Television Review

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LIKE THE Red Queen, running helter-skelter just to stay in the same place, satire needs to be nippy on its toes if it wants to stay a step ahead of real life. Sex 'n' Death (BBC2) was meant to be a satire on the current vogue for trash television. Martin Clunes played Ben Black, host of a top-rated cable-television show - also called Sex 'n' Death - dedicated to inexorably pushing back the frontiers of taste and decency via a mixture of stunts, hoaxes and general excess; the catch being that the horror began to have consequences for his private life. By the end, alone, insomniac, increasingly paranoid, Black was left with no one to turn to and, having broken down all barriers, nowhere to hide.

Clunes was well cast, his habitual mix of viciousness and eagerness to please making you wonder why nobody had thought of giving him a show like this to host before now; and Martin Jarvis made the skin crawl with his turn as a smarmy television prankster called Biddle (sound familiar?). But Guy Jenkin - who wrote and directed - couldn't find the requisite energy or the situations to match the impact of the characterisations: as the war of hoaxing between Biddle and Black escalated, the unveiling of each prank was signalled with painful clarity five minutes ahead. Some of the jokes were hackneyed - at one point, a conscience-stricken Black tried to press money on a beggar, only to be taken for a pervert looking for sex - and Black's floundering trajectory seemed to follow the wake of John Self in Martin Amis's novel Money.

The real problem, though, was that television has already stooped about as low as it can go, at least for the present, and rather lower than the BBC is prepared to show at prime time. The stunts Black had on offer - pounds 5,000 to the first member of the audience to strip naked, inter-faith mud-wrestling to decide the True God, dressing up in a loin-cloth and a crown of thorns - didn't seem noticeably wild next to the Tiberian orgy of piercings, giant breasts and untrammelled ego-flaunting you can already see on programmes like UK Raw, Eurotrash and TFI Friday. And the climax, with Black seemingly suffering a breakdown on air, never carried any real sense of threat or wildness.

Meanwhile, working hard to push back the bounds, Smart Hearts (C4) purported to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about modern relationships. Brendan, his wife Claire and his girlfriend Lisa had consented to be filmed over 12 months, with this programme acting as the prequel to a series next year. The whole thing seemed far-fetched: - their jobs (artist, ex-model) and the location (Shoreditch) annoyingly fashionable; the speeches to camera slightly too poised; and the production company behind it all bore the dubious name "Faction North".

Claire pouted and smouldered at the camera, admitting that she probably wasn't as phenomenally beautiful as she had been; Brendan told her she was a "two-faced, lying shithole", then told the producer: "What I was saying was not for the camera." If they were actors, this was skilful but pointless; if they were for real, it was indefensibly posed and self-regarding. Either way, it was certainly a nastier piece of work than anything Guy Jenkin could dream up.