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This Week on British TV: "Psychoville," "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," "Lead Balloon," & "The Shadow Line"

By Caspar Salmon | TV | June 3, 2011 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | June 3, 2011 |

Howdy, y’all, and apols for leaving you BritishTVless for so long. But I’m back, and - well, my oh my, what a lot of stuff we have to talk about. There’s the still effervescent “Psychoville”, the Adam Curtis docu-lecture “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”, and the not very anticipated return of “Lead Balloon”. Oh, and I’ll see if I get time to throw in a dig or two at “The Shadow Line”, which at first I thought was good and then later found… to be… sorry, I would finish that thought, but I just have to do the most enormous yawn right now.

One more thing before we start: many of these things are good, but the thing I am most obsessed with right now is the French Tennis Open at Roland Garros, which is French and can therefore not qualify exactly as British television. Sorry in advance if I sometimes sound less enthused than I should be about the TV, but seriously - Novak Djokovic is on such great form at the moment, and you have to imagine he’ll put up a good fight in Friday’s semi-final against the balletic, mesmerising Roger Federer, in whose age we are all so lucky to be living. Right, on to the TV! As if anyone seriously gives a shit.


Psychoville.jpg“Psychoville” continues its merry dance across our screens, taking delight in the absurd, the gruesome, the coarse and the terrifying. Some of its gags fall flat, but there is always a frankness of tone to catch up for the clunkiness - for instance, this week, when David Sowerbutts, one half of the mother and son serial killer combo, gave his mother Maureen a ‘smoothie’ consisting of beans and bacon and sausage inside a pint glass. It’s kind of a crap joke, reflecting their terrible attempts to be normal when they are such marginalised monsters - but something about the way they did it pulled it through and brought a smile to my face. I also love the way that Reece Shearsmith, playing Maureen, hasn’t even bothered to shave off his stubble, and hardly changed his voice; the joke isn’t in the fact of a man playing a woman, but in the terribleness of the characterisation. You couldn’t say that Shearsmith and Pemberton disappear into their roles; rather, they ham the hell out of them, creating hilarity out of the whole farce of make-pretend. Their love is for hammer horror, for the shlocky and the slightly down-at-heel; it’s part of what makes “Psychoville” such a fun ride.

As the show progresses, and the main characters are slowly being killed off by a sombre ‘investigator’ searching for a mysterious locket, the thot has started to plicken. The disastrously needy, deluded and manipulative Hattie (Steve Pemberton) is still forcing the hapless Shahrouz to live with her as her married husband, though he had only wanted to marry her for a Visa. I liked her line, “You can’t leave!” when he woke up next to her, terrified. “Literally - I’ve chained your leg to the radiator.” Was that a sly reference to Boy George or did my ears deceive me. Either way, how they’ve managed to conjure scabrous humour from such a rapey situation, lord only knows.

Mr Jelly the clown, meanwhile, tries to save an old woman from being murdered in a Strangers on a Train-style agreement, and Tea Leaf discovers a world of Nazi memorabilia under the local toy shop. I love the way that those things don’t make a jot of sense if you haven’t been following. Finally, in my favourite storyline, Reece Shearsmith’s demented librarian kidnaps a shitsu as ransom for the still-unreturned “50 Great Coastal Walks of the British Isles volume 2.” It’s all rather wonderful, and I’d like to salute some lovely performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Daisy Haggard, the latter of whom may be known to American audiences for being the best thing in “Episodes.”

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

All Watched Over.jpgAdam Curtis, the cult maker of documentaries - I say documentaries; I really mean visually-enabled essays, or even lectures, or even sermons - is back on the BBC for another erudite rant, this time in three episodes. It’s called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (the title is taken from Richard Brautigan) and deals with the way human beings have tried to regulate their lives according to different systems - political, sociological, technological - for the last sixty years or so. Curtis’ polemic is that we are quick to trust the idea that we are just cogs in a system, and to believe that systems are self-governing and a good model for living. He argues that humanity is missing out on a real chance at advancement because the powerful people always rise to the top of any given system.

At least, I think that’s what he’s arguing. I got a pretty good degree from university, can spell onomatopoeia without having to think about it, and know all the main dates of the Cold War off by heart - but somehow Adam Curtis makes me feel extremely dumb. Not in a bad way. I watch his stuff and think, “Yay! At least there’s someone out there who understands this stuff!” Actually, slightly in a bad way; if I think about his stuff too hard, my head starts to hurt. I blame the internet - and so will, I believe, Adam Curtis, in the final part of this very winning series, which airs next week. It seems a natural conclusion to blame the system of the internet for making us all feel like we are represented in the world and have an individual voice, when in fact we have merely been co-opted by a wider system that feeds off our thoughts and actions.

