I sincerely hope you’re not watching television. With the glorious summer sun we’re having, you should be having picnics and swims, not sitting in front of a screen. So this is my recommended viewing for the week: nothing. Get out.
Still, if you must look for something, why not look for shows about looking? There are quite a few of them about. In the new sitcom Family Tree (Tuesdays, BBC2), Eeyore-faced Chris O’Dowd plays Tom Chadwick, a recently cuckolded, jobless single who’s inherited an old photo of someone he believes to be his great-grandfather. Tom embarks on a search to know more about his ancestors, discovering ever more exotic and esoteric branches of his genealogy. He’s accompanied by his hapless pal Pete and sister Bea (the ventriloquist Nina Conti), who, due to a traumatic childhood incident in a zoo, now voices her more unorthodox opinions via a hand puppet called Monkey.
This is a very funny comedy and, watching preview episodes on my computer with headphones on, I chortled out loud about six times (a risky thing to do when colleagues all around are ploughing through an Ed Miliband speech). The series is a send-up of kin-hunting series such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost Family, and because tracking down one’s forebears could lead to just about anything, both possibility and improbability are built in. As a documentary spoof, it’s more farcical and less ‘realistic’ than, say, The Office. Nobody really questions the presence of Monkey.
Conscious of its own meta-ness, the show makes fun of different genres, often via its characters watching telly or DVDs, so we get treated to snippets of a mock BBC2 historical soap, or a cringe-inducing flashback to a 70s sitcom. One thing about these TV-within-TV moments, though. It’s become increasingly the done thing, in our overly politically correct times, for hip, knowing comedies to get safe laughs by showing terribly un-PC things via the filter of a terribly un-PC character (in this case, Tom’s dad). We’re supposed to be laughing at, not with, the character. In reality, of course, we’re doing both. I find the PC brigade tedious in the extreme, but it seems to me that, if you believe one shouldn’t depict Indians with waggly heads, then don’t depict them, full-stop. You can’t poke fun by proxy. That’s having your gluten-free cake and eating it too.
The chase was on in Channel 4’s searing Run, shown over four straight nights Monday through Thursday. Characters got entangled in dire circumstances and tried to flee, pursued by parents, police, drug dealers, mafia bosses and an assortment of down, out and battered members of London life. The underclass tumbled into the underworld, with catastrophic results. What choices to make? The characters often opted for those most punishing on themselves. Olivia Colman played, with her usual impassioned integrity, a single mother who discovered that her two sons had killed a man. It is time, I think, for Colman to get an Oscar. I know that Oscars are not given for TV, but I don’t care.
Everyone was looking for pregnant 12-year-old Tui Mitchum in the pilot of the superbly strange drama Top of the Lake (Saturdays, BBC2), set in a beautiful but eerie New Zealand mountain landscape. Directed by Jane Campion, the series focuses on a secluded community where misogyny, violence, rape, murder, paedophilia and incest are the order of the day. But this is not a simple story of rednecks — there was a regality and dignity to its presentation that was quite disconcerting given the sordid business at hand. A sense of fable, even myth, permeated. The inhabitants engaged in constant tussles over territory, like pioneers and swashbucklers of yore. Holly Hunter adopted an air of lunatic magnificence as a cigarette-smoking shaman overseeing a commune of troubled women. And little Tui made her escape by riding a white horse, a long rifle strapped diagonally across her back — the hunter and the hunted, home from the hill.
If for some reason you find the British countryside too pleasant and crave instead some Kiwi bush angst — go for it.