TV review: A story woven in shades of grey through the first run of ‘The Mill’
In a dire week for TV, a new drama lacks plot and an old one, while bidding adieu, looks likely to return
Threadbare drama: facts were piled in, scene on top of scene, without a decent dramatic plot to drive ‘The Mill’ forward
I spent the first five minutes of The Mill, Channel 4’s new Sunday-night drama, stabbing at the remote control trying to figure out how to make the screen brighter. When that didn’t work I tried to change the colour balance, whatever that is, because everything on screen, even the millworkers’ faces, were shades of navy and grey. And that’s when you could see them in the Stygian gloom. But then there was a normal, bright scene in the mill owner’s house – see what they did there, rich equals sunlight, poor equals gloom – and I knew it wasn’t just my telly.
The Mill, a four-part series about life in a Cheshire cotton mill around the time of the industrial revolution, makes the BBC’s most recent historical shades-of-grey gloomfest, The Village, look like Downton Abbey. But where the writer of The Village cleverly wove fact into fiction, creating a strong dramatic story, The Mill wears its research heavily.
It’s based on life in an actual mill. So the facts – the boy having his arm amputated after it was caught in a loom, the exploitation of orphans as workers, the campaign for a 10-hour working day resisted by the nouveau riche mill owners – were piled in, scene on top of scene, without a decent dramatic plot to drive it forward into episode two. Which, even if next week’s TV is as dire as this week’s, I won’t be watching.
Series finales of much-loved, even cult, series are never going to satisfy all viewers. The cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos is a classic example; a more recent one is the final scene of The Fall, in which the killer escaped. It made sense to me; many saw it as a cop-drama cop-out. But the wrap-up on The Returned (Channel 4, Sunday), the French drama set in an Alpine village where the dead keep coming back to life, can’t have satisfied a single viewer.
It has been compulsive, brain-buzzing viewing: the best drama on TV this summer. Each spooky episode focused on the story of one of the undead, raising satisfyingly puzzling questions: is saucer-eyed demon child Victor the key to the whole thing; why don’t they put a camera in the underpass where people keep getting killed?; could some of the living really be dead, and vice versa?
The key question throughout, though, has been, why are the dead coming back at all? “Revenge”, we were told by one of the characters in the finale: no subtitles needed for that one. But revenge on who. And why? No answers there. And after weeks of fretting about the water levels in the dam, the town did flood, but it was almost incidental. And why did some of the living go with the dead in the end? And why did the most vicious one – the killer, Serge – stay behind? This week’s final episode had all the ripe cheesy smell of a first series changing course midstream, just to leave the set-up clear and key characters in place for a second series.
In the finale of one of RTÉ’s big summer programmes, the worthy but dull Great Irish Journeys (RTÉ One, Sunday) Dáithí Ó Sé “explores the story of the 1798 rebel Michael Dwyer and the building of the Military Road in Wicklow”. The 60km road was built by “the British” – O Sé has a way of saying the British as if it’s the greatest insult – but it turns out there wasn’t much to say about Dwyer, and so this hour-long programme had more padding than a three-piece suite.