The Weekend's TV: Murder, Sunday, BBC 2 / Bad Sugar, Sunday, Channel 4
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Monday 27 August 2012
There was something very Nordic about Murder, despite the Nottingham accents and backdrop of washed-out council estates.
It opened with a similarly slick montage of images that accompanied the Danish series The Killing – a woman's dead body, the bloodied scene of the crime, incriminating handprints. There was also an oddly rousing anthemic theme tune reminiscent of the same series and the digital record of days into the investigation (Day 1 after the murder, Day 15, Day 148).
None of it was surprising, given that Birger Larsen, Nordic noir director extraordinaire (The Killing and the Swedish Wallanders), had directed it. The result was a slow-burn success, once we realised that beyond these stylistic frills, the drama wasn't going to stray into familiar territory. The way the story unfolded was so unfamiliar it was initially off-putting, built on scene after scene of confessional monologues that were occasionally spliced with CCTV footage and flashbacks. Each character, from the two main suspects (the murdered woman's sister, Coleen, and an ex-soldier, Stefan) to the smarmy defence barrister and investigating detective, spoke directly to camera, in tones ranging from conspiratorial sotto voce to defensive.
The question of why Coleen was talking about the murder from her bathroom on Day 1, and which invisible presence she was talking to (the police? The jury? A friend? ) remained hanging. It seemed like a fanciful preamble that might end when the real acting began, but it never did, and for a while, it looked mannered and static, as if "gritty crime thriller" had been forcibly mashed-up with Alan Bennett's Talking Heads.
But it ended up working, perhaps because of the combined strength of the script and the acting. Conflicting versions of the truth left us confounded and doubt infected every account. The testimonies reeled us in and kept us at a distance. This dynamic of uncertainty was turned on its head in the final, revelatory flashback, when we were sped back to Day Zero and witnessed the killing. The re-enactment was riveting in its cold conclusiveness after all the doubt and it wouldn't have worked half as well if it hadn't been for the swell of tension preceding it. It was also refreshing to see a short, self-contained TV drama done well in an age when we are more accustomed to long-running series. It had to set off all its fireworks within the hour and, overall, it managed to do so.
That said, it didn't come without flaws. While Coleen was superbly drawn, Stefan appeared cartoonishly clichéd. As a soldier, he had served in Afghanistan, where he got his leg blown off, he had an unhappy family history (of course) and was shown doing angry press-ups in his prison cell while talking meanly into camera, as if he were channelling Robert De Niro's discharged Marine from Taxi Driver.
Stereotypes abounded in Bad Sugar, a star-studded pilot spoof, written by Peep Show's Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and based on telenovelas and old American TV soaps – Dynasty, Dallas, The Bold and the Beautiful. Except this dysfunctional, filthy-rich family of lip-glossed gold-diggers and useless husbands was British, with a tight-fisted mining billionaire father at its helm. Julia Davis and Sharon Horgan performed their "rich bitch" parts perfectly adequately ("bitch is as bitch does"), as did Olivia Colman as an animal-loving frump. Given everyone's calibre, this wasn't as funny as you might have expected. There were some good lines – when Davis's daughter ran to her in her nightdress, crying, "Mummy, I'm scared", Davis retorted: "Tell teddy about it. He'll listen." But I suspect watching repeats of Joan Collins's Dynasty might actually be funnier.
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