Chris Pratt is one of the Four Chrisses of the Apocalypse, along with the Chrisses Pine, Evans and Hemsworth. These are the men who dominate the blockbuster movies of humanity’s final years. By the rules of nominative determinism, Pratt was initially deemed to be the funny one. (They even named a fall after him.) He started out as a schlubby everyman in Parks and Recreation, but he has turned his weight into muscle (Chris-mass) and has transformed his fourth-wall-breaking glances to camera into a dead-eyed stare that says: “I believe in Jesus, and he wants violent revenge.”
He’s currently the star of Amazon Prime Video’s The Terminal List, an unpleasant show about a sick man on a rampage. I believe that’s actually how they pitched it. Pratt’s character is named James Reece. We meet him initially in a sort of dark, dank back room surrounded by handsome bearded men in uniforms, and it’s instantly clear what’s going on: they’re strippers!
Or maybe they’re just telegenic navy Seals. That seems more likely, on reflection, because soon they’re being dropped into Syrian territory by the US government, tasked with killing a terrorist mastermind. Or possibly to dance for him. I haven’t ruled that out. Who knows why the Americans do what they do?
As they strut, grind and pirouette through the underground tunnels of Syria, we learn, in hazy flashback, that James has a Wife-and-Child. A Wife-and-Child is a thinly characterised family unit that is often sacrificed on shows like this to generate emotional stakes.
The wife half of Wife-and-Child spends her time giving James looks of gentle concern, much like the ones my wife gives me when I’m writing about shows like this. She does the childcare while James is off murdering for freedom. She has, of course, taken his name (“Reece”, not “James”), has no job and has never heard of the Bechdel test. Indeed, if there is a Bechdel test in this universe it was invented by a man, a man named Hunkstopher Bechdel.
Meanwhile the child half of Wife-and-Child draws a crayon picture of the family, as is the wont of delightful television children. James is very taken with this picture even though Child is a rudimentary artist at best: forced perspective; unnatural colours; a shaky grasp of figure and ground. And yet, when I draw far better crayon drawings of my family, my dad’s not half so supportive and is unlikely to treasure them while on a later killing spree.
Back in the underground catacombs, James and his squad find themselves in an ambush. There’s grunting and gunfire and some hard-to-follow action followed by a big explosion. Before long almost all of James’s men are dead and he’s angrily barking at his superiors: “I have 12 men flying home in caskets,” he says. I picture 12 caskets with little propellers. I guess the American army has the technology now.
We soon learn that there’s something wrong with James’s brain. He misremembers things and hallucinates. A pair of assassins try killing him while he’s getting an MRI, but he fights them in his pants and smock. Then he rushes home to find Wife-and-Child have been murdered as part of an overly complicated conspiracy involving pharma corporations, Mexican gangsters and a man named Steve. “Wife-and-Child!” he cries in anguish, before rapidly cycling through Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief: “anger”, “assembling a team”, “military banter”, “gunplay”, “blowing things up” and “disembowelling people”.
From then on each episode concludes with James heroically torturing and murdering someone (yah!) but usually after 40 minutes of meandering preamble (aw!). The creators of The Terminal List must have watched 24 and said, “I like the extrajudicial brutality, but wouldn’t it be better if we padded each episode with dull surveillance scenes, mood music, sad conversations and light admin?”
Still, the deaths are violent and upsetting. One guy is torturously suffocated before being given an overdose of methadone. Another is shot, then gutted with a little hatchet. A third has his car blown off the road by a sniper rifle to the soundtrack of Masters of War, by Bob Dylan. (I had no idea how cool Bob Dylan thought war was before I saw this show.) James even commits a terrorist bombing in an American city, but this is okay because it’s for justice and America and he’s white. Most Republicans would call it a “legitimate protest”.
From time to time we see James grimly adding names to the back of the picture his daughter drew in episode one, before crossing them out one by one, sometimes with his own blood. It’s what she would have wanted, I guess. I’m no psychologist, but I know that kids just want to feel loved and also violently avenged.
They should have had a bit where she says, “Avenge me, Daddy! It’s what I would want. Like maybe pull a guy’s intestines out of him using a little hatchet at the end of episode four?”
And James could have said, “I will, my sweet. Though I wish you had learned to draw a bit better. Like, how long are my arms here? It’s outrageous. I can’t believe I wrote my torture list on the back of this piece of perspectiveless hackery.”
This is, of course, the eponymous “list” of conspirators on which he wreaks “terminal” vengeance. But I feel like they missed a trick by not having him really spell it out, maybe turning to camera to say, “This? This piece of paper? Why, it’s my TERMINAL LIST!”
To which another character might go, “But the foreshortening on that picture is ham-fisted and the treatment uninspired.” And James would respond, “Look, she’s no Van Gogh, but I still want to avenge her, okay?” And then he might garrotte the naysayer while screaming “America!” and “I’m never going to counselling! Never!”
At Your Service (Monday, RTÉ One) is another show with a bit too much preamble but with, thankfully, less murder. It features the hotelier Brennan brothers engaged in business consultancy as they assist hospitality vendors across the nation. The participants are always nice and the advice is good, but I’m not sure we always need a whole hour of business plans.
The show persists, I think, because Francis, the dapper elder Brennan, has an indefinable star quality. His main skill is narrating things you can see happening yourself with your own eyes. When the drama-hungry production team make this week’s host family go paddleboarding, he remains on the shoreline uttering his own brand of stream-of-consciousness beat poetry: “Oh, Alan’s in the water. And Grace is not going to help him get out. She’s gone flying by him. It must be freezing... Now, if Alan keeps going like that he’ll be in Wales.”
I jam along on my double bass. Sing it, Daddio! As I watch him walk along a winding road with his umbrella aloft, it occurs to me that he’s like a cross between Michael D Higgins and Mr Tayto with both of those gentlemen’s sartorial elegance, quiet dignity and melancholy charisma. They should make a programme where Francis Brennan just strolls from town to town, describing things he can see. Or, alternatively, a show where he seeks violent revenge. I’d watch either.