Monday, February 16, 2009

Week Eight: Eliza Do Lots

Hello lovely blog reader. It's another week in the wild, wacky and windswept world of Keith Telly Topping And His Top Telly Tips.
So, this blogger sat down to watch a review tape of Joss Whedon’s new show, Dollhouse, last night fully expecting to be hugely disappointed (as many critics in America have been it would seem). Actually, I wasn't - much to my surprise. Well, to be fair, this is a new show from the man who made two of what yer actual Keith telly Topping considers to be the best dozen-or-so television series in the world over the last decade so, perhaps, one should cut the chap a bit of slack. There was certainly a lot to admire in the Dollhouse pilot - some classy dialogue, a lot of very good actors, an impressive design to the thing. The direction was a touch flat, I thought, which is not something you normally associate with Joss. Maybe he had other things on his mind whilst he was making it. But, overall I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, the main problem with Dollhouse is there was a hell of a lot going on in it - too much, possibly. I can't even begin to give you a 'twenty-words-of-less' explanation of what it's about, it's far too complex for that. And the 'twenty-words-or-less' thing is usually a pre-requisite for a TV show making any sort of impact in the US. Think about it. Your favourite TV show - describe it to somebody who's never seen an episode in twenty words or less. If you can't do it then, chances are, they'll never watch it because they will have to spend so much time working out what it's all about that they'll be unable to surrender themselves to the story itself. Dollhouse seems to be about three different shows in one - Echo's story, the agent played by the lad out of Battlestar Galactica's story and the 'undercover-plot-of-the-week' story - any one of which, on their own, might have been a better bet than chucking all three of them into the mix in the hope that somehow they'd mesh. It's also very 'high concept' and somewhat morally ambiguous (who, exactly, is one supposed to regard as the 'good guys' in this scenario of what appears to be a world full of shades of grey?) Both of which can be regarded as 'brave and challenging' (if you're a Joss sycophant) or 'wilfully anti-populist' (if you're very definitely not) or just simply 'confusing as hell' (and, unfortunately, I've a feeling that's going to include a lot of people who don't fall into either of the other two camps). I like the show from the evidence so far, I think it has a lot of potential and I hope it's a big hit (it's about time Joss had another one). But I do worry what kind of audience they're expecting. If they're going for 'everybody who watched Buffy, Angel and Firefly (adjusted for inflation and demographic changes)' then they're not going to get enough viewers to satisfy FOX or anything even remotely like it. If they (and FOX) have their expectations set lower then they might, just get away with a second season and then we'll see what longevity - if any - Dollhouse has. But, I have to be honest, I'm not holding my breath. It’s clearly a clever idea - very clever - but will that cleverness be turned against it by viewers who believe that it’s 'too clever for its own good'? That’s happened before, several times (Studio Sixty On The Sunset Strip, The Lone Gunmen, Whedon's own Firefly and, most recently, Pushing Daisies just to highlight four relatively recent examples). Opening night ratings of 4.7 million were hardly Earth-shattering, albeit they're nowhere near disastrous. But still, bright side - Eliza Dushku in leather pants and Amy Acker in a lab coat, what's not to love? I shall await future developments with interest and more than a little hope.

Right, let’s have some of them there Top Telly Tips in the area.

Friday 20 February
It’s been quite a while since we’ve given Eggheads - 6:30 BBC2 – the thoroughly good shoeing that it deserves on a near-weekly basis from Top Telly Tips. You remember, this as the early evening quiz show featuring a bunch of the smuggest people you’re ever likely to meet outside of a smug emporium selling smugness by the barrel. Jeremy Vine – not a little smug himself when he puts his mind to it - hosts the show where each day a new team of (relatively normal) challengers take on probably the greatest smug team … sorry quiz team in Britain. The regulars include some of the country's top quizzers, like Barry Simmons, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? winner Judith Keppel and two Mastermind champions, Chris Hughes and Kevin Ashman. Not to mention that CJ fellah, a man so smug he’s in danger of dying from a smug overdose. I’m not a big fan of this one, I must admit. It’s a bit smug for my liking.

Saturday 21 February
The lead-up to Red Nose Day begins with Let's Dance for Comic Relief - 6:35 BBC1. Hosted by Claudia Winkleman and, making his BBC1 debut, Steve Jones, the show sees some of the nation's "favourite celebrities" (i.e. a lot of people you can't stand) paying homage to iconic dance routines in a bid to wow the viewers as they battle to be crowned "champion of the dance floor" as judged by the lovely Anton Du Beke. Each week, a series of graceless, clodhopping celebrity acts (a mixture of solos, duos and groups) will attempt to recreate famous dances from movie like Saturday Night Fever and High School Musical and classics pop videos such as Baby, One More Time and Thriller. Oawwww! The series runs over four weeks, comprising three heats and culminating in a final dance-off on Comic Relief weekend in March. Celebrities who will be donning their dancing shoes including Jo Brand, some of the Dragon's Den nasties (Peter Jones, Duncan Bannatyne and Deborah Meaden), former Blue Peter presenters Tim Vincent, Anthea Turner, Mark Curry, Peter Duncan, Peter Purves, Janet Ellis and the current incumbent Helen Skelton, Dick & Dom, Paddy McGuinness and Robert Webb.

