Sunday, December 31, 2017


Alan Davies as Roland.
Once a promising chef, Roland White now works at the White House restaurant, which is part of a country hotel. "Work" is a loose term for Roland, as he spends most of his days hiding in this office dictating his book. His egotistical natures masks his vulnerability--his greatest fear is that he will never get another shot at the big time.

It makes for a complex situation. Roland relies heavily on Bib, his sous chef and only friend. His cuisine creativity--already at low ebb--is stifled by the hotel's melodramatic owner. And he pines for the hotel manager, Caroline, whose dull boyfriend seems more interested in piglets than her.

A half-hour comedy, Whites debuted on the BBC in 2010 and ran for a single season of six episodes. The BBC's decision to not go forward with a second season is puzzling, because Whites is a sharply-written, well-acted show that mixes laughs with a dash of drama. The latter is typically a result of Roland's poor decision-making, such as when he selfishly sabotages Bib's chance at running his own restaurant in Australia.

Star Alan Davies began his career as a stand-up comic, first earning fame on television as the star of the mystery series Jonathan Creek. American viewers may know him best from the long-running, pseudo quiz show QI hosted by Stephen Fry (it's available on Acorn TV).

Katherine Parkinson as Caroline.
Yet, though Davies is clearly the star, Whites is an ensemble comedy at heart. Darren Boyd (from the original Dirk Gently) as Bib and Katherine Parkinson (Doc Martin) as Caroline make the most of their scenes with Roland. They allow viewers to see that vulnerable side of the head chef and that's key to the show's success. The other characters are just there for fun, but there's nothing wrong with that. Isy Suttie is hilarious as a wacky waitress romantically interested in Bib's sneaky ambitious assistant Skoose (Stephen Wight). Maggie Steed rounds out the cast as the hotel's offbeat owner.

Darren Boyd as Bib.
Sometimes, the humor may border on bad taste, but it's typically at the expense of Roland who gets his comeuppance by the end of an episode. An example is when Roland fails to notice that his new potential girlfriend has only one arm--until Caroline points it out to him. From that point on, Roland constantly notices it and a romantic dinner goes horribly wrong. In another outing, Roland notes that a health inspector is wearing a Parkinson's charity wristband. To increases the likelihood of surviving the inspection, he quickly passes Bib off as his brother--and states he has the disease. Bib and later Caroline are trapped in the lie and have to participate in the deception.

There are various reasons given for the quick cancellation of Whites. Some sources claim that the BBC thought it was too expensive to continue production. In a 2013 interview, Alan Davies said he thought the BBC may have canceled it because he was still doing QI:  "I asked, ‘Is that a factor? Can anyone give me a straight answer on that? If it is a factor, I’d rather quit QI.' Will I get cast as anything else?"

Still, six very funny episodes make a memorable season and a good reason to still watch Whites.

Whites is currently streaming on Acorn TV.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Love, Lies and Records

Ashley Jensen as Kate.
The aptly-titled Love, Lies and Records revolves around Kate Dickinson, whose family life is almost as exciting as her day job at the Registry Office in Leeds. Kate (Ashley Jensen) has accepted a promotion to supervisor, a move applauded by all her colleagues except one. Acting supervisor Judy is devastated when she doesn't get the job. In spite, she threatens to reveal something Kate thought was a secret: her Christmas party tryst in the records vault with co-worker Rick. Judy notes it is a "sackable offense" and was captured on closed circuit television.

At home, Kate--feeling guilty about her affair--informs Rob, her live-in boyfriend of 14 years, that she'd like to get married. Rob loves the idea. There's just one catch: he never got divorced from his wife. Meanwhile, Kate's "stepson" decides to move in with the family and Kate discovers cryptic messages from "racerboy" on her teenage daughter's mobile phone. And to top it all off, James, another co-worker, asks to stay with Kate and Rob after being kicked out by his wife after revealing his desire to become a woman.

Mark Stanley as James/Jamie.
There's a lot going on in Love, Lies and Records, perhaps too much for a one-hour TV series. Fortunately, the show's star is the incredibly appealing Ashley Jensen, who first caught our attention in last year's lighthearted mystery series Agatha Raisin. Jensen's appeal is essential in Love, Lies and Records because Kate is, well, quite the liar. In addition to hiding an affair, she has allowed co-workers to think she is married. She even fudges the birth certificate of a newborn to please the baby's terminally-ill mother. It's not that Kate tells outright lies, but she achieves the same effect by selectively deciding when to tell the truth.

The first episodes center more on Kate's work activities than her domestic life. Subplots include the cancer-ridden mother who chose to die rather than lose her baby and an apparent scam involving immigrants marrying just to stay in the country. The latter may have a connection with a murder investigation being conducted by Rob, who works as a detective sergeant with the Leeds police. While sporadically interesting, the ongoings at the Registry Office aren't as engrossing as, say, the better-written subplots in shows like Call the Midwife and William and Mary.

