The week in TV: The Way; Breathtaking; Boarders; Joe Lycett vs Sewage – review

<span>The Way: ‘an incoherent ragbag of ideas, symbolism and agitprop’.</span><span>Photograph: BBC/Red Seam</span>
The Way: ‘an incoherent ragbag of ideas, symbolism and agitprop’.Photograph: BBC/Red Seam

The Way (BBC One) | iPlayer
Breathtaking (ITV1/X) |
Boarders (BBC Three) | iPlayer
Joe Lycett vs Sewage (Channel 4) |

I can’t overstate how excited I was to watch the new BBC One three-part drama The Way. The directorial debut of actor Michael Sheen, it was written by James Graham (Sherwood, Brexit: The Uncivil War), with left-field documentarian Adam Curtis (HyperNormalisation) also on board. What a dream team! I prepared myself for brilliance. Sadly, after all the anticipation, I found it rather a mess: an incoherent ragbag of ideas, symbolism and agitprop delivered in a trippy sixth-form drama workshop haze.

Initially, it appears to be a Sherwood-adjacent paean to Sheen’s childhood hometown, Port Talbot in Wales. Amid local tragedy, there are protests against the closure of the local steelworks (in real life, it was announced last month that 70% of jobs are to go as the plant moves to electric furnaces), and a brutal police presence descends. The focus is on the broken Driscoll family. Dad, Geoff (Steffan Rhodri), is damned as a gutless compromiser, unlike fiery ex-wife, Dee (Mali Harries). Their daughter, Thea (Sophie Melville), is a cop, while their son, Owen (It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells), is an on-off drug addict beset by visions.

The Way at least dares to be different: one of those rare dramas that’s anti-formulaic to the bone

Sheen is a ghostly cameo presence as Geoff’s late father, Denny. A local hero for past strike action, he’s all bushy beard, hi-vis jacket and gnomic, spittle-flecked declarations (“There’s a bell and it’s ringing”). But, as with much in The Way, it’s complicated. There’s also a red monk, a mythical sword, fire, curses, talking teddy bears and other dystopian gubbins embedded in what are presumably Curtis’s collage-y mood boards. In an improbable sequence, civil unrest ensues and people flee across borders pursued by the “Welsh Catcher” (Luke Evans, dressed like a theme park wild west sheriff).

Strongly performed, at best The Way registers as a more psychedelic Years and Years, or, in terms of rapid societal unspooling, 80s apocalypse drama Threads. In due course the series evolves into a harrowing immersive refugee experience, depicting “people like us” scrabbling for survival. However, by this point many viewers may have given up, exhausted.

There’s space for TV drama to be challenging, even infuriating, but too much of The Way is cluttered, unstructured and painfully self-indulgent. I end up wondering if Sheen, Graham and Curtis were unwilling to nix each other’s more “out there” ideas (nobody wanting to be the spoilsport?). Even sociopolitical passion projects need tough editing. The saving grace is that The Way at least dares to be different: one of those rare dramas that’s anti-formulaic to the bone.

On ITV1, another three-part drama, Breathtaking, airing on consecutive nights, reminded us of the vital role and sacrifices of NHS pandemic workers. Based on palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke’s bestselling 2021 medical memoir, it’s co-written by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Prasanna Puwanarajah – both also qualified doctors.

Joanne Froggatt plays Dr Abbey Henderson (effectively Clarke’s proxy), struggling through the war zone of the early days of the pandemic with scarce PPE, rigid, farcical government guidelines (“There’s no plan, is there?”), a shortage of beds, ventilators and oxygen, stressed medics (played by, among others, Donna Banya and Bhav Joshi) and a scared, sometimes abusive and Covid-denying public.

Though peppered with footage of the likes of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, Breathtaking plays out in the claustrophobic hospital trenches: staff shrouded in flimsy bin liners, haggling for intensive care; numbing phone calls to relatives; inadequately protected colleagues dying.

While Froggatt and co are great, there are obvious baked-in difficulties with Covid dramas: masks, visors and other protective wear can render characters interchangeable. Unlike Help (2021’s care home pandemic drama starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham), Breathtaking compounds the problem by neglecting characterisation, sometimes veering into one-note docudrama.

That said, in its cool resolve to be completely credible and realistic, it manages to pay homage to NHS workers and stick to its core message: look over here, it insists, not at the podium-hugging Westminster blowhards, but at the real pandemic frontline.

Daniel Lawrence Taylor’s new six-part BBC Three school comedy Boarders has a brilliantly fresh premise: in a bid to repair reputational damage (a viral video of pupils abusing a homeless man), uber-elite boarding school St Gilbert’s gives sixth-form scholarships to five working-class, inner London black teenagers.

The talented main cast swiftly establish themselves. There’s bright, conflicted Jaheim (Josh Tedeku), strong-minded activist Leah (Jodie Campbell); gay creative Omar (Myles Kamwendo); social climbing Femi (Aruna Jalloh) and charming, spivvy languages genius Toby (Sekou Diaby).

Alongside other pupils (played by Rosie Graham and Tallulah Greive, among others), Boarders becomes a deftly acerbic clash between race, class and privilege, complete with sex, drugs, partying and a designated “baddie” played by Harry Gilby. Interestingly, the series opts to swerve obvious or preachy routes. While the new students are objectified (“I’ve never seen a black penis”) and worse (one is beaten and urinated on), there’s merciless skewering of St Gilbert’s overzealous diversity (#blackexcellence) initiatives.

At times, Boarders tries far too hard to be the new, hedonism-fuelled Sex Education. Its assets lie in the smart cast, cracking pace (no mean feat with episodes coming in at around 50 minutes) and Taylor’s witty, surprising script. Roll on a second series.

Somewhere in television land, it appears to have been decreed that comedians must highlight Britain’s appalling problem with raw sewage coursing into waterways. Last year, Paul Whitehouse took up the faeces cause with BBC Two’s Our Troubled Rivers; now there’s the Channel 4 documentary, Joe Lycett vs Sewage.

While there are too many poo jokes here (I’m a fan of Joe, but I’m old and weary), there’s also some powerful content. Lycett looks into subpar infrastructure (which could cost hundreds of billions to put right), extravagant water dividend payments and job-hopping between regulatory bodies and water companies.

He also sets up a fake “Turdcast” podcast, interviewing an on-board Gary Lineker, who expounds on suffering on-pitch diarrhoea at the 1990 World Cup (finally, my decades-spanning crush comes to an end). While an elaborate poo-themed stunt at Liverpool’s Albert Dock doesn’t really work (too windy), Lycett’s “poo promise” initiative (asking people to email water companies) garnered 20,000 participants (and rising). Bravo, Mr Lycett, but what does it say about the UK that politicians are leaving this urgent matter to comedians?

Star rating (out of five)
The Way
Breathtaking ★★★★
Boarders ★★★★
Joe Lycett vs Sewage ★★★

What else I’m watching

Can I Tell You a Secret?
An absorbing true-crime docuseries on bringing to justice the prolific UK cyberstalker Matthew Hardy. Inspired by reporting and a hit podcast from Guardian journalist Sirin Kale, it features shocking testimony from some of Hardy’s targets and withering censure of standard police practice.

(Apple TV+)
Genre-bending sci-fi psychological drama in which Noomi Rapace is an astronaut facing a nightmare in space. Or is she? An imaginative space thriller that won’t stop teasing.

(BBC Four)
Sofie Gråbøl (who made chunky jumpers fashionable in The Killing) stars in an inventive Danish prison drama about crushingly brutal power struggles.