TV review: In defence of the clang-clangs

Burton and Taylor, played by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter. Picture: BBC

Burton and Taylor, played by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter. Picture: BBC

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WHEN it first appeared on our screens four years ago, Law And Order: UK seemed like a competently assembled but unnecessary remake of Dick Wolf’s mega-successful US procedural.

Law And Order: UK - STV, Sunday, 9pm

Family Tree - BBC2, Tuesday, 10pm

Top Of The Lake - BBC2, Saturday, 9.10pm

That initial UK season – overseen by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, operating as an American-style “showrunner” – stuck rigidly to the established format, reusing the distinctive clang-clang sound effect that has punctuated scenes of serious-faced investigating for over 20 years. It also retooled scripts from the ageing US series, which meant ripped-from-the-headlines plots from 1990s New York transposed to London 2009. While the original cast did their best, the whole thing felt depressingly inert. Recycling may help save the planet, but it can hobble TV.

Now on its seventh series – a misleadingly high number, borne from the production quirk of shooting around a dozen episodes at a time, then screening them in two discrete chunks – what’s most interesting about L&O: UK is how far it has drifted from Wolf’s template. In the original series, there was an implied rule that the personal lives of the detectives and prosecutors were off-limits; the focus was entirely on the case at hand. In the opening episode of the current UK series, coppers Bradley Walsh and Paul Nicholls spent much of the aftermath of a fatal train crash attempting to reconnect with their respective kids, while smarmy prosecutor Dominic Rowan tried to dodge attending his mother’s funeral. (She died in an incident unrelated to the derailment.)

There was still some notable cast turnover, with the terrific Paterson Joseph of Peep Show popping up as a laidback new police guvnor and former Coronation Street star Georgia Taylor making a disruptive entrance as an ambitious defence barrister. But while the original series always tacked hard against any notion of serial storytelling, its UK cousin has dived straight into tantalising two-parters. After the trial of the suicidal chap who had caused the derailment, there was a cliffhanger scene that had me desperate to see what happens in tonight’s episode, clang-clangs and all.

With practically every new HBO series now ringfenced by Sky Atlantic, it can feel like slim pickings for other broadcasters. Thankfully, the Chris O’Dowd-starring genealogy comedy Family Tree was conceived as a co-production between BBC2 and HBO, so it was possible to see it last week without a paid subscription – unlike O’Dowd’s charming, partly autobiographical sitcom Moone Boy, which has just been recommissioned by Sky1 for a third series.

Family Tree bears the distinctive imprimatur of director Christopher Guest, one-time Spinal Tap guitarist and director of improvisational mockumentaries Best In Show and A Mighty Wind. While picking over the emotional wreckage of a break-up, O’Dowd inherits a box of knick-knacks from a distant aunt and impulsively embarks on a quest to dig up his family roots, to the general disinterest of his slapdash inventor father Michael McKean.

If that description makes it sound potentially formulaic, with O’Dowd discovering a new ancestor in each of the eight episodes, the reality involved a lot more colouring outside the plotlines, to the extent that it felt fairly meandering. But for those unfamiliar with Nina Conti’s gift for ventriloquism, it functioned as a terrific showcase for her sly, foul-mouthed talents. As O’Dowd’s oddball sister, instructed from an early age to vent vicariously through her toy monkey, she – or at least her mangy sidekick – snuck in most of the best lines.

In the age of Netflix, the capability to binge-watch series is starting to feel like an essential human right. But there are shows that actually benefit from enforced gaps between episodes. At the Sundance Film Festival this year, delegates were required to watch Jane Campion’s six-hour New Zealand thriller Top Of The Lake in a marathon session with a single comfort break. It is more easily consumed, if still unsettling, when chopped up into hourly chunks. The bleak subject matter – a grim pre-teenage pregnancy and a death by drowning in a lawless part of the South Island – is oppressive. Yet there’s a stark beauty to the cinematography and a directness to the performances that is haunting in the best sort of way. Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter seem to have the juiciest roles as a brutal landowner and detached silver-haired guru respectively, but Elisabeth Moss – geographically and temporally miles away from Mad Men’s Peggy – is fantastic as the determined cop whose protective drive threatens to overwhelm her self-preservation instinct. There are also moments of unexpected humour. In last night’s episode, we learned Moss was pretty handy at darts: Double Top Of The Lake.

Twitter @GraemeVirtue

Aidan Smith is away. Graeme Virtue talks telly every Wednesday morning on Radio Scotland’s MacAulay And Co

What to watch

Best new series

Kirstie’s Fill Your House For Free Channel 4, Tuesday, 8pm

Allsopp returns with a new four-part series, in which she advocates the upcycling of chucked-out stuff. After liberating various distended sofas and wobbly IKEA constructions from the pavement, Kirstie opens her own shop – in Glasgow.

Best drama

Burton And Taylor BBC4, Monday, 9pm

This restaging of one of Hollywood’s most tempestuous love affairs stars Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter (right) as the volcanic Dick and Liz, reuniting six years after their divorce for a 1983 production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

Best science show

Dara O’Briain’s Science Club BBC2, Thursday, 8pm

A second series for O’Briain’s affable pop-science show, essentially Top Gear with Bunsen burners. Each week, O’Briain tries to get his cranium round a different scientific theme, with the help of a cadre of experts and reporters. In this first episode of six, the squad investigate “mindbending”.

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