Jensen and Rebecca Front as Judy.
The standouts in the supporting cast are Rebecca Front as Judy and Mark Stanley as James/Jamie. American viewers may recognize Stanley from his run as Grenn in Game of Thrones. And fans of the popular Inspector Lewis series will remember Front as Lewis' boss Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent.

Still, the best reason to watch Love, Lies and Records is Ashley Jensen. She makes Kate a flawed, but certainly interesting character and viewers will want to discover how long she can keep her secrets hidden--and whether there are any others we just haven't learned about yet.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Acceptable Risk

Elaine Cassidy as Sarah Manning.
With Acceptable Risk, Acorn TV has delivered television's best conspiracy drama in a long time. It starts with what appears to be a straightforward crime--the murder of a senior sales representative for a powerful pharmaceutical company--and then unravels into a complex spider web of global and intimate implications.

The protagonist is Sarah Manning (Elaine Cassidy), a former corporate attorney for Gumbiner-Fisher, a mammoth drug company with headquarters in Dublin. Sarah and her husband of 18 months, Lee Manning, have decided to have a baby. It's a major family decision, considering that Sarah has two children from her first marriage. Tragedy strikes, though, when Lee is murdered during a business trip to Montreal.

Angeline Ball as the detective.
When Detective Emer Byrne (Angeline Ball) assists the Montreal authorities with their investigation, she discovers that Lee and Sarah's activities were being monitored with sophisticated tracking equipment by someone working in the U.S. Embassy. Meanwhile, Sarah realizes how little she knew about Lee's life prior to meeting him at Gumbiner-Fisher. None of his American relatives can be contacted, not even his parents. When a woman claiming to be Lee's ex-wife shows up, Sarah is understandably skeptical. 

Matters only worsen when involved parties start to turning up dead and questions begin to arise about how Sarah's first husband Ciarin died. Sarah's sister Nuala goes so far as to suggest that Lee may have killed Ciarin. It's an interesting claim, especially considering that Nuala and a former business partner may somehow be involved with Ciarin's death.

With its myriad subplots, Acceptable Risk needs a heroine that the audience can believe in and root for. Elaine Cassidy (Harper's Island) provides that with her aggressive performance as the truth-seeking Sarah. Angeline Ball (The Commitments) complements Cassidy effectively as the dogged detective. In the early episodes, the two actresses excel at showing their characters' mutual distrust in one another. As the series progresses, Sarah and Emer gradually learn that their shared drive to uncover Lee's killer binds them together and they form an unlikely friendship.

Evil Dr. Hoffman.
Unfortunately, while the show boasts strong female protagonists, it settles for an obvious, creepy villain. As played by Morten Suuballe, Dr. Hoffman, the head of Gumbiner-Fisher, sets off bad-guy alarms with his first appearance. It would have been much more effective if he turned out to be ruthless, but ethical.

There are other minor flaws, too, such as when the intelligent Sarah acts irrationally or provides too much information during a conversation. I was especially bothered when she allowed her teenage daughter to be left home alone after taking the kids out of school as a precaution. Keep in mind that the house's security system had been breached earlier.

Overall, though, these are minor quibbles. Acceptable Risk is an engrossing, entertaining conspiracy drama that juggles multiple mysteries and takes aim at shady international politics and business dealings. Who could ask for more?

All six episodes are currently streaming on Acorn TV.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Doc Martin

Martin Clunes as Martin Ellingham.
Acorn TV began streaming the eighth season of Doc Martin earlier this month--which is grand news for the Doc's U.S. fans. Even better was the announcement there would be a ninth season. In previous seasons, viewers had to wait months after the end of each season to learn whether the series would be renewed.

For the uninitiated, the title character in Doc Martin is Dr. Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes), a highly-skilled surgeon who has developed an aversion to blood. His operating days over, he accepts a position as a general practitioner in Portwenn, a small coastal town in Cornwall. The socially-challenged Martin delivers bad diagnoses bluntly, kicks patients out of his office if he doesn't think they're sick, and typically treats his receptionists with disdain (he has three of them during the run of the show). That said, he is a brilliant physician and a genuinely decent human being, showing that side most often when interfacing with his Aunt Joan and a local schoolteacher named Louisa (Caroline Catz).

Caroline Catz as Louisa.
The relationship between Martin and Louisa eventually blossoms--in a wonderfully awkward way--into love. But for each step forward Martin takes with Louisa, he takes one back. After their first passionate kiss in the backseat of a cab, he pauses to identify possible medical reasons for her bad breath...whereupon Louisa promptly boots him out of the car.

