Until recently I still needed a Sky engineer to come and reconnect the Sky+ box to the telephone line. This despite several loud and angry attempts to arrange it which are documented elsewhere on these pages. Consequently, over the last few months I have occasionally been left relying on the actual free-to-air television schedule for entertainment. It has been quite an eye-opener, particularly on a Saturday night.
Currently, Saturday night free-to-air television must be worse than it has ever been. I used to watch Strictly, I must confess. Millennia ago, the idea of fat, ageing celebrities donning the spandex and getting ritually slaughtered by a panel of mortifyingly pompous judges was an amusing one. Now though, well into it's 451st series, the joke is falling flat. The format is tired and predictable, the narrative formulaic. Television by numbers. The judges say the same things to the wholly interchangeable slebs. The soap actors, boy/girl band singers and athletes do well (especially if they happen to be good looking) while the television presenters, politicians and ageing thespians and crooners are bounced out after a few weeks of cheap ridicule. Even Dave Arch must be getting bored by now.
Not that there is any respite on what used to be known as 'the other side'. I've never actually sat through an entire episode of X-Factor but I've seen enough of it to know not to bother. Just as watching Jeremy Vine (or equivalent middle-aged, middle-class doyen of awkward) thrusting his pelvis around stopped being funny some time around the beginning of the credit crunch (remember that?), so the spectacle of the genuinely delusional trying their hand at pop music has surely lost it's edge by now? How do these people not know that they're shit in any case? As you know, I do a bit of singing. Sometimes I even get away with it. Yet never in a thousand series of Strictly would I ever contemplate trying to pass myself off as a professional. You know very well if you're rubbish. And if you are it's not funny. It's just embarrassing. So stop laughing at the same joke and maybe then we'll be offered something approaching original and creative television on a Saturday night. It might all be justifiable if the winner could look forward to something resembling a music career. Where is Michelle McManus anyway?
Lurching back towards the Beeb I regret to report that their encore to Strictly is Dr Who. Christ's arse....this is rubbish isn't it? I can't work out if the BBC want us to take it seriously or not. The later time slot suggests that we are expected to. This isn't CBeebies. But the Doctor looks like he's about to pass into the next life at any given moment. Is this intentional? He looks critically ill in a way that even William Hartnell could never manage. In a brazened attempt to uphold the traditions of the programme the aliens and monsters remain straight out of a primary school stage production. It's as if CGI had never been invented. The result is a puerile and pitiful attempt at sci-fi that would make the creators of the original series of Star Trek blush. And this is prime time on a Saturday. How does this happen? Is it that they know there's only me who is socially inept enough to be at home channel hopping at this time on a Saturday night? Is that it?
In the end I resorted to repeats of Dave Gorman's Modern Life Is Goodish (unlike modern tv which as we have seen is shitish). It's on Dave. Dave on Dave. I've seen that particular episode, in which Dave tries to decipher how YouGov have deemed the fans of Little Mix to be more politically right wing than those of Adolf Hitler, a number of times now and it still feels more original than anything on the Saturday night schedules of the free-to-air broadcasters. Saturday Night Dross, my dad used to call it just as he made his escape to the nearest social club. That was 30 years ago and he was talking about Game For A Laugh and The Price Is Right. The really awful stuff. If anything we've regressed since then.
Of course there is a large portion of laughable shit on Sky too. I've watched three episodes of an enviably terrible drama called Blindspot on Sky. It's about a woman who turns up in a bag in the middle of Times Square in New York. You know, the sort of thing that happens every day. She doesn't know who she is. She can't remember, but she has the name of an FBI agent tattooed to her body. Aswell as a number of other tattoos that make Michael Schofield's prison map efforts look like he's allergic to ink. Every week she and the FBI argue about whether or not she should go with them to their latest assignment. She always goes, and she always beats the shit out of someone three times her size. Turns out she is an ex-navy SEAL. In the latest instalment they identified her DNA, so that should at least cut out the irritating debates about who she is over the coming weeks. More time for beating up bad guys. Dreadful. But I'll keep watching in the spirit of you X-Factor fans who apparently know that what you are watching is bullshit yet you press on regardless. You troopers. I can sort of see how that happens after a few episodes of Blindspot. I drew the line at Supergirl, however.
So apart from Dave on Dave is there anything good on television anywhere? Does anything meet with my approval? Everyone likes Homeland, don't they? After a rip-roaring start in its first two series it has chugged along pointlessly for a couple of years but seems now, in its fifth term, to be back to its best. The writers seem to have twigged that the audience is irritated by Carrie's mania but they seem unable to let it go completely. That's probably because Claire Daines is so exceptionally good at playing someone annoying, so they take her back to it from time to time. All of which makes for a bit of an inconsistent mish-mash but if you can put that aside there is much still to enjoy. (Spoiler alert) Alison Carr is a CIA mole in the very finest traditions, almost 24-esque in her indecision about which side she is on. We should have been suspicious of her from the very moment we found out that she was sleeping with Saul Berenson. There just had to be an ulterior motive for her to be shacking up with him and his frightful upside down head. Meanwhile Carrie's inevitable future squeeze Peter Quinn continues to cheat death in ever more elaborate and interesting ways. He's like a superhero with no cape. Far more interesting than that self-satisfied ideologically befuddled prat Brodie. I haven't been as glad to see the back of anyone since Thatcher resigned. And I was only 14 when that happened.
