sponsored hacking operatives, was doing its bit to tamper with the electoral process. So, this time around, the process is under even more threat with observers increasingly wary of US democracy being undermined, while fearing that there might be little anyone can do about it.
As Kill Chain: The Cyber War On America's Elections lays out in precise and devastating detail, it all boils down to the various voting machines which the US are using: outdated at best, simple to breach and manipulate at worst. The story here is told through the eyes of Finish cyber-guru Harri Hursti as we visit the Nevada-based DEF CON, one of the world's largest hacker conventions, where it took delegates a couple of days to penetrate a flimsy infrastructure that seems unable to protect sensitive information such as the electoral roll. If casual bedroom hacktivists are able to wreak such mayhem, how much more damage can dedicated operatives cause? More worryingly, Kill Chain tracks down an Indian hacker called 'Cyberzeist' who breached a vote counting computer in Alaska in 2016 and had to hold himself back from altering data that might have overturned the result.
Not only will this put into context the inevitable election-day news headlines of 'glitches' in the voting system, but might make you wonder if the referendum votes on Scottish independence and EU membership were similarly warped by external influences. As the documentary points out, there may be one simple solution: get back to paper and pen, or at least have it as a back-up to check and balance the digital vote. It's not like there's much riding on the result of this forthcoming US presidential election …
Sky Documentaries, Tuesday 28 July, 9pm.
Murder, Mystery And My Family ★★★☆☆
BBC One's early morning audience might not be used to the kind of scandalous or gory fare that's discussed during Murder, Mystery And My Family, but there are probably worse ways to wash down the porridge. Investigating possible miscarriages of justice from a bygone era may have been done in both documentary and drama forms before, but the twist here is that distant relatives just so happened to be scouring their family trees when up popped the name of an ancestor convicted for an often brutal murder. On board to assist the relatives through the web of evidence are a selection of experts plus veteran barristers in the British legal system: Sasha Wass (who prosecuted Rolf Harris and helped defend Rosemary West) and Jeremy Dein (whose list of former clients include Tommy Robinson, Tulisa Contostavlos and Amy Winehouse's husband).
Shown daily through the week, the repetitive nature of proceedings might get a little wearing: 'let's get to work' announces Sasha every day after Jeremy has laid out the bare bones of the case; at least four times per episode, there's a warm round of handshakes exchanged with everyone announcing how pleased they are to see each other. Tempers never fray despite Jeremy and Sasha initially tasked with viewing the case from, respectively, a defence and prosecution standpoint.
A husky voiceover is delivered by Tony Hirst as cases largely culled from the 19th century are witnessed afresh through 21st century eyes. Within these stories of bludgeoning, poisoning and throat-cutting, themes resonate for the present day: the natural or manipulated prejudice of juries, a justice system which punishes those on lower incomes, and media frenzies pointing fingers of blame for circulation purposes. Murder, Mystery And My Family certainly offers a different avenue for fans of true crime to go down but only the real obsessives are likely to dive into each of its instalments.
BBC One, Monday–Friday, 10am.
Muppets Now ★★★☆☆
From late-end baby boomers through to many of today's Gen Zers, one kids TV show and film franchise has been a staple in formative viewing experiences. There's barely a sentient being who won't know Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzy Bear or have an attachment of some sort to Gonzo, Animal and Beaker. And so The Muppets are back, with a bold attempt at merging their original sketch-based, celebrity-guest antics with a 21st century sensibility rooted in technological innovation. Inevitably, Muppets Now hits the rocks where all multi-character sketch-based shows flounder: the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time.
Fans of the Swedish Chef will enjoy regular samples of the Scandi charlatan's inability to conjure up the most basic of meals, while guests Danny Trejo and Carlina Will show off their far-superior culinary talents (wonder if they tried to get Gordon Ramsay in?). RuPaul gets the Kermit head-to-head interview treatment, consistently being interrupted by admirers of the drag legend. And Miss Piggy introduces us to her 'Lifesty' tips. All the while, Scooter is on hand trying to upload the episodes before a Muppet can muscle in with their own ideas. Taye Diggs, Linda Cardellini and Seth Rogen also show up for cameo appearances that they certainly seem to be enjoying.
It will surely never be possible to hate The Muppets (though some of the new voice actors struggle to recapture the exact flavour of the originals) and you can't blame them for attempting a reboot in the streaming age. But Muppets Now is less than vintage fare from a legendary studio.
Disney+, Friday 31 July.
Prodigal Son ★★☆☆☆
Has there ever been a show more 'Sky One' than Prodigal Son? At 20 episodes long (its debut series was cut by two due to coronavirus), that's a substantial pile of 'murder-of-the-week' instalments to wade through as creators Chis Fedak and Sam Sklaver dream up ever more gruesome deaths and curious corpse arrangements to tease their NYPD investigators with. The pace is relentless, its attempts at humour shoddy, and relationships within the team are terse at best. So far so formulaic, but the overarching plot which binds it together merges the preposterous with the implausible and stretches all credibility to snapping point.
Michael Sheen (with wild Staged hair and beard intact) channels his inner Hannibal Lecter, chained to the wall in a prison cell which doubles as a makeshift library after being locked away for good due to excess activities in the serial killer game. Dubbed by the press as The Surgeon, this warped medic's son was witness to his daddy's arrest all those years ago (when his hair was less unruly and beard had fewer silvery bits). But now the little Malcolm has grown up to be a thoroughly messed-up and heavily medicated criminal profiler (in the guise of Tom Payne who played George Best in His Mother's Son back in 2009), the kind of oddball maverick who gets right under the skin of regular cops. His main fear (and it's right there in the title) is that he has inherited his father's sociopathic tendencies.
Amid the increasingly ludicrous and convoluted plotlines (if you have a phobia about snakes, best dodge the second episode) which are neatly wrapped up in 43 minutes, there's some excruciating dialogue exchanges and regrettable punning that is intended as light relief.
The person you may want to feel most sorry for is probably Sheen himself. Look through the Sky schedules and you'll see acres of programmes which will never receive any kind of status in the TV history firmament but which carry on for series after series, sometimes well into the double digits. Like his incarcerated character, has one of our finest actors of stage and screen attached himself to an immovable object that might well drive him (and us) a bit loopy?
Sky One, Tuesday 28 July, 9pm.
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