In a week in which we lost an X-Factor host, a Top Gear host and gained a new Homes Under the Hammer host in Dion Dublin; the actual TV output has been quite quiet.
Indeed it comes to something when one of the biggest shows of the week is a macabre comedy drama that has rather a cult fanbase. I’m talking of course about Steve Pemberton and Reese Shearsmith’s Inside No. 9 which returned for its second series on Thursday. The first run of the duo’s collection of short stories was met with much acclaim especially for the dialogue-free ‘A Quiet Night In’. This week’s episode, ‘La Couchette’, didn’t really have the same special edge to it but did at least have its moments. Set in carriage number nine of a sleeper train going through Paris, the story introduced us to a number of characters who were all forced into a small space together. They included a doctor who was about to give a speech to the WHO (Shearsmith), a flatulent German (Pemberton), an Australian backpacker (Jessica Gunning), a posh stowaway (Jack Whitehall) and a couple on the way to their daughter’s wedding (Mark Benton and Julie Hesmondhalgh). The twist in the tale here was that, about half way through the piece, the passengers realised that one of their number was dead. Pemberton and Shearsmith’s script then took a darker turn as the characters decided whether to risk stopping the train or inform the authorities once they’d reached their destination. I’ve personally always been a fan of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s work and I thought ‘La Couchette’ definitely had some merit. I felt that every character was well-realised and that there was some genuine moments of fine observational humour especially in regards Benton and Hesmondhalgh’s characters. The story also contained an ending I didn’t see coming and it left me with the icy feeling I often get after watching a Pemberton and Shearsmith piece. On the other hand I wasn’t a fan of the toilet humour employed by Pemberton’s character and I thought that Jack Whitehall added little to the episode overall. At the end of the La Couchette definitely wasn’t Pemberton and Shearsmith at their best however I suspect that the best of this year’s series of Inside No.9 is yet to come.
At the same time as BBC Two went Inside No.9, Channel 4 and Sky News were more concerned with Number Ten. The Battle for Number Ten was the first in a long line of programmes which will see the leaders of the major parties attempt to persuade the public to vote for them. The big selling point of this co-production between Channel 4 and Sky News was the fact that it saw the return to political interrogation of Jeremy Paxman. However, as a fan of University Challenge, I was a little upset that the questions put to Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Leader Ed Miliband weren’t to do with the capital of Montenegro or the number of acute angles on a dodecahedron. As Paxman informed us, the two men being interviewed throughout the hour and quarter special were the only ones who had a chance of becoming Prime Minister in the next elections. It does that make you wonder why next week’s seven way debate on ITV is so important if five of those people are surplus to requirements. In terms of a TV broadcast, The Battle for Number Ten was well laid out with both men receiving a grilling from Paxman as well as receiving questions from the general public. These Question Time-lite segments were hosted by Sky’s Kay Burley who seemed eager to get herself on screen as much as possible. The questions themselves were quite banal and therefore these segments offered up the least highlights apart from when Miliband messed up the name of one of his inquisitors. Instead it was the Paxman elements of the show that were the most compelling and it was clear to see the mettle of both men being tested by the former Newsnight host. Paxman, who hasn’t lost any of his lustre since leaving his Newsnight seat, argued with Cameron about zero hour contracts before telling Miliband that some people saw him as a North London geek. Whilst this comment may have been a little bit harsh I still have a lot of time for Paxman and felt he added some gravitas to an otherwise lightweight special. Whilst Miliband looked the more shaken of the two, I don’t think either men did any irreparable damage to their respective campaigns. Altogether this was as entertaining start to the TV portion of the election race that will only intensify with next week’s debate.
Moving onto a rather sombre documentary now with the return of one of the BBC’s most respected factual hosts, Louis Theroux. In Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, the bespectacled host garners unparalleled access to a psychiatric hospital in Cincinnati to meet those who avoided prison for some horrific crimes. The documentary didnt waste its time getting to the point as the first patient Louis met was Jonathan, a man that murdered his father. The way that Jonathan discusses his horrific crime is chillingly mundane as he describes the multiple stabbing as if he were talking about wallpaper patterns. Jonathan’s manner was an example of how some juries would feel that the patients had little remorse for the victims of their crimes. Another fascinating moment came towards the end of the documentary in which the mother of a former TV evangelist, who’d recently been released from the hospital, failed to accept that he was mentally ill. She blamed his previous crimes on his childhood drug use and it was clear to see that she’d never fully come to terms with what her son had done. What I like about Louis Theroux’s programmes is that he doesn’t try to put himself front and centre, instead allowing the subjects to discuss their crimes in great detail. Occasionally Louis will put in the odd sarcastic line here and there but on the whole he seems to be a man who deals with cold hard facts. Another element of the documentary’s production that I admired was that the use of backing music was kept to a minimum as the horrific admissions from some of the patients didn’t need added soundtrack to enhance the mood. I’ve long been a fan of Louis Theroux’s although there was something missing from this particular programme that kept me hooked from beginning to end. Although Theroux did offer up some interesting revelations throughout the hour, I found the overall mood of the programme to be quite cold. I’m personally not sure if I’ll be returning to see another instalment of Louis’ time with the patients and staff of the hospital however I am interested to see his upcoming Transgender Kids documentary which airs in a fortnight’s time.
