Entertainment TV Reviews

Monday 14 October 2019

John Boland: How to give new oomph to drama? Better call Meryl Streep


Masterclass: Meryl Streep outshines the rest of the stellar cast in the new series of Big Little Lies
Masterclass: Meryl Streep outshines the rest of the stellar cast in the new series of Big Little Lies

John Boland

There's nothing to rival real movie- star wattage, and you would have thought that the first season of Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic) had enough going for it with a cast that included Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley.

But even with such glittering players, the plot seemed to have run its natural course by season's end, so that when Kidman's abusive husband finally got pushed off a balcony and the seemingly perfect Monterey moms stuck to their story of an accidental death, that seemed to be that.

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So what could a second season possibly add? Well, it could add Meryl Streep, who popped up at the outset of this week's opener as dead hubby's suspicious mother and promptly took over the whole show, leaving Nicole, Reese, Laura and Shailene looking like bit players in a Meryl masterclass.

That's wattage for you, though she was also given all the best lines by showrunner David E Kelley. Meeting Witherspoon's pushy Madeline for the first time, she observed, "You're very short - I find little people to be untrustworthy", before venomously adding: "I pride myself on being a very good judge of character."

Dressed and coiffed like an elderly small-town librarian, she also had a great scene at the family dinner table, demonstrating her grief with a howling outburst before abruptly turning off her wailing and innocently asking Kidman's Celeste: "Is my grieving too loud for you?" She's undoubtedly a piece of work and looks set to unnerve her daughter-in-law as the series proceeds

Kidman, as it happened, had little to do or say in this opening episode, Kelley's script reserving its poison for Witherspoon's character, who on the first day of a new school year declared, "We have to earn our good mom badges all over again" and who responded to her teenage daughter's wish to work on behalf of the dispossessed with a furious "I don't care about fucking homeless people".

Men hardly feature in this sun-drenched world of mostly privileged women, and those who do are so colourlessly depicted that I found it hard to distinguish one from another. It's lucky, then, that the women are so vividly drawn and so arrestingly played by such a stellar cast. And that's not even to mention Meryl, who belongs in another stratosphere and seems likely to greatly enliven the storyline.

By contrast, men feature prominently, and all too balefully, in The Handmaid's Tale, which has returned for a third season on both RTé2 and Channel 4. I won't be staying with it, though. A drama that should have ended with its first season (where Margaret Atwood's storyline for her novel also ended) continued with a second that was even more miserable and featured more scenes of cruelty, and the third looks set to proceed in the same grim vein.

And am I the only person who doesn't marvel at Elisabeth Moss' playing of the central character? For me, her Offred/June is so transparently sullen and resentful (and so, so slow in delivering her lines) that you wonder how her vile masters have put up with her for so long.

Then there's that other dystopian drama, Black Mirror, which has always been hit-and-miss and remains so in its new three-episode series (Netflix). The standout this time around is 'Smithereens' and not because of its storyline, which concerns a cab driver who takes as hostage a young intern for a Facebook-like company and is under police siege in the open countryside as he demands a phone talk with the company's CEO, whom he blames for his fiancee's car-accident death.

This ho-hum scenario is redeemed by tense plotting (will police snipers kill the cabbie before he gets to talk to the CEO?) and by rivetingly intense playing from Andrew Scott, who was brilliant as the sex-object priest in the recent season of Fleabag and who also excels here in a very different role where he's hardly ever off screen.

And in 'Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too' Miley Cyrus is surprisingly good playing a version of her Hanna Montana self who's fed up both with her fame and the manipulators who are intent on making sure she doesn't opt out. The plotting gets a bit silly in a Scooby Doo kind of way, but it's quite good fun while you're watching.

Less amusing is Netflix's revamped version of Tales of the City, taken from Armistead Maupin's stories of alternative lifestyles in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s and first adapted for television in the early '90s, with Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis leading the cast list.

Both feature here, too, with Linney returning in the present day to the scenes of her youth for the 90th birthday of the commune's free-spirited mother-figure, once again played by Dukakis. But none of it rings true, partly because Maupin's San Francisco belonged to another, now vanished era and partly because the script is too stagey, stilted and twee to encourage you to believe in these people.

Years and Years (BBC1), however, continues to engage, despite the soapy feel to some of its family scenes. This week, the year was 2028; fanatical right-winger Vivienne Rook had become prime minister, whole areas of cities were being fenced off as criminal zones, and climate change was producing endless rain. The future awaits us.

Year of the Rabbit (Channel 4) features Matt Berry, Alun Armstrong and Freddie Fox in a rude new comedy series about murderous Victorian London, and in this week's opener Keeley Hawes also popped up. So how come it was all so stupid and unfunny?

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