THE WEST WING – 1×06 – ‘Mr. Willis of Ohio’

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★★★1/2

Written by: AARON SORKIN

Directed by: CHRISTOPHER MISIANO

(This review was originally written in May 2010)

“Me, Charlie, the President’s daughter, the Chief of Staff’s daughter, a Georgetown bar and Sam – what could possibly go wrong?”😀

This one worked for me a little better than the last one, mainly because it taps some really nice areas along the way. While Zoe getting in trouble at the bar was fairly predictable (and the idiots pawing over her cliched), it allowed for a very good moment – possibly my favourite of the episode – where Bartlet perfectly demonstrates WHY she needs protecting in a fantastically acted speech by Martin Sheen. Bartlet came out really well here, actually, right from the opening poker gambit where he tests their general knowledge through to his scenes with Leo. I liked seeing Mallory again too – not only is she dash pretty, her dynamic with Sam I want to see more done with and they started that here.

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Once again, the whole piece DID give way to a bit of sentimental schmaltz – primarily in Toby’s dealings with Mr. Willis. Part of me liked this given how nice and honest a character Willis was and how he touched Toby (showing a nice, humble side to him and feeding nicely from his feelings in the last episode) but the cynic in me baulks at such inspiring scenes. They’re not altogether for me. Also, the whole census vote thing really left me baffled for most of it – Sorkin admittedly doesn’t here let any viewer not au fait with Congressional politics in on the nitty gritty of what the vote is all about, not like previous eps. I still understood Toby’s development but not the flotsam around it.

Still, some solid character beats and good scenes make this a touch better than 1×05.

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THE WEST WING – 1×05 – ‘The Crackpots and These Women’

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★★★1/2

Written by: AARON SORKIN

Directed by: ANTHONY DRAZAN

(This review was originally written in May 2010)

Would you spend $900 million on a highway for wolves?

That’s just one question that pervades probably the lightest episode of the season yet, one which wraps some good character beats around a nice premise: the White House giving a voice to some of the more fringe members of society, in this case a UFO nut and a wildlife group who basically ask the above question. It allows for some nice awkward comedy for Sam and CJ, arguably two of the characters most attuned to a different kind of witty line. Part of me thinks they didn’t quite push this idea of the ‘crackpots’ far enough but what we do get is fun.

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Around that, I enjoyed the clashing beats between Toby and Bartlet – which really highlight the kind of passionate character Toby is, not to mention someone who in many ways is insecure about his position. By the end, we’ve gone some way to resolving that but I suspect that may crop up again for Toby. Some great acting by Richard Schiff here too, particularly during his Oval Office outburst. Surprisingly, though, Josh gets the best throughline – the idea of the nuclear card is a great way of externalising his love for the team and highlight the tragedy of his sister. Goes some way to explain his arrogance and over compensation and I must admit, I continue to like Josh more and more.

The show on cruise control to some extent, and I found the ending a touch mawkish (though inspiring speeches are de rigueur to some extent, so I need to get used to them), but some good drama and comedy in between. Probably my least favourite ep yet though, compartively.

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SPOOKS – 1×03 – ‘One Last Dance’

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★★★1/2

Written by: SIMON MIRREN

Directed by: ROB BAILEY

What appears to be a relatively straightforward narrative for Spooks’ third episode manages to twist and turn its way into more interesting territory, as ‘One Last Dance’ serves to slightly wrong foot the audience. Simon Mirren’s script appears, on the face of it, to concern Kurdish extremists seizing control of the Turkish consulate in London with heavy duty machinery in order to make a political point about their lands and imprisoned freedom fighters, but there’s an extra layer of plot running under the surface. That does mean it’s not quite the Zoe-centric episode it might at first appear, given she’s trapped inside the consulate when it’s stormed on a routine operation, but it does allow what could have been quite a routine story to have greater depth, and gives a few other main players a little extra to do.

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Chiefly the old guard in Tessa Phillips, played by Jenny Agutter, who thus far has been more of a background presence as the younger spies have taken centre stage, but she’s outed as someone with an element of slyness to her and a slightly enigmatic past, given revelations about her dynamic with Johnny Marks (played by cool menace by Christopher Fulford), a former MI5 asset who’s seemingly been dead for a decade. It’s the character moments that are helping to set Spooks apart thus far from more standard drama fare – the action is still present but its secondary to the emotional components of the piece. Matthew MacFayden’s Tom continues to be in a difficult position keeping the truth from his lover Ellie about what he does, especially given how much of a dangerous situation he again lands himself in. It’s also nice to see Peter Firth continue to slightly steal the show as Harry, delivering biting lines and deadpan proclamations to the rest of the team with a steely wit that’s very enjoyable.

