Best new TV shows to stream: 17 August
- Brian Donaldson
- 17 August 2020
Including Derren Brown and Alex Salmond
From Famalam to Lovecraft Country, here are new programmes for your small screens.
Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control ★★★★☆
If there was a vague sense of anti-climax over Derren Brown's latest live trick, it's more of a reflection of the ludicrously high wow-factor the psychological illusionist has offered us for 20 years. The nail under the cup (it was always going to be red, wasn't it?) was no Russian Roulette or The Heist or The Push. And it wasn't a patch on Apocalypse, shown straight after once a public vote was taken on which of his previous event-TV moments to broadcast again (surely it's a telling sign of the times that viewers would want to watch a grand illusion involving infections, face coverings, hand sanitisers and travel restrictions?).
For once, rather than leave us all hanging or simply explain the trick at its conclusion, Brown allowed us to join him along the way by less than subtly lifting the lid on his methods of suggestion. Very heavy clues were dropped into 20 Years of Mind Control about the importance of the colour red, cups (he even drank from a red cup at one point) and nails ('they nailed it', 'it was in the Nail On Sunday'). Meanwhile, the old footage of how he twisted Simon Pegg into guessing that a BMX bike (a red one, mind) was the present he was about to be gifted merely set the wheels in motion in our own heads.
At the end of a 90-minute reminisce about his Channel 4 and live career (and after a few technical hitches and a fake ad), two volunteers were ushered into Brown's studio as he prepared to perform what he described as his favourite trick. Except, it's not a member of the public's hand slamming through a plastic cup which may or may not be hiding a massive nail that he relishes (he has the scar to show how that escapade can go horribly wrong with inadequate planning). It's the devious manipulation and subtle suggestions which he builds in people's minds that brings him pleasure. But as his greatest tricks have shown us before, there actually is a point to all this: the susceptibility of entire swathes of humanity is fine when it's providing entertainment. When used by individuals with nefarious goals, mind control can be a dangerous game.
Available now on All 4.
Unsaid Stories ★★★☆☆
While lockdown has forced creative folks to be more inventive and think out of all their usual boxes, even the finest writing and performing will be slightly hamstrung by a rough around the edges filmmaking style. Even if you watch the four short films of Unsaid Stories in one go, it's hard to shake off the distracting home-video style aesthetic. Still, needs must in the current circumstances and clearly the time was right for the broadcasting of these trim tales about the ever weighty problem of racism.
Notwithstanding those technical issues, the acting is universally flawless and the writing never less than thought-provoking. The quartet of two-handers tackle how childhood memories of bigotry by teachers can infect later life ('I Don't Want To Talk About This'), the dangers of protesting on the streets whether it's during the years of Thatcher and the National Front, or now with Black Lives Matter ('Generational'), the harassment black people continue to suffer from police ('Look At Me'), and the stirring resentments and guilt complexes within a mixed-race family ('Lavender').
As a showcase for writers and actors (Nicôle Lecky, Adelayo Adedayo and Nicholas Pinnock are among those just being excellent), Unsaid Stories is difficult to challenge. As an overall viewing experience, this merely makes you yearn for longer tales with a more visual flourish.
Available now on ITV Hub.
Famalam has come a long way from its rather lumpen and uninspired pilot episode of 2017 to emerge as a sketch affair with a generous mix of the silly and the sharp. 'Not for everyone' can probably sum up every sketch show on the planet, but you'd have to be stony-hearted not to be enamoured by garage MC Scribbler P's hot takes on everything from British history to African wildlife, while Jamaican Countdown is a sensory overloaded riot.
There could be an argument that the Nigerian prince legitimately offering people fortunes by email might have been more effective as a one-off while the Turf Wars routines about politically correct gangs fail to land as many blows as they'd want them to. But in this five-part series, the opening scene of cartels fighting over avocados rather than cocaine, later skits about serious actors discussing their methodology after appearing in fleshzone hip-hop videos, and a Bear Grylls-like adventurer braving the Notting Hill Carnival are inspired chunks of daftness.
BBC Three, Sunday 23 August.
The Trial of Alex Salmond ★★★☆☆
He's the man who for several decades has divided Scottish political opinion straight down the middle. But even those who supported the former First Minister took a step back when he was accused and then charged with sexual offences, culminating in his criminal trial earlier this year. In her hour-long documentary, The Trial of Alex Salmond, Kirsty Wark is determined to remain steadfastly on the fence as she speaks to his friends and foes, as well as with the women who came forward with claims that resulted in a High Court appearance.
After Salmond was found not guilty of the many charges in front of him, several observers expressed shock, with more theories and conspiracies about the man and his power being fuelled. But the greatest rumour aired by Wark is a hint that the whole case was a plot from various factors within the SNP to prevent Salmond from making one of his typical Lazarus-like returns to public life. As one of his old pals Jim Sillars reckons, the conclusion to his trial might only be the beginning of the party's implosion as it attempts to deal with the fall-out from this murky story.
While she has certainly gathered together some solid interviews, there is a nagging feeling that this documentary is just as much about how Kirsty Wark experienced the Alex Salmond trial as it is an analysis of a landmark moment in recent Scottish legal history. We see Kirsty debating the case with some journo pals in the pub. We see Kirsty back in London as Covid-19 strikes in the middle of proceedings. We see Kirsty in taxis and outside the court, mingling among the press throng and failing in an attempt to get a quote from Salmond. Still, this is a thorough look at a governing party that might yet be fatally damaged over this affair with its former figurehead.
BBC Two, Monday 17 August, 9pm.
Lovecraft Country ★★☆☆☆
There was some disgruntlement when the Al Pacino-led Hunters aired earlier this year, for turning its tale of a group tracking down German Nazis into a somewhat gaudy superhero rollercoaster. Others may well look upon Lovecraft Country with a similarly negative outlook. With Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams on executive producer duties, it's perhaps no surprise that this ten-parter comes across as Get Out meets Cloverfield.
A brave trio (Jurnee Smollett's Leti, Jonathan Majors' Atticus and Courtney B Vance's George) go on a road trip across 1950s America to track down a missing relative, only to encounter horrific racism and nasty supernatural creatures along the way. Having been rescued, or captured, by a deeply sinister white family (the Braithwhites), they fight demons within themselves and actual beasts lying in wait, trying to uncover some ancient mythologies before heading back to their Chicago home.
Moments that should be terrifying turn out to be giggleworthy: the spectre comprised of an adult body and a baby's head is one such instance as is the quite literal appearance of a trouser snake in the middle of an already unsavoury sex scene. While no doubt there are subtle metaphors lurking amid the gore and arch theorising about secret histories and magical dynasties, much of its symbolism couldn't be any more obvious, perfectly exemplified in several of our heroes having Freeman as a surname. You know, because they're trying to be free men: get it? Dramatically, it's also very hard to care about the death of someone when they may well be reanimated a scene or two later.
Sky Atlantic, Monday 17 August, 9pm.
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