Wednesday 22 May 2019

John Boland: 'Why has BBC4 opted to screen Netflix's The Sinner on Saturday nights?

 

Strange choice: Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman in The Sinner
Strange choice: Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman in The Sinner

John Boland

Netflix has not just taken over the online world - it's now infiltrating the traditional mainstream channels, including that bastion of highmindedness, the BBC.

But why has BBC4 opted to screen the Netflix mystery drama, The Sinner, on Saturday nights? Time was when this two-hour slot was reserved for exciting European series such as Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen, Beck, Spiral and Inspector Montalbano. So have all these engrossing imports suddenly dried up?

And if BBC4 is making a pact with Netflix, why the first season of The Sinner, (which had already proved hugely popular with Netflix subscribers) rather than some of Netflix's lesser-known dramas, such as the French-made Call My Agent, which is both witty and engrossing and, indeed, more in tune with BBC4's Eurocentric values?

The Sinner is American, and its first season featured moderately big Hollywood stars in Jessica Biel as a young woman accused of a senseless murder and Bill Pullman as the investigating detective. But crucially, this first season wasn't very good, its intriguing storyline gradually undone by revelations and plot twists that, for me anyway, became increasingly far-fetched.

Indeed, BBC4 might have been better advised to buy the second season, which is currently being screened on Netflix and which, from the four episodes I've seen, is a good deal more persuasive than the first season.

Jessica Biel no longer features (though she's still an executive producer), but the basic set-up is absorbing, with 13-year-old Julian accused of murdering his parents until it turns out they weren't his parents at all, but rather two inhabitants of the cultist rural commune in which he has raised.

Playing the same detective as before, Pullman reprises his hangdog, sheepish and somewhat mannered performance and there are too many flashbacks to his own traumatised childhood, and also too many flashbacks to the past life of co-detective Heather.

But, as played by Natalie Paul, she's a striking presence and there are arresting performances, too, from Tracy Letts as her father and from Carrie Coon (so good in the last season of Fargo) as the cult leader who claims to be Julian's mother.

Maybe it will all go pear-shaped by the end (binge watchers will already know), but if you don't have Netflix, you can find out for yourself when BBC4 gets around to screening it in a year or so.

Netflix is also screening an intriguing eight-episode Polish drama, 1983, which posits the notion that after a series of atrocities that year in Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow, the country has become a totalitarian state, with its own Big Brothers still enforcing the law two decades later.

There are those who will argue that, with the far right in the ascendant, this historically distressful country is actually lurching that way again, but here it's presented as an awful warning, with wearily sceptical cop Anatol suspecting there's more to the apparent suicides of radical young people than officialdom decrees.

"Excessive curiosity won't get you far in this country," he drily acknowledges and at the end of the first episode, thugs have beaten him up and dragged him off. But the scene has been evocatively set for a dystopian drama that looks to be worth following. Elsewhere, The Little Drummer Girl (BBC1) ended less than convincingly, but that had quite a lot to do with the basic premise in John le Carré's original novel, which asked you to believe that a callow young London actress would consent to infiltrating a group of Palestinian terrorists as they embarked on a lethal mission against the West.

All praise, then, to the marvellous Florence Pugh, who actually had you wondering whether she'd gone over to the other side, though I was less impressed by Alexander Skarsgård's attempt at smouldering taciturnity as her minder and by Michael Shannon's showy but uninteresting turn as their Mossad boss. Charles Dance, though, was at his withering best as the British spymaster who'd seen it all before.

The second episode of Death and Nightingales, which ends its RTÉ run on Monday night (Wednesday night on BBC2), continued to be a very slow burner. It took about three minutes for Billy Winters' horse and carriage to get up the driveway to his house, while Beth spent the same length of time grinding the potion that would put him to sleep - and was still at it after the ad break.

But the dialogue, when the characters finally got round to it, was often good, and politically pertinent, too. Much of it was given to Winters, who told a conniving Catholic bishop: "You don't need whiskey, you're so intoxicated with yourself."

As played by Matthew Rhys, Winters emerged here as a sadder and more sympathetic character than he'd seemed in the first episode, while Ann Skelly continued to hold the viewer as stepdaughter Beth. Don't expect a happy ending, though.

Gun No 6 (BBC2) traced the lethal movement of a 9mm automatic from its shell casings. The gun was involved in 11 shootings in England, and we heard from the survivors and relatives of victims. Former criminals also re-enacted some of the shootings, the first of which happened outside a Birmingham nightclub.

More than a decade later, the weapon was still being passed around for other perpetrators to use. The film made for chilling viewing.

When Acceptable Risk, starring Elaine Cassidy, was shown on RTÉ last year, I thought it codswallop. Now the Universal channel has taken it up and is currently screening it, so what do I know?

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