At some point, television will reach a state of detective-show saturation and the entire genre will collapse into a gurgling, subscriber-only sinkhole. For now, there’s ITV’s DI Ray, the latest of several female-led series – Vigil, Trigger Point – from the Line of Duty production stable (I have Jed Mercurio pegged as a secret feminist). Created and written by Maya Sondhi (Line of Duty’s PC Bindra), DI Ray ran over four consecutive nights last week, with Parminder Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham, ER) as Detective Inspector Rachita Ray.
If DI Ray has a theme, it’s that racism, overt and veiled, leaves sticky fingerprints everywhere. After Ray soothes a psychotic, knife-wielding Asian man, she is promoted to the serious crime unit at her Birmingham police department by a pale and stale superintendent (Ian Puleston-Davies) who asks where she is from. An odd, clumsy moment: you’d have hoped, these days, that such an out-of-touch clown would be forcibly shuffled into early retirement. Just as in a supermarket Ray is mistaken for a shelf-stacker, at work her superior (Gemma Whelan) talks of “culturally specific homicides”. As Ray sighs to her fiance (Jamie Bamber): “They all know I’ve been brought in to tick a box.”
I ended up liking Sondhi’s stereotype-stomping spirit more than the story: a convoluted tale that pointedly rubbished hackneyed race tropes (honour killing), but then meandered down other predictable alleys, such as human trafficking. As the episodes plodded on, it started to feel like an extended “social issue” episode of The Bill. Good actors (Whelan, Steve Oram), deprived of lines or agency, stand about like human scenery. The “twist” is so signposted it practically has satnav. Saying that, I like DI Ray herself. Nagra hits uncomfortable, all-too-human notes – acid, seething, deflated – reminiscent of Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley. In terms of characterisation, it deserves another outing.
Watching the opening trio of available episodes of Sky Atlantic’s new eight-part series The Staircase, a dramatisation of a Netflix crime documentary of the same name, a thought keeps pulsing: “Is this fair on Kathleen Peterson?” But then, has any of it been? Played by Toni Collette, Kathleen – believed murdered by her novelist husband Michael (Colin Firth) in 2001 – is found bloodied at the bottom of the stairs in their mansion in Durham, North Carolina. There are flashbacks portraying the death, first as an “accident”, then as a murder, and the obligatory morgue shots of her shaved, gashed head. At one point, the Petersons have “rimming” sex against a kitchen island.
While illuminating about their marital erotic life, would Kathleen have wanted this depicted? Murder victims are inevitably consigned to corpse and flashback in drama, but there are times when Kathleen feels exposed, exploited and, worse, secondary, a narrative ghost in her own story.
Created by Antonio Campos, thus far The Staircase works best when it focuses on the interfamilial fallout of this infamously complex, drawn-out case (Michael Peterson was first found guilty, then released after a retrial that ended in a plea deal with him still proclaiming his innocence). Initially privileged, then fractured, the family – some convinced of his guilt – are portrayed beautifully, especially the couple’s grownup children, played by Olivia DeJonge, Sophie Turner and Patrick Schwarzenegger. Michael Peterson was bisexual, and The Staircase is also strong on the homophobic, dirt-digging aspects of the case.
I’m less taken with the recurring focus on the making of the original series. (Its director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, co-executive produces, and is portrayed by Vincent Vermignon.) While the documentary had a huge impact, here it’s all rather overplayed and self-indulgent, and you end up thinking: get over yourself. Juliette Binoche, as a TV editor whose involvement grows personal, is so painfully miscast that she becomes borderline unwatchable. Collette does her considerable best with a stunted role, while Firth is almost too good as the twitchy, self-absorbed, often dislikable suspect. Maybe like me, you’ll end up wriggling in your seat, feeling intensely irritated by Michael Peterson all over again.
Over on BritBox, an eight-episode, Irish-set gem twinkles in the dramedy gloaming. Created and written by Nancy Harris (responsible for the Bafta-nominated Dates), directed by Paddy Breathnach, The Dry stars Roisin Gallagher (The Fall) as artist Shiv, who returns to her family in Ireland to continue getting over her alcohol addiction. “I’m 35 and I’m not where I thought I would be,” she laments.
At first glance it feels like someone put thematic tracing paper over Aisling Bea’s This Way Up – addiction, a squabbling sister (Siobhán Cullen) – but The Dry makes its own way. Shiv tries to own her mess, but she’s not above sulking when people remind her of it. Ciarán Hinds and Pom Boyd are wryly magnificent as her parents. Adam Richardson, as Shiv’s brother, delivers the funniest, angriest gay character since It’s a Sin. Moe Dunford plays a rascally ex, still causing Shiv problems: “Give me a shout when you’re back on the sauce.” Full of wit and bite, The Dry is about addiction and the spectre of relapse, but it’s also about hope, despair and the dead weight of family history. It’s well worth a look.
For Oscar Wilde aficionados, there is BBC Four’s one-man play Prisoner C33. Written by Stuart Paterson, directed by Trevor Nunn, it stars Toby Stephens as a kind of dualistic Bogof of Wildes: the broken convict, imprisoned for homosexuality in Reading prison, and his former celebrated self, who appears as an apparition to comfort, goad and inspire him.
The horror of the cell conditions is briskly established with an overflowing pail of Wilde’s bodily effluence (survivors of festival portable toilets may find this scene triggering). From there, the two Wildes meditate together on sexuality, persecution, memories, regret, human nature, , with Wilde ultimately discarding “Prisoner C33” to reconnect with his true self.
At times his famous epigrams and themes feel rather crowbarred in, but overall Stephens is brilliant: impassioned and affecting. Wilde died just three years after his release from Reading, and Prisoner C33 works almost as a queer reworking of A Christmas Carol: a visitation heralding a vital lesson, but this time for all society.
What else I’m watching
The Terror: Infamy
This is the second outing for the US quasi-supernatural anthology series. The first, starring Jared Harris as a doomed sea captain, evolved into a cult classic. This series focuses on Japanese Americans detained in POW camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Circle USA
If it’s possible to be accidentally dystopian, then that’s what The Circle is: a reality series mimicking all your social media nightmares (emojis, catfish, cancellations). In this US-based version, Spice Girls Mel B and Emma Bunton appear in disguise.
Imagine… 2022: Jacob Collier: In the Room Where It Happens
Alan Yentob profiles the London-born, twentysomething, multi-genre musician-producer who won Grammy awards for his first four albums, outdoing the Beatles. Homage is paid to the fusion wunderkind by the likes of Quincy Jones and Chris Martin.