There are decent dramas to be found on five nights out of seven at the moment, if you’re either in enough or can record digital telly (in fact, the switch to digital has had the major disadvantage of making it harder than it used to be to record programmes in a form you can keep for future watching: on-demand and online seem to be the only channels that will be available in the future unless you’re prepared to muck about with hard disk drives, editing software and DVD burning tools).
The week starts at probably the top of the tree: E4’s Skins has returned with a second series that has so far proved audacious, absorbing and at times utterly devastating. Far from bursting back on to the screens with the exuberance and hi-jinks that characterised the early part of the first series, the opening two episodes almost totally sidelined the foremost characters of old – Tony and Michelle, Sid and Cassie – and instead focused on Maxxie. When we did see Tony, the brain injuries he suffered at the end of the last series had left him a frustrated and pathetic shadow of the scheming wildcard we had seen before. Harry Enfield and Bill Bailey put in touching turns as parents of the main characters, an act followed a couple of weeks later by Peter Capaldi and Josie Lawrence.
The programme’s trait of showing characters act with phenomenal vindictiveness cropped up again in the second episode, which nonetheless managed to introduce the new character Sketch more or less sympathetically. The use of guest stars in unexpected ways also continued, with Shane Ritchie appearing to good effect as an unlikeable, but ultimately hard-done-by drama teacher. By the third episode, the programme had got about as far away from a “teen drama” as can be imagined, with the first three quarters of the show concentrating almost exclusively on Sid’s relationship with his parents: the pay-off to the episode was enormously powerful.
I can’t think of any other programme that would open the first episode of its second series with three minutes of contemporary dance, and then proceed to treat its audience to three relentlessly bleak and downbeat episodes. It’s all a long way from the start of the first series, and the marketing has reflected this: last year’s sequence of a home-wrecking party (which frankly did not do the series justice) has been replicated, but with the main characters watching from the sidelines as the house literally collapses around them. A remarkable series, that some critics have overlooked unforgivably.
Tuesdays also give us a programme from the C4 stable: Shameless has made it to a fifth series, and remarkably has managed to reverse much of the collapse in form it exhibited last year. With the focus now back on the Gallaghers and the Maguires used more sparingly, the show has some of the engaging warmth it was originally so noted for: David Threlfall as Frank, Rebecca Ryan as Debbie and Gerald Kearns as Ian have established themselves as the lynchpins of the cast – while the show has survived the loss of James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff and Dean Lennox Kelly, its makers should make plans to wind it up gracefully in the event that any of those three actors is no longer available. The only down-side is the specially-constructed set that has replaced the real-life locations originally used, which is a bit obvious: we see the same few walls and streets a bit too much.
For Wednesdays, it’s Torchwood. At its best, it has finally started to achieve the high levels of quality it aspired to in its first season, but it is still a bit inconsistent and in places irritating: the giant space-slug was particularly disappointing and the episode with Jim from Neighbours was a bit nothing-y. On the up-side, the episodes Adam and Sleeper were both highly effective. I was impressed that they had the audacity to kill off Owen, and glad to see the back off him, as I have long thought he was a twat: I was therefore disappointed that he was brought back to life in the next episode, although at least they managed to take the opportunity to explore human morality a bit. It’s worth tuning in for, but I’m still not convinced by the idea that they’re supposed to be a slick operation protecting mankind.
Thursday: Ashes to Ashes has, for my money, been generally at least as enjoyable as Life on Mars. The second and third episodes dipped a little, the latter in particular, but the fourth upped the ante regarding the story around Drake’s parents and why the died (or are about to die, depending how you look at it). My one worry is that this will be resolved at the end of the series – like the disappearance of Sam’s father was in Life on Mars – and then the show does not have a convincing big mystery or mission to explain Drake’s return to consciousness at the end of subsequent series – assuming there are any. The final task for Sam Tyler seemed to be nothing to do with the past to which he had been transported, unlike all the other plots involving meeting his relatives, putting away criminals he had met in real life and so on. But it’s well-made and enjoyable if you don’t think much about it.
Finally, the second series of David Renwick’s Love Soup starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1: I’m a bit dubious about this now that the central conceit (two people exactly right for each other – but will they ever meet?) has been abandoned. Unusually, it has been made as half-hour episodes (then again, with this, Bleak House, Sugar Rush, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and no doubt others, maybe half-hour drama is making a comeback?). Still, David Renwick and the late Verity Lambert never collaborated to produce a duffer yet, so I’m looking forward to it.