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Granted all the Kurdish stuff is fairly one note, nor are the actors involved particularly impressive, but their plight isn’t really the point of the episode. ‘One Last Dance’ again proves Spooks is managing to tell what appear to be traditional stories but inject them with bite, character work and an underlay of extra narrative that is deepening the experience of each tale, making it a slick and exciting hour with something to say underneath.

Not on the level of the last episode, but still quality work.

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THE WEST WING – 1×04 – ‘Five Votes Down’

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★★★1/2

Teleplay by: AARON SORKIN

Directed by: MICHAEL LEHMANN

(This review was originally written in May 2010)

Episodes like this make me feel really quite thick…

Why? Because there were swathes here where I had difficulty understanding precisely what was going on in certain scenes, such as Toby defending his windfall or Josh’s convincing of Wick to play ball. By the end – in, as I’m seeing, traditional West Wing style – it all made sense and became clearer but I couldn’t help but feel dumb that Sorkin’s quick-fire, complex dialogue at times eluded me. It’s remarkable how he ultimately though makes US political issues that at first you fear you’ll need a PhD in political law to figure out, capable of being understood by the close of play. This was ultimately about a gun bill and the political back & forth to get it passed.

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I wasn’t quite as engaged by it as I was earlier plots, I must admit, but the wrangling was fun to watch – Josh is ace when he completely dresses down people, as he does here, and something tells me he’ll take on that slippery Vice-Bastard Hoynes at some point. There was a good personal core with Leo and his failing marriage – poor guy. It’s telling how good John Spencer is that after only four eps, I care about what the character goes through. And around that, some nice comedy – Donna continues to amuse, CJ taking the piss out of Toby was fun and Bartlet’s drugged up briefing was gold: ‘Before I go, I’d just like to say this… I’m seriously thinking of getting a dog’.😀

Not quite as good as the previous three but still solid. And these episodes really zip by, perhaps because there’s so much going on.

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THE WEST WING – 1×03 – ‘A Proportional Response’

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★★★★

Written by: AARON SORKIN

Directed by: MARC BUCKLAND

(This review was originally written in May 2010)

I was wondering when Dule Hill was going to show up…

Must admit, this one didn’t flow quite as I expected it to – I thought we might get an episode set over the course of one night, showing Bartlet’s reaction to the airplane bombing and focusing on his response. I’m not disappointed they decided to flow a normal episode, however – it is rather early in the run to be experimental and this allows them to keep the main narratives around the bombing ticking: Sam’s indiscretion, Josh and Mandy, and the delightful introduction of Charlie Young – an immediately likeable character who will add a nice sense of naive youth to the grizzed, sardonic edge the rest of our regulars have. A lesser show may have arched the pilot around his introduction (I probably would have done that) but Sorkin works him in nicely here.

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Some quality moments here that have the characters bouncing off each other, with some superb acting: CJ’s confrontation with Sam, which is as funny as it is tense; Leo confronting Bartlet and once again proving how awesome the guy is – I loved what Sorkin did with that scene too, going from grandstanding, arguing, right to two old friends chuckling away. It said everything about their relationship – great writing. Once again, a lot of terrific wit peppers the dialogue. I’m loving Donna, I must admit – Josh is perhaps the most likeable when sparring with her. I liked him the most yet here, actually – maybe it was the large absence of Mandy.

One thing… it DOES give way to sentimentality at times, especially the soaring music. I can live with that for now but I hope it does tread darker waters at some point. Altogether though – not really any step down.

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SPOOKS – 1×02 – ‘Looking After Our Own’

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★★★★1/2

Written by: DAVID WOLSTENCROFT

Directed by: BHARAT NALLURI

It’s quite remarkable that the most infamous episode of Spooks, to this day, is ‘Looking After Our Own’, or more obviously ‘the one where that girl gets her head put in a deep fat fryer’. That scene, still shocking over a decade on, garnered 250 complaints to the BBC and caused the most offence of any program in 2002. Much as the moment isn’t exploitative at all, you can’t help but understand why. David Wolstencroft‘s second script was originally intended to be the season finale, however when the completed script was needed to fill a hole needed for production, it was moved up – and the fact is, the producers knew full well they had an episode in their pocket that could top the pilot and really put Spooks on the map as a property unafraid to kill off any of its main characters, and show the genuine mortal danger secret service operatives put themselves in. The whole piece despite that moment is extremely well put together.

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What helps in a major way is the presence of Kevin McNally as Robert Osborne, a self made businessman in waste disposal who is also the money behind a campaign to trigger a race war in modern Britain, with his hands in illegal immigration and paying off politicians to push agendas to help his cause. McNally is one of those actors whose name you may not know but never gives a bad performance, and this is one of his best; Osborne is, truly, a vicious bastard in every way – his hateful politics, the way he scares his little son and beats up his wife Claire (played by the ever lovely Debra Stephenson), and naturally his penchant for extreme violence when pushed, and McNally really makes him menacing in a very straight laced way. His machinations are relatively straightforward – no bombs or direct terrorist action here – but his long term goals are the agenda, which horribly an officious MOD bod at the end spins as potentially a political victory for the current government; it’s unnerving a little watching this in the shadow of Nick Griffin or Nigel Farage peddling UKIP, it feels more timely than ever.

