The week in TV: Temple; State of the Union; Conspiracy Files and more

Mark Strong’s subterranean surgeon makes a bloody marvellous debut, while couple’s therapy is compulsive viewing

Temple Sky One |
State of the Union BBC Two | iPlayer
Conspiracy Files: the Billionaire Global Mastermind? BBC Two | iPlayer
The Loudest Voice Sky Atlantic |
Top Boy Netflix

Last week a quite wonderful, if possessed of laughably dubious ethics drama-thriller got going deep beneath the churning streets of St Mary le Strand. The first 10 minutes of Temple, set beneath the eponymous tube station that most Londoners forget, are almost a frame-for-frame simulacrum of the original Norwegian TV drama Valkyrien, but because of Sky’s budget, and the strength of Daniel Mays and Mark Strong (also invested as executive producer), this somehow feels more urgent, more substantial. Certainly more gory: you don’t want to be gorging on oysters when Strong, in just the first episode, has to excise a bank robber’s otter-slippy spleen.

It’s loopy enough, admittedly, as an entire premise – brilliant surgeon hides his terminally ill wife deep in the rusty dripping bowels of a station, to secretly research a cure – but if you can just, pretty please, suspend your disbelief for long enough to get your talons into it, it’s hugely rewarding. There’s the search for the longed-for cure, yes, but that’s almost a sideshow: the dramas will mostly revolve around the secrecy, the squirrelly exits, fraught issues of trust and just how far Dr Milton can fund his labour of love by providing private clinical rescue to those who have a greater need than most for anonymity.

Talking of moreishly watchable, I found it quite impossible to stop myself racing through all 10 episodes of State of the Union. I’m not generally a fan of binge-watching – it makes this job hard, to write for both the seen-it-all yadda-yadda and those who shriek “spoiler offence” when you let slip the merest hint of the murderer’s identity – but these episodes are 10-minute chunks and can be indulged in one glut without acid reflux; it’s almost rude not to.

Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd in State of the Union.
Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd chew over their failing marriage in State of the Union. Photograph: Parisatag Hizadeh/BBC/Confession TV Limited (2018)

Because they’re so good. It’s a simple formula, but the ingredients have to be perfect for such successful shorts – or “short-form” if you want to sound faintly a) au fait, because you’re in the trade yourself, or b) pretentious. Written by Nick Hornby, directed by Stephen Frears, they are basic double-headers between Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike, meeting in a north London gastropub to neck a quick one (pint of Pride, dry white wine) before their weekly couple’s therapy counselling.

Hornby long ago proved he could write not only engaging prose but was also an adept at credible on-screen dialogue, with all the interrupty stuff and the non-sequiturs that involves. O’Dowd is his usual clever shaggy bear self; Pike quite a comedy find, even if you wonder, up until about halfway through, how the two could ever have got together in the first place, let alone survive marriage until one had to scratch that 15-year-itch.

The answer’s obvious, if closed to them because it’s in such open view: a shared and terribly singular sense of humour. Almost needless to say, all the real therapy is done in these pre-drinks: the cameras depart shortly after the pub door swings shut; indeed, the therapist is only essentially there as a weekly device for Tom and Louise to bond over. “Kenyon” becomes, almost, the shared enemy and you can’t help feeling as this progresses that they’d both be happier sitting with one more drink, one more bittersweet laugh, one more rescued misunderstanding.

Never cloying, the opposite of mawkish, it’s grown-up, human and classy and saves Sunday nights for the next few weeks if you can refrain from instant gratification.

It was an odd experience to come straight from a real-life factual BBC Two thing – a Conspiracy Files special on the squalid myths around George Soros – to the third episode of the increasingly enthralling The Loudest Voice, the still real but heavily fictionalised story of Roger Ailes, the man behind Fox News. I say odd but it actually made one feel squeamish and wriggly: to find oneself assailed by so much bitterness, so much anger.

The BBC Two doc set up the narratives with dispassion (Soros as world chief Jew, encouraging open borders for migrants to take over whitey’s lands, all the better for his bloated gloating profit), only to knock them all tumbling, almost with a lazy swipe. Not one conspiracy survived the merest blink of exposure to daylight. Still, inadequates such as Salvini and Erdoğan fight on for “proof”. Or, more accurately, they fight on to continue the necessary “othering” of a hate-figure, a hate-race, to blame.

Ailes on the other hand, recreated with splendid fat-suited enormity (in the literal, base, depraved sense of the word) by Russell Crowe, is an adequate man, or at least rich, and is finding himself in 2008 spitting bitterness against the incoming (black) president and his boss’s own then wife, Wendi Deng. “For all we know she’s already working for fucking Obama. Or the Chinese government.”

Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice.
Russell Crowe dons the latex as Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice. Photograph: Showtime/Jojo Whilden

And no one can spit like Russell Crowe (or, for all we know, crow like Russell Spitt). Dear heaven, but we have created dreadful times since the turn of the century, polarising the smuggest certainties and moronisms of both left and right. This is a series growing in its greatness, and too in its enormity. This is also a series in which Rupert Murdoch plays the calming voice of liberal reason.

Top Boy has made its move from acclaimed terrestrial production (though Channel 4 canned it in 2013) to Netflix. With it comes obviously a bigger budget, splits between Hackney and Jamaica and some more fine and urgently credible acting from the likes of Ashley Walters and newcomer Micheal Ward. Yet I’m afraid it all got a bit much for me. The rap, the jargon: even with subtitles, there were entire paragraphs that meant as much to me as Suomi.

I can, almost, see how good it is. It’s sharply written and an aching humanity seeps through always; despite the near-constant menace, there is always a tenderness towards family or just towards those worse off. And it’s wholly authentic to those worlds I’m sure. I just don’t know – can’t probably ever now know. I’m not likely at this age and stage to start importing hard drugs from Jamaica to east London, what with all the necessary guns and air fares.

I felt able to love The Wire (was I “allowed” to love The Wire?), yet in a sense that surely spoke to swaths of America, and spoke of a universal poverty, coalesced around a Baltimore noir. This feels, somehow, much more niche, exclusive. And, thus, exclusionary.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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