Ayn Rand.jpgThroughout, Adam Curtis’ stately narration and very punk editing style - slashing up old stock footage, splicing it together with other impressionistic images, cutting music in - make the whole thing a very engaging treatise. He is particularly good at singling out interesting interviewees, who give fascinating insights into dominant ways of thinking from their era, and is also very gifted at pinpointing the links through history between different schools of thought and different disciplines. His linking of Ayn Rand to the world economy in the first episode, was staggering - all intercut with very striking footage of the mad-eyed Ayn in black and white - as was, in the second episode, the connection he made between cybernetics, environmentalists, and hippie communes, which all made the mistake of assuming a natural order in the world, only to find that disorder is actually far more the language of our planet. Hmm - perhaps I actually did get the gist of it.

Anyway, what’s truly marvellous is that Curtis - who can be maddening in his theories; whose programmes can be wildly confoodling; whose genius is that the baroqueness of his flights of intellectual fancy is matched by the beauty of his visual imagery - has carved out a niche as a creator where the BBC are prepared to show him at primetime. Wonderful.

Lead Balloon

lead_balloon.jpgAnd lo, Jack Dee - you know the one; he doesn’t smile - did return in the main role of the not that great sitcom “Lead Balloon”, which is a shameless rip-off of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, except with a failed comedian in the central role. He’s grumpy (hey, exactly like the tired shtick of terrible comedian Jack Dee!) and fucks up all the time. LOOOOOL!

Or not, you see the problem with “Lead Balloon” is that it’s grimly unfunny. The programme represents a terrible effort to be cutting edge while positively mainstream, which is a shame because in the men’s game Federer has a wonderful tenacity in Grand Slams, and the beauty of his game can still be gasp-inducing. The main joke of the first new episode of the aptly-titled “Lead Balloon”, then… was… are you ready for this?…. no really, because you’re going to die laughing… are you ready?…. seriously, get ready…. well, I can reveal that the central joke waaaaaaaas….. drum roll please!….that the main character buys a pet pig. And get the hell out of this, right? The pig oinks! While the main character and his wife are being interviewed for a newspaper! HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!! A PIG!!!!! OINKING!!!!! DURING AN INTERVIEW!!!!!!

Meanwhile, Dee doesn’t laugh. He looks stressed. Which is funny, because as I may have mentioned, the shtick of erstwhile comedian Jack Dee is that he is grumpy. So he does that.

There’s just no confidence whatsoever in the writing, on “Lead Balloon”: just when you think the scriptwriters might trust the audience to gather something on their own, they force you to deepthroat a joke until you’re about ready to retch - which is ridiculous, because the whole thing is supposed to be naturalistic and everyday, as with “Curb”. This is a pity, because the women’s game is also experiencing a good revival, with Francesca Schiavone making a thrilling run to the final on the back of her victory in Paris last year, with a game full of deft drop shots and a very physical, athletic serve.

The Shadow Line

tv_the_shadow_line_2.jpgOh come on, does anyone in the country give a single solitary toss about “The Shadow Line” anymore? What started out - in my view, at least - as a beautifully sedate, intriguing drama full of humanity and mystery, quickly became a bulkily portentous thing; a coffin of a TV show full of creaking bones; a sad, rather lumbering vehicle for a dead cast; an empty storyline with a cast of drowsy wretches; a limp procedural with cliche occurrences; a ghost cop merry-go-round in a child’s nightmare about a police show.

Because I have stopped watching it, I have of course deduced that the country has fast fallen out of love with the programme, which started out as one of the most heralded things since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and then - certainly in the media, which conspicuously hasn’t devoted any breathless blog posts to the programme - fell out of favour. Where it went wrong is that it was too enamoured of its own cleverness and style, to throw a single fucking bone to the spectator in terms of something charming to look at, or a meaty storyline to really get to grips with. We’re all very happy looking at Chiwetel Ejiofor’s magnificent face for an hour, do not get me wrong - but we want something more noble, more satisfying in terms of drama. “The Wire” - a programme that “The Shadow Line” is overtly modelled on in terms of pacing and would-be scope - wasn’t just a succession of scenes between people with different names; it took pains to construct characters you might give two shits about, with the use of beautiful, realistic, involving dialogue. It also had a breadth of imagination and of purpose that are cruelly lacking in “The Shadow Line”, which frankly lost me around half way through episode three.

Still, the tennis is looking good. Anyone want to bet on a Nadal/Federer final?

Caspar Salmon has no backhand to speak of, but a mean drop-shot. You can lob him an email here

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.