Chris Tarrant hosts a new gameshow, The Colour of Money - 6:35 ITV – which has been rushed into the slot that Primeval was supposed to be filling right now but isn’t because ITV want you all to forget about Demons before they allow another SF show anywhere near Saturday tea time. Contestants can win a life-changing amount of money by attempting to withdraw cash from a number of different coloured machines. Each machine contains a different amount ranging from £1,000 to £20,000, but the contestants do not know where the money is hidden. If they can withdraw the cash before the machines run out of money and reach the target they have been assigned, they win. Big. If not, they don’t and leave with nothing. So, this is various bits from Deal Or No Deal, Goldenballs and (for older viewers) Take Your Pick thrown together to make a "new" format. Yeah, that’s original. Mind you, there’s nothing in the Big Book Of TV Rules that says quiz shows have to be original, of course. But, come on this is The Quiz Show - The Greatest Hits, isn’t it? And it’s Tarrant as well, so that virtually guarantees a plethora of smugness smeared all over your screen thus ruining the rest of your evening as you try to forget his queasy nastiness. Something of a running theme this weekend, isn’t it?

Sunday 22 February
The Victorians - 9:00 BBC1 – is Jeremy Paxman’s new series about his favourite era. In tonight’s episode, he enters the typical Victorian home as he continues his series revealing the reality of the era and its influences. I loved Paxman’s appearance on The ONE Show to promote this a couple of weeks back where he used his time to indulge in a bit of that great old popular Victorian sport Giles Brandreth baiting. (I will say, mind, Brandreth gave as good as he got back – it was one of the most entertaining five minutes I’ve seen on TV in months. Chiles and Christine just sat back with a bag of popcorn and let them get on with it!)

And, a quick mention for one of my favourite American series, Lost on Sky One (9:00) – which is currently enjoying its best run of episodes in a couple of years (and, after some of the triumphs of last season, that really is saying something). Ben's mission to reunite the Oceanic Six and return to the island begins to unravel when he learns that not everyone wants to go back. Ben's repidly becoming the most interesting character in a show full of them, I really enjoy the way Michael Emerson plays him with a Sylvester Sneakly-style manipulation of everybody and everything to his own advantage. And, I thought it was really nice that in the three years since they finally got together, Desmond and Penny had, as I'd hoped, seemingly spent all of their time on a boat having The Sex and making babies. It's certainly a decent alternative to Sayid's joyless existence as a lone assassin, Kate living her lie or Jack's boring our tits off with his beardy depression. Lighten up, guys, fer Christ's sake there's only a season and a half left and you've still got a hell of a lot of story to tell.

Monday 23 February
Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber and Bradley Walsh heads the cast as the premiere US crime franchise opens its UK office for business in Law & Order: UK - 9:00 ITV. I was talking to James Moran, who’s writing for the show, last year and he was telling me this is something like the sixth spin-off of the Law & Order franchise from around the world (apparently there’s a Law & Order: Moscow and a Law & Order: Paris). An ITV press release promises (in the solemn vocal style of the original US series’ opening narration) "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the Crown Prosecution Service who prosecute the offenders." Often incompetently in real-life, but that's beside the point. The UK show is co-produced by Kudos films (who, of course, make several glossy and stylish series like [Spooks] and Hustle) and lots of the writing team come from very slick American-style UK drama shows like Torchwood and Life and Mars. Harriet Walter, one of my favourite actresses is also in it as is Freema Agyeman from Doctor Who. So, you know, this all sounds rather good and likely to find (and keep) an audience, something ITV dramas have had notorious difficulty in managing of late (Whitechapel being a noble exception). Watch, now this has got us dead intrigued with its premise, it’ll turn out to be Bonekickers: The Sequel!

Speaking of classy US crime drama, one of my regular correspondents, Roy, has demanded that I highlight the return of The Shield - albeit on a very obscure freeview channel, Five US (that’s Channel 35 if you’re looking for it, he said, checking in his Radio Times) at 10:00. This is, if you’ve never seen it, a hard-hitting, "graphic" police drama series about corrupt officers in Los Angeles starring the magnetic Michael Chiklis. It’s very hard, very violent and features very strong language so, if you don’t like any of those, probably best to avoid it. Think The Sweeney: LA Style and you're in the right sort of neighbourhood. Except, South Central rather than Elephant and Castle, nes pas?! With a Mexican-Armenian gang war looming, Pezuela orders a hit on the Armenian mob boss Rezian, who tells Shane that both his and Vic Mackey's families will be killed if anything happens to him. Meanwhile, the Strike Team looks into a series of murders believed to be linked to a list of dangerous gangs published by the mayor's office. This is the seventh - and last - series of what was, quite frankly, one of the best things US TV has produced this decade. Right up there with The West Wing, The Sopranos, Buffy et al. Might be a bit difficult to climb on board if you've missed it so far but, if you like gripping quality drama, you could do a lot worse than to give it a shot.

