Writer(s): Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Emily Heller, Liz Sarnoff, Sarah Solemani, Ben Smith etc.
Director(s): Alec Berg, Maggie Carey, Bill Hader, Hiro Murai, Liza Johnson, Minkie Spiro etc.
Cast: Sarah Goldberg, Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Glenn Fleshler, Anthony Carrigan, Henry Winkler etc.
Original Network: HBO
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Critically acclaimed and Emmy award-winning dark comedy satire, Barry (2018) stars Bill Hader. He plays the eponymous lead, a hitman, who travels to Los Angeles for “work” and then finds himself joining an acting class by mistake. The comedy and drama of his finely written and directed HBO show derives from the dialectic juxtaposition of crime and war film tropes mixed with narcissistic and delusional Hollywood creative types. But is it any good? Yes and no!
Technically this is first rate and challenging entertainment; obsidian black in its’ humour and at times very compelling as drama. Stylistic influences are clearly the likes of: the Coens, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and Elmore Leonard’s novel/film/TV series Get Shorty. However, I don’t think I liked it as much as those or as much as the panel of Emmy Award judges.
Personally, I don’t like, irrespective of their quality, shows or films titled after a single-name character. It’s just a personal thing. More importantly the show tries so hard to be cool. It has a knowing “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-cultural-melange” vibe. Plus, tonally it is all over the shop. One scene will be a hilarious situation involving bad acting from the class; and the next Barry will be blowing someone away. How am I meant to feel about such a lunge from comedy to drama involving so many unlikeable characters?
As Barry Block/Berman, Bill Hader is absolutely brilliant. He wants out of the murder business and is haunted by events from the military. Because of this I have much sympathy for him. However, this empathy is tested by some of his more heinous actions. Hader nonetheless delivers an iceberg cool performance with a searing internal pain. In the second season especially, his post-traumatic stress is explored intensely; and when he explodes with anger it resonates powerfully. Conversely, I wanted more of this than the parodic Chechen and Bolivian gangsters, who just aren’t funny.
In support, Stephen Root is brilliant as Barry’s exploitative handler and so-called friend. Sarah Goldberg as the neurotic actress, Sally Reed is a revelation. This is especially the case in the second season when her character gets some interesting storylines and great monologues. Likewise, Henry Winkler steals many scenes as the acting coach, Gene Cousineau; forever name-dropping and shilling for a quick buck.
Overall, Barry can be recommended for the excellent cast and mostly complex characters. While I would have preferred the dumb comedy to be reduced, there are indeed some great episodes throughout the two seasons. So, if you are looking for an intense exploration of human existence you get an element of that within the mix of: humour, satire, violence, shoot-outs and plot twists. But maybe, like the lead character, Barry tries to do too much all at once; however, at least it tries.
Directors (Season 5): John Strickland and Sue Tully
Cast (Season 5): Taj Atwal, Martin Compston, Adrian Dunbar, Stephen Graham, Anna Maxwell Martin, Vicky McClure, Rochenda Sandall, Polly Walker etc.
I was slightly late to the Line of Duty corrupt police drama party. Thankfully, I caught up with it by watching the first four seasons on Netflix. The fifth season has just completed a run over the last six weeks on BBC1 and thoroughly thrilling it was too. Creator and writer Mercurio is a bulletproof show-runner; a genre writer with a proven hit rate whose work almost always brings commercial, critical and audience success.
Having achieved early TV writing acclaim with dark medical comedy, Cardiac Arrest (1994-1996), Mercurio’s subsequent drama Bodies (2004 – 2005) was another critical hit. Latterly, Bodyguard (2018) and Line of Duty (2012 – present) have also proved highly successful. Undeniably, Line of Duty is a massive hit for the BBC. It has received awards and nominations from: the Royal TV Society, the Writers’ Guild and BAFTA. Moreover, it was also voted in the top BBC shows of all time. Therefore, after the success of Season 4 on BBC1, Season 5 was awaited with great anticipation.
THE LANGUAGE OF LINE OF DUTY
If you haven’t seen Line of Duty then it is highly recommended as quality genre storytelling. Over five seasons it has received much media attention and a strong fan following. It’s also fun looking out for the tropes, genre expections and language built into the classic cop drama. So, a game of Line of Duty bingo would certainly include:
AC12’s lead characters: DS Steve Arnott, DI Kate Fleming and Superintendent Ted Hastings will be committed to nicking bent coppers.
