Reviewed: Cradle to Grave (Thursday, BBC 2); Boy Meets Girl (Thursday, BBC 2); The Fixer (Friday, Fox); Under the Dome (Thursday, RTÉ2); Electric Picnic (Saturday, RTÉ2)
It's one of those mental times of the year, when there's so much stuff going on TV it's difficult to keep up. So this week I'll skip through a few shows and – even at that – just get a flavour of the way TV is going as we head into the latter end of 2015.
It's no secret that the BBC has struggled with comedy in recent years - especially as they keep putting the shows they produce on the telly - so it was interesting to see not one but two new sitcoms starting together on the same night. And they certainly offered contrasts in style as well as content.
First up was Cradle to Grave (Thursday, BBC 2), a series based on Going To Sea In a Sieve, the autobiography of Danny Baker, the former NME journalist who has become something of a broadcast legend in his native UK.
Set in 1974, the series follows the real-life events of Danny and the rest of the Baker family as they go through life in working class, sarf London. In a very smart piece of casting, Peter Kay – something of a quintessential northerner – plays dad, Fred, a dodgy docker who has a home-filling sideline selling all kinds of stuff that has been sidetracked from his day job.
Danny Baker himself supplied the voiceover, and while this was yet another period piece that paid tremendous attention to detail, its central story – growing up and all that goes with it – was never lost, and quite timeless. And while Cradle to Grave so far isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it is hugely engaging.
That show was immediately followed by Boy Meets Girl (Thursday, BBC 2), and its content was several stone-throws away from Danny Baker's chirpy cockney knees-up. Truly ground-breaking, it's the first British sitcom with a transgender character, and actor, at its centre. Trans actor Rebecca Root stars as a boy-turned-girl looking for love, which materialises in the form of Leo, played by Harry Hepple, a twenty-something she bumps into in a pub.
They agree to meet for meal, but he has no idea how to do small talk, just lost his job, still lives at home with his parents and was nearly young enough to be her son. She may have had gender issues, but poor Leo has a problem coping with life. But he's not overawed by Judy's announcement that she was "born with a penis", even though it does leave him speechless for a moment or two, and responds with: "So, you were born in the wrong body."
But while the central plank of the story is a very modern one, the rest of Boy Meets Girl is about as old-fashioned as a sitcom can get. Both Judy and Leo's families are clichéd, for very big starters. Judy's even 'the older woman'. The jokes are thin on the ground, and the whole package seems to be made as traditionally and familiar as possible. Are they trying to make the show's central premise more palatable to a conservative audience? The writers need to be brave about much more than the transgender issue if they want a hit on their hands.
Crossing the Atlantic, one of the new North American imports on offer in recent days was The Fixer (Fox, Friday). This Canadian miniseries stars former Grey's Anatomy cast member Eric Dane (he played Mark Sloan AKA Dr McSteamy) and Kathleen Robertson (Boss, Murder in the First).
She plays NTSB investigator Ellie Molaro, who is suspicious of the official line on an oil rig disaster. Dane drops in and out of the shadows and finally makes himself known as Carter, who claims that a conspiracy of what he calls Fixers are behind such disasters in the country, which are used to manipulate the stock market, and reap billions for those in the know Molaro and Carter have three more episodes to sort out these nefarious Fixers. It's not bad, and the four-part structure should ensure that storyline flabbiness is kept to a minimum. Oh, and fans should note: McSteamy's been working out.
It was recently announced that sci-fi drama Under the Dome (Thursday, RTÉ2) would go no further than a third season, and so I thought I'd give it one more chance when I noticed that very third season was popping-up in a yet another moment of transatlantic televisual synchronicity.
A pretty rambling and sub-Lost second season of this drama, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King, had ended with a really hokey cliffhanger, and I was in two minds whether to tune in for a show that's officially on TV's Death Row. My weakness of will was not rewarded.
Taking up where the previous season left off, with most of the population of Chester's Mill being led by local hero Barbie (he's a bloke) into a white light inside a tunnel. Cliffhanger over, they hit the smoke and magically appear not only outside the tunnel, but outside the massive invisible dome that inexplicably cut of Chester's Mill at the start of season one. The dome suddenly shatters, Barbie runs back for Julia and finds her, Big Jim and BJ's son Junior all dead. Then things got really daft.
The story skips ahead one year, Barbie's a callous gun-for-hire in the Middle East, and he's a new lady in his life. He returns to Chester's Mill for an event marking the events that saw many townspeople perish. Meanwhile, back inside the dome in some kind of alternate timeline/space time continuum thingy, Big Jim, Junior and Julia are all alive and kicking with Big Jim in great form, shooting everything around him at home. The universe may be expanding, but not as painfully as this story.
Not one to end on a downer, I enjoyed dipping in and out of Electric Picnic 2015 (Saturday, RTÉ2). While it lacks the depth of coverage that the much better-resourced BBC's coverage of Glasto, it gave us sofa surfers a flavour of the festival without having to endure all that goes with the event. And with a functioning fridge just a short, indoors walk away, plus a cosy, familiar bed at the top of the stairs. Happy days!
Two observations: 1 - Blur. I just don't get it, give me Gorillaz any day. 2 - Al Porter. Someone please give him a late-night chat show and watch him take off. He's a natural.