Recently I took a deep delve into what TV the online streamers could provide. As a result I’ve found myself watching and re-watching some classics of the HBO-and-beyond golden age (and unearthed a home-grown surprise along the way).
The Larry Sanders Show
If there was ever a time to catch up with this influential piece of half-hour satire, it has to be now. Garry Shandling, the show’s creator and star, died suddenly this week at 66 having lived long enough to see his 90s creation pass into the TV canon. Shandling had guest hosted a few times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show before hitting on the idea of a fly on the wall show set behind a talk show’s scenes (before TV mockumentaries were cool, too). His results were innovative – the show was split between a multi-camera show within a show and a single camera for behind the scenes, and even pioneered Aaron Sorkin’s much loved walk-and-talk, with a cameraman filming while going backward down hallways on roller skates. Its characters are what give the show real bite though – Shandling as Hollywood’s premiere narcissist, celebrities playing their worst selves in one of many ideas later borrowed by Ricky Gervais, Jeffrey Tambor giving his trademark performance as perennially frustrated sidekick Hank Kingsley, and Rip Torn presiding over everything as a precursor to 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy. It’s an angry, cynical piece of satire that somehow leaves you in love with every terrible character.
Somehow this show about the morality of war still stays relevant year after year – that much is clear from the Commander Adama memes that go flying around during every American crisis. Watching the early episodes though, what’s most striking is the groundwork that was carried out to support its larger thematic ambitions. Ronald D Moore was responsible for some of the most accomplished and emotionally adult storytelling on the post-Next Generation Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine in particular, before he channeled all of his frustration with Voyager into making a show that for all its flights of fancy feels like it really is dealing with a crew on the edge of survival. The show is populated by characters who strike strong poses right from the outset. You know where you are straight away with Laura Roslin when she is thrown into a presidential role and instantly grows steely to suit it, or with grizzled military lifer Adama and the younger, more broadly drawn characters of ace pilot Starbuck and daddy-issues-wielding Apollo. Later episodes would layer on the complexity for better and for worse, but the first series was an incredible piece of carefully set up myth making.
A surprise is always nice from a high-profile BBC drama, and Happy Valley surprises from the start. Series one is a small town police story kicked into action by a teen girl’s kidnapping, so it is easy enough to go in with a few preconceptions, but those are laid to rest in the very first scene with a dose of unexpected humour. The predictably oppressive tone is present, but is established by criminal set-pieces that focus as much on entertaining dialogue and character building as the bleakness of provincial life. With the help of efficient and perfectly stylised writing, and a great central performance from Coronation Street alumnus Sarah Lancashire on who the plot’s tangle of bad decisions made by desperate people hinges, Happy Valley is an uncommonly great piece of drama.