Massive and unexpected plot twists.
Untimely deaths of major characters.
Police Officers being bigger criminals than actual crooks.
The main antagonist will likely be revealed early on to the audience like an episode of Columbo.
Brilliantly written and lengthy police interview scenes often dominate whole episodes.
The main antagonist can at any time be superseded by a bigger antagonist like an episode of ‘24‘.
Main antagonists will be played by well known actors such as: Lennie James, Keeley Hawes, Daniel Mays and Thandie Newton.
Minor sub-plots will often blow up into being the main plot.
Red herrings galore with misdirection and cliff-hanger writing tricks becoming legion.
Line of Duty language and catchphrases have become culturally familiar including: “Fella”; “Mother of God”; “Bent Coppers”; and my favourite: “DCI. . . has the right to be questioned by an officer at least one rank senior.”
Fantastic hard-boiled one-liners and dialogue that Raymond Chandler would be proud of.
I could go on but I can highly recommend all five seasons of the show. While it exists within the police drama genre the lead characters are well written. Not simply basic binary heroes, they are complicated humans, yet highly determined and professional. The plots are serpentine and often become very complex, threatening to swallow their own tail at times. Nonetheless, if Alfred Hitchcock created a long running crime drama then Line of Duty would be it.
LINE OF DUTY – SEASON 5 REVIEW (WITH MINOR SPOILERS)
Season 5 began with an all action and breathless opening couple of episodes. Yet, by the end it transformed into a claustrophobic, theatrical and tense police interview showdown. While Season 4 found Thandie Newton desperately trying to evade capture using her intelligence and guile, Season 5 was more explosive. Opening with a pulsating robbery, with an OCG (Organised Crime Group), raiding a police vehicle convoy carrying confiscated drugs and weapons; AC12 were soon hunting armed robbers and investigating the death of several Police Officers.
The head of the crime gang is, or so we think, John Clayton. He is portrayed by fine character actor, Stephen Graham. It soon turns out Clayton is not what he seems and is playing a very dangerous game as an undercover cop. But, is Clayton still undercover or has he gone rogue? Clayton’s gang are not to be crossed and their boss is an anonymous high-ranking corrupt Police Officer referred to only as ‘H’. They communicate via computer text software, thus creating a fog of invisibility and suspicion.
As the various plot strands ravel and unravel further robberies and murders occur, with Mercurio creating a series of tense stand-offs and action set-pieces. The stakes get higher and higher until our very own Ted Hastings becomes number one suspect in the chase for ‘H’. Adrian Dunbar as Hastings is especially brilliant in this season. His character finds his whole life and history turned upside down and in freefall. I mean, could this beloved character be the arch-nemesis? The conflict created by Mercurio is totally absorbing until the very final reveal.
Overall, one could argue that Season 5 goes too far to attempt to out do the previous seasons. However, I loved both the complexity and familiarity of what I was watching. The action, suspense, twists, doubt, shocks and ‘whodunit’ plot were played to perfection. We also got a bit of characterisation amidst the heavy plotting as we found out about: Hastings’ history in Northern Ireland; Fleming’s family issues; and the impact of Arnott’s spinal injury (from a violent attack in Season 4). We also got some new characters such as the formidable DCS Carmichael featuring a stand-out performance from Anna Maxwell Martin.
Ultimately, this is a cops and robbers show which plays the numbers very well. Furthermore, like a game of bingo you never know the order the numbers will come out, who’ll win or lose and whether the game is, in fact, rigged so no one really profits in the end.
Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman, Hugh Skinner, Bill Paterson, Jamie Demetriou, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Dennis etc.
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This melancholic, painful and chaotic home for middle-class grotesques and excruciatingly awkward comedy situations involving, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barely-surviving-human being-the-titular-‘Fleabag’, shouldn’t really work as entertainment. Yet, it does because of: brilliant writing, dark, honest humour, existential depth, almost-cinematic production values; genuine star quality from Waller-Bridge; and a cast on top of their game.
First-world-very-white yet universal human problems are legion in two seasons of twelve breathless episodes. We join our nameless anti-hero scraping through life in the midst of doubling grief, following the recent deaths of her mother and close friend/business partner. No doubt the chattering twenty-something classes are full with “I’m just like Fleabag!” recognition. Nonetheless, there’s something to enjoy for those who love to experience raw, human frailty on screen too.