Homeland has been around for a while, having more than enough time to establish itself. The Last Panthers is still trying to find its way into the national consciousness but on the evidence so far it might just catch on. It ticks an important box for modern day television drama in that it is mostly subtitled. Strictly speaking a drama needs to be subtitled and Scandinavian to have the critics fawning over its brilliance, but setting this tale of diamond heists around mainland Europe was the next best thing. I've absolutely no idea who is who and what their motivations are despite being four episodes into the first series. This is mostly due to everything being darkly lit and everyone having the same haircut. What I do know is that some bad guys have done something wrong relating to diamonds and in the process of doing something wrong relating to diamonds they have managed to kill a small child. Samantha Morton and John Hurt are running around in pursuit while not getting on very well. If nothing else it is nice to see Hurt in good health after seeing him at Wimbledon in the summer looking ill to the point where he was hardly recognisable.
However that ends, let's hope it does so more plausibly than the mostly excellent but ultimately deflating London Spy. Now this was something the Beeb could be proud of broadcasting, for a time at least. Not a desperate celebrity nor a pompous judge in sight. It starred the currently ubiquitous Ben Wishaw as Danny, an ordinary bloke from London who just happens to be gay and one day happens upon a chance meeting with the mysterious Alex. From a starting position of butt-clenching awkwardness they eventually hit it off and begin a relationship, whereupon Alex is suddenly murdered. Over the course of this five-part series Alex turns out to be called Alistair, and Danny finds out that the name of his lover is not the only thing that he didn't really know about him. In support of Danny is his friend Scotty, a father-figure of a presence played by the usually comic but always brilliant Jim Broadbent. He's gay too, and he probably has a bit of a thing for Danny. It's all very complex and intriguing as Danny fights to convince everyone that he has nothing to do with Alistair's murder. That is until the clumsy and unlikely denoument which even the presence of Charlotte Rampling can do nothing to redeem.
London Spy was fresh and innovative, but in the absence of too much else which fits that description I find myself still plodding on with what are by now old favourites in serious danger of running their course. The Blacklist is one example of this. For how long can Red and Elizabeth's mysterious, slightly creepy relationship keep us in suspense? It seems that the answer to that lies in how many contrived scenarios involving notorious criminal masterminds can be conjured up by its writers. While some of those may grate, none of them can compare on that score to the head-banging irritant that is Agent Ressler, a man last seen trying to schmooze up to Brodie's wife in Homeland while the latter was away wrestling with the thorny issue of whether to blow himself up. Actually, he succeeded in the schmoozing, for a time. Until they all got written out of it for the greater good. But he's back here and he's schmoozing again, but this time its FBI Agent Navabi, who seconds after finding out that her brother who she believed to be dead was actually a well-connected terrorist, jumped into the sack with television's greatest predator of the emotionally vulnerable. And I thought Red was creepy....
Last on my list for now is Elementary. Goodness only knows how many series we are into now of the US drama based on English literary stalwarts Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Too many. But when you start watching something from the beginning it takes either a special kind of will power or a special kind of awfulness for me to not see it through to the end. Three series of The Following testify to this, as do a mammoth seven series of Lost, which truly was lost by the time it reached its airy-fairy, ambiguous conclusion. And that bloke is in charge of the new Star Wars movies. My apprehension about The Force Awakens is palpable. It's all a bit like making Tony Blair a sepcial envoy to the middle east. As if anyone would be that mad. What? Oh.
Back to Elementary, and Holmes is still English, but lives in New York with the American Dr Watson. She (yes, she) used to be a surgeon and is now some kind of happy-clappy life coach sent by Holmes' father to assist him with his various addictions. But Watson ditched that idea some time ago and instead has been schooled by Holmes in the art of detective work. Together they interfere in everything dug up by the NYPD and, irritatingly, the brilliant Holmes always finds the solution while the ordinary law enforcement people scratch their heads in bewilderment. The best thing about Elementary is Holmes' lack of social skills. I think they are trying to suggest that he has some form of autism or aspergers syndrome. Anything that perpetuates the myth that the disabled are actually all geniuses gets my vote. The worst thing about it is that there is no middle ground for anyone trying to play along at home and work out who the killer is each week. It's either blindingly obvious when they first appear on screen, or it's someone who hasn't been mentioned until about seven minutes before the end when it all gets rather hastily put into place.
Rather like one of my TV review pieces....