While Martin Clunes' pitch-perfect performance as Martin takes center stage, Doc Martin benefits greatly from its quirky supporting characters. There's Bert Large, whose changing careers range from plumber (a bad one) to restaurateur (a horrible idea) to whiskey distiller. Despite his many failures, Bert is a dreamer who always thinks his next enterprise will be a success. His more realistic son Al has to cope with Dad's wild ideas in addition to his own struggles at romance and employment. The town's police constable is a near-incompetent who desperately wants to be Martin's best friend. The local pharmacist Mrs. Tishell, who wears a perpetual neck brace, harbors a secret obsession with Martin. Portwenn's most normal residents are Martin's Aunt Joan and later his Aunt Ruth.

The origin of the Doc Martin TV series can be traced back to the 2000 British comedy Saving Grace, which starred Brenda Blethyn and Craig Ferguson. The supporting cast included Martin Clunes as Dr. Martin Bamford, the local physician in Port Isaac, a coastal Cornish town. Clunes reprised the character, with a more in-depth background, in two made-for-TV movies: Doc Martin (2001) and Doc Martin and the Legend of the Clutie (2003). In these films, Doc Martin is an outgoing obstetrician who moves to Port Isaac after discovering his wife has been cheating on him. When screenwriter Dominic Minghella (Hamish Macbeth) developed the TV series in 2004, he transformed the character into the socially-challenged Martin Ellingham and changed the town's name to Portwenn (it's still filmed in Port Isaac).

Ian McNeice and Joe Absolom as Bert & Al Large.
Season 8 picks up with Martin and Louisa, who married in season 6, ending their separation from each other. Louisa convinces the canine-hating Martin that perhaps little James needs a dog (Martin's aversion to dogs is a long-running inside joke, as Martin Clunes is known as a dog lover). Police constable Penhale (John Marquez) and the Ellinghams' nanny Janice (Robyn Addison) are planning a marriage after a very hasty engagement. Bert's (Ian McNeice) whiskey business isn't doing well, though he has hidden that from Ruth (Eileen Atkins). And there's a new curate in town, Rosie Edwards (Lucy Briggs-Owen), who is coping with her own problems.

In short, it's a fine start to what appears to be another stellar season for Doc Martin fans. The guarantee of a ninth season, though, comes with a little sad news. It will also be the final season. Still, it's always better for a TV show to end before it wears out its welcome.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Raised By Wolves

Rebekah Staton as Della.
The funniest TV series I've seen in a long time has already been cancelled. Fortunately, Raised By Wolves can be viewed on Acorn TV's streaming service in the U.S. This riotous comedy mixes the working-class lifestyle of Roseanne with more pop culture references than The Gilmore Girls. It makes for a unique viewing experience.

The show centers on single mother Della Garry, her brood of six children, and her father whom the kids call Grampy. The Garry family occupies a very modest home in Wolverhampton. Della works at Pound King (a dollar store) and homeschools her children (though we never see her teaching them).

Sisters Yoko, Germaine, and Aretha.
Most of the episodes focus on the three oldest children: teenagers Germaine, Aretha, and Yoko. Germaine, a self-made diva and style icon, has an unfathomable crush on a worthless hunk called Lee. It's so bad that she licks the exterior of Lee's house and squeezes her hand through the mail chute--so she can claim she was in Lee's house (naturally, her hand gets stuck). The red-haired Aretha is the antithesis of her older sister, preferring a highbrow book to discussing boys and sex. Meanwhile, the naive Yoko spends her time worrying about endangered species. The three younger children--known collectively as the Babbies--are relegated to supporting roles, though Wyatt and Mariah share some hilarious scenes with Grampy.

The adults in Raised By Wolves are far from ideal as parental models. When Della explains that Germaine has to apologize for insulting cousin Cathy, she adds that Germaine doesn't have to really mean it. And when Germaine claims that she may be pregnant, her mother makes her work for a day at Pound King--with no pay--so she can see what the real world is like.

Philip Jackson as Grampy.
Beneath the extreme humor, though, is a TV series with its heart in the right place. For example, when Della learns that Aretha wants to go to public school, she forces Germaine's boyfriend to watch out for the socially-challenged Aretha.

Raised by Wolves was created by sisters Cailtin and Caroline Moran (and supposedly based on their childhood!). The pilot episode was broadcast in 2013 and the show debuted in 2015. It ran for two seasons for a total of twelve episodes.

The wonderful cast is handed by Rebakah Staton as Della and Philip Jackson as Grampy. The latter gained fame playing Detective Chief Inspector Japp in 40 episodes of Agatha's Christie's Poirot. Helen Monks, who portrayed the extreme Germaine, recently appeared in the miniseries Einstein as Albert's sister.

