The week in TV: Top Boy; Holding; WeCrashed; Ukraine: Should We Do More?

Ronan Bennett’s concrete western returns in style; there’s humour and pathos in an adaptation of Graham Norton’s novel; and a corporate downfall saga upends the American dream

Top Boy | Netflix
Holding (ITV) | ITV Hub
WeCrashed | AppleTV+
Ukraine: Should We Do More? (Channel 4) | All 4

Like all great shows about drug-dealing, Top Boy – set on an east London housing estate – couldn’t care less about drugs. Returning for the pandemic-delayed Netflix second series, the fourth if you count the first two on Channel 4 (and you must), still largely written by creator Ronan Bennett and directed by, among others, Brady Hood, there’s a pointed lack of vicarious Scarface-style thrills. Titular “Top Boy” Dushane (Ashley Walters) doesn’t shove his face into a mound of cocaine. Drugs – coded as “food” – could be cornflakes for all the ceremony they’re afforded.

In truth, Top Boy isn’t about drugs, it’s about love, death, loyalty, money, power, rivalry, betrayal. If it glamorises anything, it’s the concept of found-family – of belonging – until, shockingly, it doesn’t even glamorise that any more.

Arriving in eight parts (available as a box set), the new series kicks off with Jamie (Micheal Ward) leaving prison, and, in spite of his attempted coup, going back to work with Dushane. “It’s just bad we’re here again, innit,” says Dushane, softly smiling with all the warmth of a slowly surfacing shark. Completing our trio of crack-cocaine musketeers, there’s Sully (Kane – Kano – Robinson), living on a barge (just go with it) and nursing grudges that throb like malignant tumours.

From there, it’s a dizzying whirl around a multifaceted hell: with themes including Windrush, Spanish-Moroccan drug-runs, dumped bodies, and an ending so stark you almost feel like ordering them back to re-do it. Female characters push through stronger: sphinx-like Jaq (Emmy-nominated Jasmine Jobson) finds a lesbian lover, and grapples with a terrifying Liverpool-based subplot; Shelley (Simbi – Little Simz – Ajikawo) has secrets oozing up from the London mud. Just as there are plans to gentrify the Summerhouse estate, Dushane – trying to go “legit” – seems a little refurbished himself: he keeps reminding people to remove their shoes before entering his palatial new pad.

While such scenes echo Idris Elba as Stringer Bell sweating over his drug baron business plans, Top Boy continues to transcend its “British-Wire” roots. It isn’t perfect – the Windrush/gentrification themes feel tacked-on – but it’s not tired either. It remains a wild and terrible concrete western, blessed with note-perfect performances.

Conleth Hill as self-doubting garda Sgt PJ Collins, with Clinton Liberty as Linus, in Holding
Conleth Hill as self-doubting garda Sgt PJ Collins, with Clinton Liberty as Linus, in Holding. Photograph: ITV

On ITV, a new four-part Irish mystery drama Holding arrives brandishing robust credentials: it stars Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones; Dublin Murders), is written by Dominic Treadwell-Collins and Karen Cogan (adapting Graham Norton’s well received 2016 novel) and directed by Kathy Burke, an actor who knows plenty about unshowy human truths.

Hill plays PJ, a self-doubting police garda, still considered a “blow-in” to his remote area of West Cork after nearly four years, and whose helpless binge-eating speaks of entrenched miseries. When human bones are unearthed, he and brash city-detective (Clinton Liberty) must solve a 20-year-old murder, with suspects including the dead man’s jilted bride, portrayed by Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael in Derry Girls), and his not-so-secret lover (Charlene McKenna).

I enjoyed the opener, even if, at points, its depiction of the small community did veer dangerously towards “Irish theme park”, full of drunken/cavorting/gossiping stereotypes all but clad in leprechaun hats. Elsewhere, racial/LGBTQ elements (lesbian couples; gay, black police detectives) barely seem to register, which feels odd considering the otherwise heavily signposted “smalltown/small-minds” setting. Peeking ahead, the denouement could have been lifted from a slow episode of Vera.

Still, there’s genuine sweetness, humour and pathos here, and lovely moments. Hill manages to convey PJ’s mid-life anxiety with the simple act of furtively unbuttoning his trousers to eat. And there’s the strangest, tenderest sex scene you’re ever likely to see. Watch out for Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot), whose role as PJ’s abrasive housekeeper segues into more haunting powerful territory.

Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto in WeCrashed.
‘Almost too convincing’: Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto in WeCrashed. Photograph: Peter Kramer/Apple TV

Apple TV+’s eight-part WeCrashed, adapted from the Wondery podcast of the same name tells the real-life story of WeWork (the company behind the shared workspace/lifestyle concept), and how its stock-market value boomed and then plummeted. It focuses on WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann and his wife, Rebekah, played by Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway, with a strong supporting cast, including America Ferrera (Ugly Betty).

Leto and Hathaway are almost too convincing as the global New Age entrepreneurs. “I don’t want to be a billionaire, I want to be a trillionaire,” says Adam, his eyes gleaming like a hipster Willy Wonka. “I’m a serious vegan” drones zombie-voiced Rebekah (incidentally, the real-life cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow).

In the three available episodes, a tedious amount of time is wasted on how the couple met (who cares?). Nor did I completely grasp the WeWork “revolution”, but don’t mind me, I’m clearly too past-it to grasp the corporate-community magic of table-football, beanbags, and Hustle Harder neon signs.

Things vastly improve in episode three, with the unfolding of a hilariously disastrous WeWork festival, and the millennial workforce twigging that they’re getting paid in free beer while the bosses arrive in helicopters. I’m not sure that corporate-downfall sagas are always so flat-out telegenic – see also, Disney+’s recent The DropOut starring Amanda Seyfried – but let’s hope that WeCrashed keeps aiming for the darker underbelly of the American Dream.

Matt Frei hosts Ukraine: Should We Do More? on Channel 4.
Matt Frei hosts Ukraine: Should We Do More? on Channel 4. Photograph: ITN/Channel 4

A special edition of Channel 4 News introduced the live debate Ukraine: Should We Do More?, hosted by Matt Frei, who has recently returned from a month’s reporting in Ukraine. Filmed in front of a studio audience, some of whom had family trapped in the country, it featured a guest panel including Lord Richard Harrington, the new minister for refugees, and Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general.

This was a fast-paced, intense hour dealing with issues such as the (belated) plans for refugees, the cost of sanctions for Britain – as well as for Russia – and whether more should be done militarily. Dr Olenka Pevny, from the University of Cambridge, argued that genocide was unfolding before our eyes. Others expressed concern that introducing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would trigger a third world war. This was a brave choice for a live discussion, and, although occasionally hectic, it was handled well. However useless “just talking” might feel, the conversation must continue.

What else I’m watching…

Samuel L Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
Samuel L Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Photograph: Apple TV

Jeremy Kyle: Death On Daytime
(Channel 4)
Disturbing examination of Jeremy Kyle’s cultural dominance, and subsequent fall, when his show was cancelled in 2019 after the suicide of a guest, sparking a national debate about “TV bear-baiting”.

The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey
(Apple TV)
Samuel L Jackson stars in this miniseries based on the 2010 Walter Mosley novel about a dementia sufferer who befriends a teenager, while reflecting on a life rooted in the horrors of the Deep South.

Formula 1: Drive To Survive
Return of the high-octane sports docuseries, covering the moneyed in-fighting and outsized egos in Formula One. It contains behind-the-scenes footage of the controversial Lewis Hamilton/Max Verstappen finale race in Abu Dhabi that drew 108.7 million viewers worldwide.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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