By BRUCE DENNILL
Inside No. 9 / Directed by David Kerr / 16L 9
The Newsroom: The Complete Third Season / Created by Aaron Sorkin / 13L 9
Banshee: The Complete Second Season / Created by Jonathan Tropper & David Schickler / 18LVNS 8
NCIS: Los Angeles – The Sixth Season / Created by Shane Brennan / 13V 6
It’s almost old-fashioned to watch a series on a DVD nowadays, but the best thing about doing so is that is you find a winner, having the box set on hand becomes a comforting physical thing – something you can refer back to when the banality of watching some of the 95% of the trash that fills up the rest of our TV schedules becomes too much, and ennui becomes a constant companion…
Inside No. 9, written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, is at once intriguingly different and comfortingly familiar. Twists that terrify and amuse – often at the same time – mean that predictability is not an option. You can try and figure out how each of the six episodes that make up the series will end, but you’ll do well to achieve a 20% pass rate. You won’t want to know early on anyway, as that will detract from the delicious sense of anticipation that builds as apparently innocuous situations develop into climaxes that are so dark and nasty that even Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman would get a could shiver down their spines while watching – and this without ever resorting to cheap thrills. That’s where the “familiar” part comes in: Pemberton and Shearsmith focus only on what is common to most normal people – streaks of cruelty and malice that aren’t always evident but are almost always around, just waiting for the right set of circumstances to arise before they emerge. This capacity for evil, or at least callousness, has been a staple theme for authors for hundreds of years, and the best of those stories are undoubtedly in the mix as influences for the writers here, who frame their sinister outcomes in family parlour games, gothic horror mansions, theatre dressing rooms and suburban front rooms. In doing so, they remind viewers that there are pockets of darkness everywhere, and that it is possible to experience such situations with a smile on your face as you appreciate the quality of the writing and performances necessary to make Inside No. 9 as memorable as it is.
The Newsroom: The Complete Third Season is, tragically – perhaps too strong a word to use in relation to television programming, but you may not agree once you’ve watched the full season – the final season in Aaron Sorkin’s most recent masterpiece. It’s a reminder that it’s okay (desirable, even) to be intelligent and to have integrity in a society that prioritises more superficial qualities. And it does that while still acknowledging that the world its characters are trying to protect is falling apart, despite their best efforts. The Atlantis Cable News network is doing fairly well, but not brilliantly – and without the best possible results, the sums simply don’t add up and there is a permanent shadow of closure, or at least being sold to an investor who doesn’t share the values of the current team, hanging over the newsroom. Jeff Daniels may never get a better role than news anchor Will McAvoy, and that character – or what he represents – has never seemed as important for viewers who either appreciate honour and honesty in the way they’re guided through current affairs or who work in the media and wish they could experience something like what unfolds on screen here in their own workplace. It’s a romanticised view, sure, but it’s tampered with reality – both in terms of balanced writing in the fictional sense and in via the inclusion of real events (such as the Boston Marathon bombing and Edward Snowden staying once step ahead of everyone chasing him). And Sorkin’s outlining of the way it should be, in his view and in the view of much of the show’s audience, is sublime, with the scene in the Oh Shenandoah episode in which Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) rips apart the digital editor tasked by the network’s ambitious new owner with driving more ACN viewers to report on celebrities – on air – almost requiring gossip-loathing journalists to stand up and cheer in front of their television sets. That the writer based that particular snippet on a Jimmy Kimmel (name-checked in the fictional version) interview with the editor of a gossip website is unusual – he usually creates a situation that offers a model for what could be achieved, were all those involved as eloquent as Sorkin himself. The viewers McAvoy and his team don’t care about – the superficial; the comfortable; the unwilling to question – probably won’t like The Newsroom, but for the rest of us, it’s aspirational stuff: maybe this situation does, or could, exist.
Less aspirational is The Complete Second Season – is there such a market for incomplete seasons that production companies need to use that terminology? – of Banshee. That word in itself speaks of darkness – it refers to “a female spirit whose wailing warns of a death in a house” – but in this series it is the name of a small town in Amish country in Pennsylvania where the minor warlord per capita headcount is unusually high. There’s local lad Kal Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), who looks Amish and dresses Amish but who’ll stick a screwdriver in your eye sooner than he’d avoid an iPad; Rabbit (Ben Cross), the elder statesman and most conventional gangster; and Alex Longshadow (Anthony Ruivivar), the ambitious upstart leader of the local Native American community. Involved with all three – and pretty much every one of the gorgeous women associated with each hoodlum – is Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), ostensibly the town’s sheriff, but far too devious an operator to be only that. Hood’s story unfolds in bite-size pieces throughout the series, sometimes in the present, sometimes via flashbacks, but it is not the main focus of each episode. That honour goes to the multi-faceted feuds between the various kingpins and the breathtaking, astonishing violence that goes with it. Hood is caught up in it, every step of the way, and the character (and presumably Starr, the actor, as well) absorbs a level of punishment – in every instalment of the series – that would make Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky tap out. It’s brutally heroic stuff in its own way, blurring the lines between who the good and the bad guys are in any given episode. And vicious as it all is, it’s constantly compelling, not least because there is honour and kindness mingled into the nature of almost every character, and observing it rise to the surface at unexpected times is art of the appeal of watching the series. The outright brashness of the series won’t be for everyone – and it’s definitely the sort of thing youngsters should not have access to – but the whirlwind storylines will entice those who get hooked early back into each new episode.
Where Banshee makes no allowances for any sensitivities, NCIS: Los Angeles – The Sixth Season sees a cast and creative team trying to add an edginess to a formula that works well, but can’t reach new audiences if it simply repeats what has come before. So the team – Callen (Chris O’Donnell), Sam Hanna (LL Cool J), Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah) and Marty Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen) – are subjected to ever more outlandish plots, including a series opener that involves being stuck on a submarine with a massive bomb. Operations manager Hetty Lange’s (Linda Hunt) secret past gets more of workout than usual, and the blossoming romance between Blye and Deeks is taken from drawn-out tease status to consummated and complicated. This is not higher-grade entertainment – there’s simply too much cheesiness in its plotting and dialogue – but it is slick and well-paced and populated with likeable characters. Do the writers succeed in making the show a touch more sophisticated, relative to previous series? On balance, yes, but not enough to convince anyone who’d already discarded the series as polished but naïve to change their mind.