Must See British TV

Who should watch: fans of Stephen Moffat’s work (Coupling, Doctor Who), those interested in watching some damn fine acting, and those with an interest in science fiction of the corporate conspiracy ilk.

What to expect: Six episodes of breathtaking acting on the part of James Nesbitt as he plays the duel characters of Jekyll & Hyde, a slightly silly plot that feels very X-files in it’s suggestion of a vast, corporate conspiracy, some questionable sexual politics that blur the whole sex/violence line in stereotypical ways, and some very strong writing (“I love children. Bite-sized people snacks” — Ok, so maybe that’s not the best evidence of Moffat’s abilities.)

Some thoughts: British TV is so much more a writer’s medium than television here. While certain American tv writers leave a strong impression of themselves on their series, Britain has given us Dennis Potter, Stephen Moffat, & Russell T. Davies. Watching Moffat’s work in Coupling, Doctor Who and, now, Jekyll, reveals themes and textures that resonate in all of them, despite the radically different stories that Moffat is telling. Ideas of parenthood, the anxiety of responsibility, and the strength, in the end, of love are repeatedly examined, dissected, and put together in new and sometimes startling ways.

He’s also damn funny.

Ultimately, however, the reason to watch this series is for James Nesbitt’s extraordinary performance. Hands down, his Hyde is one of the best psychopaths on screen.

Who should watch: Anyone nostalgic for the 70s, fans of action/cop shows, fans of John Simm’s performance as The Master in Doctor Who, and those who like shows that tread that “is this real or is this real” line. Oh, and fans of really creepy little girls emerging from a tv set to terrify the hero. And the three people who enjoy existential mysteries wrapped up in cop show clothes.

What to expect: Series one (8 episodes) is the stronger of the two, and showcases DCI Sam Tyler’s reality predicament as he wakes up in the 70s after being hit by a car. Playing on the differences between the technology, forensics, politics, and social attitudes of then versus now, the show paints the 70s as an alien, violent, sexist, and racist world where drinking and smoking are as ubiquitous as police corruption. But, how know, in a good way. The mysterious visions that Tyler experiences are connected to personal tragedy and the first series ends with a paradox that would make even Doctor Who fan’s down a bottle of Advil–possibly with a pint of lager.

The second series is a bit weaker, possibility because some of the jokes become somewhat stale and there is an inconsistency to the character growth of some of the characters. Personally, I also find the ending to be sophomoric. No spoiler’s here, so I won’t tell why exactly, but I think the series, for all it’s overt condemnation of the violent, torture-tactics of the cops, and of the sexist and racist viewpoints espoused by a number of the characters, actually ends on a reactionary note, forgiving people for their sins because, come on, they don’t really know any better and besides they’re the good guys fighting the tough fight.

Some thoughts: I watched the series primarily because I was so taken with John Simm’s performance in the final three episodes of this year’s Doctor Who series–why did they have to go and kill him dead in such a way as to actively preclude Simm reprising the role? He was so freakin’ good in that role, bringing an undercurrent of violence, madness and and overt humor to a role that has, in the past, been primarily one-note. Simm doesn’t disappoint and he plays DCI Tyler with a winning mix of earnestness, detached amusement, anger, fear, desperation and strength. In addition, Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, Tyler’s boss and mentor in the ways of 70s police tactics (basically, beat people up until someone confesses), is a joy to watch, filling the screen with a bluster and hard-as-tacks swagger that is both off-putting and seductive. Unfortunately, much of the character development in the series happens within an episode and is then forgotten in the next. There is no real arc to follow for any of the characters, rather a series of loops that, while fun, don’t give the series the depth that could have been achieved.

But it is a fun show (at least until the end of the second series) and worth checking out, even if it occasionally goes for the easy solutions to an interesting set of writing and character problems.

Currently listening: Hold Me Now from the album “80’s British Gold (Disc 2)” by The Thompson Twins

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