The Weekend's TV: The Event, Fri, Channel 4
Single Father, Sun, BBC1
There's a runaway plot heading straight for us
Monday 25 October 2010
Oh my god! Drop the camera! Drop the camera, run, run!" shouted an offscreen voice at the beginning of The Event, Channel 4's new Friday evening brain-rinse.
The picture jolted and fizzed into snow – television's current obligatory cliché for the cataclysmic – and then a title card reading "23 minutes earlier" flashed on the screen. "Oh my God!" I thought. "Drop everything! Run, run!" There's a herd of Godzilla-sized synthetic mysteries stomping towards us, and once they've got their claws in, no amount of self-loathing is likely to break their grip. I survived Damages. I got over the trauma of Lost. I even managed to heal after accidental exposure to the fabulous idiocies of 24. But I'm not sure I'm strong enough to go through it all again.
The warning, issued by a rolling news presenter covering a Presidential press conference, had been prompted by the sight of a kamikaze passenger jet heading straight for the lens. The flashback took us inside the plane just before take off, where a conspicuously sweaty and furtive young man was doing everything in his power to arouse the flight crew's suspicions. Had he been wearing a T-shirt reading "Hijacker" he would have been less conspicuous, but it was only when he pulled out a gun and tried to storm the flight deck that he finally got their attention. At which point, another title card flashed us to "Eleven days earlier", when sweaty young man was shown not sweaty at all, and preparing to set off for a Caribbean cruise with his girlfriend. "Thirteen months earlier" and we were in Alaska, at some black-ops gulag in which "They" are being held, They having arrived sometime in 1944 after a mysterious crash.
It helps to have a spreadsheet open if you want to keep track of things here, because the time jumps come at you like wasps at a picnic and there's more than one set of Theys too – some of them working for the kind of agencies the CIA don't have the security clearance to know about and some of them from another planet entirely. The kamikaze plane, incidentally, disappears into a bubble of blue light just before it hits the President – a Barack Obama liberal who has caused all sorts of flusters by promising to close down the Arctic Circle Guantanamo where the aliens are being kept. "So this is true... this is all true," he murmurs when he's finally shown a dossier detailing the arrival of these very special illegal immigrants. "It's unbelievable." That's putting it mildly, Mr President.
Sweaty guy is the hero, drawn into the plot by a Hitchcockian nightmare in which his girlfriend disappears and the cruise ship crew deny all knowledge of her. He's on the plane because his prospective father-in-law has been blackmailed by her kidnappers into landing it in the presidential compound and he hopes to persuade him that this is a bad career move. He fails, but after the plane pops out of Florida airspace it almost immediately appears again over the Arizona desert, where yet another group of Theys (not Them, as far as I could work out, or Them either) thunder through the heat shimmer in black helicopters to murder all the passengers. These faint reverberations of 9/11 Truther paranoia – and the fact that the extraterrestrials also turn out to have their own Donald Rumsfeld hardliner – should not for one moment mislead you into thinking that The Event has anything genuinely interesting to say about American dread. The President best sums it up when demanding that his chief of staff bring him up to speed: "Blake... cut the BS," he says, "I want everything." Don't cut the BS, Blake, because if you did there simply wouldn't be anything left.
Mick Ford's Single Father continues to explore dilemmas that are a little closer to home than what to do if aliens whack you through a space-time rectum. What you say to your recently bereaved seven-year-old if she catches you in bed with her dead mother's best friend, for example – not a universal problem, I grant you, but plausible enough to enlist us all in its excruciating embarrassment. Single Father doesn't exactly deprive the audience of simple narrative pleasures. It has its villains (notably Dave's witchy sister-in-law, Anna) and it has its big secrets, such as this week's revelation that the sainted Rita – of blessed memory – might have been much less perfect a partner than Dave had always assumed. A bit of detective work with her old diaries has revealed that the paternity of all his children may be in doubt. There's a worryingly gleeful exclamation mark after the entry reading "Dave's away this weekend". But it beds those simple pleasures in something a little more complicated: a genuinely attentive account of how compromised many strong emotions are, so that love can be coloured by pride and sorrow by resentment. In The Event, as in many pulp thrillers, time is a plastic affair – notionally in desperately short supply, but always conveniently elastic if you want to squeeze a bit more in (that crashing plane, for instance, seems to take about five minutes to travel the last 500 yards to impact). In Single Father, by contrast, time is realistically inflexible, forcing people to make flustered choices between what they want to do and what they have to. And the only conspirator is life itself, laying its traps and pitfalls. Single Father snags you with question marks that have a real point to them.
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