‘Fleabag’ fights flailing moods, business and family issues in contemporary status-symbol London. Using sex to block out her pain in the first season, ‘Arsehole Guy’ and ‘Bus Rodent’ are two such crutch-like paramours who, along with on-off-ex-boyfriend, Harry, are given the physical and emotional run-around. In the less bawdy second season she falls for an uber-cool Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott). Thus, the lashings of sex from the first season gives way to more interesting abstinence and romantic torture for ‘Fleabag’.
With her best mate dead from a tragic accident ‘Fleabag’s’ sword and shield against life is gone and attempts at bridge-building with her family are fraught with strained agony. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), is tighter than a snare drum, existing solely on neurosis and a never-ending workaholic mission drive. The scenes between ‘Fleabag’ and her sister range from touching to hilarious to fractious dread. Meanwhile, their beta-male Father (Bill Paterson), is also grieving and a full-on emotional trainwreck. He finds himself a rabbit-in-the-headlights of Olivia Colman’s ‘Godmother’; a genius at passive aggressivity and unlikely arch-villain, quietly stealing the father away from his daughters.
Many hilarious and painful scenes play out around dinner tables, art exhibitions, parties, funerals, seminars, retreats and weddings. ‘Fleabag’ vainly attempts normality but understandbly fails. In addition to her family she also conflicts with other characters, notably Claire’s horrendous-alcoholic-overgrown-man-child-husband, Martin. I was genuinely shouting bile at the TV screen every time I saw him. Thankfully, Fleabag also features fine supporting roles from more likeable characters portrayed by the ultra-talented Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott-Thomas and aforementioned Andrew Scott.
From Hancock to Steptoe and Son to Fawlty Towers to Blackadder to The Office to Spaced and to the most recent Gervais show After Life, British comedy has been replete with idiosyncratic and anti-heroic characters we root for. Indeed, it takes special writing and performances to get such shades of grey to work on stage and screen. Overall, Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedy and dramatic gold from them. Formally, she smashes the fourth wall with Brechtian direct address, welcoming us into her tumultuous reality, speaking to us and asking us to laugh and cry and love and hate and do what humans do: somehow just get through the day.
THE NETFLIX MEMORANDUM – INCLUDING REVIEWS OF: AFTERLIFE, THE DIRT, RUSSIAN DOLL, DAREDEVIL ETC.
For some insane reason I have given up alcohol for the year and the weight of reality and time burdens my everyday existence. First world problems abide. Anyway, while my liver breathes a huge sigh of relief, my mind still desires stimulus. Thus, I have, in my constant sobriety, had even more time to stream and watch even more films and television. These bitesize reviews look at the latest stuff I’ve seen on the behemoth streamer Netflix; with the usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Ricky Gervais’ latest fictional piece is a really enjoyable tragi-comedy. His everyman, Tony, is suffering severe grief following the passing of his wife. Sadly he allows misanthropy and suicidal thoughts to overcome his daily existence in the fictional town of Tambury. The comedy is founded on dark materials but filled with deep humanity as we watch Tony wrestle with his demons.
I especially loved the eccentric characters and jokes concerning Tony’s job as a reporter with the local newspaper. The supporting cast are a joy too and include brilliant comedians like: David Earl, Kerry Godliman, Joe Wilkinson, Tom Basden and Diane Morgan. The ensemble cast and fine writing combine to create a simple, funny and emotional journey through one’s man’s fight with depression and grief.(Mark: 9 out of 11)
ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT (2019)
I keep telling myself not to watch such true crime documentaries as they make me feel really sad about the state of human behaviour. This story from the United States was in documentary film form so I got pulled back in by not having to sit through ten episodes of horror. Also, I’d heard it was a pretty incredible story too so my interest was piqued by that.
Safe to say this grim tale of grooming, paedophilia and abduction that one family suffered at the hands of a human monster in the 1970s, is something you wish you could un-see. As a documentary film it is very well made but it does make you lament the gullibility of some people and sickness of others. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
DAREDEVIL (2018) – SEASON 3
I’d say Matt Murdoch’s Daredevil is my favourite of the Marvel/Netflix streamed offerings. Charlie Cox is a fine actor and the drama, fighting and villainous rendition of Wilson Fisk by Vincent D’Onofrio, make it essential viewing. While it takes a huge gulp to believe that a blind guy could be that great at fighting criminals with sight, once you buy into that premise the show offers a lot of fun.
