You better call Saul (Netflix) | netflix.com
Russian doll (Netflix) | netflix.com
The thief, his wife and the canoe (ITV) | itv.com
Chivalry (Channel 4) | channel4.com
What makes some TV characters so effortlessly cool? Take Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy McGill, the Awful Lawyer, back on Netflix in the sixth and final series of You better call Saul. Truth is, Goodman – garish suits, used-car dealer, the kind of lumpy comb last seen on Human League fans in 1981 – should not be cool. Goodman, beautifully played by Bob Odenkirk, is where the cool turns into the desperate, and perhaps that’s his secret: he’s each of us at our best, at our worst, our most vulnerable human.
Delayed by the pandemic, as well as Odenkirk’s heart attack, the breaking Bad prequel, helmed by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, returns in a heartbeat, like it just broke for lunch. It avoids the usual black-and-white preamble showing Goodman’s apathy BB-beyond: hiding incognito, running a branch of Cinnabon. Instead, there’s a swirling ballet of his noisy bonds, followed by a flash towards the dismantling of his BBmansion from the era, a midlife crisis of tragic gold bricks and mortar toilets, Viagra, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Saul who ends up being thrown in a dumpster.
The first two episodes pick up where series five left off: Goodman’s dogged (really tedious?) legal vendettas, aided by lawyer-wife Kim (Rhea Seehorn), morphing into an underworld Grace Kelly, and a parallel storyline of a Mexican drug cartel, showing the aftermath of the failed assassination of Lalo Salamanca, played by Tony Dalton with sizzling sociopathic brilliance. The news of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) appearing in future episodes nearly melted the internet, and it’s certainly thrilling when breaking Bad-characters of the time appear: “the chicken man” Gus (Giancarlo Esposito); the glare of Hector (Mark Margolis); Mike (Jonathan Banks), the cartel fixer, who takes his murderous orders with the impassive gaze of a depressed gargoyle, but still conveys basic decency.
The prequels are weird, cramped beasts, bereft of crucial surprise elements. We know that key characters survive; yet, just as crucially, we don’t know everything. What will happen to Saul and Kim’s fragile relationship? What about Kim? When do we first lay eyes on America’s craziest chemistry teacher? You better call Saul is a small-screen masterpiece; in some respects – meticulous plotting; 3D characterization; slow-release humor – superior to its predecessor. Savor every moment as it heads towards the endgame.
Also back on Netflix, for a second series in seven episodes, is Russian doll. Starring Natasha Lyonne, who writes and directs some episodes and is co-creator with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, the first series served as a millennial groundhog day, a trippy, quasi-sci-fi mini-epic with Lyonne’s character, Nadia, trying to get through her 36th birthday party, only to be repeatedly “killed” and sent away to start over. Adventurer, witty, disturbing, time-consuming, Russian doll was elevated by the bravery and shrewd performance of Lyonne.
In season two, Lyonne continues the good work, scraping off one-liners with a hyper-Al Pacino New York delivery: “I’m acutely aware that my lungs are basically two shrunken Nick Caves.” The inventive soundtrack – from Depeche Mode to Bauhaus to Janis Joplin – further signals that the production is deeply polished.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Russian doll 2 is otherwise a bit of a tangled and overworked mess. While trying to avoid a minefield of spoilers, I can point out that with multiple time zones (1944, 1962, 1982) there is a Holocaust theme, an existential dive into Nadia’s family history , as well as meditations on mental illness, drugs, death, and more. Much more. Whisper it: too much.
Alan (Charlie Barnett), Nadia’s companion, feels underemployed, and even appearances by Chloë Sevigny (Kids) and Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek) fail to mesh themes that are too scattered. While still watchable(ish), I’m not convinced this second series was necessary.
ITV’s true crime drama in four parts The thief, his wife and the canoewritten by Chris Lang (The unforgettable), focuses on Hartlepool couple John and Anne Darwin, who collected the insurance money after they faked their death by drowning in a canoe. Eddie Marsan plays the dominant and absurd John Darwin – “What I am is a man who thinks outside the box” – while Monica Dolan is the overwhelmed and shy Anne.
We are invited to see Anne as the victim of her capricious husband. Their relationship resembles a cult: John as a charismatic leader, Anne gobbling up the marital Kool-Aid. Dolan and Marsan are both superb; she is almost hysterical with the stress of lying to the police and their sons, while he is variously abusive, delusional, comedic, even sexually rapacious. At one point, he intones, “It’s been three long weeks, my love…for both of us” with such a pointed look, it made me burst out laughing.
The obvious comparison is to 2021 Landscapers, another true crime drama about a supposed “ordinary couple”. Although far from mystical, Thief …is well crafted in its depiction of the dysfunction of a marriage in a damp, unpretty England of gray seas, frying pans and peeling wallpaper.
Anyone looking for a post-#MeToo comedy? In fact, Channel 4 Chivalry, co-starring and co-written by Sarah Solemani and Steve Coogan, is subtle and meandering. Set in Hollywood, it’s an examination of sexism and cancel culture in which neither side comes out completely unscathed.
Solemani plays an independent feminist director hired to save a film from a rude anti-censorship author (“Why don’t you pick up a hammer and take it to the Venus de Milo? She’s got her fucking tits” ). As a producer, Coogan claims to understand the new culture but then laments, “You can’t even describe people with adjectives anymore.” There’s a solid supporting cast – Wanda Sykes as the cynical producer; Aisling Bea as the coordinator of clueless intimacy – and cameos from Paul Rudd and John C Reilly. Two episodes in (all six available on All 4), I like it. Think Episodesbut with new and generational acid splashes.
What else am I watching
Interior No. 9
It is the seventh release in the dark comedy anthology series from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. The opening involves a reunion trip on a paddle boat, and the co-stars League of Gentlemen collaborator Mark Gatiss and bubbly dependable Diane Morgan.
Idris Elba’s Fighting School
Actor Idris Elba passionately believes that he owes all of his discipline and focus to his training as a boxer from youth. Here he presents a new five-part series in which other young people have the same chances in the ring.
Freeze Fear with Wim Hof
Here’s something a little different. Celebrities (including rapper Professor Green and Gabby Logan) endure snowy and freezing conditions to master breathing exercises and strive to be better and calmer with the amazing Wim Hof, AKA Iceman.