As I preview three very different TV shows premiering in early 2012, there is hope for real quality, but also a definite risk of things we’ve all seen before.
Luck, Sky Atlantic, February 2012 (above)
At first glance, particularly from the trailer, the writers of Luck seem to be going with the idea that it would be possible to make an HBO dark drama about pogs, given enough shouting, gruff voices and horror movie musical effects. This one happens to be about horse racing. Judging by the pilot, which was released over a month in advance, the show has promise in some regard, with attractively sparse visuals alongside a soundtrack that is genuinely stirring at times. The Hollywood cast (Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte et al) may attract some viewers, but doesn’t actually promise anything positive or negative in itself. The plot revolves around jockeys, gamblers and race-fixing horse owners, and is kick-started by a group of down-and-out gamblers falling into an unlikely big win. The true test, however, will be the direction the plot takes. All shows of this kind must sooner or later depart from their initial selling point. It may sound like a minor issue, but the overall quality of the final product hinges on how well this is done. The Wire evolved from cops and robbers and Breaking Bad improved hugely after leaving the goony teacher and stereotypical youth double act. At the other end of the spectrum, Entourage became a ridiculous mess by jerking too sharply away from the safe (though repetitive) theme of everyone working to get roles for the main character. Luck certainly has a broad enough character base and a rich enough setting to evolve. The main risk is that when the time comes to inevitably move away from rigging horse races, all that will remain is a basic and unoriginal gangland chess game, the audience rooting for the pawns with a slight feeling of déjà vu.
Call the Midwife, BBC1, 15 January 2012
With Miranda Hart in the co-lead role, most of the (limited) buzz about Call the Midwife has revolved around how she will handle the transition from silly comedy to anything that isn’t silly comedy. Whilst it might seem an unfair question, her inclusion does seem to be an attention-grabbing tactic. Anyway, leaving the cast aside, the six-part drama is based on the writings of Jennifer Worth, following a group of midwives in 1950s London. Not one for the squeamish, the actual birthing process is set to feature heavily, with two or more births per episode the figure currently circulating. The show’s appearance at this time is no coincidence; the wave of gritty, true-to-life dramas about recent British history has been borne along swiftly in recent months, with This is England ’88 only a few weeks old. There are twin traps gaping in front of any show that joins this bandwagon, the first being that it will mainly serve to inspire look-how-bad-they-had-it sentiments with a light smearing of be-thankful-for-what-we-have-now, and the second being the dreaded “celebration” of the national spirit and resilience. Being that the viewing majority actually responds well to these overdone themes, the producers can’t be blamed for billing the show as exactly these two things. The actual substance of Call the Midwife, however, could be very different – let’s hope for period accuracy without the need for primetime happy-ending syndrome.
Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, E4, 26 January 2012
Last but not least, we have Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy. Though Fielding is by no means the finest comedian around, it is difficult to deny that he has a very sharp wit and an excellent eye for absurdist humour. He has performed admirably on Never Mind the Buzzcocks without the aid of Mighty Boosh co-star Julian Barratt, but this will be his first major series without his partner-in-crime. Like any show that is earmarked as quirky or alternative, Luxury Comedy has garnered some odd epithets. Chief among these is “the show is like biting into an aurora borealis sandwich”, which at first seems humiliating and cringeworthy, but then at second glance is actually amusing and, in a way, oddly informative. The format of the show is no less unusual, presented as a mixture of live action and animation, combining sitcom elements with the overall feel of a sketch show. Many of the specifics sound suspiciously Mighty Boosh-esque, particularly the fact that Fielding plays a comedy version of himself, living in a mystical jungle with talking animals. This is by no means a negative, but it does present the risk of this just being Mighty Boosh without the crucial comedy foil (imagine The Hitcher without the bit when he pisses on Howard Moon’s face). Then again playing to one’s strengths can be a wise move; it is the quality of the writing and the edge of the humour that will make or break this interesting prospect.