While not scaling the heights of Season 1, and lacking the brutal Punisher (John Bernthal) side-plot of Season 2, this latest Season 3 finds Murdoch up against Fisk again and a new psychopath in rogue FBI agent, Ben Poindexter. Like other Marvel adaptations on Netflix it’s still five episodes too long and bogged down with plodding angst and lengthy dialogue scenes, so doesn’t quite hit the bulls-eye throughout. Nonetheless, it’s still compelling drama and the hand-to-hand fight scenes are an absolute sensation. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE DIRT (2019)
Crazed rock stars take drugs, smash up hotel rooms, screw groupies and almost die due to their excess is the unsurprising narrative ups and downs of this Motley Crue biopic. It’s not a bad watch but is essentially like a poorer version of This is Spinal Tap, without the incredible gag-rate. The film fleshes out the caricature members of the band showing their human side; Douglas Booth and Iwan Rheon bringing depth to their paper-thin roles. Moreover, while the era and stadium shows are really well emulated the direction lacks alot of imagination.
I mean, there was an intense film about addiction and human excess in here, and while we do get some moving scenes, notably with singer Vince Neil’s life struggles and Nikki Sixx’s heroin dependancy; ultimately the film did not dig deep enough into their characters. Still, fans of the band and their energetic rock music will love it no doubt. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
JESSICA JONES (2018) – SEASON 2
Kristen Ritter is back as Marvel’s hard-drinking, misanthropic and super-powered private investigator; and she remains very pissed off. Season 1 of Jessica Jones was absolutely brilliant due to David Tennant’s incredible villain, Kilgrave, and Jones’ character arc reflecting the damaging nature of controlling relationships.
Season 2, alas, is a plodding let-down full of filler episodes and weak sub-plots which quite frankly bored me. While Ritter holds the season together, the investigation into her past gets dragged down by soap operatics and a severe lack of pace and action. Mark: 6 out of 11
Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favourite actors and he is on good form as a crack hit-man daubed ‘The Black Kaiser’. There’s a decent B-movie in here somewhere but the attention-deficient and showy direction detract from a potentially interesting story of regret and redemption. Moreover, while the action scenes are deftly realised the stupid characterisation, exploitative sex scenes and amoral violence drag the film into the unwatchable territory.
The least said about Matt Lucas’ performance as the amoral ‘Mr Big’ the better; here a usually excellent comic actor is given appalling direction that, like most of the film, lacks subtlety, tone and emotion. (Mark: 3 out of 11)
RUSSIAN DOLL (2019)
Another Groundhog Day copy gets a run out with Natasha Lyonne’s sassy computer programmer finding herself living out the same day over and over with various insane diversions along the way. It starts off really interestingly with lots of crazy deaths, character revelations and existential suffering. However, it soon runs out of steam, adding up to eight dramatically paper-thin episodes, more style than content.
Lyonne, is a fine actor who I like very much, delivers every line like New York comedian Andrew Dice Clay and this grated on me in the end as I felt I was watching a stand-up performance rather than a fully-rounded character searching for the meaning of life. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
THE SINNER (2018) – SEASON 2
After the surprisingly excellent Season 1 of The Sinner, I was really looking forward to the second season. The cop show format is twisted in a really interesting way as we see the accused commit the crime, yet find the cop, in this case the impressive Bill Pullman, empathising with the criminal. Pullman’s Harry Ambrose is a brilliant creation. He’s not flashy or loquacious but a determined and dogged cop with his own personal demons.
Drawn to the troubled or underdog Ambrose digs for justice and redemption. In this story he sees his own past in the crimes of a 13 year-old boy accused of murder and is determined to find answers. Here the boy in question is given a compelling performance by Elisha Henig; and his characters’ commune existence and family history had me gripped throughout. A supporting cast including Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts also add real quality to this stirring psychological drama with themes relating to: physical and psychological abuse; religious cults; family tragedy; mental illness; and the darkness of the human spirit. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, Graham Gordy
Directors: Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim, Nic Pizzolatto
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Egogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher etc.
No. of episodes: 8
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Time is an unforgiving concept. It marches on and absolutely never stops until we are dust. While young we believe we have more time, but deep down we can see our own death. That fear will either drive us forward positively or send us insane. Old age is perhaps the bitterest turn in time we must suffer. If we live long enough to collect a litany of fine memories, the mind disintegrates them, cruelly disallowing us from recalling such happy moments. There is also regret. If you have a conscience you are likely to suffer regret. Regret of what you have done wrong, not done right and been simply incapable of doing. Lastly, it is said time and tide wait for no man or woman. But it is waiting; waiting for us to die.
