Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Week Three: CSI, NCIS, FBI, CIA, JFK ... and other things you can spell with your Alphabetti Spaghetti [®™]

Friday 16 January:
January is, traditionally, that time of the year when a lot of the superior US drama shows start their latest runs on British terrestrial (and Pay-Per-View) TV. We talked extensively about 24 and CSI last week, Bones has been running on Sky for a a few weeks and several more of your favourites like House, Lost and Battlestar Galactica will be returning soon, either to Five in the case of the former or to Sky One for the latter two. However, one American drama which often gets forgotten about in round-ups such as this is NCIS – 9:00 on Five tonight. Despite featuring many of the same letters in its title, this one is nothing to do with the various shows in the CSI franchise, rather it's a spin-off of a show which never really made much of an impact over here but which was very popular in the US - JAG - and concerns the navy's police force. It's made by Donald Bellisario who did Magnum for many years and the wonderful Quantum Leap (and the rather tragically forgotten Tales Of The Gold Monkey - anybody remember that?). It stars Mark Harmon and the great David McCallum and it's really rather good in bite-sized chunks. Just don't think about the plots too much because, like a lot of US crime drama, they're often completely bonkers, if annoyingly entertaining. In tonight's episode the murder of a petty officer leads Agent Gibbs and his dysfunctional team on a frantic search for a missing child and Big Butch Tony (he's the one who looks like he’s just stepped out of The Village People’s ‘In the Navy’ video) struggles to deal with the fallout from his undercover mission. Recommended.

Saturday 17 January:
The BBC’s replacement for the genuine 24-carat disaster that was Hole in the Wall is, essentially, another It’s a Knockout-cum-Gladiators rip-off from Endomol, Total Wipeout. This is based on an Australian TV format and sees competitors journey from "across the globe" (or, across the Home Counties, anyway) to a purpose-built assault course in Argentina to put their strength, balance, bravery and - frankly - common sense to the test in the hope of winning £10,000 and being crowned The Champion of … not-falling-in-the-water. At least this one has a bit of variety to its obstacle course - something which Hole in the Wall utterly failed on at the first hurdle - and, let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy watching smug young professionals who introduce themselves with all the po-faced bravvado of a minor Bond villains falling off a big red rubber ball and into the claggy mud below? And, as a bonus, we’ve got Richard Hammond providing a pithy, rather postmodern commentary on it all. But, is it just me or does this kind of thing seem entirely designed to appeal to, you know, The Man in the Pub? And not just any Man in the Pub either - that sort of thing can sometimes work on a larger scale - but to the sexist gobby bloke at the bar whom nobody else can stand. Let’s just say this one is somewhat better than Hole in the Wall and leave it at that, eh?

Sunday 18th January:
ITV’s big Sunday night drama for the next few weeks will be Wild at Heart the series about a vet in Africa starring Stephen Tompkinson who seems fated to go through his entire TV career never even getting close to matching the early peak of Drop the Dead Donkey. His cause isn’t exactly helped by a show in which he often gets out-acted by the animals that he’s supposed to be treating. In tonight’s episode Danny and Evan discover a sick hippo whilst on the run – as you do. They trace her illness to a local farm and risk discovery in order to save her. Meanwhile, Rosie meets Vanessa the glamorous new owner of Mara (Juliet Mills – this season’s nostalgia figure who replaces last year’s model, her sister Hayley), who needs help with her sick lioness.

I meant to mention the start of the fourth series of Ideal - 11:00 BBC – last week, particularly as Wor Alfie was in one of the opening two episodes – the flashback one which was one of my favourite bits of TV in 2008. Well, sadly, if you weren't watching then you’ve missed that mini-gem (check it out on iPlayer) but tonight there’s two more episodes. As ever, this series won’t be to all tastes – if you’ve never seen it before it’s a sitcom about a small-time Manchester dope dealer (Johnny Vegas) and his downright bizarre collection of acquaintances. Sometimes it's a bit near the knuckle (come to think of it sometimes it's way past the knuckle and half-way towards the elbow) but when it's funny it's really funny. And if you like say, Shameless, for instance then chances are you'll love this. Despite Moz and Jenny's best efforts to keep their affair secret it seems like everybody knows what's going on. Especially Cartoon Head – he knows everything. Meanwhile, the builders remove Moz's broken boiler, but what will happen to Lee who is still trapped inside? Mad as toast!

