Since completing season two of the brilliant Narcos, I’ve been unsuccessfully looking for a replacement serial drama that is more appealing than a bath and early bed. But the problem with TV these days is that series like Breaking Bad have set the bar so high that one ends up like a jaded emperor, forever rejecting good-but-not-quite-good-enough stuff for the most trivial of reasons.
Better Call Saul (Netflix original), for example. I’ve tried getting into it a couple of times now (and probably will again because so many people rave about it) because I love Bob Odenkirk’s dodgy lawyer character. But I found he worked better as light relief in the context of Breaking Bad’s otherwise relentless and unforgiving bleakness. In Breaking Bad, Mexican gangsters would never be talked, by hucksterish gab, out of killing their victims and just amiably break their legs instead. In Better Call Saul they can be, which seems to me a cheat: as if Reservoir Dogs had suddenly morphed into The A-Team.
Interestingly, Sneaky Pete (Amazon Prime) has a similar problem. I say ‘interestingly’ because it’s another Breaking Bad offshoot, the co-creation of Bryan Cranston, who appears in it as a vicious crime boss. But for all the Cranston character’s menace, the general tone is knockabout and caperish, which means that however bad things get for its conman hero Marius (the very likeable Giovanni Ribisi) there’s never quite the necessary sense of jeopardy to keep you on the edge of your seat. It pretends it’s The Sopranos; really it’s The Waltons.
My latest mild disappointment is American Gods (Amazon Prime), despite a hugely promising opening scene last week in which a longship of hairy Norsemen find themselves stranded and becalmed in the hostile New World, and realise that only an appeal to the appropriate viking god will get them home.
First they carve him a wooden idol: no use. Then they all heat some sharpened stakes in a fire and each poke one of their eyes out: possible mild interest. Then they burn one of their comrades alive: a slight freshening of the wind. Then they start fighting to the death: the god — a war god — is delighted and gives the survivors the wind they need to get home. Now we fast forward to the present: a taciturn, muscular convict called — for some stupid reason — Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) wakes in his cell a few days before his release, clearly destined to be this bizarre, meandering tale’s bemused protagonist…
As you’d expect of a work adapted from a graphic novel (by Neil Gaiman) and developed by Bryan Fuller (the chap behind Hannibal, that orgy of immaculate and appalling taste about a serial-killer aesthete), it’s quite gorgeously sumptuous to look at. The colours are comic-book supersaturated; the definition is so high you almost want to turn off your HD just so you can be spared those crater-size skin pores; no candle can be lit without a microscopic journey to the tip of the match, thence to the struck flame and the molten red wax, which is terribly pretty, though nothing we haven’t seen in Breaking Bad and, before that, Requiem for a Dream plus, of course, in every scene of everything ever by Paolo Sorrentino. Aren’t we due some kind of lo-fi backlash soon?
No, I’m being unfair. I’m really not complaining about the surfeit of gloss (why shouldn’t the hold of a late 17th-century slave ship look almost as weirdly groovy and sexy as last week’s alligator head-shaped bar? It’s fantasy, not history. Also, with luck, someone might take offence) because it’s so visually arresting. What bothers me far more is the glacially slow plotline.
OK, so these are Old Gods, which have mostly lost their power in the US and threaten to be supplanted by these New Gods — a computery one called Technical Boy, a TV goddess called Media, etc — and they’ve all got these incredibly vivid personalities and forceful characteristics (Czernobog with his huge sledgehammer, which he loves bashing out people’s brains with so that the blood oozes down the shaft). I get all that — but so what?
This isn’t really drama as most of us would understand it: it’s just a succession of Top Trumps superheroes, each with their own set of outrageous skills, manipulated into a series of exquisitely realised vignettes in which actors like Ian McShane (as Mr Wednesday) mug their socks off to no particularly worthwhile end because you haven’t a clue what’s going on and it doesn’t matter anyway because, being supernatural, they can obey whatever rules the author makes up for them as he goes along. I have the same problem with the whole of magic realism: if anything can happen, who bloody cares?