The week in TV: Colin in Black and White; The Outlaws; The Long Call; Universe

Netflix covers almost all bases in its hybrid series on knee-taking quarterback Colin Kaepernick; the stars collide for Stephen Merchant and Brian Cox; and move over Vera?

Colin in Black and White (Netflix) |
The Outlaws (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Long Call (ITV) |
Universe (BBC Two) | iPlayer

You only have to watch footage of then-president Donald Trump slating Colin Kaepernick (“HE’S FIRED!”) to realise how much the former San Francisco 49er quarterback shook up sectors of white America. Four years before the killing of George Floyd, Kaepernick started sitting and kneeling at NFL games during the US national anthem, in protest at racial injustice and police brutality. Polarising public opinion, he found himself unsigned at the end of the 2016 season and further immersed himself in civil rights activism.

Netflix’s new six-part series Colin in Black and White, co-created by Ava DuVernay (Selma; When They See Us) and written by Michael Starrbury (When They See Us), is an ambitious blend of biography, sitcom and polemic that focuses on Kaepernick’s high-school years in Turlock, California. Colin (well played by Jaden Michael), who is obsessed with becoming a quarterback, is the adopted mixed-race son of loving, albeit racially naive white parents: Nick Offerman without the Parks and Recreation tache, alongside Mary-Louise Parker in mom jeans.

What could all get a bit “Wonder Years: Locker Room Edition” is shot through with Kaepernick himself gatecrashing the episodes to make Ted Talk-style observations about structural racism. A commanding, suited figure, he covers everything from “aggressive” black hairstyles to societal devaluation of black beauty to white privilege – “the audacity of whiteness” – that young Colin gradually realises he doesn’t possess, whether being gawped at in hotel lobbies or driving his father’s car. “I assumed [my parents’] privilege was mine,” muses Kaepernick. “I was in for a rude awakening.”

It’s a bold approach, with myriad diversions: hip-hop, historical black figures, Trump’s microphone-chewing rants, where his face turns a fetching shade of boiling Lucozade. Sometimes, the half-hour episodes get too choppy and busy, and as time goes on, Kaepernick bangs on repetitively about his teen preference for football over a lucrative future in baseball (memo to Mr Kaepernick: give audiences credit for understanding the first time). I’m not convinced that Colin in Black and White is as interesting or trailblazing as its subject, but it works as a starter bundle of complex race issues for young sports fans.

It’s not every day you get to see Christopher Walken ambling about a community project in Bristol. What next: Joe Pesci chugging in Birmingham’s Bullring? New BBC One six-part dramedy The Outlaws, starring, co-written and directed by Bristolian Stephen Merchant (The Office; Extras; Hello Ladies), certainly hasn’t stinted on casting: Dolly Wells, Clare Perkins, Eleanor Tomlinson, Darren Boyd, Gamba Cole, with Claes Bang and Richard E Grant to come. The premise is that seven small-fry lawbreakers are thrown together to renovate a building as community service in Bristol. So far, so aged-up, earthbound Misfits. Rani, “studious Asian good girl” turned shoplifter, played by Rhianne Barreto, observes: “Everyone’s a type: rightwing blowhard, leftwing militant, celebutante, shifty old timer.” There’s also Merchant as a dweeb solicitor, and Jessica Gunning as an officious overseer, who is inevitably reminiscent of Gareth from The Office, with an added soupçon of civic authority.

Christopher Walken in The Outlaws.
Christopher Walken in The Outlaws. Photograph: BBC/Big Talk/Four Eyes

I’d wondered if Walken’s Hollywood star power would swamp things, but in the overstuffed opener his rogue barely gets a look-in. While some jokes worked, others didn’t: one about “working harder than a prostitute with two mattresses” was Jeremy Clarkson-worthy (and no, making it come out of Walken’s mouth doesn’t make it any funnier). When another (unconnected) sex worker theme pops up in the second episode (both are available), it starts feeling borderline creepy.

Merchant has forged his own path since working with Ricky Gervais, but in the Outlaws opener, too many genres are crudely bolted together: comedy, crime, heartwarming drama, a bizarre segue into gangland Top Boy territory. The second episode, though, is a significant (funnier, tighter) improvement. I’ll be sticking around, not least for Walken’s Transylvanian mini-break of a face incongruously bobbing around the Bristol environs.

Crime novelist Ann Cleeves appears to have colonised British crime drama with Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn, BBC One’s Shetland, with Douglas Henshall, and now The Long Call. Shown over four consecutive nights last week, and set amid chalky Devon harbours, this adaptation of Cleeves’s book of the same name by Kelly Jones features happily married gay detective Matthew Venn (played by Ben Aldridge), who is dragged back to his roots, first by the death of his father, then by a man found dead on the beach.

The situation is complicated by Venn having fled the ultra-religious Amish-adjacent (and homophobic) cult of his childhood, led by a menacing Martin Shaw, to which his mother (a headscarved Juliet Stevenson) still belongs, and which appears to operate a strict “oatmeal/damp gravel hues only” dress code.

Anita Dobson, Nia Gwynne and Juliet Stevenson in The Long Call.
Anita Dobson, Nia Gwynne and Juliet Stevenson in The Long Call. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

The Long Call suffers from being convoluted. Suspicious types (Shaw, Stevenson, Neil Morrissey, Anita Dobson, Siobhán Cullen and more), and lurking motives (hit and runs, controlling spouses, pregnancies, thwarted love) abound to the point of plot saturation. Still, there is much to enjoy in Aldridge’s elegant, slow-burn performance, especially when offset by Pearl Mackie’s lively fire as his detective partner.

Messianic: Brian Cox.
Messianic: Brian Cox. Photograph: BBC

Talking of sinister religious cults, is eminent physicist Brian Cox thinking of leading one? I ask, because there were times during the opening episode of Universe, his new five-part BBC Two series on the origin story of the cosmos, when his delivery (always Marvel film trailer-level dramatic) verged on Old Testament biblical. In Cox’s world, it’s all about galaxies “colliding”, black holes “devouring”, the Nasa Solar Parker Probe being the first spacecraft to “touch a star” and early stars being “volatile, violent giants”. As for the sun, it is “creator and destroyer” and due to die in about 5 billion years.

In Universe, all of this is accompanied by the kind of overwrought, uber-cosmic visuals that made one think of how it must have felt to be trapped screaming at a Jean-Michel Jarre concert, circa Oxygène. For all this, Cox has an undeniable super-power: he takes the hopelessly complex and simplifies it, so that everyone can understand. I know this is what documentaries are supposed to do, but they don’t always manage it, do they? Brian Cox does, messianic delivery and all.

What else I’m watching

Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story
Poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s documentary (first shown on BT Sport 3) explores the debt owed by British football to Caribbean migration. Instructive, forthright, with interviewees including John Barnes and Tyrone Mings, it’s 90 minutes of black British sporting history.

Stath Lets Flats
(Channel 4)
The third series of Jamie Demetriou’s Bafta-garlanded turn as a bungling north London lettings agent. Imminently facing fatherhood, Stath is an incompetent-slash-fantasist from the Frank Spencer school of British comedy. A sitcom to be applauded for its defiant silliness.

Schoolgirl Oly (Nathalie Morris) goes into labour in Bump.
Schoolgirl Oly (Nathalie Morris) goes into labour in Bump. Photograph: Roadshow Rough Diamond

(BBC One)
An Australian comedy series starring Nathalie Morris as an ambitious schoolgirl derailed by pregnancy. Sweet, gritty, multicultural (the schoolboy father is Chilean), I started watching and couldn’t stop. What sounds like “Juno: Down Under” ends up somewhere quite different.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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