My first interview over at National World, which is neat – nice to be able to do that sort of work there.
This is the first of a two-part piece discussing Trigger Point with writer Daniel Brierley. In this one, we talk about his initial inspiration for the show, why he wrote it with Vicky McClure in mind, how his comedy background shaped his approach to writing thrillers, what it was like to work with Jed Mercurio, and more. In the second part, which will publish on Sunday evening, Daniel walks me through the explosive cliffhanger to the first episode.
My latest – well, latest of substance – piece for National World, reviewing upcoming ITV thriller Trigger Point. It’s written by Daniel Brierley (who I’ve also interviewed for National World), and produced by Jed Mercurio, creator of Line of Duty and Bodyguard. This is very much in the same vein as those two, as I explained above; worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing though.
What I’m finding about this – now that I’m writing a lot more pre-air reviews, often with shows I’ve not watched all the way through or had to finish quite quickly – is that… well, it’s just a fundamentally different thing, I suppose. Especially when you’re under embargo and have to follow certain spoiler stipulations and so on. Different task! Adjusting to that still.
I’ve reviewed the new Harlan Coben Netflix adaptation. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d imagine it to be (albeit with one exception, discussed in the above review) – if you like this sort of thing, it’s worth a watch, but if not, it won’t do much to change your mind about them.
Part two! Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù told me all about the particular demands of shooting an action-heavy show like Gangs of London during the ongoing pandemic – certainly sounds like quite a logistical headache. Feels like something that’d be interesting to look into more, not just on Gangs of London but television in general. Hmm.
Kevin Can F*** Himself is built around one really great idea.
The show is divided into two: it’s at once a brightly lit multi-camera sitcom, filmed in front of a live studio audience, and also a desaturated prestige drama, following an archetypical sitcom wife after she walks offstage and the laugh track fades away. Kevin Can F*** Himself flits between the two modes, revealing the goofy husband Kevin is a monster and his loving wife Allison is desperate to escape. The best way to do this, Allison decides, is to kill him.
If nothing else, that central conceit is well stylised, and impressively executed: there’s a strict visual grammar here, splicing together two instantly recognisable and evocatively directed television forms. Two very heightened realities are created and contrasted against one another (the cartoonish sitcom is, in its own way, as exaggerated as the dour prestige crime drama is) but neither suffers for it. Indeed, the juxtaposition serves each half well, with one reinforcing the identity and texture of another; there’s some genuinely impressive production at work in Kevin Can F*** Himself, with set design that can be at once broad and subtle in equal measure. Moving from the sitcom living room to the glossy drama living room, it doesn’t feel like channel hopping between shows – there’s a sense of consistency there, one identity perceived from adjacent angles.
The standout, of course, is Annie Murphy. As Alison she’s one of the few characters (and actors) to appear in both halves of Kevin Can F*** Himself – it’s plainly the most demanding role in the show, and the series wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does without her. Indeed, probably the main (or perhaps only) reason to watch the show is to appreciate the work Murphy does here: how carefully modulated the performance is, the precision that belies the levity, the self-awareness that tempers both the humour and the melodrama. It’s Murphy that sutures together the disparate elements of the show, taking a two-dimensional archetype and creating (something approaching) a three-dimensional character – there’s a case to be made, perhaps, that Kevin Can F*** Himself represents the biggest gulf in quality between a lead performance and the show around it all year.
For as well executed as the production is, though, it’s hard not to feel that this is all just a way to spruce up a very basic – and, as the series unfolds, increasingly dull – crime drama.
Kevin Can Fuck Himself is most obviously modelled on – and named after – Kevin Can Wait, a short-lived CBS sitcom starring Kevin James. The series is now best remembered for casually killing off its female lead between seasons, replacing her with a new character played by James’ former King of Queens co-star. Whatever the production decisions behind the change, it’s indicative of how often these characters are an afterthought in their own programmes, treated as essentially interchangeable from one iteration of the format to the next.
