The week in TV: American Rust; Positive; Britney; Succession

·6-min read

American Rust (Sky Atlantic) |
Positive (Sky Documentaries) |
Britney (BBC One/BBC Three) | iPlayer
Succession (Sky Atlantic) |

It’s not a good sign when you’re watching a prestige Sky Atlantic nine-part, small-town US mystery starring actors of the calibre of Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) and Maura Tierney (The Affair, ER), and your mind starts wandering with questions such as: “Why have they made Daniels resemble a greyed-out Deputy Dawg?” And: “If Tierney is supposed to be grindingly poor, why does she keep emerging from her trailer resembling a sub-Goop wellness advertorial?”

This is the problem with American Rust, created by Dan Futterman, directed by, among others, John Dahl (The Last Seduction): it doesn’t hold the attention, meandering and sighing along as though it needs to kill time before a clapped-out Greyhound bus arrives. Daniels plays a local police chief and Iraq war veteran, trying to ease himself off medication in the fictional rust-belt town of Buell, Pennsylvania. We know that he’s (ping of characterisation xylophone!) His Own Man because, early on, he saunters off to shoot deer off-season. His attraction to seamstress Tierney leads him to protect her son (Alex Neustaedter), who’s implicated in a murder. By the fourth episode (all are streamable), it’s revealed who dunnit, but it’s hard to care because the victim (a former cop turned addict) is so sketchily drawn.

Kendall has spent the entire series floundering like a playful billionaire without the playfulness or the billions

It’s all very solid (you sense the Philip Meyer novel it was based on), but with the crime (seemingly) solved so early, I’m left wondering where American Rust can go. A late twist? More for the slag heap of dragged-out subplots: young gay guy leaves town; a sprawling wedding scene; the attempted unionisation of Tierney’s workplace, and so on. The inevitable comparison is with superior Sky Atlantic stablemate Mare of Easttown, but American Rust proves it’s not enough for established actors to plaid up beside abandoned steel mills. Viewers still need to feel threat, the sense that the wicked worst of human nature is prowling in the bushes.

The docuseries Positive, from Sky Documentaries, marked World Aids Day and the 40th anniversary of the first recorded UK case. Directed by Grace Chapman in three parts, it travelled from 1981 through decades of prejudice and devastation to the present day of infected TikTokers valiantly spreading the world about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and preventive care.

The UK Aids story is immense and labyrinthine, and Positive should be commended for taking a wide-ranging approach. Against the backdrop of evolving times (Duran Duran, Princess Diana et al), a varied roster of interviewees included people with the disease, medics and scientists at London hospitals such as St Mary’s and St Thomas’s, organisations and activists (from the Terrence Higgins Trust to Act Up) and more, including the Rev Richard Coles, formerly of the Communards, and Michael Cashman, whose groundbreaking gay soap role inspired the infamous Sun headline “It’s Eastbenders”.

Chapman’s series showed the diversity of HIV-positive people, including Emma Cole, who, on learning of her HIV status, bought herself a coffin because she thought she’d need it – later filling it with her vinyl music collection. Elsewhere, more defiance and humour proliferated: “Good heavens,” said Tony Whitehead, first chair of the Terrence Higgins Trust, of increasingly life-affirming Aids funerals, “if you want to throw a party, you want to ask gay men how to do it.”

Watching Positive, it’s horrifically clear that what should have been handled as a clearcut mass public health catastrophe became a “gay plague” mandate for homophobia. Thus I wasn’t sure about then-health secretary Norman Fowler’s defence of the apocalyptic tombstone-chiselling “Don’t die of ignorance” Aids-awareness advertising campaign. Sure, it struck a chord, but it also “othered” gay people and weaponised stigma.

New BBC Three sitcom pilot Britney started out at the Edinburgh fringe. It features real-life friends – co-writers and stars Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson – who first meet as schoolgirls, dramatically pledging lifelong loyalty to each other, including a plan to live together in London. As an adult, Clive returns from New York to confess that London is off the menu, and then discovers that she has a brain tumour.

What almost feels like an offbeat, twentysomething take on Beaches is a true story, and one told with pitch-black wit, surrealism and silliness. As Clive gears up to confess about ducking out of the London plan, Robertson grins: “I know what you’re going to say – you want to live as close as humanly possible to a Rymans.” After Clive is diagnosed, she falls down an imaginary portal into a hell-style sinkhole in the garden. “Don’t,” she pleads with Robertson. “I’m one sincere hug away from having a breakdown.”

Television dramatist Dennis Potter called his tumour Rupert after a certain Mr Murdoch, and here, Clive’s tumour appears as a bearded drag queen Britney Spears circa One More Time, snarling: “It’s Britney, bitch!” Brilliant. If Britney gets a full series, it needs to sharpen up gags and delivery, but there’s something very distinctive here.

The latest instalment of Succession gave us outlier Kendall Roy’s 40th birthday party, a veritable bonfire of the inanities. Succession is superb at such set pieces, and this proved to be no exception. Despite desperately styling himself as the One True Roy, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) has spent the entire series floundering like a playful billionaire without the playfulness or the billions. A kind of Elon Musk with all the crazed entitlement but none of the space rockets.

Thankfully, Kendall abandons his plan to be crucified at his own party, but the shindig still evolves into an equal parts gaudy and needy disaster, complete with a vagina tunnel to signal his manchild-birth. Other Roy siblings attend, primarily to chat up an obnoxious tech guru (Alexander Skarsgård), but also to mock Kendall and hand over a personally written birthday greeting from patriarch, Logan (Brian Cox): “Cash out and fuck off.” This series has turned out to be a tad slower than usual, but the first two built towards climactic, game-changing fireworks. With this hilarious, evil episode, it appears that someone found the season three matches.

What else I’m watching

The Apprentice Australia
(BBC One)
For those missing their Covid-cancelled UK Apprentice fix, this Australian celebrity version, featuring UK comic Ross Noble, has all the bling and even more rows. Alan Sugar tells the Australian stars that he has no idea who they are. Their faces!

Attack on Pearl Harbour
(Channel 5)
A three-part documentary on the attack on Pearl Harbour on Sunday 7 December 1941 that changed the course of the second world war. Interviewees include a Japanese torpedo bomber who thought he would die that day and is now 103.

Martin Freeman, Lucy Davis, Ricky Gervais and MacKenzie Crook in The Office.
Remember this lot? Martin Freeman, Lucy Davis, Ricky Gervais and MacKenzie Crook in The Office. Photograph: Alamy

The Office
(BBC Two)
To mark the 20th anniversary of The Office, the BBC is set to air all the episodes of the classic UK workplace sitcom, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Astonishing to think it’s two decades since that stapler went into the jelly.