The Weekend’s Viewing: Have we finally reached the bleak anti-hero tipping point?

Low Winter, Sun, Fri, Fox / Big School, Fri, BBC1

We are living in the age of the television anti-hero, a world where we thrill to Don Draper’s every drunken misstep and wait desperately to see whether Walter White  will get his comeuppance in Breaking Bad.

Yet is there such a thing as an anti-hero tipping point? Fox’s bleak new crime drama Low Winter Sun tested that theory almost to its limit, before offering up enough positives to suggest it’s worth sticking with this convoluted story of corrupt cops and gang warfare for little longer yet.

A remake of a 2006 Channel 4 mini-series, Low Winter Sun moves the action from Edinburgh to Detroit but kept the starting point the same. Thus we met conflicted Frank (Mark Strong) and fast-talking Joe (Lennie James in his second “is he a corrupt cop or isn’t he?” role after last year’s Line of Duty) as they prepared to murder fellow officer Brendan for reasons hinted at but still unknown. “I’m not quite drunk enough yet,” muttered Frank, eyeing his  whisky bottle with distrust as Joe, an ex-seminarian with  a Jesuit’s love of hair-splitting, proceeded to lecture him  on the nature of morality.

I knew how Frank felt. From that moment on, everything just got darker and more complicated, with a visit from  Internal Affairs in the form of the excellent David Costabile, late of Breaking Bad, a gang of local hoodlums headed up by James Ransone, aka The Wire’s doomed Ziggy, and hints of a tragic love affair in Frank’s immediate past. Forget  the old adage about building to a climax – this was a show that started from a point of near-nervous breakdown and then  proceeded to oppressively pile  on the doom and gloom. 

It was all Very Serious and there was no doubting either the quality of the acting or the brilliance with which veteran cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (Do the Right Thing) captured Detroit’s ruined majesty, from the dankly peeling walls of the police station to the boarded-up,  broken-down houses that lined the streets. Yet even as  the plot sprouted off in ever more complex directions it  felt as though something small but crucial was missing.

About three-quarters of the way through, as Frank furrowed his brow once again and Joe continued to demonstrate his ability to parse a sentence, I realised what it  was: Low Winter Sun is a gloriously shot and superbly acted portrait of a city in decline and despair. It’s just a shame they forgot to learn The Wire’s most important lesson and leaven all that brooding misery with the odd joke.

A similar issue dogged the first episode of David Walliams’s new comedy, Big School, which appears to have blown most of its budget on assembling its superstar cast without remembering to give them anything remotely funny to say. Neither as broad as the abysmal The Wright Way nor as abrasive as Mrs Brown’s Boys, Big School is clearly aiming to be a good-natured family comedy, but, in the absence of any actual belly laughs, it relied on tired jokes about streetwise pupils, the too strenuous efforts of its famous cast and the overfamiliarity of the scenario.

In addition to a more subdued-than-usual Walliams  – who also co-wrote – there were solid enough turns from Catherine Tate as the new French teacher who thinks  she’s funnier than she actually is and Philip Glenister as  the boorish head of PE. Better than all three, however,  were Frances de la Tour as the crabby headmistress and Joanna Scanlan, whose huffy drama teacher recalled her passive/aggressive brilliance as Terri in The Thick of It. They made you long for another, more risky comedy  in which their off-kilter characters were centre stage,  and that ultimately was the problem with Big School.  It wasn’t absolutely terrible, but, like Low Winter  Sun, it didn’t feel particularly new.