Modern Family, Sky 1
Robbie Coltrane makes a welcome return, but haven't we seen this character somewhere before?
Sunday 25 October 2009
As one cuddly TV treasure departs, so another returns. In recent days, ITV's drama department has given audiences two reasons to be thankful – not a feeling it inspires very often, it must be said.
First came news of the axing of the ubiquitous Stephen Fry's monumentally twee comedy drama Kingdom. Then, on Monday, up popped the decidedly not-ubiquitous-enough Robbie Coltrane, taking on his first small-screen role in three years in the entirely comforting Murderland.
That may seem an odd way to describe a three-part crime thriller suffused with psychiatric trauma and sexual deviance, until you count the nostalgic glow induced by watching Coltrane as DI Douglas Hain. This hard-drinking, loose-cannon investigator naturally recalled Coltrane's other hard-drinking, loose-cannon investigator, Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald of Cracker. OK, so Fitz was a genius criminal psychologist, while Hain is a downtrodden middle-ranking policeman. And where Fitz, despite his flaws, managed to hold on to a long-suffering wife and children, Cain's only companion – a dog – was being committed to the soil as the credits rolled. A Cracker topped with an extra dollop of bleakness, then, if that is possible.
In any case, this was not simply the Coltrane show. Murderland is one of those multi-perspective affairs favoured by those who are looking to spice up the tired whodunnit format. The "it" was the unsolved murder of a prostitute, found bloodied and battered in her home and sporting a provocative red dress (that Jezebel!); this week, the story was relayed from the viewpoint of Carrie, the daughter who may just have seen the killer – or at least his shoes – before the act. Fifteen years on, the adult Carrie is seen scarpering from her own wedding on the hunt for closure. Cue the flashbacks in which her teenage self is seen helping Coltrane's Hain crack the case having entered "murderland" – apparently, the psychological state in which a bereaved child becomes crime-obsessive – a cod-psychological scriptwriter's invention if ever I heard one.
David Pirie's script is an artfully spare creation, offering the kind of elliptical intrigue that the Rashomon-style structure demanded. One gripe, though: did the suspects all have to be middle-aged men with a paedophiliac aura, or is the promise of a child-abuse plotline simply the only thing that keeps audiences hooked these days? Meanwhile, Coltrane's morose but empathetic performance was well matched by Bel Powley's compellingly odd Carrie – an apt character name since her saucer eyes, pale demeanour, and frisson of repressed rage occasionally suggest an uneasy kinship with Stephen King's telekinetic heroine. By turns haughtily precocious and blankly inscrutable, even her jarringly Roedean-ish accent only adds to her sense of otherness. Anyway, what Murderland lacks in innovation it so far makes up for in execution. And proceedings closed with a jolting cliffhanger did enough to keep me on board for episode two and suggests Coltrane may yet surprise us.
Talking of surprises, I have to admit to having ignored Modern Family when it premiered last week, solely on the basis that it was showing on Sky 1 – well, that and the fact that its name made it sound like a US equivalent of the chronically unfunny BBC sitcom My Family. But having now caught up with the first two episodes, all this channel-fixated bigot can say is: what do I know?
Yes, Sky 1 does do funny, and not just funny in a Ross-Kemp-on-Gangs-after-10-gallons-of-paint-stripper way: your brain cells might actually approve. Modern Family is a mockumentary about three diverse but inter-related households: one straight and two-point-four; one mixed-raced and May-to-December; and one gay with a newly adopted Vietnamese baby. It plays like the bastard American offspring of The Office and Outnumbered, with a dash of homiletic sentimentality thrown in for good measure. And if its suburban, middle-American milieu is a well-trodden one, it is lifted out of the ordinary by a steady stream of jagged quips (e.g. one of the characters says of his stepson: "He keeps us grounded ... like fog in an airport"); some wonderfully staged set pieces (said baby being introduced to its extended family via The Lion King's "Circle of Life"); and performances that struck a finely wrought balance between caricature and naturalism. Best of all was Ty Burrell's self-confessed "cool dad", a Ricky Gervais in Gap clothing, whose performance of a High School Musical song-and-dance routine offered living proof that parents should neither be seen nor heard.
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