Oddly, though, there’s relatively little interest in interrogating the sitcom paradigms Kevin Can F*** Himself references. There are gestures towards it, certainly – an offhanded mention of Kevin getting the mailman deported in a classic sitcom prank belies a certain casual violence – but it’s not the focus of the show. Kevin Can Fuck Himself looks like a sitcom, yes, but it’s not about sitcoms. There’s an appreciable disconnect there, which leaves the programme feeling somewhat adrift in both halves of its story. The condemnation lacks direction, devoid of any particular point to advance alongside it – Kevin’s base observation is sound, yes, but it never looks any further than that.
Comparisons to WandaVision are unexpectedly instructive, actually. There are more than a few similarities between the shows, which for all their differences are doing very similar work – certainly, they’re commenting on the same cultural objects, albeit from adjacent angles. What makes WandaVision distinct from Kevin Can F*** Himself though is that its sitcom homage (or parody, if you prefer) actually has a point: it traced the lineage of a particular form of entertainment and positioned the Marvel Cinematic Universe not just as its heir but its replacement. The Dick Van Dyke Show turning, step-by-step, into the latest Avengers sequel was a tacit reassertion of Marvel’s dominance after over a year’s absence – WandaVision was saying something, WandaVision was making an argument (however agreeable or not it may have been) about culture and about television that Kevin Can F*** Himself really isn’t.
Absent any underlying point, the series flounders. Its character drama is unfocused, never quite managing to walk the delicate path it sets out for itself as it implies an abusive marriage without committing to depicting it (not in the simplistic, surface-level sense – the interplay between the sitcom and the drama is enough to force a shift in perspective, to see toxicity to these tropes without drawing attention to it overtly – but in terms of the characters and their wider relationships to one another). In turn there’s a sense that the series is spinning its wheels, trying to meet a certain runtime and episode count first and foremost – Kevin Can F** Himself has a great premise and a great central conceit, one that made for a strong opening relationship, but that momentum starts to stall as it becomes clear the series has few further ideas.
There are times when the omissions are glaring: Kevin and Allison don’t have children, despite how often these sitcom archetypes do, and when the idea is eventually raised it’s as a plot device first with little sense of how huge that could’ve been if it was a bigger part of the series. It’s also notable that, for a series so enamoured with crime dramas, Kevin here is a cable repairman rather than a police officer, as James was in Kevin Can Wait – even as applying this conceit to a policing sitcom offers obvious opportunities to genuinely say something about the intersection between culture and television. Indeed, a cleverer version of Kevin Can F*** Himself would’ve built a critique of the prestige crime drama into its premise as well, exposing the limits of that genre as well – but ultimately it’s just too short-sighted.
That much was obvious early on, though. As Kevin Can F*** Himself went to great lengths to establish a strict visual grammar, introducing and carefully emphasising how exactly it would work, it also built a sense of anticipation – anticipation for the moment those rules were broken, the moment that Kevin leaves the sitcom to follow Allison into the drama.
Rather than exploiting that, though, rather than making that moment as powerful as it could’ve been, it happened towards the end of the otherwise impressive first episode, in a very casual, offhanded way, undercutting the conceit of the show almost immediately. There’s no sense at all that the team behind Kevin Can F*** Himself realised what they could’ve had – in the end, it’s hard not to feel like this was just a good idea gone to waste.
“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”
The Serpent, Episode 8
“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”
The Investigation, Episode 6
The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other. Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.
On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.
Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.
However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.
More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?
The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)
What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.
That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.
Originally, Quiz began life in the theatre, performed first in Chichester before moving to the West End; met with widespread critical acclaim, and nominated for two Olivier awards, writer James Graham’s 2017 play was itself inspired by a book. Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major, published two years prior, suggested that Charles and Diana Ingram might have been innocent of the charges levelled against them. This ambiguity was central to Graham’s play: a production deeply invested in its live performance, it invited audience participation (not unlike Millionaire?’s famous lifeline), asking those watching to vote one way or the other on the Ingrams’ innocence.
