There was certainly no lack of variety among new TV dramas this week, with a standard British thriller up against more glamorous American competition in the shape of some extravagant Victorian sci-fi and an adaption by an Oscar-winning director of a Pulitzer-winning novel. (All three, mind you, did naturally feature a one-dimensional white bloke as the embodiment of sexist and/or racist villainy.) The surprising thing at this stage is that it’s the plucky British show that looks most promising.
The Pact began, like many a thriller before it, with a frightened woman running through some dark woods. So far we still don’t know why — unless it was just force of TV habit. Then again, this is a programme that’s in no hurry to divulge its secrets, with the big revelations deployed mainly as end-of-episode cliffhangers.
Somehow pleasingly, the action kicked off with a piss-up in a brewery. (Cue several shots of people having several shots.) The fun, however, was soon undermined by the brewery’s new boss, Jack, who broke off from snorting coke only to insult the women he didn’t consider attractive and to sexually assault the ones he did. Fortunately, he then passed out in mid-assault — at which point four of his female employees decided to teach him a lesson by driving him to the woods, pulling his trousers down, taking photos and leaving him there. Less fortunately, when two of them returned in a fit of conscience to bring him back, they found him dead. And with that, the quartet formed the pact of the title to say nothing about what they’d done.
In practical terms, this meant that they huddled together as a nervous foursome in different parts of the brewery, while glancing round suspiciously (in both senses) and whispering a lot. For one woman, there’s the additional problem that her husband is a cop investigating the case — although luckily his sleuthing skills don’t extend to noticing his wife’s face is set in a rictus of anxiety.
The Pact is unlikely to blow many viewers away by its sheer originality. At times, in fact, it feels rather patched together from assorted trusty thriller elements. On the other hand, those elements are trusty for a reason — and here they’re patched together extremely well. The drip-feed plot ensures that all the characters, including the supporting cast, take turns at seeming to not be what they seem. And, as we learned from Tuesday’s closing twist, Jack’s death wasn’t either.
Just as importantly, the programme does the less showy stuff equally well, providing a winningly authentic sense of a small Welsh town where everybody knows everybody else. (But, of course, do they really?) The result is a show that never appears to be trying too hard, quietly radiating instead a wholly justified confidence in the dependability of its methods.
Neither of which can be said for the frankly unhinged The Nevers, whose first episode strained every sinew to impress us, but never quite managed it. The setting is Victorian London; or at least the screen version of it that features dark alleyways and newspaper sellers shouting about the Ripper. Before long, too, we’d had our first sighting of a top-hatted patriarch denouncing women, black people and gays — although in a cunning period touch, he referred to the last two as ‘immigrants’ and ‘deviants’.
Sadly for the patriarch, a spaceship had recently flown over Big Ben dispensing flecks of light that gave some women such superpowers as being 10ft-tall, being kick-ass fighters and being able to invent James Bond-style gadgets. (Did I mention the show was unhinged?) And just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a demonic female serial killer on the loose and James Norton hamming it up as a languid and frequently topless ‘deviant’.
Kingsley Amis one complained that his son Martin’s determinedly dazzling prose left him feeling ‘bombarded by felicities’. The Nevers has a similar effect — except that the would-be felicities are far less felicitous.
Finally to The Underground Railroad, adapted by Barry Jenkins from Colson Whitehead’s ferociously brilliant 2016 novel about American slavery. Thanks to the slightly pantomime villainy of the bad white guy here, the first episode contained one of the most horrifying TV scenes I can remember — and plenty of others that crunchingly demonstrated the more everyday cruelties involved. And yet, while it definitely achieved the aim of filling us with anger and disgust, there was always a slightly awkward sense that Jenkins’s focus was almost as much on the programme’s own significance as on slavery. With its ponderous pacing and endlessly lush cinematography, as well as its choice of subject matter, The Underground Railroad is clearly intended to be Important Television. The trouble is that, so far at least, it feels like self-important television too.