The week in TV: I Am Victoria; Cruel Summer; The Boy Who Can’t Stop Dancing; Jerk

Suranne Jones takes falling apart to another level; a new US teen thriller could prove addictive; and a young dancer with cystic fibrosis commands the screen

I Am Victoria (Channel 4) | All 4
Cruel Summer (Amazon Prime Video) |
The Boy Who Can’t Stop Dancing (Channel 4) | All 4
Jerk BBC One | iPlayer

There’s no mellow easing into I Am Victoria. From the moment Suranne Jones appears as the title character, it’s clear that she’s struggling in deep psychological waters: eyes darting at unseen threats; teeth bared in an animalistic rictus; neurotically polishing cutlery in her pale, pristine show home; slapping her face as part of a skincare regime that seems akin to self-harm via the medium of moisturiser.

The twin sense of unease and dysfunction persists as Victoria pesters her husband – Top Boy’s Ashley Walters, all understated wariness – to wake their children (on a weekend), curtly issues work instructions over the phone, frantically makes the bed (“Just put the fucking cushions back!”) and humiliates her sister when she asks for money (a scene crackling with mutual microaggressions). By the time Victoria is preparing to entertain guests like she’s running a war room with canapes (“I want it nice!”), you think you’ve got her sussed: she’s one of those exhausting perfectionists who’s all about the facade, the exterior; it doesn’t matter if the inside is an unholy mess. But then Victoria’s psyche starts to explode and shatter on a whole new level: when was the last time you saw someone bite down on a soya milk carton to stop themselves screaming?

Victoria opens a new trio of standalone episodes of Dominic Savage’s celebrated I Am … anthology, which is committed to illuminating the excesses and subtleties of feminine inner worlds. The 2019 first series featured Vicky McClure, Gemma Chan and Samantha Morton, who was Bafta-nominated for her portrayal of a fraught single mother. This time there are powerful performances to come from Letitia Wright (undone by love) and Lesley Manville (in crisis). First, though, there is this audaciously messy detonation of a performance from Jones. She starts at such a febrile pitch, you wonder if she’s left herself anywhere to go, but she manages to scorch a way through. As the hour unfolds, the issue becomes not about whether Victoria needs help (that much is instantly obvious), but if she can stop hating herself long enough to get it.

If you’re in the market for a bubblegum-popping teen thriller, then Amazon Prime Video’s Cruel Summer could be for you. Named after songs by Bananarama or Taylor Swift (your pick), co-executive-produced by Jessica Biel, already a massive hit for the US cable channel Freeform, this 10-parter is set in small-town Texas, with a story that flicks between 1993, 1994 and 1995.

Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) is all braces and glasses (the go-to screen signifiers of high-school nerdiness), in awe of heavily semaphored popular girl Kate (Olivia Holt). A year later, Jeanette has co-opted Kate’s boyfriend and friends, while Kate is missing. Another year passes, and Jeanette is a pariah, accused by Kate, now returned, of knowing where she was kept by her teacher-kidnapper (Blake Lee) but failing to raise the alarm.

Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia and Allius Barnes in Cruel Summer.
Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia and Allius Barnes in Cruel Summer. Photograph: Bill Matlock/Freeform

Cruel Summer is far from perfect: the erratic time-hopping meant I mainly knew what year it was by Jeanette’s hair: bushy/diffident in 1993, sleek/glossy in 1994, short/angry in 1995 (jot this down, you’ll need it). Moreover, while Cruel Summer “does” the 90s (video rentals, chatrooms back when social media was just a baby), it doesn’t reach for the generational pulse as HBO’s more left-field Euphoria did.

Still, you could see Cruel Summer rivalling Netflix’s Riverdale for teen melodrama. Just as Jeanette successfully embodies geek ruthlessness, Kate doesn’t fall into the bear trap of mean girl cliche. Three episodes in, the plot was still twisting, with doubts creeping in not just about Jeanette’s narrative reliability, but Kate’s too. Most crucially, Cruel Summer understands the hot, shifting sands of teen psychology: “She’s not a sociopath, she’s a teenage girl.” As teen noir goes, this could prove addictive.