It's a shame that Raised by Wolves didn't last longer than two seasons. Still, two nearly-perfect seasons isn't a bad legacy at all.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Good Karma Hospital

Amanda Redman and Amrita Acharia.
Following a break-up with her long-time boyfriend, Dr. Ruby Walker decides to take a job at an upscale hospital in exotic India. The British-born Ruby also sees it as a way of connecting with her Indian roots--her father, whom she never knew, was from India.

Disillusionment sets in immediately upon her arrival. Instead of the modern medical center shown in the brochure, the Good Karma Hospital is a small, one-story facility with limited treatment capabilities. Even worse, there are a total of three physicians, including the administrator, who do everything from prescribe placebos to perform surgery. Plus, there is no shortage of patients from the surrounding South India community. It's a daunting change of scenery, but as Ruby gets to know the people and their culture, she concludes that it's the right place for her.

Phyllis Logan and Philip Jackson.
The six-episode first season of The Good Karma Hospital covers a lot of ground, from Ruby's arrival to the introduction of its ensemble cast to a touching story about a dying tourist. The overarching theme is one of embracing the colorful new culture. Ruby (Amrita Acharia) isn't the only one that develops an affection for her new home. The same can be said for Maggie Smart (Phyllis Logan), a terminally ill cancer patient who chooses to live out her final days in India rather than return home to England. It's a decision that her husband (Philip Jackson) has difficulty accepting.

The Good Karma Hospital does a marvelous job of capturing the colorful festivals, the picturesque countryside, and the breathtaking beaches. While it may be a postcard portrait of India, the show doesn't ignore the poverty faced by many of the locals. In one episode, a hit-and-run victim faces the prospect of a leg amputation simply because he doesn't have the insurance required for surgery. In another episode, we learn there is black market for organs, such as kidneys, sold by the poor to foreigners unable to get transplants in their native countries.

James Floyd as Dr. Varma.
The ensemble cast is headed by the always reliable Amanda Redman (New Tricks) and Neil Morrissey (British Men Behaving Badly). She plays the no-nonsense hospital director while he portrays her lover, the laidback owner of a beachfront bar. Their "opposites attract" relationship is one of the show's strongest elements. Acharia is appealing as the sometimes naive Ruby, while James Floyd effectively plays the brooding Dr. Varma. That said, the slow-building attraction between Ruby and Varma is much too obvious and has the potential to weaken the series in the long run. (After all, Cheers was never the same after Sam and Diane got together.)

The best performance, though, belongs to Philip Jackson, who convincingly captures the complex emotions of a man who knows his long-time love is dying. Having just watched Jackson as the hilarious Grampy in the comedy Raised By Wolves, it reminded me just how good he can be. (For years, I only knew him as Inspector Japp in Agatha Christie's Poirot).

The Good Karma Hospital is perfect medicine for the doldrums of summer television. It has already been renewed for a second season that will air in 2018. It premieres today in the U.S. on Acorn TV.

Friday, July 7, 2017


Sean Pertwee and Amanda Redman.
When her husband is sentenced to prison for four years, Lindsay Carter decides it’s time that her larcenous family goes straight. Lindsay sets the standard by selling the Carters’ stolen goods fencing business and getting a job in a department store. However, the road to honesty is not as easy for son Vin, a dimwitted petty thief, and Grandpa Carter, who reverts to his criminal tendencies after meeting up with an old mate.

The rest of the family aren’t exactly criminals—though they certainly aren’t model citizens. Oldest daughter Kacie aspires to be a model, just like her idol Naomi Campbell, and will do anything for publicity. Teenage daughter Lianna regularly skips school. She doesn’t get reported because she has been blackmailing the headmistress for years. That leaves Vin’s twin, Taylor, who recently got his first job at a law firm…by claiming to be a Muslim.

Matthew McNulty as Taylor.
Sometimes rude and raunchy, Honest (2008) is an amusing comedy bolstered by good performances and clever writing. An example of the latter is the transformation of “honest” Detective Sergeant Ed Bain, who has become smitten with Lindsay. As she strives to stay on the straight and narrow, he starts breaking the law to protect her. First, he returns money to her even though it’s evidence from a police raid. Then, he has someone steal video footage to keep Vin out of jail. Of course, Ed may never have been an ethical cop (we later learn that he staged a crime scene to get an arrest).

Amanda Redman (New Tricks) stars as Lindsay and Sean Pertwee (Gotham) play Ed Bain. You couldn’t ask for two more charismatic actors to headline a TV series. The supporting cast is rock solid, with special kudos going to Matthew McNulty (Lark Rise to Candleford) as the very different twins Vin and Taylor. It’s also worth noting that Burt Kwouk—best known as Cato in the Pink Panther movies—has a small, but critical role, as the mysterious Mr. Hong.

Sadly, Honest lasted for just one season of six episodes. Don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying a diverting, well-done series. It’s available on DVD in the U.S. and can be streamed on Acorn TV.