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

Honest

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.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Heart Guy

Rodger Corser as Hugh Knight.
With a lifestyle built around drugs, alcohol, and sex, it's not surprisingly that hot shot heart specialist Dr. Hugh Knight is banned from performing surgery. Amazingly, he's allowed to keep his medical license on the condition that he stay clean for a year and practice medicine in a rural community far from the temptations of big city life in Sydney.

That rural community turns out to be his hometown of Whyhope, where Hugh becomes a general practitioner at a small clinic. Initially, the clinic's administrator is the only person who knows the real reason for the prodigal son's return.

Hugh's new life gets off to a rocky start when old wounds start to fester. His former flame (Nicole de Silva) is now married to his brother (Ryan Johnson), but may still harbor feelings for Hugh. He and his father are barely on speaking terms. His mother still dotes on her "genius son" at the expense of Hugh's brothers (one of whom was adopted). It's going to be a tough twelve months....
Nicole de Silva, Ryan Johnson, and Rodger Corser.
The premise may sound similar to Doc Martin, since both lead characters are first-rate surgeons relegated to general practice in scenic small towns with colorful characters. However, the comparisons end there. The predominant theme in The Heart Guy is one of atonement and, though it's clear that Hugh is trying, it's fascinating to watch him struggle to reach his goal of practicing surgery again.

In the first episode, Hugh wants to celebrate after saving a man's life. When he finds each member of his family otherwise engaged, he decides to party with a young nurse. It's a quick relapse that almost costs him his medical license. It's a telling scene that shows that Hugh finds satisfaction in his medical work--he truly wants to save lives. It also shows that he has a long journey ahead in terms of making making responsible decisions outside his medical practice.

Tina Bursill as Hugh's mom.
Handsome Rodger Corser, best known in the U.S. for crime-themed dramas like The Doctor Blake Mysteries, portrays Hugh with a combination of arrogance and vulnerability (with an emphasis on the former). The most interesting supporting character is his mother, played by veteran Aussie actress Tina Bursill, who accept bribes from local contractors for the good of the town. (The fact that she buries the money in her backyard is another matter.)

Titled Doctor, Doctor in Australia, the series became an immediate hit when it debuted in 2016. A second season was commissioned after the second episode. It finished its first season as one of the ten most watched television series in Australia.

American viewers can check out The Heart Guy when it debuts today on the streaming service Acorn TV.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Decline and Fall

On a wild night of campus partying, naive theology scholar Paul Pennyfeather runs into a group of boisterous students who strip his clothes off for a gag. The next day, Paul (Jack Whitehall) is the one kicked out of Scone College, Oxford. With his future dashed, Paul seeks employment and learns that the only acceptable profession for expelled collegians is teaching.

Luckily, there's a position available at the Llanabba boarding school for young men in Wales. It's not a prestigious institution of learning, as the job counselor explains: "We class our schools into four grades here: leading schools, first-rate schools, good schools, and schools.The status of this school is 'school.' And 'school' is pretty bad." To make matters worse, Paul is supposed to teach German, play cricket, and give organ lessons--and he can do none of those things.

Jack Whitehall, Douglas Hodge, and David Suchet.
At Llanabba, Paul meets five  people that will play a major role in his life: the budget-minded headmaster Dr. Fagan; Grimes, a bigamous fellow teacher who is constantly "in the soup"; Prendergast, a colleague who hates teaching; Philbrick, the school's porter who may be a kidnapper and/or murderer; and Peter, an intelligent student whose beautiful, wealthy mother becomes the object of Paul's affections.

Over the course of three one-hour episodes, Decline and Fall traces Paul Pennyfeather's journey from the filthy halls of Llanabba to life among the rich on a plush country estate to hard labor in prison. This dryly amusing tale was adapted from the 1928 satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh. Best known stateside for Brideshead Revisited, Waugh based part of Decline and Fall on his own brief teaching experiences. He lost his scholarship at Oxford due to poor grades and, needing a job, secured a position at a preparatory school for young men in northern Wales. Hopefully, it was a better school than Llanabba!

Casting the lead role is key in a miniseries in which the protagonist is on the screen almost the entire time. Fortunately for Decline and Fall, former stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall is up to the challenge and gives a wonderfully droll performance as the innocent Pennyfeather. The standout among the fine supporting cast is Douglas Hodge (The Night Manager) as the rascally and resourceful Grimes (who agrees to a horrible marriage and then fakes his drowning on his wedding night).

Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde.
Of course, it's always a delight to see David Suchet (Poirot), who sports blonde hair as Dr. Fagin. Eva Longoria may seem like an odd choice for Paul's love interest, but she pulls off the humorous role capably.

Decline and Fall debuted on the BBC in March 2017. It's currently streaming in the U.S. on Acorn TV. If you're looking for a funny, intelligent show to watch this summer, then we enthusiastically recommend this one.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Fine Romance

Judi Dench and Michael Williams in A Fine Romance.
Made eleven years before the better-known As Time Goes By, the 1981-84 TV series A Fine Romance shares many similarities with the latter show: star Judi Dench, creator-writer Bob Larbey, and a storyline that chronicles the evolving romance between two people who no longer expect to find love.

As Time Goes By focuses on a middle-aged couple who rekindle the love they experienced as young people. In contrast, A Fine Romance features two independent people--fast approaching the age of 40--who stumble their way through an unlikely courtship. As anyone knows, it's easier to rekindle a burning ember than to start a flame from scratch!

Dench with Susan Penhaligon.
Dench plays Laura, a linguist who translates books on subjects such as urinary infections. Her happily married sister Helen (Susan Penhaligon) has tried on numerous occasions to find an acceptable suitor for Laura. On the day of a party, Helen's latest "selection" bails at the last minute and Helen's husband invites a "nice bloke" named Mike (Michael Williams).

Mike is a landscape gardener who is equally unlucky in love. There are no sparks when he and Laura are introduced. But when he's forced out of a bathroom (where he was occupied with the crossword puzzle toilet paper), he seeks refuge in a bedroom. It turns out to be the same room where Laura has been hiding from a obnoxious guest that wants to engage in an intellectual discussion on death. Thrown together by their shared awkwardness, Laura and Mike find a little common ground.

Laura looking for the contact lens.
The subsequent episodes trace their slow, sometimes halting romance. A Fine Romance is a character-driven comedy in the best British tradition. So, don't expect a lot of plot. One amusing episode takes place almost entirely at a restaurant in which Laura loses a contact lens.

Dench and Williams are a delightful duo and it's no wonder. They were married in real life for 30 years until his death in 2001 at age 65. They are also marvelous actors, conveying the loneliness, frustrations, and independence that come with being single for a long time. Their discovery of their need for each other makes for charming, heartfelt, and funny television.

Interestingly, creator Bob Larbey tried to launch a U.S. television version of A Fine Romance in 1983. The pilot starred Julie Kavner (Airplane!) as Laura and Leo Burmester as Mike. It's sounds like a remarkably accurate remake of the British series first episode. CBS did not pick up the pilot, though it received a good review in The New York Times: "A Fine Romance is far closer to awkward reality than to escapist fantasy. The show manages to be remarkably sensitive about its comedy."


A Fine Romance is currently being streamed on Acorn TV.