Life on Mars and more...
Jane Featherstone, Stephen Garret, Delia Fine
Matthew McFayden, Keely Hawes, David Oyeolo
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
The stateside explosions of 9/11 sent shockwaves crashing all the way to the shores of England. In the entertainment industry, the stalwart Brits responded to this violence—only the latest in centuries of threats to the Motherland—with the usual shrewd aplomb and cool, stiff upper-lip determination. Whereas the US’ Robert Cochran created the death-defying, ridiculously tireless lone hero of Jack Bauer in 24, England’s David Wolstencroft gave us MI-5 (known as Spooks on its native shores), and a cast of characters and a storyline so gripping viewers might feel compelled to hit ‘pause’ on the remote for a moment, just to catch their breath.
Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo) and Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes) are but three highly-trained intelligence officers at Thames House who slip into your TV screen and creep around in cutting-edge technology fashion in Series 1. The MI-5 spies are forced to lie to family and foe alike, and it takes its toll. With resolve they struggle with their conscience and doubt. Warning: you will grow very attached to these characters. Sometimes, they beat the terrorists. Other times, they crack under the high-pressure of their extreme lives, a lifestyle that allows little room for their human frailty to catch a breath—before it’s their last.
If the excessive implausibility of 24 has you rolling your eyes, this is a British spy drama that will keep them wide open during the night. If feels that real. MI-5 is unnervingly effective in broadening the notion of what terrorism is, in all its many forms: this is far more sinister than gun-wielding, buff men with ‘foreign’ accents wearing black ninja outfits.
Jack Bauer might last two short seasons with his overseas colleagues in MI-5 ... but not an hour more. Winner of BAFTA, Royal Television Society, Broadcast, and BBC Drama Awards for Best Drama , Series 1 through 4 are available on DVD in the US.
Life on Mars
John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White
(BBC; US: 9 Jan 2006)
Life on Mars is the best TV mystery since Twin Peaks. It goes like this: After an accident, present day cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) lands in a 1973 Manchester police station led by Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). We must deduce whether Sam is comatose, time-traveling, or deluded, while reveling in their battle over how best to police the city. The writing and direction of Life on Mars benefits from a strict two-series-and-out structure and from casting as precise as that of another BBC series,The Office. While the fashion, gadgetry and music are well-researched and poignant, the character of Gene Hunt is the stuff of TV legend. When Sam tells him he’s an “overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding”, Hunt replies, “You make that sound like a bad thing.” Hunt’s political incorrectness is a joy to behold, and his loyalty, affection, intelligence and unflinching desire to protect the innocent public lift him above the level of a one-dimensional bully. The writers also make good use of Sam’s (and our) knowledge of the future; I spat food across the room when he went undercover with his girl-next-door love interest/confidante WPC Annie Cartwright—as Tony & Cherie Blair—to a wife-swapping party.
Throughout the series, Sam receives messages through his TV and radio, just as we relate to his 1973 through our own TV, and unconsciously acknowledge the power of the media to form a landscape around our lives (even though we know ‘it’s just a TV show’). Will Sam be stuck in the past, or will he land back in 2006 surrounded, Dorothy-like, by the real characters from his dream? Is Gene Hunt really a sensitive teetotal anti-racist and feminist empathizer who eats organic? The answers are in doubt until the final few seconds of the last episode. This series is beyond cop parody or sci-fi, and the creators of Life on Mars are correct to suggest that the “template of a journeyman going through the looking glass into a magical world is an archetypal story, and people respond to archetypal stories.”
The DVD has interviews with cast and writers and the UK version is truest to their vision. It’s worth investing in a multi-region DVD player for Life On Mars alone. Then you can also rent The Sweeney, the square root of its parody.
Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green, Mila Kunis
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy remains one of the single most unique entities in television history, trading in The Simpson‘s family values for a cut-and-paste surrealism that disregards both continuity and political correctness. No joke was ever too risqué, no topic was ever off-limits, and controversy wound up being just another word for publicity. Love it or hate it, Family Guy‘s effect on the television landscape is undeniable. The adventures of Peter, Lois, Chris, Meg, Stewie and Brian are always outrageous, but the way that the show gets laughs is profoundly unique: Family Guy preys upon our pop culture sensitivities, culling on references as far-reaching as The Electric Company and Logan’s Run in order to make a good joke. Cynics accuse the show of being random for the sake of random, but that’s also a part of its charm: a cut-away sequence to an unrelated sketch can be about anything, and rarely are you prepared for what’s going to happen (killing a flying, fire-breathing Cybil Shepard is one such moment).
Yet there’s still some class in this dirty martini of a program: MacFarlene’s love of Sinatra shows through not just in booze-hound Brian, but also in the show’s many, numerous, and uniformly excellent musical numbers. Songs have riffed on everything from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Grease, but the best number might be “You’ve Got a Lot to See” from Season Three (Volume Two on the DVD set). Updating dying jingle-singer Pearl on the major events of the past few decades, Brian launches into an up-beat, jazzy (and Emmy-winning) number that The Simpsons staff would no doubt be jealous of. Later, as Pearl is dying in a hospital, she and Brian share a tour of their life as it could’ve been: children, dying together with dignity and love, and all over a swelling, emotional score. Pearl finally passes, Brian says goodbye, and then a doctor walks by and shouts out “Hey! Who wants to see a dead body?” As MacFarlane and crew well know, comedy need not know any decency. Family Guy will never know show any proper dignity, and for that we can be grateful.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete
Mike Maronna, Danny Tamberelli, Alison Fanelli, Hardy Rawls, Judy Grafe, Toby Huss
(Nickelodeon; US: 1993)
The Adventures of Pete & Pete is the kind of show you want your kids to grow up watching, the kind that seems to have struck all the right chords with everything that’s important in childhood. Filmed in bright, mid-‘90s cable pastel, the color of a washed-out Jolly Rancher, the show focuses on the Wrigleys, a crumpled, modest version of the classic American nuclear family. Pete & Pete is weird and unique without feeling pretentious –- all the best qualities of early Nickelodeon shows. The attempts at quirkiness don’t always work but are adorable even in their failures. The dialogue is hilarious even today (in one episode a little girl remarks to her mother: “I can smell his fear, mommy. It smells like bacon”), but mixed in are genuine insights into family and friendship, as when Big Pete remarks that “the amount of elbow dad has out the car window is directly proportional to how full of himself he is.”
Like any good kids show, Pete & Pete is irrefutably cozy, but the coziness doesn’t lie in an ideal, natural landscape, or in consistently warm, generous characters, but in the successful efforts of the various characters to turn the grey elements of ‘90s suburbia into something familiar and unique. The characters learn not when they try to be the best but when the try to be themselves, and despite all its oddities, Pete & Pete feels more realistic than almost any other kid’s show of its era. The chubby Little Pete, frequently decked out in a lumberjack hat and black boots, looks like a real kid, one who eats what he wants and has yet to care enough about what other people think of him to alter his ill-fitted, mismatched wardrobe and lose weight. Big Pete always looks like he knows something you don’t, even when he’s running across school with chocolate stains covering his face. Problems arise in one episode when Pete’s friend Ellen focuses too much on being the dot in the “i” of her band class formation instead of focusing on spelling the entire word. The word? Squid.