Before this theatrical run and the book that inspired it, however, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was almost subject of a film written by Russell T Davies. That, obviously, never came to fruition – in 2003, when his involvement in the Millionaire? film was announced, Davies was on the cusp of another project, one that would become his main focus for the next six years. Still, it’s an interesting counterfactual to consider; Davies seems the perfect writer for a comedy-of-errors about a crime committed on an iconic television show, but a one-off film almost seems to miss the point, both of telling this story and hiring Davies to do it.
Even earlier, of course, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was subject of a documentary. ITV never actually aired Charles Ingram’s episode of the quiz show; instead, Millionaire: A Major Fraud (a pun), a documentary presented by Martin Bashir, is where the footage of Ingram’s contested victory was first broadcast. Major Fraud attracted 17 million viewers, and a 56% audience share, setting a new record for the channel: it was event television. The last time Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? proper had received similar ratings was three years prior.
In that sense, then, James Graham’s television adaptation of Quiz isn’t, in fact, a stageplay being promoted to the small screen – rather, it’s a story that was told and retold through different mediums returning to where it began. It’s interesting that Graham wasn’t, at first, entirely convinced that Quiz should be adapted for television, believing the strength of the stageplay came from the structural opportunities afforded it by a live performance. Nonetheless, Quiz doesn’t just mark the return of this story to television – it demonstrates that television is this story’s natural home.
Quiz is best when it’s a process story – less a whodunnit, more a howdunnit, building its drama out of the smaller details. The “how” isn’t just about the heist, though; rather, Quiz is about how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? came to be such a successful game show in the first place. Its opening episode, which essentially amounts to an hour of contextualising exposition, should by all rights be flat and dull; instead, its account of “Cash Mountain” awkwardly developing into an internationally syndicated television juggernaut proved dynamic and engaging. (In that sense, it recalls James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, a film which was at its best when depicting individual notes in a wider process. Scenes of Millionaire? slotting together piece by piece and Dominic Cummings gradually refining his campaign strategy are recognisably by the same writer, the two works4 sharing certain structural quirks beyond the more superficial observation that both hinge on a polarising yes or no question.) The drama as a whole is buoyed by stylish direction from Stephen Frears, however, and canny casting even in smaller roles (Mark Bonnar and Aisling Bea especially) helps Quiz feel like a confident piece of television: a necessity, really, given it invokes what’s arguably one of the most successful television shows ever.
What’s most striking about Quiz, though, is quite how tense it often is. Certainly, it’s far more tense than you’d expect of a game show where you already know the answers – of course Ingram gets the questions right, that’s essentially the whole premise. That anxiety and apprehension is preserved in no small part because of how faithfully Quiz recreates Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, from the iconic set to the moody lighting to the familiar music to the sheer drama of it all – and to the host. Much has been said about Michael Sheen’s frankly uncanny performance as Chris Tarrant; it’s perhaps a cliché to compare an actor’s impression to archive footage, but Sheen’s performance almost invites such comparison – not because Quiz uses any archive footage, of course, but for the moments where it genuinely seems as though they have. Taken together, it’s no wonder Quiz is so tense.
It’s an almost uniquely televised form of tension, crucially – the suspense of “let’s find out, after the break”, a cliffhanger never replicated on stage or in film. (Quiz shows a remarkable level of restraint in not copying this conceit itself – cutting straight to adverts after Michael Sheen delivered the infamous catchphrase must’ve been hard to resist, but it’s a smart choice not to, in keeping with Quiz’s dedication to looking beyond that original broadcast.) Thus Quiz benefits from being restored to television, not just recreating the nightly drama of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, but also serving as reminder of why the cheating scandal proved so captivating in the first place. It’s not just because of the Ingrams’ eccentricities, or the charming, intuitive simplicity of cheating in a quiz, or even the million pounds at stake. It’s because television made it close, made it nearby. Quiz opens referencing the adage that the Vietnam war was the first televised war, tacitly framing this infamous heist in the same terms: when the Ingrams tried to steal a million pounds, they might as well have done it in the corner of your front room.
