This week John Byrne takes in two very different American procedurals and a couple of documentaries about pioneers.
Reviewed: Forever (Thursday, Sky 1); How to Get Away with Murder (Wednesday, Universal); Play it Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp (Friday, BBC Four); Acting Funny: Pioneers of Television (Friday, PBS)
Quirky procedural shows have been a common occurrence on American TV for decades. From Columbo's bumbling, mumbling cop to Angela Lansbury's crime-solving crime writer in Murder She Wrote, up to more recent shows such as Monk, Castle and The Mentalist, fans of the genre have always enjoyed plenty of options.
One of the latest procedurals to cross the Atlantic is Forever (Thursday, Sky 1), and although we're only a few episodes into the first season, it's difficult to see how this show is going to last longer than its debut season, despite a promising set-up.
Ioan Gruffudd is perfect for the role of New York City medical examiner Dr Henry Morgan. He's a man who has inexplicably been around for hundreds of years as he can't be killed, and he seeks the answers to his immortality while he also helps Detective Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza) solve murder cases.
But the problem here is that - once the pilot was done with - the writers seem to be at least sidelining, if not entirely jettisoning, the back story element, other than the odd dip into Morgan's past. His immortality has become almost immaterial.
This latest episode focused on the murder of the son of a jazz musician, and the nod to Morgan's past came with him declaring jazz as something akin to a new-fangled noise, while a flashback showed him teaching the much-younger Abe, latterly his older-looking sidekick who runs an antique shop, how to play classical music on a piano.
It's all pretty predictable fare, but it could be a whole lot better with a bit more attention to the back story. I can't see this one getting a second season as it just has zero magic despite a good cast.
A strong arc isn't a problem for How to Get Away with Murder (Wednesday, Universal), the latest from Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. In some respects it's like a standard whodunit, with Viola Davis in cracking form as Annalise Keating, a criminal law professor at the fictional Middleton University in Philadelphia. She selects a group of her best students from her university class to work at her firm but – in an act that so far remains unexplained – they murder her husband, Sam.
As well as solving the case of the week, each episode slowly unravels the circumstances around Sam's demise. In last week's case, a man sentenced to death years previously by the father of one of the students is Keating's new client.
There's a further subplot about a murdered college student, but I'm not going to ruin anything because How to Get Away with Murder is coming to RTÉ 2 in the New Year and should get a much bigger Irish audience than it has so far. Like Shondra Rhimes' other big hit, Scandal, the pace in HTGAWM is pretty hectic, if not quite as dizzyingly intense. It's not my favourite show (The Good Wife still rules in our house), but it's easily one of the best of the new ones.
The BBC rarely disappoint when it comes to music-related documentaries, and Play it Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp (Friday, BBC Four) was a fun hour-and-a-half. From the early days when Pete Townsend of The Who was dabbling with distortion and ear-piercing volume, to the spot-on satire of Spinal Tap, the latter-day metal merchants and the geriatric boogie of Status Quo, the history of the legendary Marshall amplifier, and its creator, Jim Marshall, was told with love, dedication and respect.
Here's a trailer for This is Spinal Tap:
Even as a Vox AC 30 fan who never ventures beyond the 12th fret and couldn't play a solo to save his life, I enjoyed every pout and power chord.
Another excellent documentary in recent days was Acting Funny: Pioneers of Television (Friday, PBS). Featuring comedic TV talents such as Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman – who has won more Emmys than anyone else for comedy acting – and Dick Van Dyke, the pinnacle of a highly entertaining and informative programme was reached when the focus was Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters, although Leachman ran them a close second.
These two, both now sadly dead with Winters passing last year and Williams earlier this year, were masters of improvisation and it was a real treat to see various clips from throughout their careers. The pair eventually worked together on the hit 1980s' sitcom Mork and Mindy, where Williams played the alien Mork and, in season four, Winters played his son, Mearth. As usual with PBS, the standard of this documentary was outstanding, and what really stood out was the desire for each comic to give their all for their audience.
Oh, and do yourself a favour and look up Jonathan Winters on YouTube. A hilariously gifted man.