Welcome once again to another look back at this past week’s TV highlights and I feel it’s been a particularly strong one for female-led drama.
It’s fair to say that ITV lead the way when it comes to crime drama and this year has seen its fair share of mediocre offerings. However I think the channel’s latest effort, Matt Charman’s Black Work, is cut above the likes of Code of a Killer and Safe House. Part of the reason for this is the brilliant Sheridan Smith as PC Jo Enright whose world is turned upside down in the first episode. This happens after Jo learns that her husband Ryan (Kenny Doughty) has been murdered during an undercover operation. This is a surprise to her as she knew nothing of the operation and instead thought he was away training junior officers. This bombshell leads Jo to wonder if she even knew the man she married and at the same time trying to help his children deal with their grief. As well as telling Jo’s story, Charman’s other plot sees Ryan’s former colleagues attempt to unearth why it was he ended up in the warehouse where he eventually met his maker. The lines between these two stories were blurred as one of the officers working on Ryan’s case is DC Jack Clark (Matthew McNulty), who has been conducting an affair with Jo. This affair comes to light in the final part of the first episode as its revealed that Jo’s car has been bugged and all of her conversations with Jack have been converted onto CDs. Jo is taken aback when these CDs fall into the hands of her stepson Hal (Oliver Woollford) who then wants nothing to do with her. Feeling that the police aren’t doing enough to help find her husband’s killer Jo then sets out on her own amateur investigation. However, as the end of the episode shows us, Jo’s mission doesn’t get off to a good start as she’s clobbered over the head while rummaging around in a secluded cottage.
Although it’s not the most original piece of work I’ve seen, when compared to ITV’s other crime dramas this year, Black Work is a minor masterpiece. Most of the reason for this is due to the fact that Charman focuses as much on the character of Jo as he does on the police procedural side of things. I feel Jo’s attempts to grieve for her husband will strike a chord with a lot of people who’ve lost a love one but at the same time have to put a brave face on while in the company of her children. Obviously this aspect is heightened by the fact that Ryan had a secret life he was keeping from Jo and I feel that this enhances the emotional aspect of the drama. Jo’s storyline also allows Sheridan Smith to flex her acting muscles and convince us once again that she’s one of the nation’s best actresses. I personally feel it’s great to see Smith in a fictional piece of work rather than a biographical drama such as The C Word or Mrs Biggs. Less successful for me was the police procedural aspect of the drama which felt a little clichéd at times. I especially found it hard to buy when Jo went from grieving widow to private detective in a matter of minutes. I believe that this highlights the major problems with Black Work, namely that the episode felt incredibly rushed. I think that this might have something to do with the fact that Black Work is only a three part drama therefore Charman is unable to do much work with the characters before plunging into the main body of the story. I think this lack of pacing is also evident in the fact that we hardly see anything of Jo and Ryan’s relationship before his untimely passing. If we were able to stay with the couple for at least a little longer than we may have had more of an insight into their lives but instead we only have Jo’s account of her marriage to go on. That being said, the final scenes of Black Work did intrigue me enough to continue watching the series as did Smith’s fine central turn. In fact I would go as far as to say that without Smith’s perfect performance, Black Work may not have turned out as good as it ultimately did.
Moving onto other flawed female protagonist now as it’s time to wave goodbye to My Mad Fat Diary whose final series began this week. With the first two series being set in 1996, this third and final run jumps two years to 1998. This series focuses on the final summer of the drama’s central friendship group before they go their separate ways. For Rae (Sharon Rooney) this might mean a place at university however a disastrous interview at Bristol would suggest otherwise. After believing she’s flunked her interview, Rae is all ready to stay in Stamford with the rest of the gang and in particular her boyfriend Finn (Nico Mirallegro). Indeed, now he’s bought a new flat, Rae is considering moving in with him, however she’s thrown for six when she discovers that Bristol University has offered her a place. Feeling that her place is by Finn’s side, she lies to her friends about her university place however her secret doesn’t stay buried for very long. Indeed, when her college tutor discovers that she’s been accepted, soon everybody is praising her apart from her closest allies. Most hurt by her deceit is best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer) who feels that Rae’s lies are connected to the fact that she doesn’t believe that Chloe is good enough to get into business school. Additionally Finn decides to cool things off with her, which leads her to return to the dark place that made her end up in hospital at the beginning of series one. These problems build up to a shocking final sequence in which Rae and her friends end up in a car accident with Chloe being the one who has suffered the most. I feel it’s a testament to both the writers and the actors that I felt for the characters as much as I did. In fact I reacted the same way as Chloe when Rae started to show signs that she was self-harming again. Meanwhile the final scene made my jaw drop to the floor in disbelief and with only two episodes to go I’m not sure how the gang will recover from this latest tragedy.
