Television: OM Dieu, a ‘Reign’ of error, and the towns of Ireland up in arms

‘Reign’ oozes anachronisms; you’ll find a more authentic torture and dark intrigue on ‘Shakedown the Town’

‘Reign’: they should really call the show ‘Dawson’s Keep’

‘Reign’: they should really call the show ‘Dawson’s Keep’

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

Aidan Power arrives into town, much like Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentleman or Pennywise the clown from It, and makes families compete against each other for food. Okay, they’re actually competing for a holiday, but I like my Saturday-night entertainment spiced with dark terror, so I prefer to imagine it’s for food.

Power seems like a nice chap, but soon he’s making grey-haired men retrieve trinkets from a shark tank and having middle-aged women walk barefoot and blindfolded across a church filled with mousetraps. He does not revel in this, like a Batman villain or Ant and Dec, but stoically presents each grim new reality as a consequence of the choices made by his victims.

“Just as long as there are no heights and no water, I’m good to go,” chuckles one lady at the outset. “You’re on the wrong show so,” says Power sadly, before the woman is led away.

Shakedown the Town (RTÉ Two, Saturday) has a simple premise. The children from each family retreat to a control centre in a lorry, where they decipher cryptic clues. These have a touch of postapocalyptic religion about them. “Find somewhere to sleep and climb the steep rock,” reads one. “An iron bird awaits,” assures another.

Then they force their wheezing parents, dressed in multicoloured jumpsuits, to run around town taking part in sadistic stunts – my favourite: convincing haughty toddlers to do their bidding. It’s basically Challenge Anneka, but mixed with the Stanford prison and Milgram experiments.

At the start the children are just mildly authoritarian. “Don’t question us,” says one child firmly. But as the programme progresses the children’s exasperation with their suffering parents moves to amusingly callous indifference.

“He’s going to get eaten,” says a girl matter-of-factly, as her father is lowered into a tank filled with sharks.

“He’s like an old woman in the water,” says another with a grim chuckle, as her dad struggles to swim from a banana boat to a floating climbing wall.

“Fall! Fall!” chants a third tween, with evil glee, as a grown-up negotiates that floor filled with mousetraps. Yes, just one more body in the foundations of her empire.

All in all it’s hilarious, if slightly chilling, good fun. It’s nice to see families working together, even if it’s in the context of a twisted master-slave relationship that wouldn’t be out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story. My only reservations? Power should wear a white coat and carry a clipboard. And instead of moving from town to town they should stick with the same families for the whole series, just to see how bad things get. (I suspect there’d be post-traumatic stress disorder and light cannibalism by episode three.)

Reign (RTÉ Two, Saturday) is an American teen drama about a young woman torn between two hunks, undermined by stuffy parental figures and soundtracked by indie music. I watch it to find out what the young people are up to. “Ah, I see the young people are wearing breeches, doublets and codpieces,” I say and instantly call my tailor. My mistake. Reign is in fact set in olden times, though I suspect the creators wouldn’t be beyond writing a smartphone into the script if drama demanded it.

It documents the betrothal of Mary, Queen of Scots to the dauphin of France and her flirtation with the king’s half-brother, who is called Bash. (They also toyed with the names Leeroy, Midge and Buster.) While the dauphin is conscientious but judgmental, like Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, Bash is charming and self-deprecating, like Pacey from Dawson’s Creek. And Mary is a postfeminist rebel, like Jen from Dawson’s Creek. They should really call the show Dawson’s Keep. Anyway, Mary unsettles the whole French court with her wild Scottish ways and unstuffy, freestyle dancing (with some slightly anachronistic moves; I think at one point she did the robot).

Having not learned the lessons of Footloose, Mary is instantly disliked by the evil matriarch, Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine dispatches a patsy to dispatch Mary, but it is the patsy who is dispatched thanks to a mysterious figure who looms unconvincingly from the darkness to warn Mary of danger at convenient times. Who is this mysterious figure, Catherine de’ Medici demands to know. Well, here’s a life hack for murderous queens: light your castle better and you’d find out. Next week: Mary is troubled by a suspicious Facebook alert and Bash forms an electro-clash band.

Utopia (Channel 4, Tuesday) is now in its second season of violent, conspiracy-themed drama – and it is brilliant. It features some of Britain’s obscurest buildings and bleakest landscapes, and characters that look like they’ve walked out of a French graphic novel. Dennis Kelly’s wild sci-fi story, about man-made diseases and eugenics and ordinary people on the run, has a foothold in real-world geopolitics.

Its moral dilemmas are rooted in utilitarian philosophy. The plot is tight, but each protagonist feels authentically unpredictable. (My favourite character is sardonic, tragic Becky, played by Alexandra Roach. ) Some programme creators are good at world building but populate that world with square-headed ciphers (The 100). Others build character but leave you worried that those characters will run out of set (Lost). Utopia feels like a real world filled with real people.

Utopia isn’t quite utopian, but Python is definitely pythonesque; the best shows have their own adjective. Monty Python Live (Mostly), Python’s cabaret-enhanced greatest-hits show, was broadcast live this week (Gold, Sunday), and while millions sang along, others griped. “They’re just rehashing old glories,” they said. “It’s just for the money. They look so old.”

All I can say is, you ungrateful wretches, have you no sense of history? Monty Python freed comedy from punchlines and deference and made me very happy. The surviving members can do what they like. And I mean whatever they like. If Eric Idle wants to dance naked on telly in place of the news, he should be allowed to. If John Cleese wants to move into your house and have you live in the shed, nothing should stand in his way. If Michael Palin kills a man in a bar fight, it shouldn’t even go to court.

The Pythons should be immune from prosecution, never mind criticism, and if they want to do a victory lap for the money we should thank them for it. To do otherwise would be absurd. Maybe even pythonesque. tvreview@irishtimes.com

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