As Kevin Spacey pointed out in a much-publicised speech at the recent Edinburgh International Television Festival, the American cable networks’ practice of letting auteurs create a whole series without much interference can result in some fantastic shows.
The Newsroom Monday, Sky Atlantic, 9pm
Whitechapel Wednesday, STV, 9pm
But it has a downside: as, usually, the whole 13 episodes or so are filmed before an audience sees them, if something goes wrong there’s no chance to tweak the scripts as they go along.
And so, you can also end up with a terrible mess like the first series of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which was criticised as an unrealistic yet smug portrait of TV news, for its portrayal of professional women as adorable idiots, and for repeating not just archetypes and situations but whole chunks of dialogue from Sorkin’s previous work like The West Wing, Studio 60 From The Sunset Strip and The Social Network. Despite the sterling efforts of its cast, the show was pretty bad but was still recommissioned, probably due to his previous track record.
So, as series two begins over here, has the famously erratic writer managed to rein himself in? Well, for one thing, he hired some actual journalists to help him understand that scoops are not necessarily always the result of people in the newsroom just happening to have an auntie/old college pal directly involved in the story. And the show’s conceit of going back over the real news events of a couple of years ago (meaning that the presidential race between Obama and Romney is still going on) is made somewhat less annoying – particularly for non-American viewers without an intimate knowledge of such things – by a new framing device which flashes back to show how the fictional Newsnight screwed up in covering some as-yet-unexplained drama.
But, unfortunately, there are still plenty of flaws, chiefly that Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy, though presented as the hero who says what other more timid news presenters will not, is actually an obnoxious creep. Plus, there are Sorkin’s usual digs about the internet being only for weirdoes and the younger characters’ silly and unengaging love lives. Overall, it’s a good reminder that for all the hype about certain critically-acclaimed US cable dramas, they are not all great – and we have plenty of our own duds, don’t we?
I wouldn’t class Whitechapel as that, but it’s a strange series, a mixture of horror and cop show which manages to keep a straight face despite some very weird storylines. It’s suspicious enough that criminals keep re-enacting old murders in just one borough of London, but that it’s the one area where the local police actually have a consultant who specialises in recognising such historically-derived crimes is downright insane.
The only explanation, as this fourth series seems to have realised, is that Whitechapel sits on some kind of hellmouth which produces repeating patterns of evil.
Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis, as the cops trying to maintain a facade that this is a normal crime show, have a nice, relaxed dynamic together, while Steve Pemberton is effectively creepy-funny as the expert, who has now written a True Crime book about their gory goings-on. At its launch, a batty old broad turns up to mutter sinister, how-could-she-possibly-know-that home truths at everyone, at which they are required to shrug as if this is all perfectly normal.
Then witch-burnings start. It’s not quite The Bill, is it?
What to watch
The Dilemma Tomorrow, Channel 4, 9pm
Hit-and-miss Ron Howard comedy drama, in which Vince Vaughn swithers over whether to tell best pal Kevin James about his wife’s infidelity: will he make things worse?
Robert Peston Goes Shopping Monday, BBC2, 9pm
The business reporter tells the story of how the retail sector in Britain developed since 1945, via institutions like M&S, Tesco, Next and the rise of out-of-town malls.
The Story Of The Jews Tomorrow, BBC2, 9pm
Simon Schama, left, presents this five-part history of the Jewish people, going from myth and Biblical accounts to persecution, Israel and famous Jews across the ages.
The Insider Monday, BBC 3, 9pm
It’s The Apprentice meets Undercover Boss, as five young applicants live and work together in a bid to land a job with an events company. But one is secretly a senior manager, reporting back on who should be hired.
The Guilty Thursday, ITV, 9pm
Yet another crime drama, about the disappearance of a child, but elevated somewhat by Tamsin Greig as the policewoman whose initial investigation was interrupted by pregnancy; five years later, and with her own son facing challenges, she returns to the case when the missing boy’s body is found.