I’m still surprised that My Mad Fat Diary had as much of an effect of me as it did because, as a man in my early thirties, I don’t think I’m the drama’s target audience. However I believe there’s something universal about My Mad Fat Diary which speaks to most of us who have ever been in the same situation as Rae and company. This is particularly true of the opening interview segment as I feel most of us have experienced a similar amount of pressure at some point in our lives. I think another reason why I’ve enjoyed My Mad Fat Diary so much is because of it being said during the 1990s. Although I was a little younger than the characters during the period the drama is set, it was still part of my adolescence and therefore I have a certain fondness for it. It’s due to this fondness that I took issue with several cultural references during the opening episode namely Rae name dropping Destiny’s Child and the fact that the Divine Comedy’s National Express was played even though it wasn’t released till the following year. Additionally I felt that the dark undertones of the episode made feel that the series had lost the balance of light and shade that made me love it so much in the first place. Thankfully there were a few bright spots namely the scenes with Rae’s mum (Claire Rushbrook) and a subplot in which gay best friend Archie (Dan Cohen) tried to lose his virginity before starting university. However these are minor niggles in a show that has so many great things to say about growing up, starting adult life and those special friends who’d stay around forever. I’ve also enjoyed the relationship between Rae and her therapist Kester (Ian Hart) which looks to be coming to end partly as he seems to being ejected from his practise. Overall I’ll be sad to see My Mad Fat Diary go but I’m glad that it’s ending before it becomes too stale. I’ve just got my fingers crossed that everything turns out alright with Chloe and that Rae and the gang get the happy ending that they deserve.
Talking of endings, this week saw the final episode of Paul Abbott’s comedy drama No Offence which certainly finished with a bang. As those of us who’ve been watching the series know, the central plot running throughout the eight episodes has been the team’s attempts to catch a serial killer who has been targeting girls with Down’s syndrome. The penultimate instalment revealed that the killer was in fact someone that was close to the team and the final revelation shocked me. The finale saw Viv (Joanna Scanlan) and Dinah (Elaine Cassidy) argue over the best way to deal with this revelation. This led to several odd sequences in which the killer tried to get one up on the ladies before Dinah finished him off in a unique fashion. I’m someone who has always championed No Offence’s odd mix of comedy and drama however I felt the macabre humour in this final instalment was a little much. I felt it also overshadowed a rather complex subplot in which supporting character PC Jonah Mitchell (Ste Johnson) was being sued for his part in the death of a mother and child. I think that this story was strong enough to feature early on in the series and I believe it got lost in the main plot. In fact I think that that Abbott and his writing team have struggled to incorporate two stories in each episode with either the serial killer story or the plot of the week getting lost in the shuffle. At the same time I still feel that Abbott has a knack for crafting strong, memorable characters at that’s certainly true of both Viv and Dinah. I think Abbott has also proved that there’s plenty of different ways that the crime drama can go and for the most part No Offence’s blackly comic tone has worked a treat. Therefore I’m excited that the show is returning for a second series next year as I think it’s a drama that certainly deserves another run.
Finally, we turn our attention to a programme that has made the leap from BBC Three to BBC One but has lost some of its identity in the process. The programme in question is Don’t Tell the Bride which debuted on prime time BBC One this weekend. As somebody who was an avid fan of the BBC Three show I was glad when it was announced that Don’t Tell the Bride had been saved from being confined to obscurity when BBC Three moves online. However I was a little befuddled by the fact that the BBC One incarnation of the show decided to focus on older couples rather than those in their twenties. Whilst I haven’t got a problem with older couples being included in the format, I think it’s a mistake to get rid of the younger pairs all together. After watching the first episode I felt that the show had lost some of the hectic energy that had made it such a guilty pleasure of mine the first time round. As it was, instead of focusing on groom Andrew’s attempts to get his wedding plans to fit within his budget it centred on bride Jenni’s disability. Although I did feel plenty of sympathy for Jenni, this sob story felt a little out of place on a programme which usually presents the brides as controlling presences in their boyfriend’s lives. The fact that the money the grooms have to work with has been increased also makes it a lot easier for them to provide a satisfactory wedding for their significant others. Additionally, if this first episode is anything to go by, the series seems to have done away with the wackier themes which were always an enjoyable part of the show. Indeed, groom Andrew’s theme varied wildly throughout the show and ended with a rather sweet-natured beach-set circus ceremony. I do feel that the show was aimed at those who hadn’t seen the BBC One version and therefore Zoe Ball’s narration was very expositional. Ultimately, judging by the first episode alone, I think the BBC One version of Don’t Tell the Bride is a lot more sanitised than its BBC Three equivalent. I do feel that this is a shame as it seems that Don’t Tell the Bride has been changed to fit in with the general themes of a BBC One prime time show rather than the other way round.