The week in TV: Under the Banner of Heaven; Love Island; The Newsreader; Myanmar: The Forgotten Revolution
Under the Banner of Heaven (Disney+) | disney.com
Love Island (ITV2) | itv.com
The Newsreader (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Myanmar: The Forgotten Revolution (Channel 4) | channel4.com
Sick of hard-bitten cops strolling nonchalantly through crime scenes? In the new Disney+ true crime seven-parter Under the Banner of Heaven, based on the book by Jon Krakauer, Andrew Garfield’s Detective Pyre does things differently. Called to the murders of Mormon mother Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter in Utah in 1984, he reacts with visceral repulsion to the pools of blood and splattered walls. He has to steel himself to go into the baby’s room. He staggers, he chokes back sobs, he’s broken. You start thinking: dude, are you in the right job? At the same time, it’s moving and effective: Pyre, himself a Mormon, is us in these terrible moments, reacting and feeling as we would.
Created by Dustin Lance Black (writer of Milk), a gay man raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Under the Banner is less a murder mystery, rather a rumination on the fraught intersection between faith, fundamentalism, male entitlement and sanctioned misogyny. Lafferty, played in flashback by Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People), is a modern Mormon whose attitude irks everyone bar her husband, Allen (Billy Howle from The Serpent). His sprawling patriarchal clan, locally dubbed “the Utah Kennedys”, include brothers, played by, among others, Wyatt Russell, Rory Culkin and Sam Worthington, and their wives (Chloe Pirrie, Denise Gough).
The general vibe is surly, dysfunctional Waltons. After the killings, there’s talk of a hit list (“God’s list”), and Allen babbles about “men with beards” and “prophets”. Privately, another detective (Gil Birmingham) growls that husbands are always the prime suspects: “We both goddamn know that.” “Language, please,” responds Pyre reflexively.
This is an unapologetically gruelling drama, with such a muddy colour palette the screen feels like it could do with a good scrub. The momentum is wrecked by absurd depictions of 19th-century Mormon foundation stories that come across like low-budget historical re-enactments. You almost expect Lucy Worsley to float through, perkily explaining what’s happening. Great all-round performances though: Russell is excellent as a swaggering, superficially charming inadequate with delusions of God-given grandeur.
We all know of Love Island’s tragic legacy: the suicides of contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, and presenter Caroline Flack. But the show goes on. ITV2’s latest series is staggering to a close amid soaring ratings and the by-now familiar formula of grinding monotony, lashings of fake tan and occasional cast meltdowns.
The programme seems to have two settings: either it ramps up the drama (disrupting relationships and tormenting participants), or it “plays nice” and becomes an unwatchable bore-athon: swimwear-clad yoofs sitting on candy-coloured beanbags droning: “You tick all my boxes.” Generally, it ricochets between the two. As a longtime viewer (don’t judge me), few things are more tedious than a well-behaved Love Island. Especially right now with everyone eyeing the final – it’s all stilted “challenges” and coos of fake delight when villa-spouses trudge over with morning coffees. In LI’s Insta-crazed world, coffee-making is the perfect expression of everlasting true luv: easy, lukewarm and it only takes a few minutes.
Elsewhere, this series has seen everything: a contestant leaving to safeguard his mental health; laboured, salon-themed sex banter (“Did you give him a manicure?”); bullying and slut-shaming; the return of a former contestant (always a sign that a format is tired) and the introduction of famous progeny. I like former England footballer Michael Owen’s daughter Gemma, a straight-talking 19-year-old with the look of Ali MacGraw, but shouldn’t reality shows be for real people – well, real Instagrammers anyway? As it happens, with the final imminent, Ms Owen became involved in a genuine-looking rift and suddenly Love Island felt a little more real, a tad less manipulated. For all the ratings success, the format feels increasingly mechanical and soulless. Radical change is needed to stop the fabled firepit from disappearing into a giant sinkhole.
Myanmar’s people beg for international help, but will it ever come?
In BBC Two’s excellent new 1980s-set Australian drama The Newsreader, created by Michael Lucas, there’s occasionally a sense of Anchorman playing out for real. Anna Torv (Mindhunter) is Helen, a news anchor with swept-up hair, shoulder pads spanning continents and a facial expression vacillating between fury, vulnerability and professionalism. Helen tussles with blatant sexism from her boss (William McInnes) and veteran co-anchor (Robert Taylor), and her poor mental health. After an “accident” with pills, she is watched over by broadcasting ingenue Dale (Sam Reid), who looks like a sandy-hued Clark Kent, and they start up what is initially a mentor-protege relationship.
Part of The Newsreader’s charm is that it sets something up but then slaps your hand away and gives you something infinitely more touching and brilliant. While it uses real events as hooks (Chornobyl; Halley’s Comet; the early days of Aids), and riffs on the dark cynicism of news reporting (“Vietnam was terrific for telly”), the real themes are timeless: love, disappointment, triumph, despair. Without wishing to give too much away (all six episodes are on iPlayer), it isn’t a female character who fears ageing. Nor is it the obvious candidates who fall in love. I’m not surprised it’s already been commissioned for a second series. If it’s a workplace soap, it’s of the ER variety: gorgeously scripted and exquisitely played.
Last week’s toughest watch was Katie Arnold’s superb Channel 4 documentary Myanmar: The Forgotten Revolution, broadcast on the day four activists were executed by the junta, the country’s first use of capital punishment in decades. The documentary makes a powerful case for the nation’s descent into ugly civil war being all but ignored by the world, including the UN (a situation tangled up in relations with Russia and China).
Here, brave journalists and citizens with cameraphones risk their lives filming peaceful protesters being gunned down by the military. Meanwhile, ordinary, painfully young people join the woefully under-equipped people’s defence forces. Shamelessly dismissed by an official as “fake news”, there’s evidence of aerial bombardments of citizens, and atrocities where victims are found to have been burned alive with their hands tied behind them. Throughout, Myanmar’s people beg for international help, but will it ever come? If you want to see what courage looks like, take a look at this.
Star ratings (out of five)
Under the Banner Of Heaven ★★★
Love Island ★★
The Newsreader ★★★★
Myanmar: The Forgotten Revolution ★★★★★
What else I’m watching
An emotional time for fans of all things Ramsay Street, with the final episode of the Australian soap on Friday. Alumni Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan returned to mark the end of an era of high-octane drama in the sunshine.
The Kate Bush Story: Running Up That Hill
After Running Up That Hill exploded globally via Stranger Things, Kate Bush fans scoffed: you think that’s all there is to the Kent goddess? This 2014 documentary was part of an entire BBC evening on Saturday celebrating La Bush on her birthday.
Help! We Bought a Village
One for those partial to Euro-themed property porn: this daytime series features expats across Europe buying and developing derelict homes – and entire hamlets – at a fraction of the cost in the UK.