Washington's new monument to smart writing and comic timing


TV REVIEW:THE FIRST EPISODE of a comedy series is always tricky. There’s all that plot exposition to pile on, multiple characters to be introduced, laughs to be generated and, in the case of Veep (Sky Atlantic, Monday), expectations to be lowered after an avalanche of hype – plus, and this is the tricky bit for fans this side of the Atlantic, memories of the UK version, The Thick of It, to be expunged before you can really fall under the supersmart spell of the writing and timing.

The satire of the comedy genius Armando Iannucci has moved from Whitehall to Washington DC, and much of the setup is the same: a female politician – now the US vice-president, Selina Meyers, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus from Seinfeld – is surrounded by a team of varying incompetence tripping on political landmines and then dealing with the fallout.

In the first episode a fork-waving Meyers has the veepish (tokenistic, ultimately powerless) idea of getting cornstarch-made utensils into every federal building. “It’s classic clean-jobs stuff,” she says, until of one her “internerds” leaks the story, and the plastics lobby goes over her head. Sweeping from her motorcade into a wood-panelled hall to announce her initiative, she’s handed her now heavily edited speech. “It’s been pencil-f***ed,” she says, nervously eying the podium. “What’s left here? I have ‘hello’ and prepositions.”

Back in her office there’s the running joke of her isolation. “Has the president called?” she asks. “No,” deadpans her secretary. In her office the banter is bullying, sexist, plain obnoxious and funny. Political correctness is for when the microphones are on. And, as expected, there’s cursing, lots of it – not the volcanic swearfest that was The Thick of It (there’s no Malcolm Tucker character in Veep) but enough to remind you that this is HBO cable TV, not terrestrial US TV, where if someone says damn there’s a sharp intake of breath.

For me the first episode wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, more an “Oh, that’s hilarious” spoken with a deadpan face. Though now it’s up and running, with its whiplash dialogue and a brilliant performance by Louis-Dreyfus, out from the shadow of being Jerry Seinfeld’s sidekick, it’s all set to be an unmissable series.

ANOTHER ONEto set the timer for is Line of Duty (BBC One, Tuesday), a five-part BBC thriller directed by David Carney (Love/Hate) and filmed with an urban edginess by Ruairí O’Brien. It’s tense stuff, pacy and slick, piling layers of personal and professional conflicts on top of the baseline plot, which has anti- corruption pen-pusher Supt Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) determined to hunt out any dirt on the top crime-busting cop, a swaggering Tony Gates (Lennie James).

There are hints in the first episode that all is not as it seems, and this much we know already: Gates has a wealthy mistress (Gina McKee) who drags him into covering up a crime, and there’s a police culture of investigating only crimes that can be solved, to help massage the statistics. This week’s twist was a shocker. I can’t say any more for fear of a flurry of emails from people who recorded the show, but suffice to say cool Det Constable Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), who inveigles herself into Gate’s macho unit, is the one I expect to be nail-bitingly worried about for the next month.

SO RUTH WATSONhas gone from Country House Rescue (Channel 4, Thursday), replaced as presenter by Simon Davis, and it’s the not the same at all. She was straight-talking and down to earth, didn’t suck up to the threadbare aristos in their crumbling houses and was brimming with ideas about how to bring in some cash from their significant property assets. And you just knew she was within a whisker of telling them to cop themselves on, stop resting on their ancestors’ laurels and go out and find work.

The Shelswell-White family are the owners of the amazing-looking, and amazingly situated, Bantry House, in west Cork. It has been in the family for 300 years, and Egerton and Brigitte Shelswell-White, who took over 30 years ago, have handed the running of the stately pile on to their daughter Sophie and her partner, Josh. They have to magic up ways of plugging the €1 million gap in their finances. They’ve thought of most things this programme usually suggests – weddings, courses, coffee shop, BB – though Davis, who is clearly not up to speed with the bizarre charging practices of the Irish hospitality industry, was amazed that they charge per person and not per room and told them to stop that immediately.

His big idea was a posh pop-up restaurant in the stables, and he got his mate Richard Corrigan, the chef, to fly in from London. It looked fancy: 70 diners paid a not-too-shabby €100 a head; lots of suppliers gave their stuff at reduced rates; and everyone, including Corrigan, worked for free. They still only cleared €1,000, and Sophie looked a bit deflated – and exhausted by all the work involved.

Bantry House looked stunning, and Tourism Ireland would be rightly pleased with all the scenery shots, though Davis did keep babbling on about how remote it is, as if the house is on the far side of the moon when, in fact, it’s in strolling distance of a busy town.

YOU’D THINK IN PRISONyou’d be safe from the ego-fuelled attentions of celebrity chefs. Not so, as Gordon Ramsay’s obnoxious new venture, Gordon Behind Bars (Channel 4, Tuesday), showed at every grim, exploitative turn. Where cuddly Jamie Oliver did a makeover on school meals for cuddly kids, Ramsay, being a well-hard manly man, has opted for Brixton jail, with a plan to get 12 prisoners “up off their arses”, “to give something back” and create a viable in-prison catering business.

Ramsay never misses a chance to snipe about how cushy jail is and how easy they have it. The prisoners have no business being on a reality-TV show, and the experienced prison officers sounded spot-on in their scepticism about the whole thing. In one of those this-will-make-good-telly scenes, Ramsay’s “bad boy brigade” (I wish I was making that up) had to cook dinner for the entire prison population of 800. The prison’s catering manager told Ramsay he had to come up with five meal choices, including vegetarian and halal. “He says customers, I say prisoners,” spat Ramsay. “He says choices, I say f*** off.”

They’re doing time. Don’t waste yours on it.

Get stuck into . . .The second season of Parks and Recreation (RTÉ Two, Monday), the hilarious mockumentary about local government (really!), starring Amy Poehler (right) is worth a look. It’s much better than the faltering first season.

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