Enjoying the Golden Age of TV: Gems of 2018, Part 2

Moving on from the 4 new TV shows that I watched and got hooked onto this year, let’s talk about the stuff that I really keep an eye out for – TV movies and mini-series.

I’ve had a fantastic strike rate with mini-series in particular over the past couple of years, the notable ones being The Night Of (written by Steven Zaillian, starring the now famous Riz Ahmed), The Night Manager (based on the John Le Carré book, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie), Godless (from Steven Soderbergh) and The Cuckoo’s Calling (the adaptation of JK Rowling’s mystery story written under the name Robert Galbraith).

I’ve watched acclaimed mini-series this year, all British and produced for the BBC.

  • A Very English Scandal (3 episodes): This superb mini-series tells the story behind a scandal that rocked British politics in the late 1970s, which traces its roots back to a homosexual affair between British MP Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott, a stable boy he met in 1960. After an initially passionate relationship, Thorpe tired of Scott and tried to push him out of his life. After having Scott paid off for his silence through an intermediary for several years, Thorpe eventually conspired to have him murdered. The attempt failed, Scott went ballistic and went public, leading to a “very English scandal”. If all this sounds ridiculous, that’s exactly how celebrated director Stephen Frears has chosen to tell the story…as a biting satire of English manners and the British political establishment. Hugh Grant, who has played his share of over-the-top characters over the years is unbelievably good as the entitled upper class politician Thorpe, who rose to become the leader of the Liberal party and then fell from grace (with his head still held high, one might add). Ben Whishaw plays the equally entitled Norman Scott, whose pride seems eternally wounded by the lack of respect he receives. Truly entertaining and a must watch!
  • Bodyguard (6 episodes): Without doubt, this is the breakout TV hit of 2018 in the UK, written and produced by Jed Mercurio, the man behind the hit police procedural Line of Duty. The mini-series stars Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) in the lead role as war veteran turned police sergeant David Budd, who foils a suspected terrorist bombing attempt while traveling on a train with his kids. His heroic actions land him with the plum job as personal bodyguard to the Home Secretary, Julia Montague. What follows is a densely plotted web of political intrigue, conspiracy theories and personal turmoil. Some scenes are so tense, they are almost unwatchable. It’s unbelievable how good every aspect of this mini-series is – acting, production values, music and editing.
  • Ordeal by Innocence (3 episodes): This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel, has some of the most gorgeous cinematography I have seen in recent times, having been filmed near Glasgow at the Ardgowan House by the River Clyde. Bill Nighy and Anna Chancellor (“duckface” from Four Weddings and a Funeral) are the two well-known faces playing the wealthy couple Leo and Rachel Argyll. The other characters in the story are their adopted children and their housekeeper. Since I haven’t read the original novel, the fact that this adaptation controversially changed the ending had no effect whatsoever on me. I thoroughly enjoyed the classic Agatha Christie plot twists and at various points, virtually everyone on screen is suspected of having committed the murder. It is however, a very dark story and made all the more jarring by the beauty of the surroundings.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (6 episodes): I just finished watching this over the weekend. Directed by acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), this is another of many great recent John Le Carré adaptations for both cinema and TV. Michael Shannon is amazing (as usual) playing Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz, who cooks up a plan to get an actress to infiltrate a Palestinian extremist cell and get access to the mastermind behind a series of bombings of Jewish targets in Europe. Set during the turbulent 70s, Kurtz and his hand-picked team of Israeli agents (including Alexander Skarsgard as Israeli intelligence agent Gadi Becker) operate with the grudging cooperation of European allies to recruit radical left-wing actress Charlie Ross as their double agent. The heart of the story lies in how they convince (brainwash? coerce?) Charlie into taking on this assignment, at great risk to her life and her sanity. And herein lies the tragedy of all secret agents (including even James Bond), who ultimately are just pawns in the hands of the people who really pull the strings. While the story was engaging and thought-provoking (credit to Le Carré), it’s on-screen realization was a bit over-stylized and arty for me, especially the relationship between Charlie Ross and her handler/lover, Gadi Becker. The real discovery of this show is actress Florence Pugh who plays Charlie Ross. Much has been written of Pugh’s performance in 2016’s period drama Lady Macbeth, which I now definitely have to watch. This 22-year-old actress is someone who is going to dominate acting for years to come. Truly amazing talent.

So those are my chosen TV mini-series of 2018 and I would pick the first two as absolutely must-watch for anyone. That leaves just the TV movies, which I’ll cover in my next post.

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