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Television

Netflix's Messiah is a great concept undermined by implausible politics

Plus: Sky's latest bingewatch Cobra also suffers from trying to advance an unbelievable narrative

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

Sky’s latest bingewatch potboiler Cobra can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to be an arch, knowing House of Cards-meets-The Thick Of It satire about parliamentary intrigue. Or a full-on post-apocalyptic thriller in the manner of Survivors or The Walking Dead. It ends up succeeding in neither.

The premise is that a powerful solar flare is heading towards Britain, leaving the government little time to prepare, and subsequently causing all manner of chaos: plane crashes, hotel fires, escaped prisoners, mass blackouts. Will mild, likeable Conservative prime minister Robert Sutherland (a miscast Robert Carlyle), his fractious cabinet and his civil service prove up to the job of extricating Britain from a new Dark Age?

Yes, is the short answer, largely because the head civil-contingency planner (Richard Dormer) is an omnicompetent, bearded, traditional Labour-supporting Scottish action man who roves round the country making stuff work. And because the nice but cipher-like PM is supported by the twin pillars of a sassy female chief of staff (Anna Marshall) and a black female ex-Labour MP. A Conservative government may be in power, we’re reminded, but it’s the good old-fashioned values of socialism, care and enlightened femininity that will ultimately save the day.

And just to show us how toxic the white  masculine right is, Brexiteers especially, here’s a cartoon cut-out home secretary, Archie Glover-Morgan, played with relish by David Haig. He gets the best lines and insults (‘You voted to leave the EU, Archie, not the human race’), but he’s just a lefty scriptwriter’s bizarro caricature of what he imagines the bastard love child of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage would look like.


There’s a moment, for example, where some escaped detainees due for deportation break into Northumberland University and rape two students. Glover-Morgan eagerly seizes the chance in the Cobra meeting to bash refugees and invoke Cologne, only to be reminded by his colleagues that the perpetrator of the rapes was a white Lithuanian, that another refugee was stabbed trying to prevent the rapes, and that a national crisis is hardly the time to ‘fan the flames of xenophobia’. Later, sure enough, an innocent brown-faced man is beaten up and almost lynched by a mob of white people who mistake him for the rapist.

First, how did a man so obviously vile, bigoted and lacking in judgment rise to the rank of home secretary? (This matters because for post-apocalypse drama to work, it’s all the more important to keep your main characters plausible so as to ground the improbabilities in verisimilitude.) Second, if you’re going to create a potboiler about a solar flare trashing Britain, surely your job is to give it both barrels without fear or favour, rather than mimsily arranging your script in so contrived a way as to ensure that at no point are right-wing prejudices made to look anything other than hysterical, judgmental and wrong.

It’s a shame because the action scenes, such as the break-out from the asylum centre, threaten to be edge-of-seat stuff. But instead of milking this, ex-Spooks scriptwriter Ben Richards pulls his punches, giving us contained outbreaks of discrete semi-horror whose purpose is not so much to make us go ‘Ohmygod I can’t bear any more of this!’ (as it should be) as to provide fodder for the next few scenes of inside-Westminster backbiting.

Messiah (Netflix) is a great concept, undermined by a similar problem to Cobra’s: characters are constantly being required to act implausibly and in bad faith in order to advance the narrative.

A new Jesus has arisen in the Middle East, only this time he’s not a Jew but a handsome Muslim with long hair and impressive cheekbones. Mehdi Dehbi is intense, charismatic and wholly plausible as the Messiah and every time he appears the show lifts off: starting with the thrilling opening scene where Isis are about to destroy Damascus only to be frustrated by a month-long dust storm called up by our gaunt, ascetic, gnomic hero.

But clearly what someone decided in the early outline script is: just like the old Jesus, the new one will be treated as a prophet without honour. So without any particularly obvious reason for doing so, everyone from the CIA to the Israeli intelligence services is continually wanting to arrest him and beat up his followers.

I don’t buy it. If a peaceable crowd of starving, thirsty refugees arrived on the Israeli border without obvious malign intent, I reckon the Israelis would humanely give them supplies, not just leave them there. If a new Jesus figure caused a church in Texas to be spared a hurricane that destroyed the rest of the town, he’d be a media sensation, not dragged away in handcuffs.


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