Poppy Goodheart’s Channel 4 documentary The Boy Who Can’t Stop Dancing was gently devastating. It followed Tom Oakley, a former contestant on BBC One’s The Greatest Dancer, as he applied to the prestigious Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Tom, 17, is a working-class Liverpudlian, but this was no Billy Elliot retread: Tom has cystic fibrosis, the genetic condition that affects the lungs and the digestive system and shortens life.

Tom Oakley in the ‘gently devastating’ The Boy Who Can’t Stop Dancing.
Tom Oakley in the ‘gently devastating’ The Boy Who Can’t Stop Dancing. Photograph: Tuesday's Child TV

What ensued was a dark ballet of creative yearning, medical jeopardy, family love and ceaseless, gnawing anxiety, all played out in lockdown, which derailed Tom’s training. It was painful to witness him grappling with the reality of his condition: “I go – woah! – I’m not going to live as long as this person sat next to me.” He views dance as “medication”, but also takes 75 to 100-plus pills a day: he showed some of them to the camera, ominously rattling around in his palm. For all the artistry on display, Tom’s personality was the true box-office draw here: a cat’s cradle of resolve, charm and vulnerability. I won’t reveal the outcome, but as he walked into Rambert for the audition, the phrase “on tenterhooks” never felt spikier.

Tim Renkow and Helen Monks in Jerk.
Tim Renkow and Helen Monks in Jerk. Photograph: Adam Lawrence/BBC/ Roughcut TV

Last week saw the return of another, quite different disability-centred show: Jerk, the four-part, UK-based BBC black comedy in which Tim (US comedian Tim Renkow, who has cerebral palsy) relishes exploiting his disability.

Co-created with Shaun Pye (whose other disability comedy, There She Goes, stars David Tennant and Jessica Hynes)) and Stu Richards, the second series opened with the return of the previously deported Tim, clanking his walker through UK customs, jeering: “It’s so easy to get into this country.” After reuniting with his uncaring care worker, Ruth (Sharon Rooney), and uncool friend Idris (Rob Madin), Tim goes to college and starts identifying as able-bodied, to the scorn of Ruth: “If you really are able-bodied, you have no excuse for that smell.”

If anything, Jerk has sharpened up from the first series, conjuring wickedly unsentimental commentaries on disability and public hypocrisy worthy of Larry David: Tim frightening children; Tim being “exorcised” by an evangelical preacher. As Tim’s mum, Lorraine Bracco (yes, that Lorraine Bracco from Goodfellas and The Sopranos) once again steals scenes with throwaway caustic asides: “Don’t be getting anyone pregnant, OK, because they’ll come out like you.” Far from being “message-comedy”, Jerk smashes and subverts disability taboos just for the sheer hell of it.

What else I’m watching

Write Around the World With Richard E Grant
BBC Four | iPlayer
A travel series with an intriguing premise: fabled actor Richard E Grant (insert your favourite Withnail quote here) travels the world visiting places associated with authors including Elena Ferrante, Charles Dickens and Patricia Highsmith.

Mr Corman
Apple TV+ |
Hollywood actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt embraces the small-screen streaming invasion as creator, writer, director and star of this low-key, normcore dramedy series about a teacher who once dreamed of becoming a musician. Also stars Debra Winger and Juno Temple.

Motorhoming With Merton & Webster
Channel 5 | My5
For those scarred by childhood “motoring” holidays (for some of us, the word “caravanette” chills the soul), husband-and-wife team Paul Merton and Suki Webster could help heal wounds with this amusing road-trip series examining the exploding UK staycation scene.

Suki Webster and Paul Merton in the Lake District.
Suki Webster and Paul Merton in the Lake District. Photograph: Curve Media


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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