Following on from my previous post highlighting the recent season premieres of four TV comedy series, here is my overview of the debut episodes of four new hour-long dramas, ranging from the 1920s Prohibition era to some time in the not-so-distant future, and including one reboot of a much-loved classic from my childhood.
Blue Bloods, season 1 (Sky Atlantic)
In a world full of cop shows full of technological razzle-dazzle or forensic exactitude, Blue Bloods represents a throwback to a bygone age. The series centres on the middle two of four generations of the Reagan family, a brood which has law enforcement running through its bloodlines, and their involvement in various criminal cases in New York City.
Tom Selleck plays Frank Reagan, current New York police commissioner and son of retired commissioner Henry (Len Cariou). His children Danny (Donnie Wahlberg), Erin (Bridget Moynahan) and Jamie (Will Estes) are, respectively, a maverick detective, an assistant district attorney and a rookie uniformed cop. There was also a fourth sibling, Joe, who died in the line of duty, while apparently investigating a covert police society called the Blue Templar – an investigation which Jamie finds himself drawn into which looks likely to form part of a season-long arc.
Think of this as Law & Order meets Brothers & Sisters, and you’re not far off. Like the latter series, significant chunks of the story take place around the dinner table, where the family chews over the moral issues relating to the case of the week, from waterboarding a suspect to gun control. It’s a simple but neat plot device which allows the close-knit Reagans to come together regularly and debate both sides of cases which frequently involve significant shades of grey.
This kind of focus on dialogue and character is typical of Blue Bloods as a whole. The stories are tight but not exceptionally pacy, there is no reliance on big set-piece action scenes, and there isn’t an obsessive focus on the procedural aspects of each crime. Indeed, the cases featured in the initial two episodes – the abduction of a diabetic girl and a Good Samaritan taking action against a gang of subway thieves – are straightforward. But this is no bad thing.
Blue Bloods is not so much a police/law procedural as a crime-based family drama, where the tension arises from the interactions of its characters rather than action sequences or the convolutions of its plot. A return to good old-fashioned story-telling, in other words – just as the Reagans, for all their individual flaws and foibles, represent a return to good old-fashioned family values.
I wasn’t expecting to like Blue Bloods at all. But I really, really do.
Boardwalk Empire, season 1 (Sky Atlantic)
In the land of the free, sin comes at a cost. Boardwalk Empire takes us back to Atlantic City in the early days of Prohibition. The series comes with an impressive pedigree. Written by Terence Winter from The Sopranos, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot episode), it walked away with the awards for both Best TV Drama and Best Actor in a TV Drama (for Steve Buscemi) at the Golden Globes last month.
The series focuses on the personal and political machinations of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Buscemi), the treasurer of Atlantic City. Nucky is your classic conflicted criminal – privately he has a finger in every pie, from casinos to bootlegging, but he is highly regarded publicly and seen as a philanthropist.
Other key figures in the series include Nucky’s protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) and Nelson van Alden (Michael Shannon). Jimmy’s towering ambitions get him into trouble when his attempt to hijack a whiskey shipment with a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham) ends in bloodshed. Margaret’s abusive husband Hans is framed and killed as retribution for beating her, and she looks set to play a significant role in Nucky’s life. And van Alden looks set to become a thorn in his side as he investigates into his wealth and business activities. In the meantime, Nucky himself becomes drawn into a murky power struggle with mobsters from New York and Chicago.
Boardwalk Empire is a lavish, cinematic production, from the accuracy of its period dress and settings to the mammoth recreation of the city’s boardwalk. It takes a little while to find its feet, but by the end of the extended first episode the complex web of political and criminal intrigue which surrounds Nucky starts to take shape. It does not quite have the same breathtaking and visceral impact that the first few episodes of The Sopranos did, but this is a fine series which will only grow with age.
Hawaii Five-0, season 1 (Sky One)
Naval intelligence officer Steve McGarrett (Moonlight‘s Alex O’Loughlin) returns home to Oahu to track down his father’s killer. The state governor offers him the opportunity to set up his own special task force with “full immunity and means … your rules, my backing, no red tape”. McGarrett recruits Danny Williams (Entourage‘s Scott Caan), a recently-arrived detective from New Jersey, Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim from Lost), a former protégé of his father, now an outcast from the police department, and Chin’s cousin Kono Kalakaua (Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park), a fresh academy graduate.
Full disclosure: this is a real blast from the past for me, having grown up with the original series, so don’t expect anything other than a rose-tinted review.
From a practical standpoint, this reboot of the 42-year old original was facilitated by the end of Lost, allowing CBS to take advantage of the production infrastructure and expertise which had been built up around that show. In much the same way, Magnum P.I. sprang from the death of the original Five-0 back in the early 1980s.
