The week in TV: Irma Vep; The Sandman; All or Nothing: Arsenal; Paper Girls

Irma Vep (Sky Atlantic) |
The Sandman (Netflix) |
All or Nothing: Arsenal (Amazon Prime) |
Paper Girls (Amazon Prime) |

You start to wonder if “meta” demanded its own trailer during the making of Irma Vep. It’s everywhere in this eight-part Sky Atlantic production, like Gauloises cigarette smog at an arthouse picnic.

The brainchild of French director Olivier Assayas, it’s about the making of a film of the the 1915-16 silent film series Les Vampires. It’s also a remake of Assayas’s cult 1996 movie Irma Vep, in which Maggie Cheung played herself. It stars Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) as disillusioned US actor Mira (an anagram of Irma; just as Irma Vep is an anagram). The director (Vincent Macaigne) has visions of a past love (Assayas was once married to Cheung). Nathalie Richard from the 1996 film briefly appears. Thurston Moore does the music (a Sonic Youth track featured prominently in the film). Later – spoiler alert, though it’s everywhere – there’s a cameo from a past Assayas collaborator and star of a Hollywood vampire franchise (in the anagram spirit, let’s call it “Light Twi”). So it continues, in a bold, self-referential, borderline smart-alecky meta-delirium.

One thing that has changed is Irma’s infamous catsuit. In the film it’s transgressive: shiny, erotic, threatening. Here, the suit is velvety, softer, less “Venus in Furs”, more “Halloween jim-jams”. Vikander wears it well – sensuous and feline – but it’s difficult to believe in this suit as pivotal, transformative – turning her into a subversive, Raffles-like thief, a night prowler over Parisian rooftops.

Irma Vep evolves into a blizzard of new/old themes: the blurring of fantasy and reality; actorly ego (Call My Agent! fans will relish this); creative validity; #MeToo; race, sexuality, art versus commerce; dysfunction, heartbreak, betrayal. Among the new characters, Lars Eidinger steals scenes as an unruly, non-PC actor: “I eased up on a lot of things – I don’t want to end up like my friend, Harvey Weinstein.” Vikander is a less fragile Irma than Cheung’s, more sardonic and worldly as she navigates male and female love interests while trying to fend off her agent (Carrie Brownstein) and various other industry bloodsuckers. At times, Irma Vep feels at once overpadded and shorn of the brittle, otherworldly magic of the 1996 film. It’s still gloriously unusual, though, and wickedly funny.

Tom Sturridge appears in Irma Vep, playing Mira’s ex, and he also stars in Neil Gaiman’s long-awaited 11-part series of the DC Comics dark fantasy story The Sandman on Netflix. When I say “long-awaited”, The Sandman’s three decades in development hell make Godot look punctual. Maybe that’s why it’s available here as a box set: Sandman fans have waited long enough.

Having never previously encountered The Sandman, I’m initially confused. Why is Sturridge, as Morpheus/Dream, styled like Duran Duran’s The Wild Boys video? (In fairness, Sturridge, with his prism-like features and Shakespearean intensity, turns out to be a good fit.) Why does that bird (Patton Oswalt) keep hopping about and yakking? Does Charles Dance (who seeks to conjure Death, but imprisons Dream in a glass dome) get first dibs on all the high-profile fantasy-baddie roles?

Dream needs back his ruby, “helm” (mask thingie) and sand, which he keeps moodily flinging around, disappearing into the swirling grey grains. As Dream intones (“You mortals go about your work, your loves, your wars, as if your waking lives are all that matter”), elsewhere it’s all about the Endless, the Dreaming, the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) and baby gargoyles. Joely Richardson is the mother of Charles Dance’s twisted son (David Thewlis), Jenna Coleman is an occult detective, and hell is ruled by Gwendoline Christie’s wonderfully camp Lucifer. I’m just feeling less confused and rather enjoying the trippy, Old Testament-meets-Ouija board vibe when there’s an abrupt swerve into an episode set in a diner, featuring Thewlis on a mission for “honesty”, which is genuinely macabre. For all the CGI and ham, The Sandman is fantasy that refuses to turn into a theme park.

In the same week that we witnessed England’s football Lionesses triumph in Euro 2022 (was ever a sweaty sports bra so mythic?), Amazon Prime released the first three of its eight-part docuseries All or Nothing: Arsenal, a backstage peek at the Premier League club during the 2021-22 season.

There’s a trend for these sports docuseries and they can be a great watch: turf-bound operettas of player tantrums, fan meltdowns and torn hamstrings. It helps (sorry, Gooners) that Arsenal started the season in the doldrums: defeated in match after match, with fans calling for the head of Spanish player turned manager Mikel Arteta, who resembles a detective in a swanky LA-based thriller, but who, initially at least, can’t seem to stop his team getting murdered.

Alongside interviews with Arsenal faces past and present (Thierry Henry, Bukayo Saka), the series features everything from doom, gloom and elation to big-money signings and on-pitch bust-ups with Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp. Like sport itself, such documentaries truly come alive in the sweet spot where passion meets determination … and outright delusion. As yet, All or Nothing: Arsenal doesn’t top my genre-favourite list (that honour goes to Netflix’s painfully messy, mysteriously shelved Sunderland ’Til I Die), but it is loosening up.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta in All or Nothing.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta in All or Nothing: ‘resembles a detective in a swanky LA-based thriller’. AFP/Getty Images Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Also on Amazon Prime, the second big new comic-book adaptation is the sci-fi drama Paper Girls, originally by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, created for television by Stephany Folsom. Set in the 1980s, it has been likened to Stranger Things, but a few episodes in, it doesn’t feel that similar. A group of 12-year-old paper delivery girls (played by Sofia Rosinsky, Riley Lai Nelet, Camryn Jones and Fina Strazza) in a fictional part of Cleveland, Ohio, find themselves tossed via a time-space vortex into the year 2019, where some meet their adult selves.

There ensues grappling with 21st-century technology (“What’s the internet?”), but the main plotline is a futuristic battle between evil reactionary forces and underground resistance. Despite gutsy performances from the young cast, I’m finding it uneven and a tad unengaging, a feeling not helped by the baddies brandishing what appear to be pound-shop ray guns (there’s “low-budget”, then there’s “no-budget”). Still, Paper Girls is inventive, and at times it looks stunning: an eerie pink wash drenching vast suburban skies.

Star ratings (out of five)
Irma Vep
The Sandman ★★★
All or Nothing: Arsenal ★★★
Paper Girls Amazon Prime ★★★

What else I’m watching

Trainwreck: Woodstock 99
A three-part docuseries on the revived 1999 Woodstock festival (Limp Bizkit, Fatboy Slim, Sheryl Crow), where crowds erupted into a violent, misogynistic “frat-boy” meltdown. It makes 2017’s Fyre festival resemble a royal garden party.

War and Justice: The case of Marine A
Channel 4
When Royal Marine Al Blackman shot an unarmed Taliban fighter, he became the first British soldier to be convicted on a foreign battlefield since the second world war. This documentary looks into the case and the fight to free him.

Neil Patrick Harris in Uncoupled.
Neil Patrick Harris in Uncoupled. AP Photograph: Barbara Nitke/AP

This bittersweet, slow-burn new romcom series from Darren Star (Sex and the City) stars Neil Patrick Harris as a gay man who finds himself unexpectedly single, and forced to navigate the cut-throat New York dating scene.