Dispatches: The Problem Princes - 8:00 C4 – is a documentary examining what the future holds for William, second-in-line to the throne and, quite literally, "the lad that’s born to be king." What's so good about that job, anyway? The hours must be dreadful. Alex Thomson, who is rapidly turning into Channel 4’s answer to Paxman (the grumpy middle-aged cynic that nobody invites to the cool parties), investigates the roles currently adopted by both royal princes and looks at how their activities are shaping the modern monarchy. Thomson also casts his jaundiced eye over the handling of stories such as William's commandeering of an RAF helicopter to visit a stag party on the Isle of Wight. Well, he had a ticket to Ryde and he didn’t care. Ticket to Ryde, see it’s a … oh, never mind. Wasted on you guys, this stuff. Anyway it could be worse, of course, William could be a thoughtless casually-racist cretin like this brother. And his grandfather. And most of the rest of his family for that matter. Not a big fan of the Windsor-Mountbattens, I have to be honest.

Tuesday 24 February
So, for tonight here’s three alternatives to the Inter Milan verses The Scum game on ITV. Normally under these circumstances, one would suggest supporting the English team in such a clash but, it is Man United after all so, Forza Italia!

In Holby City - 8:00 BBC1 - Joseph fears he must come clean with Faye as the day of Jac's big announcement arrives. Is he about to jump the gun and shoot himself in the foot? Quite the contortionist is he if he can manage that without snapping something. The father of Ric's patient makes a formal complaint when asked to pay for his son's gastric band, but when the boy crashes and Ric saves his life, Connie is left with a tough decision. Meanwhile, Rachel admits her true concerns for Daisha, but finds that she may be better off minding her own business. Holby’s been really good of late. Lots of a decent actors and some surprisingly hard-hitting storylines. It’s nice to see that both Casualty – which we talked about a couple of weeks back – and Holby, even after many years production, can still get it right more often than they get it wrong. Restores your faith in British drama, so it does.

Why are you more likely to have a heart attack at eight o'clock in the morning or to crash your car on the motorway at two o'clock in the afternoon? Can taking your medication at the right time of day really save your life? And have you ever wondered why teenagers will not get out of bed in the morning? You mean, apart from the rfact that they're lazy sods who could do with a damn good spell in the army?! Sorry, I was having a Daily Mail moment there ... The answers to these questions lie in the the human biological clock as told in Horizon: The Secret Life of Your Bodyclock - 9:00 BBC2. Well, I never get out of bed until well after eight o’clock in the morning. So, hopefully, I’ll be safe from the heart-attack thing, anyway. Good, that's a big weight off my mind I must say.

Boys and Girls Alone - 8:00 C4 – has been much in the news since it started a fortnight ago. I mentioned when previewing the first episode that it had been controversial before it even started. After the opening episode that controversy turned into a genuine cause célèbre when Cornwall Children's Services Authority said that it would have stopped the series being filmed in its area had it known what they were doing, described it a "child abuse", complained to Ofcom and said it was considering seeking an injunction to stop any more episodes being shown. To be honest, having watched a bit of both episodes so far, I reckon it’s a load of fuss over nothing. But I am rather annoyed at that "child abuse" description. It isn't. Not even remotely close and using a loaded and emotive term like that for something so utterly trivial does huge damage to very real cases of cruelty. I hope you're proud of youselves, Cornwall. Anyway, tonight, the boys and girls move in together and a budding romance between Maddie and William has village tongues wagging. Good grief they're only, what, eleven or something? Shouldn't they be doing their homework?

Wednesday 25 February
Since we gave Eggheads a right good kicking, as we're an equal-opportunity abuser on this slot if nothing else, it's only fair we also have a go at its BBC2 stablemate, Battle of the Brains - 6:00 – hosted by Nicky Campbell, a man who can certainly give Jeremy Vine a run for his money in the smugly smug stakes. I love his "Concerned Little Englander" persona (or "Little Scotlander" in his case) on Watchdog, he so desperately wants to be "the Jeremy Paxman of consumer affairs" and nail some poor hapless painter and decorator to the wall for charging two quid more than he should. But, instead, he comes over as nothing more than Esther Rantzen’s heir apparent in the Uppity Interfering Busybody stakes. Only, you know, without the teeth. Anyway, in Battle of the Brains two teams featuring some of the brightest brains in Britain go head-to-head in a game of nerve, strategy and skill. Yeah, this one's all right, actually - and Nicky presents it very well. It's certainly preferable to the show that's on immediate after it.

