Last Night's TV: Shameless USA/More4
History Cold Case/BBC2
Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth/BBC1
Friday 24 June 2011
Frank Gallagher's drunk, Fiona's still in charge and the police are at the door: the only difference is, they're in Chicago. Well, not the only difference; as faithful as the first episode may have been to the specifics of its British counterpart, Shameless USA is quite a different beast. Slicker, cleaner, the cast considerably more photogenic (or, at least, sporting rather superior sets of teeth). They're mutations that will inevitably prompt cries of betrayal from fans of the original. Already, William H Macy has been criticised for offering too sober a version of Frank. But that would be to treat it as a straightforward adaptation, which, hopefully, it's not. With the US churning out some of the best television dramas around at the moment, it would be an awful shame for the audiences to be met with a mere carbon copy. What would be the point of watching both?
At any rate, based on last night's debut, this new version is perfectly compelling in its own right. From the joyfully energetic opening scenes to the slightly corny ending as Fiona's new beau cooked the family breakfast, it holds the attention every bit as much as the original. A lot of this is down to the work of Emily Rossum, whose Fiona firmly established herself as the lead role; in fact, Frank barely spoke a few lines until the final scenes. As younger brother Lip, Jeremy Allen White holds his own, too. Indeed, if there's a weak link, it's Justin Chatwin as the sports-car driving, restaurant-frequenting Steve.
So far, there's little in the way of plot innovation; in fact, episode one was largely a blow-by-blow re-creation. Fingers crossed that's not going to remain the case for long. Already, I can feel myself being sucked into the world of Frank, Fiona et al.
I love everything about History Cold Case. I love that it features loads of things I'm not normally interested in and makes them riveting – things like archaeology and forensics, both of which I find deathly dull, but both of which I feel obliged to express passing interest in because that's What Intelligent People Do. I love the way that, even though it's spectacularly unglamorous – all local archives and meetings in church halls – the narrator reads the script like it's an episode of 24. And I especially love the fact that it stars three brilliant, intelligent women – Professor Sue Black, Dr Xanthe Mallett and Dr Caroline Wilkinson – doing brilliant, intelligent things.
Last night was the start of a new series, so they'd laid on a particularly horrific murder mystery: 17 skeletons meshed together at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. Eleven of the bodies appeared to be children. "The community needs answers," urged the narrator, only a hint of hyperbole apparent as "the community" milled unknowingly around the site, popping into nearby branches of Next and Esprit.
There was a little confusion over the lack of trauma to the bones. Without any marks, it didn't look quite like the dramatic murder we were all hoping for. But a trip to London to investigate revealed that the well was unlikely to be the site of a medical burial since, no matter how poor the patient, they would never be buried in such an "unchristian" way. Nor would members the Jewish community, who were every bit as exacting in their methods. Yet, as it turned out, that's exactly where the bodies came from. DNA samples showed that, not only were many of the dead related, they were Jewish, too. Some 150 to 200 Jews lived in Norwich at the time, frequently facing persecution despite purported "royal protection". And ultimately, that's what the grave turned out to be: a dumping ground for the persecuted.
More bones on BBC1, where the battle between Homo erectus and Homo sapien was give the dramatic treatment, thanks to Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth. Interspersed between bits of expert commentary and clipped RP narration was a reconstruction of life on the Indian sub-continent in the wake of Mount Toba's eruption 75,000 years ago. There, we learned, the incumbent erectus population was joined by a steady trickle of wandering sapiens, both humans, but with differing abilities and evolutional quirks.
Erectus were like "wolves with knives": their bones resemble those of modern-day Olympic athletes. They had weapons – rocks with sharp edges, for cutting into flesh – and could cook. In the arid conditions left behind by Toba's eruption, they had become fiercely territorial. What the erectus couldn't do, though, was think ahead, visualise the unseen, and anticipate others' actions. Their weapons were more primitive than the sapiens, and, though they were stronger, they lacked communication skills. In short: it was brain versus brawn.
Quite how dramatic the gulf between the two species was isn't clear, though I'm fairly certain it didn't extend to the one we saw last night, with the sapiens (us) shown battling the erectus (them) while speaking perfect English. Perfect, though strangely limited to corny one-liners straight out of a soap. "Dad will protect you," said the sapien son as he handed his dead father's necklace to his mother. "It's yours now," she protests, the erectus grunting monosyllabically in the background. It's all slightly peculiar, and not, I suspect, entirely researcher-approved, though it achieved a similar (and not inconsiderable) feat to that of History Cold Case: by the end I was riveted, accuracy or no.
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