Employing much more of an upbeat approach to their documentary style were the two comic stars of Dara and Ed’s Big Adventure. Irish comics Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne have been friends for a long time and it shows in their easy chemistry during the first episode of this road trip saga. The big adventure of the title sees the two pals head off on the Pan-American highway following the trail of a pair of travellers who did the same journey back in the 1940s. The original journey helped to plot the route for the highway that Ed and Dara travel on and I found it interesting to hear some exerts from the 1940s travelogue. For example I was amazed to learn that the journey ground to a halt at times as the duo’s car had to be pulled through rivers by livestock. Dara and Ed thankfully have the luxury of bridges covering these waterways so the first leg of their journey was fairly uneventful. With the ultimate destination being Panama, the first episode of Big Adventure took the comedians throughout the length and breadth of Mexico. As you would imagine with a travel documentary featuring two comedians there were plenty of moments in which the duo mucked about whilst participating in various Mexican endeavours. From eating iguana heads to tangling with Mexican wrestler Shocker; the pair participated in their fair share of hijinks during the course of this opening instalment. However, I personally preferred some of the more inconsequential moments of the trip such as seeing the various traders ply their wares whilst Dara and Ed were stuck in traffic. The documentary also balanced the comic with the tragic as the pair interviewed an articulate young man who was travelling from Guatemala with the hope of one day gaining entry into the USA. This was the part of the programme that stuck with me the most and I’m hoping there are more quieter moments like this one throughout the series. What I did like was the easy chemistry that Dara and Ed had both with each other and the audience at home. I’ve always been a fan of both men so it’s great to see them get their own BBC Two show and one that has an interesting premise. While at times it was overly comic I still enjoyed seeing Ed being caught in one of Shocker’s submission holds and witness Dara’s horrified face at the prospect of eating iguana. But, based on this first episode alone, I’m definitely going continue watching to see what this pair of funny men have to contend with next.
Finally we have a very different documentary in the form of Channel 4′s innovative Teens. The programme, which follows the fortunes of a number of youngsters as they turn seventeen, is unique in its use of a digital rig. This allows the producers of the programme to source every tweet, text and e-mail from the phones of the documentary’s primary subjects. First under the microscope were opinionated campaigner Jess and Twitter-savvy Harry; the latter of whom was struggling to keep up at school. However it was Jess’ traumas that the programme primarily concentrated on as her participation in the ‘No More Page 3′ campaign inadvertently caused her to briefly become the target of some online abuse. What I ascertained through watching Teens is that some things haven’t changed a lot since I was Jess’ age. I remember that, whenever something bad happened, it felt like the end of the world especially the night after the event. However, today’s Teens have to also deal with the fact that gossip and hurtful comments spread like wildfire thanks to the invention of Twitter. I have to say I don’t think I would’ve coped as well as Jess if I’d have to have coped with the amount of negativity she did throughout the course of this episode. It was admirable then that Jess overcame the problems she was having and ultimately stuck to her guns as we saw at the episode’s end where there was footage of her photobombing Andy Coulson. Although I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it when I began watching, Teens really grabbed me as it did offer some insight into what it means to go through adolescence in the 21st century. Whilst the digital rig did occasionally distract from what was going on on screen it was primarily used to enhance the flow of the narrative. Additionally Teens seems to have been soundtracked by somebody who grew up in the 1990s as is evidenced by the use of tracks by the likes of Radiohead, Oasis, Jesus and Mary Chain and Weezer. Even though this doesn’t quite fit with the contemporary vibe of the show, I still found myself singing along with the majority of the music. Overall Teens was an interesting experiment that definitely worked but at the same time I’m not sure if I’d want to watch any more of the series past this first episode.
Next Time: Coalition and The Ark