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

Threadbare drama: facts were piled in, scene on top of scene, without a decent dramatic plot to drive ‘The Mill’ forward

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 01:00

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.

There was a rambling interview with a woman who lived in Glencree as a child, and a visit to the stately home at Luggala: “This place is like a scene from Lord of the Rings,” said Ó Sé. There’s a line between popularising history and dumbing it down, which is usually toed with steely precision by a tight script in the hands of a genuine expert. Mary Beard’s Caligula on BBC Two, on Monday, was a fine example of difficult history made entertaining and accessible. Ó Sé is an off-the-cuff presenter, fine on the Rose of Tralee, less so with history: “It turns out there wasn’t anything that fella didn’t know about the place,” he said of Dwyer’s relationship with Glendalough. But Ó Sé’s smarts showed in the latter half of the programme. While the other presenters in this series – Gráinne Seoige, Evelyn O’Rourke and John Creedon – got to tramp around Ireland mostly in the rain, Ó Sé got to Australia on the basis that Dwyer fled there. I’m not sure viewers got as much out of it.

It was just the week and the weather for a Netflix binge – 13 hours of Orange is the New Black, the prison drama based on Piper Kerman’s memoir. It’s simply top class TV – though Netflix, the internet streaming service, hasn’t made half the fuss of it as it did of its first commissioned drama series, House of Cards.

Created by Jenji Kohan, who also made Weeds, it has a lot in common with that “middle-class woman crosses the line” dramedy. This one concerns Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) a blond, white Waspy Smith-grad in her 30s living the grown-up New York Times style-supplement dream. She shops at Whole Foods, has a trust-fund fiancé and owns an artisan soap business. But her past – from 10 years previously when she was a drug courier for her lesbian lover – catches up with her, and she’s sentenced to a 15-month stretch in a federal prison.

Inside, as well as her ex-lover (a key change from Kerman’s true story) the characters are the expected “women in prison drama” archetypes: the nun, the hippie, the Russian matriarch, the hillbilly Jesus freak, the junkie, the transgender hairdresser and the “gay for the stay” inmates. But they are given such convincing plotlines – and superb, often hilarious dialogue – that it raises Orange is the New Black way above other prison dramas. And there’s never been a TV show with such a diverse range of woman characters – all shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities. Or, since The L Word, as much lesbian sex on TV: that might draw in viewers not particularly interested in the core message of how the deep inequalities in American society are reflected in the penal system.

It’s more engaging than Kerman’s memoir because it delves, through flashbacks, into how the other inmates landed in prison; allowing for a vast range of responses that never veer in the easy direction of moralising or schmaltz. Thirteen hours, though? At least the next Netflix must-see – the final series of Breaking Bad, which starts on August 12th – will be drip-fed one episode a week.

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