The week in TV: The Regime; Defiance: Fighting the Far Right; Baby Reindeer; Shōgun – review

<span>Kate Winslet as Chancellor Elena Vernham, ‘a quasi-fascist aristo with a drooping bottom lip’, in The Regime.</span><span>Photograph: AP</span>
Kate Winslet as Chancellor Elena Vernham, ‘a quasi-fascist aristo with a drooping bottom lip’, in The Regime.Photograph: AP

The Regime (Sky Atlantic)
Defiance: Fighting the Far Right (Channel 4) |
Baby Reindeer (Netflix)
Shōgun (Disney+)

Chapeau (of sorts) to The Regime, Sky Atlantic’s new HBO political satire(ish) starring Kate Winslet, who did HBO’s Mare of Easttown. It’s been a while since something so rammed with illustrious names and production pedigree capsized with such gusto.

Available as a six-part box set, it’s created by Will Tracy (The Menu). Some episodes are directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Deal). One of the executive producers is Frank Rich (Succession, Veep). The starry cast teems with talent (including Andrea Riseborough, Matthias Schoenaerts and Hugh Grant). And it turns into… what, exactly? A spoof/black comedy/action thriller… thingy. I’m unsure what it is. I suspect The Regime doesn’t know either.

Winslet is Elena Vernham, the chancellor of an unnamed central European republic, ruling from a Putin-esque palace. Authoritarian, bratty, hypochondriacal and self-indulgent (she keeps warbling sentimental songs), Vernham is riddled with “daddy issues”; she visits her father’s corpse lying in its glass casket. As the US covets her cobalt mines, China lurks and ministers plot, her power is crumbling and rebellion is brewing.

Enter Zubak (Schoenaerts), a brutal peasant soldier who ends up dominating Vernham. He is basically Rasputin with a six-pack, or a ripped Machiavelli. Riseborough is wasted in a drifting turn as a worker with a son with epilepsy. Grant’s character, a captive former leader, is given some sparky lines (he dubs Vernham America’s “safe pair of tits”), but he’s barely in it. Lord knows who Vernham is based on: Marine Le Pen meets Violet Elizabeth Bott? Winslet plays her as a quasi-fascist aristo with a drooping bottom lip (very distracting: it looks as if she’s waiting for a dental injection to wear off).

Shōgun’s ultraviolence makes Game of Thrones resemble a slow episode of Bridgerton

Positives? The Regime looks gorgeous, as they all clatter around the vast, creamy, gilt-embossed palace. Winslet also works hard to make Vernham tragicomic, but the character is so capriciously unhinged, it’s like watching Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts for six hours.

Throughout, the humour is blunted Armando Iannucci. The tone lurches alarmingly from absurdist to serious and back again. A plot about a Ukraine-esque invasion feels clumsy. It’s never clear what The Regime is skewering (populism? Absolutism?) or what it aims to be (a surrealist Euro Veep?). Put bluntly, it’s where bonkers convenes with tedious – and it gave me a thumping headache.

Broadcast over the week, Channel 4’s three-part docuseries Defiance: Fighting the Far Right (produced by, among others, Riz Ahmed’s Left Handed Films) focuses on the racist violence endured by Britain’s Asian community between 1976 and 1981.

We may not be living in halcyon times now, but Rishi Sunak is prime minister and Sadiq Khan is London mayor. Which would have been unimaginable during the period covered here, characterised by grotesque racist graffiti, murder and the rise of the National Front.

It’s all detailed in Defiance, which draws extensively on accounts from activists, witnesses, police and gruelling footage to illustrate pivotal moments, numerous deaths (including Sikh teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar, Bangladeshi textile worker Altab Ali and special needs teacher Blair Peach, a white New Zealander), and the fightback from young Asian protest groups such as the Southall Youth Movement. Undefended and gaslit by the police, protesters felt obliged to protect their own communities. No area of life was untouched. One woman recalls a teacher saying to her: “Did you have curry? I can smell it.”

The series is London-centric at first (focusing on Brick Lane, Southall and Walthamstow). The final episode covers Bradford in West Yorkshire, specifically the Bradford 12: young men who were put on trial (and eventually cleared) for amassing weapons, including petrol bombs, as a defence against fascists. I would have liked broader coverage of anti-British Asian racism (including the Midlands, for instance), but this is powerful viewing: a snapshot of social history and a grim reminder of what the UK looked like without even the pretence of political correctness.

On Netflix, Baby Reindeer is an intense comedy-drama created by and starring comic, writer and actor Richard Gadd. Containing seven (30 minute-ish) episodes, it’s adapted from his 2019 Edinburgh fringe play that transferred to the West End, winning an Olivier award, and is based on Gadd’s real-life experience of being stalked.

He plays Donny, an aspiring comedian working as a barman. Donny is kind to customer Martha (Jessica Gunning from The Outlaws), a woman with a distinctive shrieking giggle who says she’s a lawyer but can’t afford a cup of tea. Instantly fixated (Donny is her “baby reindeer”), Martha, who has stalked before, bombards him with communications, including 41,000 bizarre, misspelt emails (“I almost bought a thong fir you”). Showing up everywhere, she becomes increasingly intrusive and dangerous.

Baby Reindeer goes to great lengths to reveal Martha’s complexities. It also explores how Donny is partly culpable (enjoying the attention; following Martha home, and more). It looks at how facets of his past (horrific sexual trauma; yearning for success) could be ruining his romance with his transgender girlfriend (Nava Mau) and priming him to be a stalking victim.

Baby Reindeer is darker than dark, a lot, and some of it makes me nervous: should Donny’s self-lacerating confessionals share equal billing with the stalking? Still, what a vivid watch: a veritable operetta of trauma. While Gadd holds his own, Gunning is stunning: in her hands, Martha is as vulnerable as she is terrifying.

If you’re not watching the historical Samurai drama Shōgun (Disney+), you’re missing out. It’s a 10-part adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 novel about feuding Japanese warlords in early 17th-century Japan, starring Hiroyuki Sanada and Anna Sawai. Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne, the English sailor/navigator held prisoner in Japan.

Shōgun’s ultraviolence makes Game of Thrones resemble a slow episode of Bridgerton: roll up if you want to see men boiled alive, or, as in the latest (eighth) episode, swords slicing into abdomens and severed heads bouncing across floors.

For all the bloodshed, this is an intricate study of power, warcraft and betrayal. The deluge of subtitles make it feel yet more smoky, magical and mysterious. I didn’t expect much, but I’m finding it fascinating.

Star ratings (out of five)
The regime
Defiance: Fighting the Far Right
Baby Reindeer
ōgun ★★★★

What else I’m watching

(Apple TV+)
Clever period drama starring Michael Douglas as US founding father Benjamin Franklin, engaged in securing French support. A strong cast includes Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan.

Meet the Roman Emperor With Mary Beard
(BBC Two)
Mary Beard’s lively, scandal-heavy one-off documentary about Roman emperors (Hadrian, Tiberius, Claudius, et al) draws parallels with western politicians today.

Curb Your Enthusiasm
(Sky Comedy)
The last-ever episode of Larry David’s comic curmudgeon odyssey. Along with Curb regulars, including Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman, JB Smoove and, poignantly, Richard Lewis, who died recently, there are cameos from Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen.