The week in TV: On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace; Presumed Innocent; The Rest Is Politics; Inside No 9 – review

<span>‘Riveting’: the docuseries On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace. <br></span><span>Photograph: Greenpeace/BBC</span>
‘Riveting’: the docuseries On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace.
Photograph: Greenpeace/BBC

On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Presumed Innocent (Apple TV+)
The Rest Is Politics: Election Special (Channel 4) |
Inside No 9 (BBC Two) | iPlayer

Delivered in three half-hour double bills past week, On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace (BBC Two) was a full-tilt docuseries rollercoaster. It’s about the multinational Greenpeace activists (the “Arctic 30”) who attempted to occupy the Russian oil rig Prirazlomnaya, run by Gazprom (mainly owned by the Kremlin), in the Arctic Ocean in 2013. The action was ethically justified (it only became possible to drill for oil because the climate crisis had melted the ice), but still, what a dangerous poking of the bear. Vladimir Putin went full strongman, sending in armed operatives and imprisoning the entire crew in the port of Murmansk.

Chloe Campbell and Alice McMahon-Major concoct a real-life eco-thriller featuring some of the 30 (using first names), other interviewees (including a Gazprom employee, who has a surprising postscript to his story), footage and dramatised reconstructions. First, there’s the chaos of the attempted occupation (churning seas, Greenpeace climbers dangling off the rig, Russian soldiers firing guns). Once arrested, the Arctic 30 face trumped-up charges of piracy, meaning sentences of up to 15 years.

While some activists remain defiant, others are openly critical of each other, lending more authenticity to the documentary. During his imprisonment, action coordinator Frank suffers such an extreme nervous collapse it’s initially mistaken for a heart attack. In the battle to get them released, Paul McCartney is surreally roped in to write a letter appealing to Beatles fan Putin (part of the head-spin is the thought of Vlad taking time out from Slavic tyranny to tap a foot to Hey Jude).

The denouement is a mishmash of legalities, smuggled footage and the fortuitous timing of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (ever the despot showman, Putin released them with 25,000 other prisoners, including activist punk band Pussy Riot). The abiding takeaway from this riveting series is that the Arctic 30 could very easily still be imprisoned in Murmansk. There’s been no direct activism against Russian drilling in the Arctic since.

I’m watching David E Kelley’s new glossy Apple TV+ series Presumed Innocent, when the thought rolls through my mind like a darkly mutinous marble: it’s actually weird how dull this is.

Kelley (Ally McBeal, Big Little Lies and much more) is the reigning tsar of US prestige TV. During lockdown, he gave us the lavish Big Apple thriller The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant (it got silly, but what larks). Presumed Innocent is the first TV leading role for Jake Gyllenhaal (so great in films such as Donnie Darko and Nightcrawler). Lost creator JJ Abrams is executive producer. A strong supporting cast includes Peter Sarsgaard and Ruth Negga. Sure, it’s another film respin (adapted from Scott Turow’s 1987 bestseller, it was a steamy and turgid 1990 legal thriller starring Harrison Ford). Updated, with this team, it has potential, right? Hmm …

Gyllenhaal plays Rusty, an attack-dog Chicago prosecutor, married to Barbara (Negga) with two children. When his colleague Carolyn (Renate Reinsve) is murdered, he’s given the case. However, it turns out they had an affair and he’d remained sexually obsessed with her. He becomes the prime suspect.

Presumed Innocent primarily emerges as a cautionary tale against lazily blowing thick cobwebs off old films

What sounds exciting soon dissolves into flashback-riddled gloop. Women barely qualified as one-dimensional in the Ford film (it was waft after waft of reductive misogyny). Here, Barbara is given more agency, but Carolyn is an unhinged femme fatale (craven flashbacks depict her hog-tied at the crime scene or, alive, engaged in crazy-lady sex). The rickety plot is padded out with marital angst, humdrum therapy and risibly unlikely courtroom scenarios. Legal-political skulduggery is enlivened by a fantastically slimy Sarsgaard (Gyllenhaal’s real-life brother-in-law) as the lawyer who bags Rusty’s job.

The final instalment wasn’t made available for preview. I’ll be sure to tune in to see if they change the ending, but only because I’m nosy. What a flat, dated-feeling production – chucking in iPhones doesn’t make it modern. Dimly lit too, as if filmed through 40-denier tights. Presumed Innocent primarily emerges as a cautionary tale against lazily blowing thick cobwebs off old films. Gyllenhaal isn’t exactly stretched as the ambiguous (egotistic, deceitful) Rusty, but he and Sarsgaard are the only reasons to watch.

In the run-up to hosting Channel 4’s election night coverage (with Emily Maitlis and Krishnan Guru-Murthy), Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart have been televising their chart-topping weekly podcast in The Rest Is Politics: Election Special (part of Gary Lineker’s pod uber-franchise).

Podcast TV: could this be the no-frills broadcast future? For the debut episode, a few weeks ago, Campbell and Stewart weren’t even in a studio. Surprised by the election announcement, they were reduced to Zooming, with earphone wires dangling down jumpers. Sitting in what appeared be a mini Hogwarts library, Stewart kept leaning palely forwards, looking as if he was haunting his own house.

Since then, they’ve been in their binary hued studio (red behind the Labour party’s former director of communications, blue on the side of the erstwhile Tory minister), last week covering myriad national and international topics, but mainly of course the campaigns (there’s even an exciting mention of Brexit – elsewhere, in danger of becoming the Where’s Wally? issue of the election).

If I were a teacher, I wouldn’t have put Campbell and Stewart together (too much flirting and giggling). Joking apart, it’s a well-balanced pairing, both men keeping it civil and nonpartisan, until one of them (guess who?) can’t help himself. “It will probably go down in history as the worst election own goal of all time!” booms Campbell about Rishi Sunak’s early D-day ceremony departure. If you look closely, you can see him levitating off his seat with glee.

On BBC Two, there’s a savage, impish, darkly meta send-off for Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Inside No 9: Plodding On, the last-ever episode of the twisty, eerie, inventive anthology.

A throng of former guest stars mill within a satire mainly set in the unlovely loos at the show’s wrap party. Cue treachery, sniping, celebrity disgrace (Anne Reid does “toot”) and the On the Buses skit they’d previously hoaxed viewers about.

Ten years and 55 episodes of chills, jolts, and inveterate rug-pulling, all achieved on a Beeb comedy shoestring (Tales of the Unbudgeted?), Inside No 9 has performed a veritable miracle of British television innovation. There’s a stage version at Wyndham’s theatre in London next year. Until then, bravo!

Star ratings (out of five):
On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace
Presumed Innocent ★★
The Rest Is Politics: Election Special ★★★
Inside No 9 ★★★★★

What else I’m watching

The Boys
(Amazon Prime Video)
Fourth full-throttle series of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s superhero mega-satire, starring Karl Urban and Antony Starr. Left-field futuristic crusader fare with a tar-black sense of humour.

The Battle for Number 10: A Sky News Leaders’ Special
(Sky News)
Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby grilling Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, followed by audience members doing likewise. Fresh, thorough and spiky, it made the usual podium-style headbutting/speechifying format look a little jaded.

How Music Got Free
In-depth docuseries (executive produced by Eminem) about the underground genesis and unstoppable rise of music filesharing (on platforms such as Napster). Interviewees include Timbaland and 50 Cent.