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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

The week in TV: Alice & Jack; The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth; The New Look; Bring the Drama – review

Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson in Alice & Jack.
‘Their bond is obsessive, erratic and damaging’: Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson in Alice & Jack. Photograph: Channel 4

Alice & Jack (Channel 4) |
The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The New Look (Apple TV+)
Bring the Drama (BBC Two) | iPlayer

What’s in the ether with sputtering, on-off romances at the moment? We’ve just had the Netflix adaptation of One Day (college couple circle each other for 20 years). Now, there’s Victor Levin’s Alice & Jack, a six-part Channel 4 drama devoted to decades-spanning romantic dysfunction. Part-directed by Juho Kuosmanen (Compartment No 6) and Hong Khaou, if it’s meant as a TV valentine (the opener aired last Tuesday, 14 February), it’s an emotionally visceral one, with cerebral entrails dangling out.

I’m instantly on board because finance whiz Alice is played by Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie). I love the serrated edges she brings to roles. Domhnall Gleeson (The Patient) is Jack, a deep-thinking biomedical researcher. Having met through an app, their bond is obsessive, erratic and damaging. As time passes (spoiler alert), they keep reuniting, needing rather than wanting each other. Particularly for Alice, a hard knot of scar tissue, there could be too much past trauma to deal with.

Be warned, you may not like Alice, or indeed Jack. There are times when I think: what insufferable, self-indulgent drama queens! With a supporting cast including Aisling Bea, Aimee Lou Wood and Sunil Patel, it’s more or less accepted that the titular leads’ great love has the right to flatten everything and everyone before it. They mess perfectly nice people about, while over time the barriers to them getting together feel fabricated and flimsy. If you hang around long enough (another spoiler klaxon), you may feel a mite conned by the bizarre, mangled happy-sad ending.

At the same time, Alice & Jack feels at once daring, cerebral (like a strange, long play chopped into six bits), prickly and amusing (“I’m going to say this to you as nice as I can – go away, please”). Riseborough and Gleeson convince as the perma-turbulent couple, their individual dysfunctions smashing together in roaring black waves. It’s not full of sex scenes, but there is sometimes the sense of an older, more knackered Normal People. Though that alone makes you wonder if we really need another anti-romcom for our cynical times.

On BBC Two, Lizzie Kempton’s three-part docuseries The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth is a devastating exploration of the 2003 Columbia disaster. At the end of its 28th mission, the Nasa space shuttle exploded on re-entry to Earth, killing all seven (male and female) crew members. Opening with home videos of debris falling over east Texas, the episodes take on different parts of the grim story: the run-up and compromised launch (dislodged foam casing hitting a wing); the (suppressed) concerns on the ground; and, finally, the aftermath and the reckoning, with an investigation and damning report.

There are interviews with Nasa engineers, officials, and journalists, as well as the bereaved families. Soon, the shocking tale emerges: the attempts to raise the alarm that were batted away; the emails left ignored or unsent; the stifling chain of command that made all this possible; the pervading sense that cost and schedules were favoured over scrutiny and what amounted to a disturbing “fingers crossed” attitude to safety.

‘Calm and oblivious’: orbiting Columbia space shuttle astronauts (clockwise from top left) Dave Brown, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband and Kalpana Chawla.
‘Calm and oblivious’: orbiting Columbia space shuttle astronauts (clockwise from top left) Dave Brown, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband and Kalpana Chawla. Photograph: BBC/Mindhouse Productions/Nasa

Even harder moments lie elsewhere. The spouses and children left behind. The footage of the crew training, bonding, working in space on science projects, all of them thrilled to have the experience (for four of them, it was their first mission). It’s eerie but moving to see the footage from inside the shuttle cabin, showing the crew calm and oblivious, bobbing about in zero gravity. An extremely tough watch, this compelling docuseries serves as a homage to the blameless astronauts and those who profoundly failed them.

Having sat through all 10 episodes of Todd A Kessler’s new second world war meets high-couture drama The New Look on Apple TV+, I have to declare myself flummoxed. What did it set out to achieve?

Effectively, it’s two heaving (dare I say, bloated), bolted-together biopics about French designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, played by Ben Mendelsohn and Juliette Binoche. It’s also about the Nazi occupation of Paris and how both designers were accused of collaborating. While sensitive, unassuming Dior helps the French resistance, which includes his courageous sister Catherine (Maisie Williams), Chanel is shown, among other disgraces, fraternising with Heinrich Himmler and embarking on a failed mission to get a message to Winston Churchill.

Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior in The New Look.
Ben Mendelsohn excels as Christian Dior in ‘vast, confused’ The New Look. Photograph: Apple

Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, The Zone of Interest, demonstrates how the horrors of Nazism can be used as an evocative, chilling backdrop. Such cleverness is entirely absent in The New Look’s shifting tone and focus. One moment it’s about couture (beautifully dressed Parisian characters, perfumes, rivalries, rebirths); the next, it’s all Nazis, torture, executions and the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Similarly, Chanel is presented as a soulless, grasping antisemite one minute; the next, somewhat offensively, as a bitchy but droll, camp, wicked queen – even a feminist heroine: “I’m not going to put up with this boys’ club any longer!”

Elsewhere, there’s chronic overpadding, with unnecessary detail and risible dialogue (“Your boyfriend is a Nazi”), while the cast, including John Malkovich, speak English with French accents (pourquoi?). Subtle performances, particularly from Mendelsohn and Williams, end up submerged in a vast, confused, ethically dubious soup of a narrative. Kessler was behind one of my favourite TV dramas – Damages – so I’m guessing he didn’t intend for any of this.

If you’re after something novel and heartwarming, there’s the new six-part acting talent series Bring the Drama (BBC Two), hosted by Bill Bailey. Here, a mixed group of eight hopefuls who never had the opportunity to go to drama school are mentored by casting director Kelly Valentine Hendry (Fleabag, Broadchurch, Bridgerton), whose observations include: “This industry is skewed towards privilege. I believe that has to change.” Quite!

Host Bill Bailey and eight aspiring actors in Bring the Drama.
Host Bill Bailey and eight aspiring actors in the ‘nurturing’ Bring the Drama Photograph: BBC/Wall To Wall

In the opener, the trainees try out soap acting (giving their all at the Albert Square set). Forthcoming weeks include forays into forensic drama (Silent Witness) and action drama (Peaky Blinders). With the prize of an industry showcase, this is a lovely, sincere, nurturing show about daring to dream. No one gets eliminated and everything rests on Hendry’s “magical pen-drop moments”. It reminds me of old-school reality television (remember Faking It?) before the hysteria and nastiness set in.

Star ratings (out of five)
Alice & Jack
The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth ★★★★
The New Look
Bring the Drama ★★★

What else I’m watching

(BBC One)
Second series of the Dublin-based crime gang drama, created by Peter McKenna and Ciaran Donnelly. Gritty, uncompromising and off-kilter, it stars Charlie Cox and Clare Dunne.

Trending on Netflix since it launched last month, this drama about real-life female Colombian underworld boss Griselda Blanco, starring Sofia Vergara engulfed in prosthetics, is garish, overblown and undeniably exciting.

Sofia Vergara sitting alone at a table in a restaurant.
Sofia Vergara and prosthetics in Griselda. Photograph: Netflix

(BBC Four)
Aw, “Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, old fat furry cat-puss.” Heart-twanging 50th-anniversary tribute to the stripy moggy and friends, including a repeat of the 2009 Timeshift documentary on creator Oliver Postgate and two episode reruns. No, you’ve always secretly wanted to be Emily.

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