Delia, Jamie, Gordon, Nigella, Rick - their names and faces are everywhere, they are all over the TV schedules, their brand products dominate the supermarkets and their cookery books fill up the bestseller lists. We think we know them well (though, not in the biblical sense), but for the first time this is the story of how they took British cuisine "out of the joke books and into the record books" in The Rise of the Superchef - 9:00 BBC2. With behind-the-scenes access to the chefs and the teams of experts who helped build their empires, this is the untold story of how they turned their cooking skills into vast multi-million-pound businesses and international brands. So, this is yet another excuse for that oily twonk Jamie Oliver to get his boat-race on TV for no adequately explained reason, isn’t it? Mark me absent, please. I've developed sudden food poisoning.

Ice Road Truckers - 8:00 Five – is a show we mentioned about eighteen months back and, to be honest, it never seems to be off the telly. Every time I switch on Five, there it is. Anyway, if you’ve never seen it before this is a documentary series examining the dangerous job of driving trucks on Canada's notorious ice highways. In tonight’s episode, the rig move – which took up most of last week’s screen time - is finally completed. Hugh continues to ply the highways while Rick carries on complaining about his poor health. Go and see a doctor, Rick, for goodness sake, you’re not going to get any better by moaning to a camera about those tingling pains in your chest and down your arm.

Thursday 26 February
Documentary director Sue Bourne has made several excellent films for Dispatches and Cutting Edge that we’ve featured on Top Telly Tips over the last couple of years (including The Falling Man, My Street and Alzheimer’s, Mum and Me). In her latest piece, Love, Life, Death in the Day - 9:00 C4 – Sue takes an alternative look at a day in the life of 21st century Britain through the births, deaths and marriages that occur in Bristol over one twenty four hours period. After thirteen years together, Shell and Mel are getting married. Meanwhile, the family of twenty-year-old Martin Cripps prepare to bury him and teen parents Anthony and Emma welcome baby Brooklyn into the world. What a great idea. Like all of the films that this talented lady makes this is thought-provoking, intelligent, witty, sad, reflective and brilliant.

Margaret - 9:00 BBC2 – concerns Margaret Thatcher's rapid fall from power and the way in which politics can be truly ruthless. On 12 November 1990, the Prime Minister was preparing for her speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet at the Guildhall, whilst Sir Geoffrey Howe, her quietly-spoken former foreign secretary and chancellor, was busy penning his resignation speech that would stun the country and, ultimately, seal her fate. The next day Howe made his lethal speech in the Houses of Parliament, Michael Hesaltine (and his lovely hair) saw his chance for a bid for power and the final ten days of Margaret Thatcher's reign began. Now, this looks to have a lot going for it – including a remarkable central performance by Lindsay Duncan. But, inevitable comparisons will be drawn with another drama-doc Granada’s Thatcher: The Final Days (starring Sylvia Sim) which was made in 1991 just months after the real life events it depicted. Stunning cast, though. I can’t wait to see John Sessions playing Geoffrey Howe!

Snowstorm: Britain's Big Freeze - 10:00 C4 – is a very topical documentary chronicling the extraordinary week endured by Britain in early February, as the country suffered its worst snow falls in eighteen years. Examining the possible reasons behind the freak weather, the film looks at previous winter storms and asks if the recent inclement weather was particularly unusual. And whether it was all the government’s fault. Because, you know, everything else is it would seem.

Finally this week a couple of further bits of TV news. Doctor Who is currently doing location filming for the forthcoming Easter special, Planet of the Dead, in Dubai (not, as you might have read in some of the more rubbish tabloid newspapers the first occasion that Doctor Who has filmed abroad – you actually have to go back to 1979 for that). In this picture we can see David, his co-star Michelle Ryan and … Mick the lighting man, seemingly. Great job you're doing there, Mick.

Lastly, there was rumoured to be a right old kafuffle on Antiques Roadshow last week when somebody supposedly told Fiona Bruce that the Top Gear boys were thinking of replacing her as the arbitor of what should go where on “The Cool Wall” with a younger newsreader. You know, somebody in the Sophie Raworth/Kirsty Young/Katie Silverton sort of age-bracket. I trust Jezza and the boys are now hiding in a secure nuclear bunker from the whirlwind of wrath that an enraged Fiona Bruce can unleash. Because, that's a sight to see, trust me. I mean, it's in the same league as that stupid Emily Maitlis woman informing the Director General of the BBC that she is so old her "pussy is haunted" on Newsnight and then being all surprised when the clip turned up on You Tube. That sort of "sight to see." Please don't cane me, Fiona. I was led astray by older boys... Honest.