Another week, and I’ve pushed myself to watch more new and interesting television – and that’s why this week I had planned to write about two new shows from Netflix, Mindhunter and Dark, both of which are very well shot and impressively macabre, but last night I found something on the BBC iPlayer that made me so happy I have to devote some time to it.
As such, I’m going to give ‘Dark’ a quick, one paragraph appraisal. The German show is, like it’s name, impressively dark and morbid, focusing on a small town as a number of children disappear. As bodies turn up with their eyes burnt out, it slowly unfolds into a gripping, moving drama with time travel and government experiments. The Direction is sharp and fast, the child acting, much like Stranger Things, is very strong and the writing keeps you guessing. Definitely worth a watch.
Anyway, I haven’t written this down to talk to you about another dark, brooding Foreign language Netflix drama, I’ve come today to to talk about another dark, brooding American Drama.
Mindhunter is a new Netflix exclusive drama that tell the story of the formation of the Behavioural Science Unit at the FBI, and seems to represent a newfound love and fascination that we all have with true crime and serial killers in particular. By interviewing a series of the most infamous serial killers in US history, they are trying to piece together what makes sociopaths tick, and more importantly what turns a healthy brain into one that seems destined to kill. All the while, you quickly learn that the sociopaths are net necessarily only the ones behind the bars, as the lives of our lead characters are slowly torn apart by their quest for knowledge.
It’s based off the book of the same name by John E. Douglas, former special agent with the FBI, who was the basis of both the lead in Mindhunter, Special Agent Holden Ford, and Jack Crawford from the Red Dragon series. All in all, he’s had a bit of an exciting life, and helped to develop the science of criminal profiling more than any other man alive, and singlehandedly built up the BSU within the FBI. Mostly by interviewing every serial killer who was happy to talk, most notably, and a the focus of the series, Edmund Kemper, the coed killer.
The performance of Kemper is brilliant, Cameron Britton manages to capture the complete lack of remorse that he felt toward his crimes, as well as Kemper’s famous “bumblebutt” nature – he comes across as a harmless, albeit moustachioed, man who just wants some attention. Every scene he’s in he steals, and whether that’s due to the terrifying source material, the actor, or the writing, I cannot be sure, but every time he comes back it’s a joy to behold, and the final scene with Kemper is so breathtaking, both in performance and tone, perfectly ramping up the suspense with slow zooms and a great use of Led Zeplin I dare you to not find yourself drawn in.
The whole ensemble is strong, although I found it hard to get past Jonathon Groff as Holden Ford, mainly because I found myself expecting him to burst into song about how he owns all of America and will always do so – the curse of a successful Broadway career. Holt McCallany plays a good Bill Tench, the older statesman of the BSU who is struggling with keeping his work and home life separate and it’s taking a tole on his marriage, his relationship with him son, and even the mental health of his babysitter. He plays the character well, although the writing keeps him permanently grumpy and unlikeable, and when he does show any humanity it’s twisted. The final piece of the main threesome is an ex-lecturer who moves from Boston and her university research job and she moves across the country to work with two people she doesn’t get on with well and in a department that’s always on the verge of being closed down. Anna Torv is very enjoyable in the role, although, again, the character is a bit one dimensional, and impressively dense when the plot needs it, and when the director wants to put some obvious symbolism on film.
The directing really irked me, and I’m not too sure why. As with many of these Netflix shows, it’s directed by 4 different people, but the bulk is directed by David Fincher, who I have nothing but love for, but this just baffled me. Some of the decisions were weird, some shots were hideously ugly, and a few of the performances distractingly unrealistic. Which is a shame, because the rest of the show is very enjoyable, and I’d recommend it to everyone, but if Netflix are going to make their television shows more and more cinematic, please, stop letting directors put in directional decisions that are so distracting.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, I implore you to go onto BBC iPlayer and watch something from the ’60s, and the ’70s. Oh, and it’s also from the ’80s. Two episodes of Spike Milligan: Assorted Q was first broadcast in December 2014 and is a compilation of the 6 series of Milligan’s groundbreaking Q series that were produced from 1969 to 1982. Each episode is a half hour of rip-roaring comedy genius, which it should be when you realise that the BBC have boiled down nearly 18 hours of sketches to make this one hour compilation series. The relationship between Aunty Beeb and Spike appears not to have mellowed still after all these years after his death, because I could think of a dozen sketches that didn’t make the cut, most surprisingly the Pakistani Dalek which is arguably his most famous moment on British Television. It’s a shame that so much good material has been neglected, but I am happy all the same for these shows to be getting the airing the deserve.
What this compilation does very well is introduce you to Spike’s completely odd and broken sense of humour, and does so gently. The first few sketches on each episode are standard fair, with people being in the wrong place at the wrong moment, before we get into the bizarre and esoteric comedy for which he is loved. At times it’s like The Goon Show on television, unfollowable and strange, with loud noises and strange, surreal vignettes, but always with a charm and wit that kills me every time. These elaborate sketches are almost immediately juxtaposed by small, one man one camera moments, my favourite of which is where he, dressed as television newsreader, says “I now want to read from this weeks Readers Digest”, and for 30 seconds we just see him reading, after which he thanks us for the pleasure and walks off.
He made jokes that would make the people working in television laugh too. I had always noticed that every time a character appeared in costume, there were tags all over their clothes; odd but not funny. It was only after I learned that these tags were in fact the costume markers from the wardrobe department, and were meant to be removed from any costume before they appeared on the screen and that people had been known to be fired for leaving them on camera was the full majesty of the joke revealed. And what I love is that only twenty to thirty in the country would have got the joke. His pastiche of how music shows were made, with the camera cutting to elaborate and awkward angles to the annoyance of the performer rang true as much now as then, as MTV seem to want to cover every inch of their performers from extreme angles and no one knows where to look.
Even in this compressed and concentrated hour of Q, it still suffers from the odd dud or overlong sketch, something that Milligan would be forever plagued with in everything he did post-Goons, except in his writing and poetry. It’s a nice time capsule and look into the mind of one of Ireland’s great comic geniuses, but not without it’s flaws. I would highly recommend, because the comic leaps that he made, and influence he had on the comedy world need to be seen to be believed.
If you like Python or Eddie Izzard, or any surreal comedian or sketch show, you have Spike Milligan to thank, and for that alone it deserves a watch.