Monday 19 January:
The ONE Show – 7:00 BBC1 – returned after its Christmas break last week and it’s, genuinely, good to have it back filling that post-news slot to kick-off the night in a gently amusing and eccentric way. I have to say, yet again, that I never thought such a format would work in this day and age but it has – and I'm delighted to have been proved wrong. I think that, possibly, the reason it has worked so well (apart from the fact that it's opposition, Emmerdale, is currently going through one of the worst slums in its history) is almost entirely down to the effortless chemistry of Chiles and Christine and the quality of some of the regular contributors. (Hardeep Singh Kohli’s charming and effortless wit, for example, more than balances out the vastly annoying qualities of the world’s least funny man, Iain Lee or, indeed, the world's least charismatic woman, Carol Thatcher.) And, of course, there's the studio guests. In the absense of Wossy, they – along with Top Gear - have been getting the cream of anybody who has got a book, a CD or a movie to promote. It’s an ill wind that blows somebody a bit of good, it would seem.

It’s the second part of the BBC’s tense Five Days sequel Hunter tonight at 9:00 starring Hugh Bonneville and Janet McTeer. I like this one – dark, well-paced cleverly scripted and with a really scary central storyline about child abduction. When the kidnappers demand that a film promoting their cause is shown on national news bulletins, Barclay unsuccessfully argues with his commanding officer to persuade the powers-that-be to show the film, leaving his team with a race against time. When one of the perpetrators snatches another child, this time a young girl, the pressure mounts and Barclay's team struggle to avert a tragic outcome.

Channel 4 starts its Great British Food Fight tonight – you’ve probably seen the ridiculously over-the-top, Barry Davies-voiced trailers for it already. In Big Chef Takes On Little Chef at 9:00 Heston Blumenthal - the only one of the channel’s four alleged celebrity gastronomic experts that I, personally, can stand - tries to revive the Popham branch of ailing roadside restaurant chain Little Chef. In the opening episode (of three), Heston goes on a fact-finding mission and meets Little Chef boss Ian Pegler for the first time, proposing that they scrap their entire menu and start from scratch. Heston constructs his own menu of old British favourites with, inevitably, elaborate twists. But, will he be able to convince motorists to stop and give the new nosh a try.

Tuesday 20 January:
It’s presidential inauguration day in the US and, to celebrate this momentous occasion Clive Myrie presents Obama: His Story – 7:00 BBC2 – which examines how the son of a Kenyan student and a woman of Irish-American descent emerged from a broken home in Hawaii to became America’s first black president. Clive also looks at Obama’s political awakening in the rough neighbourhoods of Chicago's South Side and his arrival in Washington, an extraordinary journey that transformed a poor black boy into the most powerful man in the world. And, if you don’t fancy that then you could do a lot worse than get out a DVD of the final episode of The West Wing (‘Tomorrow’), because that’s got pretty much the same plot.

Too Posh to Pay – 9:00 ITV – looks at the growing phenomena of middle-class criminality – a crime-wave which, it is alleged, is costing the country billions of pounds each year. Offenders and victims speak out openly for the first time and we discover how “the respectable” have become the new criminal class. In today’s difficult economic climate, this show reveals how those often regarded as pillars of society are, actually, the most likely to commit offences such as fraud. Cor, the dirty rotten rascals, eh? Well, that makes me feel a whole hell of a lot better about being working class. Because, like the new President (Matt Santos, not Barack Obama) noted, "I’m just a poor chile from the ghetto", me…

Speaking of the ghetto, there’s another documentary on the subject of illegal activity – this one rather more serious – in Stabbed: The Truth About Knife Crime on BBC1 at 9:00. This goes behind the headlines to meet both perpetrators and relatives of victims, exploring what is to be done on the ground to tackle this worrying crime epidemic. Mothers, sisters and survivors reveal why they are releasing CCTV footage of fatal stabbings and opening coffins to shock the nation into action, while the police unveil a new anti-gang strategy to warn parents of their sons' secret lives. In Scotland, teenagers involved in gang-driven knife violence talk for the first time about being stabbed.

