The week in TV: Help; The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill; Sex Education; Alma’s Not Normal

Help Channel 4 | All 4
The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill Channel 4 | All 4
Sex Education Netflix
Alma’s Not Normal BBC Two | iPlayer

At first you feel you know where Help is going to go. The dank corridors of the Liverpool care home where you sense you can smell the palliative-care urine. The care assistant, Sarah, played with red-blooded spark by Jodie Comer, who builds an instantaneous rapport with resident Tony (Stephen Graham). The realisation that hospital arrivals are infecting residents, and that there’s a dire shortage of PPE: “We’ve got a box of this, and a box of that, but mostly we’ve got a box of fuck all.” Ah, you think, I can guess what happens…

However, this powerful pandemic care home film, written by Jack Thorne and directed by Marc Munden, evolves to be rather cleverer, more mercurial, than that. Tony isn’t elderly, he has early onset dementia, and in his moments of lucidity the bond between him and Sarah feels heartbreakingly real. Similarly, the other residents don’t just lie timidly in beds; their individual personalities and vulnerabilities are poignantly conveyed in stunning cameos from the likes of Sue Johnston, Cathy Tyson and David Hayman.

When Sarah is on a night shift, caring alone for ailing, dying patients, it plays out almost as a socially aware horror movie in which the twin-headed monster is coronavirus and wilful government neglect. In her makeshift bin-liner PPE, Sarah is viewed floundering around in the dark, desperately enlisting Tony’s help after her frantic calls for ambulances and assistance are ignored. Her later misguided attempts to help Tony become a messy, platonic love story as moving as any thwarted screen romance. Featuring all-round magnificent performances, Help perhaps sets an interesting cultural benchmark: as we live through this Covid era, to avoid repetition, the dramas that will surely keep coming have to be pandemic-plus. This one was about friendship against the odds, integrity, and a stark reminder that, when it mattered, some lives were considered to be more dispensable than others.

The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill (Channel 4), directed by Jon Blair (Schindler; Reporters at War) and Dimitri Collingridge (Royals for Hire), told the harrowing story of the Russian opposition leader and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin Alexei Navalny. Navalny made global headlines when he collapsed on a flight after the chemical weapon novichok was used to poison his underpants. Yes, you read that right. As Russian spy sagas go, this was pure Mission Unwashable.

Delivered in chapters, the documentary showcased the humorous personality of Navalny, while keeping in mind serious issues. So on the one hand, the underpants and yet another bungled Russian poisoning. On the other, the nationalistic elements in Navalny’s own past, the distress of his ferociously supportive wife, and the fact that while Navalny survived the poisoning, he currently languishes in ill health in a harsh Russian prison.

This illuminating programme was all the timelier during a week that Russia voted in elections from which Navalny’s supporters were banned. In a standout moment, Putin is shown batting away the poisoning allegations with a reptilian smirk: “If we had wanted to poison him, we would certainly have finished the job.”

Older people could be forgiven for being offended by Netflix’s Sex Education: where was all this hot sex when we were in sixth form? We were lucky if we could get hold of a decent hot chocolate. However, while the third series opens with a customary explosive sex montage (good sex, bad sex, straight sex, gay sex, car sex, every kind of sex), there are far more narrative layers to the unfolding dramedy, which at its best puts teen life under a microscope, and then digs in sharply with tweezers.

As this series opens (spoiler alert), Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) is still struggling with the sexual assault she suffered in series two. Jean the therapist, played by Gillian Anderson, is pregnant and has yet to tell the father, while newly moustachioed Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) have stopped running the campus sex clinic, but it has been taken over by an inept “Sex King” impersonator. Moordale also has a new head (Jemima Kirke from Girls), who initially seems modish (“She’s like Joan of Arc, but cooler”) but is soon displaying an authoritarian nature to go with her trendy utilitarian jumpsuits. It’s easy to see why Sex Education is such a sensation: it’s slick, acid, informative, diverse and wryly knowing of the mores of late adolescence: “I’m a teenage girl, Otis, I’m always sad”. It may not remind you of your own wasted youth, but that’s a shame isn’t it?

I didn’t just appreciate the wit and artistry of standup Sophie Willan’s new BBC Two sitcom Alma’s Not Normal, I laughed – proper laughed – like the proverbial drain.

Based in Bolton, the opening episode (the Bafta-winning 2020 pilot) introduces us to Alma, a skint, pink fake fur-clad goddess of 21st-century dysfunction who has been dumped by her boyfriend for someone who’s already pregnant with his child: “Men never leave you for someone older, fatter, more knackered-looking, do they?” Reduced to applying for work as a “sandwich artist”, Alma considers escorting: “I’m aware it’s sex.” The product of a chaotic childhood (“think the baby from Trainspotting if she’d lived”), Alma has a family unit that includes an ex-junkie mother residing in a secure unit for arson (Siobhan Finneran, flashing alarming false teeth) and Grandma Joan (Lorraine Ashbourne), “a Silk Cut-smoking, vodka-drinking, animal print-loving whirlwind”. Then there’s Alma’s drily droll best friend, played by Jayde Adams: “Everyone has one low-energy breast.”

Alma is semi-autobiographical (Willan, the daughter of a heroin addict, was in foster care, and later turned to sex work), but this isn’t about mining personal struggles for vicarious thrills. There’s brutal realism in Alma, but also ingenuity, and spiky, naturalistic dialogue: it’s like Victoria Wood via Caroline Aherne, all laced with the lairy sense of threat of someone holding your gaze a fraction too long on a deserted night bus. Alma’s Not Normal continues the trend for smart, intense, female-led comedy – think Fleabag after downing a pint of snakebite. Long may such “abnormality” continue.

What else I’m watching

GB News
Andrew Neil resigned last week as GB News chairman/lead presenter after hosting eight shows in three months, appearing that very evening as a guest on Nigel Farage’s show via Zoom. Is Farage the GB News top dog now? The estimated seven remaining viewers deserve to know.

A feature-length documentary on Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One champion who was paralysed in a skiing accident in 2013. Features interviews with his wife, family and colleagues about his life, achievements, self-doubt and ongoing post-accident rehabilitation.

On the Verge
Julie Delpy (2 Days in Paris) created and stars in this 12-part comedy series about four women grappling with work, kids, love and midlife-everything in Los Angeles. Billed as the anti-Sex in the City, it also stars Elisabeth Shue, Alexia Landeau and Sarah Jones.