Television can be a demanding mistress. Its shows often want a long-term relationship. They’re looking for commitment. Serious commitment. Stick with them for the long haul, and they will reward you and make you come back for more. Call it tantric television.
But sometimes in television, you want something casual. Something light. A passionate fling where you can both go your separate ways in the morning, no strings (or second season) attached.
These shows are in short supply in the United States. If a show airs for only four episodes on network TV, that invariably means it’s been canceled. Two recent such victims were “The Crossing” and “Deception,” which failed to find audiences and suffered quick mercy killings.
In Britain, though, it’s common to get one-off shows that are specifically designed as miniseries, with as few as two, three or four episodes – often in the crime genre. There’s an excellent new three-part Agatha Christie adaptation called “Ordeal by Innocence” that I’ll review if and when it gets shown in Israel. And there’s a very enjoyable new four-part thriller that is perfect for fans of the likes of “Broadchurch” and “Unforgotten.”
“Innocent” stars Lee Ingleby as a middle-aged man who has just been released from prison after serving seven years for killing his wife. He’s been released on a technicality, following a series of mistakes at a forensics evidence lab, and returns to his old seaside town looking to rebuild his life. A cloud of suspicion hangs over him much the same way a cloud permanently loiters over Seattle. Complicating matters, his two kids – who are 15 and 12 – are living with the sister (Hermione Norris, from “Cold Feet”) of his dead wife. If he wants the kids back, he’s going to have to extract them from her cold dead hands – something she thinks he is perfectly capable of doing.
Over the course of four 45-minute episodes of stunning seaside vistas (think “Broadchurch” but with sand flats instead of one bloody big cliff) and bucketfuls of red herrings, we’re treated to a classic whodunit full of misdirection and strong performances from the likes of Ingleby, Norris and Angel Coulby. She’s the detective inspector charged with re-examining the case, which was previously led by her now life partner (Nigel Lindsay).
One of the most annoying things about reviews is those that warn you to expect a huge twist, a la “The Sixth Sense.” Even though they don’t explicitly say what it the twist is, that knowledge means you watch while looking for it – and then aren’t remotely surprised to find out that, well, he’s been dead all along. So, I’m not going to say anything about what happens at the end of the fourth episode. Suffice it to say it ties things up satisfactorily and (kind of) plausibly. And I mean it in a very complimentary way when I say I hope there won’t be a second season. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
As well as these blink-and-you-miss-them miniseries (other, less successful recent examples include “The Replacement” and “Trust Me,”), British television is also notorious for the small number of episodes in many of its shows. As Tahani (Jameela Jamil) jokes in “The Good Place” about her favorite British comedy, “It ran for 16 years on the BBC. They did nearly 30 episodes.” That’s why an acclaimed thriller like “Peaky Blinders” has only aired 24 episodes in four years. And why my favorite U.K. series, “The A Word,” has only had 12 episodes in nigh-on three years.
Laugh and cry
“The A Word” is so good, I have literally had to ration my intake of it. When you only have 12 one-hour episodes to savor, it would be a crime to binge on it.
The show is based on the award-winning Israeli series “Yellow Peppers.” It swaps the original’s kibbutz in the Arava desert for the glorious hilly views of the Lake District and switches the Thai farm workers providing a commentary on proceedings for two Poles working in a brewery. However, it keeps the central conceit of a dysfunctional family struggling to come to terms with the fact that their young son is on the autism scale.
If season one was about the family themselves accepting that Joe (Max Vento) is autistic, the second season is about 7-year-old Joe himself becoming aware that he is different to the kids around him and that he’s been labeled with an A word he doesn’t understand.
There are many, many A words that fit the show: awesome, absorbing, admirable and affirmative, to name but four. It’s blessed with a rare warmth and wit, with writer Peter Bowker managing to make you care for every single member of the family – starting with young Joe and his obsession with British indie music (it may aid your appreciation of the show if you know that the Arctic Monkeys are a four-piece band from Sheffield, not a geographically challenged primate); his confused parents (Lee Ingleby again, this time in a very different role that, once you’ve seen him in it, makes it doubly hard for you to believe he could be the killer in “Innocent”; and Morven Christie as the dedicated but stressed mom); and recently widowed grandfather Maurice (the always marvellous Christopher Eccleston, fresh from “The Leftovers”).
“Gentle” is often a pejorative term when used to describe television and heavyweight boxers, but in the case of “The A Word,” it is most apt. I have laughed out loud during every episode. I have probably cried in most of them. And I have certainly sung along to The Jam, Orange Juice, the Buzzcocks and many more of the songs that accompany headphone-wearing Joe on his walks along the picturesque roads of the Lake District.
Many short-form British series invariably revolve around murders and detectives, so “The A Word” really is the rarest of beast: feel-good television without a bloody corpse in sight. Do yourself a favor and allow yourself to fall for its charms.
Finally, the HBO Films adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451” will only occupy 100 minutes of your time – but I would advise you to set fire to your watching device before subjecting yourself to this omnishambles.
Very loosely based on the dystopian Ray Bradbury novel about a group of firemen who torch books and other cultural items, this is a mess from start to finish. In an age when getting a youngster to even judge a book by its cover is an achievement, it feels positively quaint to witness a future in which books are burned because of their potential to spark dissent.
The adaptation sees Michael B. Jordan play Guy Montag, whose pocketing of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” sets him on the road from book-torcher to book-keeper, with Michael Shannon chewing any scenery that isn’t charred as his mentor, Beatty. Someone at HBO should have set fire to this script – especially when they reached the particularly laughable scene in which a woman has books strapped to her body to resemble a suicide bomber. That image is burned into my memory for all the wrong reasons. Avoid.
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