This article was originally published in The Courier on 28th September 2013.
By Any Means: Sunday, BBC1
Downton Abbey: Sunday, STV
Signs You're Watching a Dreadful TV Show # 408: its only enjoyable aspect is an appearance by Keith Allen. Evidently enjoying himself as a villainous tycoon, Allen brought a much-needed splash of pantomime colour to the otherwise lacklustre By Any Means.
Created by Tony Jordan in the mould of his own Hustle – it's basically a shameless rehash – this dismal comedy-drama follows the exploits of a maverick underground police unit tasked with catching criminals BY ANY MEANS necessary. This involves the implementation of various wacky stings, none of which are as witty or clever as froth such as this demands. Instead it comes across as a failed attempt to recreate the droll sheen of classic adventure romps such as The Persuaders.
Our heroes are a gang of hopeless caricatures – the wisecracking hunk, the sexy woman, the nerdy computer genius - who come across as insufferably pleased with themselves. The whole show drowns in a shower of its own glibness. The need to establish who they were and how they operated resulted in unsubtle exchanges such as: NERD: “Are we allowed to kill people?” HUNK: “No.” Replying “it's a grey area” whenever anyone asked if they were police was employed as a weak running gag throughout.
Despite its zippy pace, episode one was so colossally dull its only highlight other than Allen's performance was an unexpected cameo from human knitwear catalogue Martin Jarvis. Matters weren't helped by the supporting presence of Gina McKee, an actress whose restraint often borders on the comatose.
There's nothing wrong with a bit of escapism, but By Any Means is far too shallow for its own good. No amount of production swagger can disguise its tiredness. The How-We-Did-It flashback montage towards the end of the episode summed it all up: we were clearly supposed to marvel at the cleverness of their elaborate scheme to ensnare Allen's character, but instead it felt like a hack magician performing an underwhelming card trick.
Within the opening moments of the returning Downton Abbey, the house thronged with the news that Mrs O'Brien had taken employment elsewhere, thus swiftly taking care of Siobhan Finneran's decision to leave the show. Subtlety has never been Downton's strong point.
Now little more than an exposition generator, Lord Grantham spent most of the episode explaining to anyone who'd listen the legal complexities of managing the estate. Meanwhile, Lady Mary was deep in mourning for Matthew, purely, I believe, as an excuse for Michelle Dockery's inexpressiveness. That she's received TWO Emmy nominations for her monotonous performance is baffling, even if one takes into account America's almost endearing view of Downton as a serious, prestigious drama.
It isn't, of course. It's an elegantly tailored soap, enjoyable for what it is, but hardly Brideshead Mark II. I'd doubtless enjoy it more if A) its ungainly dialogue didn't sound like Esperanto fed through Google Translate, and B) if it wasn't a strained wail of masturbatory nostalgia from a spoon-obsessed Tory Baron.
Anyway, following a hug from Carson and a compassionate pep talk from the wise old Dowager Countess – during which she urged her grieving granddaughter to choose life, like Trainspotting's Renton in corset and frills – Lady Mary regained her former vigour (i.e. none whatsoever) and by episode's end she was negotiating with sheep-farmers like the best of them. And lo, the Emmy judges did smile.
Monday, BBC3, 10pm
As this likeable, nicely observed sitcom about four boy-obsessed teenage schoolgirls returns, they exploit the sudden death of a teacher to spend time with their dashing young grief counsellor. Bolstered by an excellent young cast, it's charmingly brusque.
House of Surrogates
Tuesday, BBC4, 9pm
This troubling documentary investigates a booming industry led by Dr Nayna Patel, a hugely controversial figure who runs a clinic occupied by poor Indian women who receive payment for acting as surrogates for childless couples from around the world.
Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm
In the latest instalment of this delightful documentary, the focus rests on kids hitting puberty as they choose the GCSE subjects which may well impact on their later lives. It also provides a poignant study of their sweetly supportive year leader, Mr Moses.
Friday, Sky Living, 9pm
James Spader stars as one of the world's most wanted criminals in this enjoyable new US thriller. After giving himself up at FBI headquarters, he offers his help in tracking down terrorists, but only on his own ambiguous terms. Think Hannibal meets 24.