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Thursday, June 30, 2022

The week in TV: Better Call Saul; Russian Doll; The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe; Chivalry | Television

Better Call Saul (Netflix) | netflix.com
Russian Doll (Netflix) | netflix.com
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (ITV) | itv.com
Chivalry (Channel 4) | channel4.com

What makes some TV characters so effortlessly cool? Take Saul Goodman, AKA Jimmy McGill, the grifting lawyer, returning to Netflix in the sixth and final series of Better Call Saul. Truth is, Goodman – garish suits, used-car salesman patter, the kind of clumpy comb-over last seen on Human League fans in 1981 – shouldn’t be cool. Goodman, magnificently played by Bob Odenkirk, is where cool capsizes into desperate, and perhaps that’s his secret: he is all of us at our best, our worst, our most vulnerably human.

Delayed by the pandemic, and also Odenkirk’s on-set heart attack, the Breaking Bad prequel, led by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, returns with a snap, as if it had merely broken for lunch. It eschews the usual black-and-white preamble showing Goodman’s listless BB-afterlife: hiding incognito, running a branch of Cinnabon. Instead, there’s a swirling ballet of his signature loud ties, followed by a forward-flash to the dismantling of his BB-era mansion, a bricks-and-mortar midlife crisis of tragic gold toilet, Viagra and a life-size cardboard cutout Saul that ends up tossed into a dumpster.

The opening two episodes return to where series five left off: Goodman’s dogged (realistically tedious?) legal vendettas, aided by lawyer-wife Kim (Rhea Seehorn), shapeshifting into an underworld Grace Kelly, and a parallel Mexican drug cartel storyline, showing the aftermath of the failed assassination of Lalo Salamanca, played by Tony Dalton with sizzling sociopathic brio. News of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) appearing in future episodes almost melted the internet, and certainly it’s thrilling when Breaking Bad-era characters appear: “chicken man” Gus (Giancarlo Esposito); glowering Hector (Mark Margolis); cartel-fixer Mike (Jonathan Banks), who takes his murderous orders with the impassive gaze of a depressed gargoyle, yet still conveys core decency.

Prequels are strange, cramped beasts, robbed of crucial elements of surprise. We know that key characters survive; yet, just as crucially, we don’t know everything. What will happen to Saul and Kim’s brittle relationship? And to Kim? When do we first clap eyes on America’s most demented chemistry teacher? Better Call Saul is a small-screen masterpiece; in some ways – meticulous plotting; 3D characterisation; slow-release humour – superior to its predecessor. Savour every moment as it shuffles towards the endgame.

Also returning on Netflix, for a seven-part second series, is Russian Doll. Starring Natasha Lyonne, who writes and directs some episodes and is a co-creator along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, the first series served as a millennial Groundhog Day, a trippy, quasi-sci-fi mini-epic, with Lyonne’s character Nadia trying to get through her 36th birthday party, but repeatedly being “killed” and flung back to do it again. Adventurous, witty, disquieting, time-bending, Russian Doll was elevated by Lyonne’s bravura, wise-cracking performance.

Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll.
Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll: ‘a bit tangled’. Photograph: Netflix

In season two, Lyonne carries on the good work, rasping out one-liners with hyper-Al Pacino New York delivery: “I am acutely aware that my lungs are essentially two shrivelled Nick Caves.” The inventive soundtrack – from Depeche Mode to Bauhaus to Janis Joplin – further signals that the production is deeply cared about.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Russian Doll 2 is otherwise a bit of a tangled, overwrought mess. While trying to avoid a minefield of spoilers, I can report that, along with multiple time zones (1944, 1962, 1982), there is a Holocaust theme, an existential deep-dive into Nadia’s family history, as well as meditations on mental illness, drugs, death, and more. Lots more. Whisper it: too much.

Nadia’s fellow time-looper Alan (Charlie Barnett) feels underemployed, and even appearances from Chloë Sevigny (Kids) and Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek) fail to mesh the overly scattered themes. While still watchable (ish), I’m not convinced this second series was necessary.

ITV’s four-part true crime drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, written by Chris Lang (The Unforgotten), focuses on the Hartlepool couple John and Anne Darwin, who collected the insurance money after he faked his death from drowning in a canoe. Eddie Marsan plays the dominant, absurd John Darwin – “What I am is a man who thinks outside the box” – while Monica Dolan is the overwhelmed, mousy Anne.

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne and Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe.
Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne and Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe. Photograph: ITV

We are invited to view Anne as the victim of her fantasist husband. Their relationship resembles a cult: John as the charismatic leader, Anne gulping down the marital Kool-Aid. Dolan and Marsan are both superb; she is near-hysterical with stress about lying to the police and to their sons, while he is variously abusive, delusional, comic, even sexually rapacious. At one point he intones: “It’s been a long three weeks, love … for both of us” with such a pointed look, it made me laugh out loud.

The obvious comparison is 2021’s Landscapers, another true crime drama about a supposed “ordinary couple”. While far from mystical, The Thief … is nicely crafted in its depiction of dysfunction in a marriage in a dank, unpretty England of grey seas, fry-ups and peeling wallpaper.

Anyone in the market for a post-#MeToo comedy? Actually, Channel 4’s Chivalry, co-starring and co-written by Sarah Solemani and Steve Coogan, is subtle and twisty. Set in Hollywood, it’s an examination of sexism and cancel culture in which neither side gets away entirely scot-free.

Sarah Solemani and Steve Coogan in Chivalry.
Sarah Solemani and Steve Coogan in the ‘subtle, twisty’ Chivalry. Photograph: Elizabeth Morris/Babycow

Solemani plays a feminist indie director hired to save a film from a boorish anti-censorship auteur (“Why don’t you get a hammer and take it to the Venus de Milo? She’s got her fucking tits out”). As the producer, Coogan claims to understand the new culture but then moans: “You can’t even describe people with adjectives any more.” There’s a robust supporting cast – Wanda Sykes as a cynical producer; Aisling Bea as a clueless intimacy co-ordinator – and cameos from Paul Rudd and John C Reilly. Two episodes in (all six available on All 4), I like it. Think Episodes, but with added newsy, generational acid splashes.

What else I’m watching

Inside No 9
(BBC Two)
This is the seventh outing for the blackly comedic anthology series from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. The opener involves a reunion trip on a pedalo, and co-stars League of Gentlemen collaborator Mark Gatiss and the reliably sparky Diane Morgan.

Idris Elba’s Fight School
(BBC Two)
Actor Idris Elba passionately believes he owes all his discipline and focus to his youthful boxing training. Here, he presents a new five-part series in which other young people are given the same chances in the ring.

Freeze the Fear With Wim Hof
(BBC One)
Here’s something a bit different. Celebrities (including rapper Professor Green and Gabby Logan) endure snowy, icy conditions to master breathing exercises and endeavour to be better, calmer people with the astonishing Wim Hof, AKA Iceman.

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