The Weekend's Television: Damages, Sun, BBC1
The Victorians, Sun BBC1
Free Agents, Fri, Channel 4
Monday 16 February 2009
"You're the only one I can trust, Patty," said Daniel Purcell, neck-deep in the kind of corporate malfeasance that is the chief stock in trade of Damages. Patty's eyes glittered hungrily. Telling Patty that she's the only one you trust is a bit like handing your baby to a boa constrictor and saying "Could you hold her for a minute, but please don't squeeze too tight." Patty lives on betrayed trust, and she hasn't had a meal for some time now, what with recovering from the shuddering, mascara-dribbling breakdown that concluded the last series of Damages. Just like that series, this one began with a teasing flash-forward, as Ellen Parsons menaces an unseen character with a pistol. Then we're back in the moment – "six months earlier" – as the drama sets about connecting these two temporal points with the most convoluted and tangled line it can get away with.
Patty is in her pomp again, a guest-star on Live with Regis and Kelly, where she works the crowd and announces her intention of devoting some of the squillions she earned from the Frobisher case to a charitable foundation. Ellen, meanwhile, is devoting most of her energies to her plan to bring Patty down, meeting FBI agents to discuss an entrapment scheme, in-between group therapy for her revenge fantasies and glooming around the office looking murderous every time her employer enters the room. I'm not sure that this is the best strategy for lulling Patty into a false sense of security, not to mention the best strategy for staying alive long enough to enjoy the moment of victory, but luckily Patty is distracted by traumatic flashbacks of the moment that her friend Ray blew his brains across her office wall.
In fact, what with Ellen's reveries about gut-shooting Arthur Frobisher and Patty's unwanted flashbacks of splatter-pattern, it was quite tricky working out what was real and what wasn't in last night's episode. Sufficiently confusing, anyway, to distract you from the fact that absolutely none of it is remotely realistic, given that New York corporate law is actuallya numbing ordeal of contractual small print, rather than this murky shadow world in which every executive has a hit-man's number programmed into their BlackBerry speed-dial. Never mind that, though – in-between fits of sobbing remorse, Patty has got her mojo back. An associate unwise enough to disappoint her is brought back into line after Patty arranges to have his daughter arrested on a cocaine charge. Glenn Close is doing that weird but compelling thing with her eyes again too, flickering between glinting shards of broken glass and black pits from which no light escapes. It's nonsense, but for the next 12 weeks I fear it is my nonsense.
In The Victorians, the first of a series that examines the Victorian age through the prism of Victorian painting, a thoughtful producer had contrived to produce a balm for scalded politicians – the sight of Jeremy Paxman breaking rocks in a workhouse yard. On the radio the other day, Paxman said he didn't entirely approve of this gimmick, but I thought it was rather entertaining myself and I felt a little disappointed that he wasn't also required to work eight weaving looms simultaneously and pour molten iron in a Victorian foundry, two other features of Victorian society that he touched on. Paxman's point here isn't that Victorian painting is particularly good, just that it is particularly representational, and so offers a wealth of information about a genuinely fascinating period of history. I think he slightly overeggs this argument. A Luke Fildes painting of a workhouse queue, he said, was "more eloquent than any newspaper exposé". Well, it isn't and wasn't – newspaper exposés and novels actually resulted in changes to the law. But the painting is a good illustration, both of the facts of Victorian life and Victorian attitudes towards them. Paxman was on sounder ground in describing these paintings as "the cinema of the day", not just one of those new-for-old metaphors designed to bridge a chronological gap but a vivid account of the crowd-drawing excitement a new painting could arouse. Frith's The Derby Day – a big screen spectacular packed with incident and detail – had to be protected from the crowds by an iron railing, so eagerly did they press to get close to it. And the blockbusters are still worth watching.
Free Agents, Channel 4's new Friday-night comedy, began with a bit of awkward post-coital conversation. Alex (played by Stephen Mangan) has just slept with his colleague Helen (played by Sharon Horgan). He doesn't regret it, she does (in a cheerful, maybe-back-for-seconds kind of way). That's the sit. The com comes from Chris Niel's salty, rueful script, which very nicely exploits the best features of its cast, and also creates a genuinely comic monster in the shape of Stephen, the boss of the talent agency where Alex and Helen work. Stephen (Anthony Head, shaking off the memory of those twee coffee ads and crushing its skull beneath his heel) is foul-mouthed, lubricious, misogynistic and amoral. And funny.
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