Aidan Smith on TV: With 3 Body Problem, suddenly, physics is sexy

Expect your brain to ache following dystopian 3 Body Problem, while Allison Janney and Kristen Wiig can’t save dull Palm Royale
Netflix’s 3 Body Problem requires maximum concentration. Picture: Ed Miller/NetflixNetflix’s 3 Body Problem requires maximum concentration. Picture: Ed Miller/Netflix
Netflix’s 3 Body Problem requires maximum concentration. Picture: Ed Miller/Netflix

3 Body Problem



Leslie Bibb in Palm Royale, which is set in Florida in the 1960s. Picture: Apple TV+Leslie Bibb in Palm Royale, which is set in Florida in the 1960s. Picture: Apple TV+
Leslie Bibb in Palm Royale, which is set in Florida in the 1960s. Picture: Apple TV+

Palm Royale

Apple TV+



Jason Watkins as Simon in Channel 5 drama, Coma. Picture: Krostpf Galgoczi Nemeth/Channel 5Jason Watkins as Simon in Channel 5 drama, Coma. Picture: Krostpf Galgoczi Nemeth/Channel 5
Jason Watkins as Simon in Channel 5 drama, Coma. Picture: Krostpf Galgoczi Nemeth/Channel 5

Channel 5


Me and physics never got on. This was no fault of my teacher, “Popeye” Armstrong, and his boundless enthusiasm for what was obviously a great passion, more that I couldn’t see how the subject was going to be useful in later life. Struggling to understand Netflix’s 3 Body Problem, though, I wish I’d paid more attention to the lessons.

Normally when watching a drama for your benefit I’ll stop it a few times to jot down key pieces of dialogue and any jokes. The first episode of this thundering sci-fi thriller takes me all morning. What are … hang on, let me get this right … neuron chambers? And dipole magnets? Um, any relation to kitchen specialists Magnet and Southern and their bifold doors?

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Early on, a man tries to chat up a pair of terrifically hot physicists at a bar. “So what do you do?” he asks the first one. She replies: “I’m senior researcher in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College studying and analysing results of participle acceleration experiments around the world.” Picking his jaw off the floor, he slinks off, defeated. I’m shouting: “Idiot! You should have stuck in at school!”

The senior researcher is Jin and her friend is Auggie who’s something doubtless exceedingly brainy in nanofibres and they’re members of the Oxford Five, so named by the intelligence operative tracking them with their mug-shots on a whiteboard, next to two other boffins who’ve just died horrible deaths.

Before one plunged hundreds of feet into a tank of molten something-or-other she asked a colleague: “Do you believe in God?” A key question later is: “Has the universe ever winked at you?” Another, albeit not posed directly, is: “What’s the best-selling crisp?”

Let’s deal with the last one first because I don’t want to appear to be trivialising 3 Body Problem as I’m enjoying the ideas, originality, ambition and bigness: No 1 is Walkers’ cheese and onion. In second place is Monster Munch’s beef but third is a crisp developed by one of the Oxford Five who’d actually given up physics to build the Jack’s Snacks empire. The universe does indeed wink: a fantastical flickering light-show in the night sky. Analyse that, physicists! They can’t, not yet, but it seems Earth is being watched.

The eight-parter is based on a dystopian Chinese novel reckoned to be unfilmable - obviously the kind of challenge Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss relish. The action zips between present-day Britain and China at the time of the cultural revolution when a physics professor could be beaten to death for lecturing on the theory of relativity. Sixty years on, concludes one of the Oxford Five, “science is broken”. Played by an unfamiliar but winning cast, our heroes are not like the Famous Five and they’re soon to be confronted by an existential threat. But it’s still possible for them to display perfectly natural human impulses. Saul, I’m sure, fancies Auggie and Will is teased for still carrying a candle for Jin. He became a teacher and tells the rest: “There’s just one kid in every class who actually listens to what I’m saying.” They chorus: “We were all that one kid!”

3 Body Problem requires maximum concentration and you might want to mix it up with something slightly less challenging. Maybe the kind of show where, I dunno, the singer Ricky Martin plays a pool boy who keeps losing his shirt. Those pecs! If Arnold Schwarzenegger was, in Clive James’ immortal words, a brown condom full of walnuts, then Ricky is the cashew variation.

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The kind of show where Richard Nixon is permanently droning away on TV in the background but only for context, as it won’t get bogged down in issues. And the kind like Palm Royale (Apple TV+) which boasts something like 78 executive producers (maybe worth checking you’re not credited). All those names: they flash past in a zappy title sequence evoking Saul Bass, the screen credits master. Look, Kristen Wiig … oh, and here she is in person, flashing her knickers as she dreeps down a wall.

Does one dreep in exclusive Palm Beach in 1969? Anyway, that’s where we are for a comedy-drama which isn’t very funny and not exactly dramatic either but carries on regardless with the tale of a wannabe socialite determined to inveigle herself into the the smart set of ladies who lunch and compete for afternoons of adultery with the tennis pros and evenings of self-congratulation via fundraisers for the charities of their choice. (One has to settle for fibrosis of the liver - because “cirrhosis was already taken”).

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The show can only travel so far on Wiig as ex-Miss Chattanooga Maxine Simmons possessing TV’s prettiest nose since Elizabeth “Bewitched” Montgomery. Wiig can’t wiggle it like Montgomery, of course, and so then we must hang around for a re-appearance from Allison Janney as Evelyn Rollins, queen bee of the snobby Palm Royale club. Janney is great but cannot do the heavy lifting by herself. Not that her character looks like she’s ever lifted anything weightier than her rich husband’s monthly allowance cheque.

If TV ever runs out of daft celebrity game-show ideas it could stage a faceoff between Toby Jones and Jason Watkins, with the winner being declared the medium’s all-comers champion Everyman. Mind you, they couldn’t actually fight for the title, not even arm-wrestle, because that’s the thing about them: when extraordinary things happen to their ordinary characters they do not explode. They do not reach for a gun like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Instead, all their little frustrations - and sometimes, as in the case of Jones and Mr Bates vs The Post Office, not so little - are written across foreheads free from hair and we relate to them.

So it’s a shock in Coma when Watkins throws a punch. Knocks the neighbourhood ne’er-do-well to the ground and into hospital. I mentioned last week how the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock lives in some of Channel 5’s dramas and here’s another example: suburban dad - dogged by mounting bills, horrible boss and vandalism - flips. Tries to lie his way out of it. Wife (Claire Skinner) gets involved. Terrifying drugs baron gets involved. You’re soon shouting at Watkins’ Simon Henderson, wanting him to ‘fess up before the lout wakes up. You even try to open up the back of your TV to drag him out of the whole sorry mess. Watkins has upped the bar again. Toby Jones, can you respond?

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