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The controversy of course stems from the fate of Helen Flynn, an MI5 staffer who’s a little green but who ends up posing as a married couple with the much more experienced Tom, only to suffer the merciless treatment of Osborne when he dunks her head in a deep fat fryer & shoots her dead. Lisa Faulkner at the time, believe it or not, was the most recognisable face in the cast & Wolstencroft took this decision so as to prove none of the principals were safe and boy does it work! It’s a horrible moment in an uncomfortably realistic episode, with Bharat Nalluri‘s direction not displaying the direct horror of it which if anything makes the moment worse – it’s brutal, uncompromising and fearless writing and it punches an already strong piece of drama to new heights; in the background Tom keeping secrets from Ellie is increasingly hard to maintain & Danny begins abusing his MI5 position to help his credit rating, proving that shade of arrogance that may come back to haunt him, but these weave lightly into the main plot.

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If Spooks doesn’t necessarily peak here, this has to come close. ‘Looking After Your Own’, a title indeed with dual meaning, is a very strong piece of espionage drama that balances thrills, character work and really nasty suggested horror alongside a terrific guest performance from Kevin McNally.

The fact it can still get people wincing over ten years later at the thought of it proves it stands the test of time.

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SPOOKS – 1×01 – ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill

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★★★1/2

Written by: DAVID WOLSTENCROFT

Directed by: BHARAT NALLURI

To think it’s been close to fifteen years since Spooks–known as MI5 in the States–first aired. How time flies. It launched almost literally in the wake of 9/11, with creator David Wolstencroft turning in thirty different drafts of the pilot before the BBC green lit the series, keen for the opening story ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ to reflect the series’ edict of MI5 agents fighting terrorism on British soul, which of course even over a decade on sadly is as timely and relevant as it was back then (indeed in just one month Spooks, now gone from TV, launches into the cinematic universe for the first time). Wolstencroft doesn’t throw us headlong however into Taliban territory but rather starts with a universally thorny issue, that of militant anti-abortionists, which serves as a fairly straightforward story allowing him to nicely introduce the ensemble of spies, the ‘spooks’ of the title.

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Arguably, our lead is Matthew MacFayden‘s Tom Quinn, and he’s almost archetypal; tall, dark, handsome, a proto-James Bond in looks but very quickly it becomes clear we’re in a far grittier, far more political and far less elegant world – plus Tom is hiding his espionage life from Ellie (played by Esther Hall), a single mother he’s romancing who are rapidly falling in love, even though she senses his secrecy – this immediately conveys the internal conflict of living a spy’s life and trying to have a normal relationship. Around him are, to a degree, younger free spirits – Zoe Reynolds, played by MacFayden’s real life wife Keeley Hawes; tomboyish, dedicated, but a bit all over the place in her personal life with living arrangements; and Danny Hunter, played by now Hollywood star David Oyelowo; he’s a rising star it seems, with confidence that may need tempering and enthusiasm to match. They’re an appealing trio with a natural rapport who work well together, overseen by series stalwart Peter Firth as Harry Pearce, a laconic, tough old spymaster who trusts Tom’s instincts and his belief in the team around him. As a main cast, they’re instantly likeable & quite immediately well characterised.

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Their interactions are admittedly a little stronger than the plot, primarily set in Liverpool, which sees American pro-life activist Mary Kane (Lisa Eichhorn) arrive in the country with a lot of Semtex and a list of abortionist targets. Bharat Nalluri immediately gives Spooks a stylistic touch that would remain – an opening bombing uses slow-motion, while his camera uses split screen to convey the espionage ticks of the piece (which Nalluri swears wasn’t copied from 24, as they filmed this before that show was released). Wolstencroft’s script too gets right out the gates fast, not sparing the audience any exposition, forcing you to keep up as the team burst into action – it’s only really the mid-section where the piece takes a breath, the writer adding a layer of political complication over who gets to extradite Mary that speaks to the ‘special relationship’ between the UK & US that informs modern espionage; it’s nice to know that Spooks will tackle these underlying political issues alongside the moments of action.

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In short then, a confident start for one of the BBC’s signature series of the last fifteen years. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ doesn’t have the most exciting plot or interesting bad guys, but it does introduce strong main players, is written with a spry wit that keeps the narrative moving nicely, and establishes a series which isn’t afraid to balance gritty action with character moments and political undercurrents.

It feels almost American in execution, which is perhaps the biggest compliment to give.

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