Wednesday 21 January:
Stockwell – 9:00 ITV – is a powerful-looking drama-documentary about one of the most tragic and infamous incidents of recent years, the shooting by police of Jean de Menezes at Stockwell tube station on 22 July 2005. It’s done a bit like 24, told from multi-viewpoints and focusing on the confusing and chaotic events leading up to the fateful decision to shoot first and ask questions later regarding a man the police believed to be the failed suicide bomber (Hussain Osman). Of course, the victim turned out to be nothing of the sort but rather a wholly innocent Brazilian electrician who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let's hope that the subject is treated with respect, dignity and (most important of all) balance - after all, do we want justice when it comes to catastrophic mistakes like this or do we want revenge - it's sometimes difficult to tell? There were no "winners" or "losers" in this story - regardless of what some sections of the media with an agenda may try to convince you. Everybody lost.

There’s a Celebrity Big Brother: Live Eviction tonight at 8:00 on Channel 4. This year most of the focus so far has been on class tension, which is novel at least (albeit, I'm not entirely happy at the thought of Terry Christian being a spokesperson for anyone, let alone me). I must say, this year’s event really hasn’t caught my imagination - Coolio's seeming desire to slap his Bee-atch up like a mo'fuggin' Ho nothwithstanding - and it seems, from the evidence of the ratings so far, that I'm not alone. Still, it could be worse, they could be getting Trinny and Susannah's level of ratings, then they really would be in trouble.

When the comedian Dave Gorman was first in America he was rather depressed to find it a country of, seemingly, never-ending chainstores and restaurants all of which seemed, to Dave anyway, to lack individuality. In American Unchained – 10:50 C4 – Dave (a really funny chap whose work I admire a great deal) sets out to drive across America in a second-hand car (a bit like a cut-priced Stephen Fry!) but with the challenge of only eating in local diners, stocking up for supplies at family-owner stores and getting his petrol from independent garages. Needless to say, he finds it a lot harder than you might expect as a journey which was meant to take under a month becomes an eight-week odyssey taking in eighteen states as Dave's adventure unravels in the heartlands of the US. I love this sort of thing and I'm expecting to be both entertained and surprised by this documentary.

Thursday 22 January
In The True Cost of Cheap Food – 8:00 C4 - the food critic Jay Rayner examines what goes into budget food products and asks why low cost often means low quality. Enlisting the help of Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal (good grief, he's been on telly more often than The News, this week), Jay discovers some of the tricks that retailers use to make products look more attractive and finds out just what goes into a 5p sausage. (Oh ... do we really want to know that?!) Jay argues that, given their market dominance and huge profits, supermarkets have a responsibility to provide more nutritious, cheap food in tough economic times. Yep, I'd agree with all of that. Particularly if it helps to put that spotty oiyk Jamie Oliver out of a job. Oh, he's back next week by the way. The joy.

You may prefer to watch Cowboy Builders – 8:00 Five – in which Melinda Messenger and Dominic Littlewood come to the rescue (it says here) of homeowners who have been let down by shoddy builders. The pair head to Plymouth to assist a family with an unfinished extension. I'm guessing that they're not going to arrive armed with bits of two-by-four and plenty of cement, however, which would've probably been slightly more useful to the homeowners in question than making a documentary about trying to doorstep the people who've stiffed them in the first place. Revenge (or justice, if you prefer) is all very well and good and may, indeed, be a dish best served cold but, you know, having a roof over their head to keep the cold out is probably their major priority.

Fashion Versus the BBC – 9:00 0n BBC4 - sees a team of fashion writers and commentators looking at the often uncomfortable relationship between British fashion and the BBC over the past fifty years. In the 1950s we had programmes debating whether men should decide what women wear and the 1960s saw Alan Whicker unleashed upon the 'silly and superficial’ world of French couture. It wasn't until the 1980s that TV treated fashion with any kind of appreciation, in the form of The Clothes Show. Peter York, Colin McDowell, Ted Polhemus and Hilary Alexander, among others, sort Auntie's wardrobe for her and get rid of the old bloomers. Or something. Kipper tie? Yeah. Milk, no sugar thanks...

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