Last night's viewing - Enlightened, Sky Atlantic; After Life: the Strange Science of Decay, BBC4

 

Enlightened, an HBO drama about a midlife crisis, began with the rich but slightly shameful pleasure of someone else's nervous breakdown. Amy, a mid-ranking executive at an American conglomerate, has reacted badly to the discovery that she's been sidelined in a jobs shuffle, her chagrin increased by the fact that she's been having an office affair with the shuffler. We found her first hunched in the lavatory, a mud-slide of mascara running down her face. Things escalated, despite the pleading intervention of her PA. She shrieked at her "back-stabbing" colleagues and ended by prising apart the elevator doors as her lover and boss attempted a getaway with a group of startled-looking clients. Given the mood of the moment, it's hard to believe that her cathartic explosion of rage wouldn't stir a sympathetic echo in quite a few viewers' hearts. She might have burnt her boats but the blaze is spectacular, and she's said nothing that isn't true.

Then there's a chop-cut to a simple piano tune and the kind of tropical idyll that you would usually take to be part of a dream sequence. Amy has gone all Deepak Chopra on us, heading off to Hawaii to commune with sea-turtles and explore a world "full of possibility and wonder and deep connection". Dear lord, this'll be dull, you think, but then you see a vein pulse in Amy's neck as she negotiates the freeway traffic back from the airport and realise that the series is to be an extended battle between ersatz New Age serenity and Amy's ill-suppressed rage. You get another hint when she tries to read her distant mother a healing letter of pain and forgiveness, one of the tasks she's been given at her Hawaiian retreat: "How long is this going to take?" her mother asks testily, after just one sentence.

Written by Mike White (who takes a role himself as a milk-eyelashed dweeb in the basement data-farm to which Amy finds herself consigned) and filmed (for the first two episodes) by Jonathan Demme, Enlightened is too subtle and sly to be a great success. It takes the risk of having a heroine who is personally maddening and unsympathetic, but whose quest – to live a better, happier life – is less ridiculous than the means she employs to achieve it. It's hardly surprising that her ex-husband should be cynical and sarcastic when she turns up at his house to leave him a self-help book ("Flow Through Your Rage") and share a bit of psycho-babble. But as her heartfelt remarks about togetherness are interrupted by the sound of him snorkelling up a line of cocaine, the comedy of the moment has an intriguing little tug of melancholy to it. When you're not laughing at Amy, you're weeping for her. And in Demme's camera, the Los Angeles suburbs – jellied in smoggy sunshine – have rarely looked as bleakly beautiful. Not for everyone, but the kind of oddity we should be grateful HBO can afford to indulge in.

After Life: the Strange Science of Decay was utterly revolting, which was exactly what they intended. To study decay, a large sealed glass box at Edinburgh Zoo had been filled with a variety of foodstuffs (including a whole suckling pig) and then left to rot. Dr George McGavin, who I seem to remember last seeing with a giant stick insect romping through his beard, then did the science stuff as successive waves of insects, moulds, and beetles took advantage of the BBC's largesse. As if aware that our stomachs could only take so much, the repulsively vivid footage of things going bad was occasionally interrupted by nausea breaks, to explore preservation techniques and the surprisingly complex self-organisation of slime moulds. It was a first-class example of popular-science television – gross but engrossing. If you plan to watch on iPlayer, though, I'd have a bucket handy, just in case.

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