From the audience’s viewpoint, of course, none of that matters. The new Five-0 is a snappy update which brings the old show firmly into the 21st century while paying respectful yet playful homage to the original. It shares several locations and style cues with its forebear – and, for that matter, with Lost – while adding some modern twists to make it relevant for a contemporary audience. There are plenty of inserts which occasionally make the show look like an extended advert by the Hawaiian Tourism Board (no bad thing). Cutting edge technology plays a prominent role in assisting the team. And Kono has gone from being a huge man who would not have looked out of place in an NFL game to the waif-like Park – who seems to specialise in gender-altering roles in remakes, having done exactly the same with the character of Boomer in Galactica.
Although there is action aplenty in the episodes we have seen so far, there is also no shortage of humour, as typified by the knowing revival of the series’ signature catchphrase:
Steve McGarrett: Book him, Danno.
Danny Williams: Oh, is that going to be a thing now?
Steve McGarrett: What, you don’t like it?
Danny Williams: No, I don’t like it.
Steve McGarrett: I think it’s catchy.
The template for the show has been nicely established in the first few episodes: lots of action, plenty of humour and minimal emphasis on the procedural aspects of each week’s case. And we already have some longer arcs in play: McGarrett Senior’s secret investigation which resulted in his death, Danny’s adjustment to life and culture on the island, Chin’s back-story of his dismissal for alleged corruption. And hopefully we will see more of Kono than what we currently know: that she looks good in a bikini and has a mean roundhouse kick.
The new Five-0 has no intention of being another serious police procedural like a CSI or an NCIS. What it promises to do is offer a spot of action-based light relief in a location no less exotic than when the original was first broadcast to the world in the 1960s. It works for me.
Outcasts, season 1 (BBC1)
There is no questioning Outcasts‘ scale and ambition. It features locations and effects work which are a cut above anything the BBC generally attempts. And it has a strong cast with a broad appeal, featuring actors from both US shows and some of the BBC’s most successful exports: Hermione Norris (Cold Feet, Spooks), Daniel Mays (Ashes To Ashes), Eric Mabius (Ugly Betty) and Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica, Law & Order UK).
In the not-so-distant future, the human race has started to evacuate Earth. An outpost has been set up on the planet Carpathia, where a group of pioneers anxiously await new arrivals. Their children have been decimated by a deadly virus, C-23. There are divisions between the police (Protection And Security) and the army-like Expeditionaries, whose leader Mitchell Hoban (Bamber) appears to be on the verge of launching a coup. And the colony’s president, Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham), is harbouring a variety of deep, dark secrets, not least a secret order to wipe out the cloned ‘cultivars’. Carpathia itself remains largely a mystery, with hints there may be some form of indigenous life which no one is aware of. And then another transport arrives, bringing with it the manipulative and charismatic figure of Julius Berger (Mabius).
That description merely scratches the surface of a multi-layered plot which promises puzzle upon mystery upon intrigue. But the story struggles initially under the weight of its own ambition. The first half of the first episode is a textbook exercise in how to alienate an audience, cramming in a mass of plot exposition while very little of note actually happens. Having then spent the bulk of the episode focussing on Mitchell, we have the surprise twist of killing him off – a device which might have been more effective had it not already been employed in the opening episode of the recent Survivors reboot. (Coincidentally, in both cases this involved killing off a member of the Law & Order UK cast – Freema Agyeman in the case of Survivors, Jamie Bamber here.)
In fact, the feeling that Outcasts is overly derivative is one of its biggest problems. There are certainly a number of too-close parallels to Battlestar Galactica here: a human exodus, a Christ-like cult leader (Julius Berger here is more than reminiscent of Battlestar‘s Gaius Baltar), even the cultivars echo the Cylons as a created race who have plentiful reason to rise up against their makers.
Be that as it may, there is a decent and complex story in there somewhere fighting to get out. But it takes too long for the first episode to start peeling back the layers of the onion. There is too much exposition and too much flabby dialogue – the hour-long running time would have been better served as 50 tightly-constructed minutes – to the extent that I suspect much of the audience simply turned off halfway through. Simply put, it lacks the up-front hook to draw viewers in, asking them to take on trust that interesting revelations are just around the corner.
And there are certainly plenty of loose threads left dangling. What catastrophe(s) befell Earth? What is Julius Berger’s agenda? What is it in Cass’s past that he is so desperate to put behind him? Why has the birth rate among the colonists been falling, and how have the cultivars started to reproduce? And what secrets does Carpathia itself hold?
The second episode was a distinct improvement on the first – despite the scarcely credible idiocy of the hostage plot – enough so for me to stick with the series for now. But this is no Battlestar Galactica (which is what I suspect it is trying to be). Not even close.