Existential police procedural drama, True Detective, is back for a third season and very good it is too. Starring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as the, as usual, mismatched cops; it concerns the hunt for two missing children in the Ozarks, Arkansas. Further, the supporting cast include the impressive Carmen Egogo and always compelling Scoot McNairy. Set over eight compelling episodes we criss-cross three separate timelines that centre on the said case. Events unfold circa 1980 (when the crime occurred); circa 1990 (when the investigation is re-opened); and the present with the characters aged and withering from time’s unrelenting march. The complex structure really enhances the genre plot as the intriguing timelines over-lap and bleed into one another, thickening the mystery and heightening suspense.
While the criminal case is central to the conventions of the genre, writer Nic Pizzolatto is as much interested in the character development and themes pertaining to: love, time, regret, guilt, aging, memory and death. The character of lead detective, Wayne Hays (Ali) is fascinating. A former U.S. soldier who served in Vietnam, he is a complex soul striving for meaning and trying to do the righteous thing. Consistently, however, he finds his race and social standing a barrier to solving the crime. Through his trio of timelines we feel his sense of loss, love, isolation, anger, happiness and confusion. The confusion especially worsens when his older self is hit by Alzheimer’s. Indeed, it is incredibly heartfelt while he attempts to piece together events from memories past including: the crimes, his actions, violent events, and the romantic moments he had with his wife (Egogo.)
Once again, Mahershala Ali proves he is pound-for-pound one of the best actors around. He gives an incredibly nuanced and intelligent performance as Hays. To inhabit the same character in three different guises takes a particular skillset and the subtle differences in performance are a joy to behold. He is assisted by uniformly excellent direction and production design. Indeed, some of the editing is sublime as the images switch between the young Hays and older Hays brilliantly; dissolves, reflections and over-lapping montage effects used imaginatively throughout. Lastly, it’s was also great to see Stephen Dorff too in a prominent role as Hays’ no-nonsense partner, Roland West. Dorff provides ebullient support during the investigation and their friendship is a mainstay of the show.
After the scintillating first season which had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson burning the plasma off the TV screen with their intense performances, the unfocussed second season contained star acting power but a confused narrative. However, Season 3 is a fine return to form and if you love your cop shows: dark, existential, meditative, violent and intelligent, then this is definitely worth your time.
Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard
Producers: David Hyman, Joe Mande, Megan Amram
Starring: Kristen Bell, Wiliam Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Ted Danson
US Network: NBC / UK Platform: Netflix
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
“Hell is other people.” Jean Paul Sartre
So I started watching The Good Place with expectations of it being another slickly written and performed, shiny, sparkly and goofy American sitcom. I figured I would check it out, give it a season, enjoy and then allow it to slide into viewing obscurity. However, little did I realise it was going to be one of the funniest, intelligent, imaginative, philosophical, slick, shiny, goofy and densely plotted television shows I had seen in years.
Created by uber-comedy-producer Michael Schur, The Good Place, has an immediately fascinating high-concept premise. Set in the ‘after-life’, it deals with the lives and deaths of four disparate characters, namely: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). They have all died and gone to a version of heaven, but there’s been a mistake. Eleanor is the snag. Due to a cosmic confusion she should not be there. Her behaviour ratings on Earth are so low she should have gone to ‘The Bad Place’ instead.
Frantically attempting to cover up this hellish mistake, the immoral, selfish and petualnt Eleanor enlists the indecisive but very moral Chidi to teach her how to be good. Thus, begins one of the major themes of the show: what does it mean to be a good person? As a moral philosophy professor when alive, Chidi, reluctantly agrees to train Eleanor. However, she is so inherently selfish it proves a tough task, and much humour comes from Chidi and Eleanor’s life perspectives clashing. Overseeing the “guests'” everyday lives are the architect/angel (arch-angel geddit!), Michael, played with the usual comic brilliance by Ted Danson; and super enthusiastic, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a personified, sentient, artificially-intelligent computer.
