Psychological thrillers — or ‘thrillers’ as they used to be known — have become almost as ubiquitous on television as they are in the average bookshop. On the whole, this is now a genre where contented domesticity exists solely to be undermined, and where the chief function of the past is to come back and haunt people — which is clearly what it’s going to do in Channel 4’s Born to Kill, even if Thursday’s increasingly intriguing first episode was in no hurry to explain exactly how.
To begin with, 16-year-old Sam (Jack Rowan) seemed to be on a solo mission to overturn all preconceptions about teenage boys. He started an apparently typical day by making breakfast for his mum, who responded with a heartfelt cry of ‘What would I do without you?’ On the school bus, he went to the rescue of a fellow pupil who was being bullied. Later that day, he popped into the hospital where his mother works as a nurse, and cheered up a ward full of grateful oldies with some jovial banter and a frankly theatrical reading from Treasure Island.
Yet even at this stage, there were hints that the past would soon be up to its old tricks. Sam kept having flashbacks to a drowning girl. We also know that his dad didn’t, as Sam believes, die a hero’s death in Afghanistan. Instead, he’s in prison for a crime that Sam’s mum considers so appalling that she’s now preparing a victim’s statement for his forthcoming parole hearing.
Not only that, but — thanks to Rowan’s riveting central performance — Sam’s acts of kindness are taking on a deeply sinister edge, with his ready smile becoming more and more unsettling. His dedication to those elderly patients also extends to nabbing some of their hair as a souvenir when they die, and placing it in a special box in the woods. Nor does it seem entirely wise of him to befriend a new girl at school whose ideas on the impossibility of human altruism might have been considered a bit gloomy by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Admittedly, by the end of the episode, we still had no real idea what was going on. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that Sam’s days as an all-round breakfast-making, bully-confronting, hospital-visiting good egg are over — and that the programme itself had raised enough disturbing questions (and given us enough confidence in its storytelling) to make us want to stick around for the answers. My own hope — perhaps a forlorn one — is that this time we might even have a psychological thriller where the dark secret at the heart of everything isn’t child abuse.
But for those who want something cosier from Channel 4, there’s always the return of First Dates (Wednesdays), a show based on that sturdiest of formats, where the makers put a series of couples together, send them off for an evening and film what happens.
The whole thing is, of course, hugely contrived. On Wednesday, 47-year-old Emma couldn’t believe it when her date Peter turned out to be a man who’d dumped her by text 18 months before. ‘You couldn’t write it,’ she said repeatedly — although my guess is that’s precisely what somebody at the production company did.
Even so, what makes First Dates such a pleasure — and not a particularly guilty one — is that the contrivance is both undeniably effective and fundamentally kindly. True, Emma never did forgive Peter for his dumping methods. She was also dismayed to learn that he still likes to go without underwear. (‘All the men I’ve met who don’t wear pants are a bit arrogant,’ she later told us in the tone of someone imparting a great universal truth.) But at least, before they went their separate ways, they’d touchingly agreed to unblock each other on Instagram.
Elsewhere, as ever, it was the less cool pairings who provided the best moments. Before his date arrived, 25-year-old Will gave vent to some pretty bullish opinions about men’s jackets (‘I bloody love tweed’). Once she had, though, he proved that he hadn’t been lying about the awkwardness of his small talk — at one point taking refuge in ‘Have you got any hobbies?’ ‘I don’t know,’ was the mysterious reply from 22-year-old Emma, whose small talk was fairly limited too, but who was surely unfair in describing herself as a ‘plain Jane’. (Sad to think that only when she’s much older will she realise she looked just fine.) Four months later, the closing captions informed us, the two are both still ‘enjoying their first-ever relationship’.
Finally, a quick sociological point. In less civilised countries, you can’t help feeling, a successful date might lead straight to the bedroom. In Britain, needless to say, all the couples who got on well immediately went off to get drunk together.