Saturday, 19 January 2013

TV PREVIEW: The Following, Louie, Bob Servant, Call the Midwife

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 19th January 2013.

Tuesday, Sky Atlantic, 10pm

Tuesday, FOX, 9pm

Wednesday, BBC4, 10pm

Sunday, BBC1, 8pm

Paul Whitelaw

Serial killers are such overweening nuisances, aren't they? So tiresomely theatrical, and the mess they leave! Thank goodness, then, that the likes of mobile network hawker Kevin Bacon are on hand to clean up after them.

In Sky's latest US import, THE FOLLOWING, the six-degrees-of-himself icon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent and world-weary alcoholic who's hoisted back into service as an expert consultant when his arch nemesis, Professor Joe Carroll, escapes from prison. A flamboyant serial killer obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe – aren't they all? - this smirking lunatic regards his crimes as a poetic work in progress, which comes in incredibly handy when one is tasked with piecing together his helpfully scattered clues.

But matters are complicated somewhat by Hardy's damaged disposition. Saddled with a pacemaker after being stabbed in the heart, he then went on to muddy the waters by becoming romantically involved with Carroll's wife. Dammit, Hardy, don't you know you should never make things personal? He's also haunted by guilt, hence his frenzied determination to protect the endangered women who escaped Carroll's previous attacks.

Created by Kevin Williamson (Scream; Dawson's Creek), The Following's sole original hook is that Carroll has accrued a devoted fan-base eager to do his bidding. If you were feeling charitable, you could argue that, in its entirely ham-fisted way, it's trying to say something meaningful about society's unhealthy obsession with serial killers. And what better way to make that point than with a knuckle-headed drama feeding into that very obsession?

Generic to a fault – it's essentially Charlie Brooker's cop show spoof A Touch of Cloth played straight – this gratuitously nasty tumult of hokum gobbles up the dregs of every post-Hannibal Lecter serial killer thriller and vomits them violently across the wall. Waterlogged with cheap jump-scares, borrowed visuals and clunky exposition, it's a slick, silly mess. What's most baffling is that Williamson, who famously subverted the tropes of the horror genre in Scream, has gone on to create a TV show almost entirely composed of clichés.

Sticking with Murdoch's evil empire for a moment, we come to the belated UK début of LOUIE. This sitcom starring the comedian's comedian Louis CK first aired in the US three years ago, but it's been more than worth the wait.

One of the few stand-ups who can drive me into hysterics – indeed, I'd place him up there with the sainted likes of Richard Pryor – CK is a devastating craftsman whose unique combination of brutal frankness, casual charm and acute intelligence is given free reign in this self-penned and directed vehicle.

The melancholy misadventures of a balding, overweight, middle-aged divorcee with two young daughters, Louie takes the brazenly autobiographical strains of his stand-up routines and harnesses them into a loose series of vignettes. Vaguely redolent of an indie cinema Curb Your Enthusiasm, albeit more understated and with flashes of surrealism, it benefits from being an authored piece from an artist with the inner confidence to move at his own sweet, uncompromising pace.

If you're unfamiliar with CK's work, then his winning brand of cheerful, filthy fatalism might take a bit of getting used to. But if and when he clicks, you may find you have a new hero. Personally, I could happily wallow in his uncomfortable world for hours.

From New York to Broughty Ferry, the picturesque suburb of Dundee that BOB SERVANT, INDEPENDENT calls home. The TV début of a character previously established in a BBC Radio Scotland series and a popular range of books, this likeable and amusing sitcom stars Brian Cox as a vain, deluded, self-serving businessman who decides to stand in a local by-election. The only drawbacks are his political ignorance, his egregious personality, and his exceedingly dim view of the electorate.

Having previously played Servant on radio, Cox is clearly having a whale of a time in the role, and his relish is infectious. An idiotic, roaring blow-hard, Servant is a welcome addition to our rich history of sitcom monsters. He may even do for Dundee what Alan Partridge did for Norwich. Please don't ask me if that's a good thing or not.

It may have been one of the biggest TV hits of 2012, but simpering period drama CALL THE MIDWIFE leaves me colder than a bucket of stale gruel. Back for a second series, it strikes me as incredibly contrived and cynical in the way it dutifully embodies all the requirements of a mums-and-grannies-focused Sunday night drama.

Not that its curious recipe of cloying sentimentality and screaming misery isn't distinctive. I certainly can't think of another TV equivalent of a blood-smeared Hallmark greeting card. But while it doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of its era – indeed, it almost revels in them - it also can't hide its underlying sense of idealised nostalgia.

It also doesn't help that it's rigidly formulaic. The latest episode is the usual dreary hodgepodge of glacial calamity, as everyone gets used to the introduction of anaesthetic gas, and the monumentally bland lead comes to the aid of a battered wife. But it all turns out fine in the end, you'll be pleased to hear.  

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