Quiz exonerates the Ingrams, in the end. Of course it does; casting Sian Clifford, always quietly the best part of Fleabag, and Matthew Macfadyen, who as Tom Wambsgams is the most sympathetic character on Succession even as he’s arguably the worst of them, wasn’t ever going to do anything but endear the Ingrams to the audience. Their performances go a long way towards anchoring the drama, in fact; the show keeps both characters at something of a remove for most its runtime, not quite rendering them ciphers but certainly distant. It’s necessary, of course – the first two episodes of Quiz in effect take up the prosecution, and that demands a certain ambiguity be sustained. Still, though, it ran the risk of leaving things inert; Clifford and Macfadyen’s restrained charm does a lot to round out the characters before the third episode recontextualises events.
For all that James Graham has quite studiously avoided coming down on one side or the other, Quiz undeniably stacks the deck in favour of the accused; the series finishes, after all, with their defence, in effect leaving them the final word. (It’s perhaps not a surprise that many of the audience took to Twitter afterwards, now Ingram truthers themselves; during its interactive West End run, most theatregoers voted the Ingrams innocent by the end too.) Their defence was one predicated on the material nature of television – the same phenomenon that saw the case of the Coughing Major become so famous in the first place. The Ingrams insisted that it was a matter of television editing that made them look (and only look) so guilty – victims, in effect, of a storytelling technique.
The first episode of Quiz quotes Picasso, asserting that “we all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”. It’s more than a touch grandiose, but it speaks to Graham’s intentions; Quiz is a drama about a truth, not necessarily one about the truth. (There’s a sleight of hand going on there too, given the quote stops short; in full, it reads “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth – at least the truth that is given us to understand,” pointing again to the layers of artifice and construct in each retelling of the tale.) In some respects, it’s a more entertaining truth – and the real-life Ingrams would probably call it a better truth. That’s why Quiz breaks, ever so briefly, from its otherwise realist bent with a musical sequence – and why, when it does, it does so through the television. Much as it once convicted the Ingrams, it’s now (almost) letting them free. Television offers a more heightened reality: as a quiz show, as a trial, as a drama. Quiz was never about the heist, or about the Ingrams. Not really.
And it’s why the final note is Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant again, showbiz rictus grin leering out of the screen, posing one last question – this time without a lifeline. “So, go on then,” he demands, “tell us. What’s the answer?”
The answer – as ever, as always, and what Quiz was really about – is television.
Interviewing composers is always quite a lot of fun, actually – I know very little about music (I went to ukulele lessons for a few years and I still couldn’t tell you what a chord is), but every composer I’ve ever spoken to has always been really enthusiastic about their craft, which always makes for a really interesting discussion.
And Nathaniel was no exception! I thought his almost sort of ‘method composing’, using bone saws to score for a serial killer character, was fascinating to hear about. So, you know, click through and read about it.
So! Moriarty. This article kinda relies a lot on a thing I basically just sorta made up while I was trying to work out how to talk about the thing I wanted to talk about (Desmond Harrington‘s Michael, a new character introduced in Elementary season 6), so I should probably unpack that a little bit.
Basically, the “Moriarty Problem”, such that I’ve defined it, talks about the struggle that adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories face when, after having offered their take on Moriarty (arguably the most famous literary villain ever), they have to move on to a new villain – the problem being the struggle to put forward a character that’s equally as impactful or memorable as their take on Moriarty.
Certainly, if we limit our pool to Elementary and Sherlock, both shows struggled; I liked Magnussen, though admittedly was less sure about Eurus, though I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that Andrew Scott‘s Moriarty overshadowed them both. The same is true with Elementary, where none of the subsequent villains have had the same impact as Natalie Dormer‘s Moriarty (though you can make the reasonable argument that they didn’t try to have villains in the same way, I suppose).
So, what this article talks about is the way in which Elementary found a way to avoid that problem with its latest villain character, Michael. Admittedly you could probably argue that what they do, and the point I talk around making, is essentially just to do an alternate take on the basic idea of Moriarty within the confines of their show.