Last Night's Television - Jamie's American Road Trip, Channel 4; The Fixer, ITV1
Wrong arm of the law
Wednesday 02 September 2009
I can't really see Shami Chakrabarti unwinding with
The Fixer after a hard day at the office. Might just happen, I suppose. Yet another long shift defending the friable borders of due process against tabloid panic-mongering and she might just want to kick off her shoes and luxuriate in a bit of a vigilante fantasy – the kind of crime drama in which a menacing hoodie with an acid bottle has the front wheel of his BMX shot from under him with not so much as a shouted warning. "You police or what?" asked the terrified girl whose facial features had been saved by this intervention. "Or what" is the answer, the Fixers being a group of quasi-official, below-the-radar law-enforcers whose only conceivable use for red tape would be as an impromptu garrotte. "There is of course a quicker solution," said the grittiest of the team members, questioning the softly-softly approach of his boss to a local gang leader suspected of involvement in child-trafficking. The seduction of the "quicker solution" is what The Fixer is all about, though obviously you have to take the long road from time to time, less out of moral compunction than the necessity to stretch the plot over two weeks.
Very few of us are completely immune to the charms of illiberalism. Popular drama knows how to make an audience hate someone for their cruelty and lack of pity, and then yearn to have them punished in a particularly cruel and pitiless way, safe in the knowledge that it's all a fiction anyway. But I don't think Shami would have stuck with The Fixer for long. It doesn't question itself nearly enough to make the guilty pleasure digestible. When John (wounded by childhood trauma or – as the script rather showily put it – "riding a river of repressed emotion") executes two Bulgarian gangsters, the drama doesn't even blink. This is what the rules of engagement should be, runs the unstated subtext. And I don't suppose Shami would much care for the way in which the good guys are all white, while the villains (in this current storyline anyway) are almost exclusively black or Eastern European. Curiously, The Fixer's script isn't nearly as thick-eared as you might expect given its underlying politics. You can often hear it struggling to achieve something a little more nuanced, in between the thoughtless delivery of instant justice. "Does every one of your memories come with a biscuit?" John asked Callum, after the latter had indulged in a Tesco Value version of Proustian recall over a Jammie Dodger. If it struggled a bit harder it might deliver something that the average BNP member would enjoy a good deal less.
You wouldn't conventionally expect a cookery programme to offer a rebuke to racial and social caricature. So all credit to Jamie's American Road Trip for delivering a programme that not only taught you how to make a pretty mean seafood soup but also introduced you to a city that usually lies invisible beneath the television LA we're familiar with. I was impressed enough when Jamie was shown driving down the freeway and the soundtrack didn't feature a roaming montage of local disc jockeys – a combination that for many years appeared to be compulsory on California shoots. And though this sounds so incredible that I can't really believe it's true, I don't recall seeing a single shot of the Hollywood sign in the whole thing, though I may have missed it while I was writing a note about the programme's exemplary aversion to cliché.
But the decision to stick entirely to Los Angeles's Hispanic community (apparently Jamie even rented a house in an upmarket neighbourhood of the barrio, rather than driving in every day from a Beverley Hills hotel) delivered positive virtues too. Naturally, Jamie couldn't really avoid mentioning the Bloods and the Crips, spending time with an ex-member of the former whose uncle (another gang member) had been gunned down in the line of duty. But by learning how to make chicken enchiladas with his temporary friend he got beyond the guns and bloodshed to something a little more complicated. You got a sense of how difficult it can be to get away from gang life – and how much ordinary family life there is squeezed in between the shootouts and the funerals. The cactus plantation was fabulous too – a little patch of rural Mexico squeezed into a side lot between industrial sheds. "It's a little bit like an under-ripe tomato meets cucumber meets a slap of spinach meets a dash of lime," said Jamie, trying to get a fix on this novel ingredient. Then, he went off to cater a christening party for Fabian, who had swapped crystal meth and his AK-47 for work in a local café and bakery run entirely by former gang members (motto: "nothing stops a bullet like a job"). Not sure what any of these people thought about being addressed so casually as "bruv" by the British gringo, but if they minded they were too polite to say.
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