Bridge of Lies (weekdays, BBC One) has theme music that's just an endless crescendo and takes place in the weirdly lit warehouse space where they keep all the gameshows. It starts with Ross Kemp walking towards us. He's a celebrity vassal for the Bridge of Lies, a whimsical television entity that has needs.
Kemp came to prominence on the traumatising soap-opera Eastenders, which is a joyless psychogeographical map of British identity. In that show he played one of the adulterous Mitchell brothers, the violent, egg-headed sons of Babs Windsor from the Carry On films.
In more recent years, documentary producers have preferred to parachute Kemp into danger zones rather than have him act in things. And now most Britons believe their armed forces have four branches: the army, the navy, the air force and Ross Kemp. Woe betide your island nation when they deploy Ross Kemp. This Bridge of Lies must be some character if it has bent Ross Kemp to its insidious whims.
There are many lies on the floor and if you fail to spot these lies, you lose the round. Is this another metaphor for capitalism? Probably
Kemp takes it all very seriously. He strides towards the camera with the circular head and frown lines of an adult Charlie Brown and the T-shirt and sports jacket combo of a dad who has custody of us for the weekend. He talks about the Bridge of Lies as though he has no control over it or its base appetites. All he can hope for is that some humans best it in a game of wits.
The first family to face the Bridge of Lies are a pair of cousins and their spouses. They tell Ross Kemp about their quirky alphabetical date nights, of which this television appearance is just one. “Shall we get on with the game?” says Ross Kemp, already weary of their shenanigans, for there is a Bridge of Lies to traverse.
He explains the rules. Contestants must cross a diamond-shaped floor filled with circles. Each circle contains a truth or a lie and they must travel across the floor only stepping on statements that are true. “Easy!” says you, if you are accustomed to living a comfortable life in a functioning social democracy. You fool! There are many lies on the floor and if you fail to spot these lies, you lose the round. Is this another metaphor for capitalism? Probably.
Not to get too pedantic here, but it occurs to me that to win the round the contestants must uncover a bridge of truths, not a bridge of lies. So even the name Bridge of Lies is a lie. Classic Bridge of Lies, if you think about it.
“Bridge, can you reveal the opening category,” says Ross Kemp to the Bridge of Lies. The Bridge answers him back with the voice of an English woman. There’s no explanation for how the Bridge learned to speak or how it developed its obsession with verisimilitudinal hi-jinks. Perhaps Bridge of Lies was on Eastenders too. Did it play Dot Cotton? We never find out.
“Sanj, come and join me on the Bridge of Lies,” says Ross Kemp to the first contestant. Most things said by gameshow hosts nowadays could be spoken by cult leaders in a post-apocalyptic society.
Sanj struggles from the start. She is faced with three words that the Bridge of Lies claims to be from the 21st century. The words are “youtuber” “alcopop” and “studmuffin”, coincidentally the names of my nephews. Sanj considers the information. She reasons that studmuffins existed in the past. I mean, Ross Kemp is right there in fairness. She chooses, “youtuber”. She is correct.
It goes on like this, with Sanj and her family trapped in a Kafkaesque neon nightmare overseen by Ross Kemp, the cheerleading Dennis Hopper to Bridge of Lies' Marlon Brando. At one point, blinded by a world of misinformation and faced with her downfall, Sanj cries out "Ross, help me!" But she doesn't understand. "I can't help you," says Ross Kemp sadly, speaking not just to Sanj, but to us all.
Three prestige dramas
Right now, three different streamers are hosting three different prestige dramas about three different snake-oil salesfolk of the 2010s. As social media makes our timelines shorter, it makes sense that TV is dramatising things that have literally just happened.
There's Inventing Anna on Netflix, which explores the downfall of fake New York society heiress Anna Delvey/Sorokin. There's The Dropout on Disney+, which looks at the downfall of fraudulent tech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes. And there's WeCrashed on Apple TV about the upfall of disastrous WeWork founder Adam Neumann (I say upfall because he's still sickeningly rich).
Jon Ronson once said that it was difficult to write about the business folk who were really ruining the world because they were too boring. And so it goes that these three distinctively voiced weirdos who ruined the lives of a relatively small group of people get whole TV series. In contrast, Mark Zuckerberg, who ruined democracy, only got a two-hour film.
The narratives of all of these shows jump between the downfall and the events preceding the downfall. Sorokin’s comeuppance was the result of claiming to be someone she wasn’t. Holmes pretended to have invented something that was impossible (a machine that could do hundreds of medical tests with one drop of blood). And Neumann managed to get insane amounts of money for a tawdry real-estate venture, thus revealing financialised capitalism to be an inherently wasteful pyramid scheme. Taken together, these programmes act as an argument for the societal importance of imposter syndrome and the terrible things that happen when real imposters don’t have it.
Inventing Anna is the worst because Sorokin's masterplan was the most vacuous and, quite frankly, the people she fooled weren't particularly interesting either
All of these shows are a bit in love with their subjects. They try to get us to root for them despite the preordained endings. This is because Americans are taught to worship sociopathic wannabes and, for them, the cautionary tale here is just that the wrong sociopathic wannabes were in charge. Irish people, on the other hand, look at these stories as confirmation that productive enterprise is best controlled by a centralised state.
The Dropout has a tragicomic edge and is the best of these shows. Amanda Seyfried makes Holmes seem endearingly vulnerable and hubristically deluded as she deepens her voice and juts out her jaw. When attractive actors change their headshapes to look like us normals it usually means they're really going for it.
Inventing Anna is the worst because Sorokin’s (Julia Garner) masterplan was the most vacuous and, quite frankly, the people she fooled weren’t particularly interesting either. I mean, if she hadn’t taken their money, what were they going to do? Pay a fair tax rate?
I've only watched the first few episodes of WeCrashed (which debuts today) and it's watchable, well-made and a little substanceless. Neumann is played by Jared Leto, a method actor famous, much like Catherine Tate or Harry Enfield, for his quirky "characters". He's joined by Anne Hathaway as his steely yet flaky wife, Rebekah. The early episodes see them careening expensively through the lives of others, and the creators seem to suggest that Neumann is an actual visionary. They present his idea of corralling insecure gig merchants into offices with ping-pong tables and beer kegs, instead of encouraging them to agitate for unions and healthcare, as basically a good one. But you know the ending. WeWork was a disaster. Its valuation was such a bridge of lies, I expected Ross Kemp to turn up.