TV preview: The Event | The Pillars of the Earth | The First Men in the Moon
Just when you thought it was safe to relax, along comes the latest high-concept US drama demanding your attention. After Lost, 24 and the failure of FlashForward, are you prepared to give time to yet another one of those?
On the evidence of its opening double-bill, THE EVENT – you've got to love the unimaginative chutzpah of that title – shows promise, but whether it pays off in the long run remains to be seen.
This political sci-fi thriller begins at a frantic clip, hooking you in as though its life depended on it. Such is the cutthroat nature of US television, where every new major series must immediately prove itself more compelling than the last.
So what's the hook? Essentially: three dovetailing storylines, each told in a series of flashbacks.
First we're shown a dramatic event – in this case, the apparent terrorist hijacking of a passenger flight – then we work backwards to reveal the wider picture. It's a neat narrative device, rich with intrigue, and not hard to follow if you have a functioning attention span, but again it's too soon to tell whether it's a gimmick to support a mediocre storyline.
Responding to criticisms of shows such as Lost, the creators have assured viewers that The Event won't be yet another prolonged puzzle offering more clues than answers. Indeed, some of the mysteries posed in the pilot are answered within the hour, although the overarching mystery – something involving detainees in an illegal US internment camp: political allegory ahoy! – will obviously be rationed throughout the series.
The nature of The Event's format means we don't know much about the characters yet, so it's difficult to care about them beyond wondering what you'd do if you found yourself in such a pickle (The Pickle would be a much better title). It also brazenly exploits post-9/11 anxieties, and suggests that enough time has passed for the image of a passenger jet flying into a building to be employed in the services of escapist entertainment. So I'm glad that's agreed.
Giving too much away would deny you the point of watching, but suffice to say it's a fun, fast-paced mishmash of 24, The X-Files and The Vanishing, plus a variation on any number of Hitchcockian "wrong man" paranoid conspiracy thrillers.
As if to confirm its credentials, it even stars Zeljko Ivanek, an excellent character actor familiar from the previously mentioned programmes, plus Damages, Heroes and True Blood. If he and Alan Dale were to retire tomorrow, the American television industry would collapse for want of greyly sinister authority figures.
Likewise, is Ian McShane now TV's foremost purveyor of monstrous villainy? The former Lovejoy star – as he'll be described e'er thus in this country – has enjoyed a deserved career boost following his outstanding performance as an Old West despot in HBO's Deadwood.
His mildly camp turn as an evil monk in THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH is the only enjoyable aspect of this bloated adaptation of Ken Follett's bestselling historical novel. Speaking in the fey way (and whatever happened to her?) that villains always do in medieval dramas, and wearing a permanent expression of arch indifference as though listening to an only mildly amusing podcast on his iPod, he plays the wonderfully named Waleran Bigod in an otherwise dreary, uninvolving saga of stone-clad skulduggery.
Impossible to take seriously after Monty Python and Blackadder (it doesn't help that it features a character called Percy), this cluttered mini-series also contains Donald Sutherland going through the motions, the word "bastard" used correctly and often, lines such as "Leave her! Get the pig!", ungenerous helpings of that "haunting" Clannad-type music, and young medieval peasants with the mannerisms of 21st century middle-class teenagers: "Like, y'know, my Lady is totally dead and stuff?"
Also, with his black smock and bob, McShane looks like Davina McCall's portrait in the attic. Or, with his monk's tonsure, Brian Molko from Placebo's dad. Either way, it's distracting.
The Mark Gatiss channel – or BBC 4 as it's sometimes known – devotes more space to its patron saint with his moderately charming, albeit desperately low-budget, adaptation of HG Wells' THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.
He delivers a reliably rococo performance as Professor Cavor, an eccentric Edwardian scientist who invents a powerful substance capable of defying gravity. Accompanied by his more money-minded cohort, Bedford (an understated Rory Kinnear), he travels to the moon inside a homemade sphere.
There they discover, not only a breathable atmosphere, but also a race of insect-like creatures living in a strange yet peaceful dystopia. But at what price the intervention of man?
Gatiss doesn't labour the socio-political commentary of Wells' original, and his craftsman's ear for period dialogue remains intact. But overall it's a rather flat and static affair. Literally: at several points Gatiss and Kinnear are clearly marching on the spot to suggest movement through a corridor. At times it's like watching a filmed radio play.
But the problem isn't that it was made on a shoestring – which actually I rather admire – but that Gatiss' handling of the material never really takes flight.
Friday, Channel 4, 9pm
THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH
Tonight, Channel 4, 9pm
THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON
Tuesday, BBC 4, 9pm
This article was first published in The Scotsman, 16 October, 2010
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