The main item under review for this weekend is one of those shows that sparks a flurry of attention. In this case, “whither the police procedural?” About 25 per cent of TV, across conventional, cable and streaming services, is a crime drama featuring police officers. They tend to follow a pattern. Often there’s a rogue officer doing the right thing but is reined in or dismissed by the boss.
As the world changes and our perception of the police shifts toward scrutiny of bias, ineptitude and systemic discrimination, the old formats don’t resonate so well. The trick is to restructure the police procedural, to make it more involving as drama.
Vigil (starts Sunday, Starz/Crave, 9 p.m.) uses a nifty trick – a setting so claustrophobic that you’re truly drawn in. The BBC series, a huge hit when it aired in Britain earlier, is set mostly on the nuclear submarine HMS Vigil. Tight quarters for a murder investigation and yes, you feel as though you’re trapped there with the characters.
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The nuclear-armed sub is deep in the waters somewhere off the coast of Scotland and nobody knows it’s there. Nobody is supposed to know. On the surface, a fishing boat is doing its business and the crew believe there’s a large stock of fish deep below. They try to do their job. But it’s not a shoal of fish, it’s a sub and there’s no good ending to this encounter for the fishing boat. Below, there’s an argument about what to do. An officer who says the sub should help is overruled. That officer is found dead soon after. Was he the drug addict some say he was? An investigation must happen, but the police must come to the sub because it’s on a secret mission.
Officer Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is jogging in Glasgow when summoned to meet top navy supervisors. “How are you in confined spaces?” is one very ominous question. What happens as Silva gets to the sub and starts work is nicely done. The depiction of an intense, hidden workplace has real impact. You’re aware that what you’ve got here is essentially an old-fashioned whodunnit, but the setting is unique and baleful. Silva can’t really communicate with the outside world, but can receive message in code. Helping her on the outside, on dry land, is officer Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) who knows Silva all too well.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that with 140 men and eight women on this submarine, something rotten was seething this long while. On shore, Longacre discovers the dead man had a relationship with a person the navy would not approve of, and the navy is all about secrecy and keeping its missions unknown. Little wonder Vigil was a massive success with viewers in Britain. The confined-space aspect is used to wonderful effect, the characters are engaging and, you know, if you throw in a Russian submarine, too, you’ve got a killer, six-part thriller.
Also airing/streaming this weekend
Great Performances: Unforgettable With Love – Natalie Cole (Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m.) is your classy, laidback treat. It’s been on before but bears repeated viewing. Cole sings material from the Grammy-winning album Unforgettable, which has songs performed by her late father, Nat King Cole, in the 1940s and early 1950s, including Tenderly, Autumn Leaves, Smile, Avalon and Paper Moon. Filmed in a setting resembling an elegant supper club, sometimes there’s a full orchestra and sometimes a small-combo, and technology is used to give the impression of her father playing as her accompanist.
Harlem (streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday) is a new comedy series about four black female friends living in New York City in their early 20s. On the early evidence, it is sophisticated but light-hearted fun and features many strapping lads as objects of desire.
Finally, The Gig is Up (Sunday, documentary channel, 9 p.m.) is a disturbing look at the gig economy on four continents. It’s a punchy and anger-inciting doc by Shannon Walsh, who travelled widely (pre-COVID) to look at the situation of Uber drivers, food-delivery workers and in particular, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Amazon describes that arena as, “A crowdsourcing website for businesses to hire remotely located ‘crowdworkers’ to perform discrete on-demand tasks that computers are currently unable to do.” It’s soul-destroying work. And while these gig-economy jobs are a lifeline for some, the ubiquity of the freelance gig-worker, trying to please algorithms, not human bosses, is a perilous development. As one observer says here, for many workers, soon, “the Middle Ages will look like paradise.”
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