The week in TV: Rise and Fall; Outlast; Yellowjackets; Phoenix Rise; Agent Elvis – review

Rise and Fall (Channel 4) | All 4
Outlast (Netflix)
Yellowjackets (Paramount+)
Phoenix Rise (BBC Three) | iPlayer
Agent Elvis (Netflix)

Who’s up for another addictive evening gameshow that exposes the grubby frailty of human nature? The team that produced the newly Bafta-nominated The Traitors (BBC One) have delivered to Channel 4 a new show about cunning and ambition that (sort of) recalls The Traitors (a divided group, alliances, skulduggery), except when it’s reminding you of Big Brother, The Apprentice and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

The host, Radio 1 DJ Greg James, doesn’t have Claudia Winkleman’s goth-whisperer fringe or her engulfing polo necks, making do, instead, with a towering quiff and a smoothly informative manner. While some contestants ascend in a gold lift to a Trumpian penthouse to be rulers, the others do Winston Smith-cosplay and descend to a murky basement as grafters. There, they consume watery soup and, as ordered by rulers, complete tasks to build a prize fund of up to £100,000. Only a ruler can win the money, but rulers can be voted off and grafters can rise.

As Rise and Fall runs for 18 episodes, you get the feeling it aims to be perceived as a social experiment along the lines of the Stanford prison study, as well as a primetime TV treatise on capitalism and power. A few episodes in, it feels more like Saw with a prize pot. First problem: the contestants. Unlike The Traitors, there are too many hyper-camera-aware wannabes, who don’t seem capable of the stealthy manoeuvring, frantic over-reaching or intrinsic daftness that made The Traitors so watchable. Then there are the tasks, including grafters being electrocuted (“I’m not liking their screams,” says a ruler) and eating pet food. Torture TV quickly palls when it’s celebrities. Watching ordinary people getting zapped, or gagging on fleshy mush, is even more uncomfortable and will put families off watching together. Rise and Fall may yet pick up, but I’m not feeling hooked.

Another reality show that might get you questioning humankind is Netflix’s Outlast, an eight-part survivalist series set in the Alaskan backwoods in which contestants compete for a million-dollar prize. No wonder it’s developing “buzz” – good God, these people! While the programme is all about toughing it out in the elements (snow, rain, starvation, bears), some of the contestants are next-level Lord of the Flies: venal double-crossing cheats who sink rafts, nick equipment and cackle like Disney villains when better, nicer people crawl away defeated. Basically, it is misanthropy conveyed via the medium of bushcraft and transplanted to the great outdoors. I binged all the episodes, but it’s come to something when you’re cheering on the bears.

Previously shown on Sky Atlantic, the second 10-part series of Yellowjackets arrives on Paramount+. Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, it continues the unnerving tale of the mainly female survivors (a high school football team) of a 1996 plane crash. Post-disaster, they do whatever it takes to exist in the Ontario wilderness (without wishing to divulge spoilers, “whatever it takes” is doing some very heavy lifting here). In the flash forward time zone the now adult characters (played by Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress and Simone Kessell) grapple with old and new threats and mysteries.

Thematically overheated (guilt, madness, murder, cults, nods to cannibalism, a somewhat TikTok-friendly supernatural realm, and more), Yellowjackets should be exhausting and occasionally it is. Watching the first two episodes of the new series, I sometimes wonder if the convoluted stories are churning up too much sludge.

It’s elevated, though, by all-round deft performances (Elijah Wood appears in this series as a citizen-detective) and a script shot through with sticky, treacle-dark humour (“It’s not like I’m going to poison anyone. Again”). Towards the end of the second episode, a nightmarishly baroque event jolts everything on to a whole new level. Yellowjackets doesn’t always hit form but, when it does, dread is served threefold: what’s happening, what already happened and what might happen next.

Filmed in Coventry, the new 10-part school drama Phoenix Rise (iPlayer), created by Perrie Balthazar and Matt Evans, may remind viewers of a certain vintage of Grange Hill, in which poor Zammo didn’t say “no” to drugs and ended up slumped next to a toilet with a complexion like wallpaper paste.

Set at a school placed in special measures, it is about a group of outsider pupils scrabbling to start again. They include a supposed hardnut (Alex Draper), who’s secretly the carer for his younger sister; a mouthy girl (Lauren Corah) recovering from mental health issues; a spirited younger pupil (Imogen Baker); the shy daughter of refugees (Tara Webb); and a boy (Krish Bassi) who is being bullied. They and others start meeting in a gloomy school area (“the Haven of Happiness”), forging a misfit alliance as “the Boiler Room Outcasts”.

Obviously, Phoenix Rise is aimed at a young audience: graffiti; pounding music; social media; a whiff of the BBC comedy PRU here, a touch of the film Rocks there. At times it whips too fast through sundry issues (poverty, puberty, mean girls) but, aided by punchy performances, it neatly captures the theatre of cruelty that is the school corridor.

Over on Netflix, Agent Elvis is a new 10-part adult comedy animation, based on the notion that king of rock’n’roll Elvis Presley (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) is moonlighting as a secret agent, assisted by a dissolute chimpanzee sidekick.

Set in the late 1960s and created by Mike Arnold (Archer), John Eddie and Presley’s former wife, Priscilla (voicing herself), Agent Elvis is at pains to avoid being labelled vanilla/child-friendly. There’s swearing, drugs, mega-violence, characters such as Charles Manson, a riff on the faked moon landing, and Agent Elvis’s drawled determination to tackle crime, chaos and “dirtbag hippies”.

A few episodes in and I’m finding it reminiscent, irony-wise, of Netflix’s cult cartoon BoJack Horseman. It’s boosted by sharp retro-animation, an interesting score (Presley, the Doors, David Bowie), and an excellent voice cast (Don Cheadle, Kaitlin Olson, Johnny Knoxville, Niecy Nash, Ed Helms). Sometimes the vulgarity verges on try-hard (“monkey-spunk” gets a mention), but part of the fun is wondering how much the real Elvis (who spent much of his career shunted into cheesy family-friendly films) would have approved.

Star ratings (out of five)
Rise and Fall
Phoenix Rise
Agent Elvis

What else I’m watching

The Great Celebrity Bake Off for SU2C
(Channel 4)
Charity Bake Off 2023, for Stand Up to Cancer, kicks off with Friends star David Schwimmer, singer Jesy Nelson, comic actor Tom Davis, and comedian Rose Matafeo (Starstruck). Schwimmer amuses with hammed-up “competitive zeal”, but, in shocking scenes, his macarons are overpraised.

The Mandalorian
Series three’s action-stuffed fourth episode of the Star Wars spin-off has everything: airborne fighting, rescues from giant nests and another slice of Baby Yoda/Grogu’s backstory. Leading man of the moment, Pedro Pascal (The Last Of Us) returns as the titular brooding bounty hunter.

The Brighton-based crime series, based on the books by Peter James, returns. John Simm and Richie Campbell star as the detectives sucked into inky beachfront darkness.