The Good Place starts strong with a brilliant premise and then cascades into a series of incredible events, flashbacks and character reveals, culminating in some hilarious and ingenious narrative twists. Michael Schur is a past master of ensemble comedy, having worked on the The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation; and here his army of writers, actors, designers and effects team serve his fantastic vision superbly. Moreover, the cast zing out the screwball-comedy paced dialogue and gags with laser-sharp comedy timing, with Kristen Bell the pick of the lot. The flashback scenes which show Eleanor back on Earth illustrating why she should go to hell are particularly hilarious. Of course, she’s not precisely evil but very human; she’s just not very good at being human.
Thus, if you want a television show which is shiny on the outside but actually quite dark on the inside then this is for you. The Good Place makes you both laugh and think. It deals with death, religion, heaven, hell, human behaviour and also gives insight into basic philosophy. I mean, it’s educational too; you learn about Camus, Sartre, Kant, Mill and many more! Overall, all three seasons zip along full of zinging one-liners that had me breathless from start to finish and it has heart too. You get to love these characters, despite their faults, and the show certainly leaves you in a very good place.
Writers: Brett Johnson, Jerry Stahl, Michael Tolkin
Starring: Patrica Arquette, Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange, David Morse etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
“Based on a true story” is a sentence we often find before many television dramas and feature films. It goes without saying that some are truer to their source events than others. The recent Oscar winner Green Book (2018), is a case in point, with the family of Dr Shirley quite rightly up in arms about the incorrect representations of family history on screen. Having said that, and despite the rather simplistic political rendition of race relations in said film, if I enjoy something I’m not bothered too much about historical accuracy. What one is after is a flavour and authenticity of truth. I accept that the truth should not get in the way of good drama and lets be honest Hollywood has never been frightened of downright fabrication to tell its tall tales. Obviously, one refutes ridiculous or incredible lies but ultimately, if you don’t like the bending of reality then stop watching films and television.
Based on the “true story” of a prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, during 2015, this superior genre serial is gritty and authentic and feels so real in the direction and performances it hurts. Whether it’s the truth is another story, yet what the writers and director Ben Stiller have delivered are eight episodes of cinematic television of the highest order. It begins and moves at a very slow pace establishing the aftermath of the main events, before flashing back and setting the scenes month-by-month of the personalities and their respective actions.
The first character we meet is Patricia Arquette’s brassy machine room supervisor, Tilly Mitchell. She’s bold and ballsy and dominates her relationship with husband, Lyle. Lyle himself, is portrayed effectively by Eric Lange as a tragic and loyal simpleton. Both of them are bad hair, big teeth and strangled accents, trapped by their class, work and lack of finance. While Lyle simply accepts his lot, Tilly is drawn to the prisoners she is meant to be supervising and ventures into illegal and inappropriate behaviour with the inmates. Arquette absolutely nails the humanity of a character who, in her fifties stuck in a dead-end job, desperately seeks attention and excitement. This makes her a hard target in such a masculine and testosteronic environment. However, she is more than happy to encourage and collude with said prisoners.
Prison dramas have always presented a fascinating way of analysing human nature and behaviour. The individuals are trapped in enclosed spaces and given many inmates’ proclivity to violence, they soon become a powder keg of fizzing egos and surging tension. Casting superb actors such as Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano in the leads was a masterstroke. Both are expert at playing complex human beings and one of the challenges for a writer can be to get empathy for characters that are imprisoned for violent crimes. Yet, the actors, writers and director all manage to balance the tension between representing antagonistic characters in a sympathetic light. Indeed, even though we know Del Toro’s Richard Matt and Dano’s David Sweat are dangerous criminals, the story really drags us into their painstakingly patient escape work. Each episode builds obstacles they must overcome, almost until the suspense becomes unbearable. Lastly, while Dano’s tunnel-vision determination moves them toward the light, Del Toro’s manipulative hard man controls both Tilly and David Morse’s prison guard, Gene Palmer.
Overall, this is a superior prison genre serial; virtually cinematic in its casting, direction, locations, setting and performance. It takes a familiar narrative of a prison escape but transcends the genre with Arquette’s, Del Toro’s and Dano’s incredibly human and believable performances. These are not likable characters and they are not even anti-heroes to root for. Undoubtedly, though the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year. Director Ben Stiller deserves credit too for delivering a consistently balanced body of work here. Known more for his comedic film output there’s a maturity to Escape at Dannemara which offers authenticity in character and setting. If Stiller and his writers have bent the truth in any way then it does not offend my sensibilities; in fact I openly welcome it when the outcome is as absorbing as this.