Sunday, November 29, 2020
Nov. 29, 2020

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British and Aussie imports that are new to American TV

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David Morrissey plays a Roman general come to conquer the Celts in the Epix series "Britannia." (Sky UK Ltd.)
David Morrissey plays a Roman general come to conquer the Celts in the Epix series "Britannia." (Sky UK Ltd.) Photo Gallery

The relationship of American viewers to British television is a cultural conversation running back at least to the 1960s, when “The Avengers” and “Secret Agent” and its quasi-sequel “The Prisoner” made it onto broadcast television, and “Elizabeth R,” “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Upstairs Downstairs” made it onto PBS.

Many are drawn to this content. The United Kingdom is a foreign land, exotic yet familiar, whose language we for the most part speak. England! Land of Robin Hood and Mary Poppins, of the kings and queens and Crowleys, whose aristocratic folderol we left behind and yet cannot quite give up. “The Crown,” “Victoria” — we sign on with almost unbecoming ardor.

We are seeing a lot more such imports now, across all platforms, not just from the U.K. but from its stepchildren, rough and tumble Australia and mild-mannered Canada. (That’s not even counting subscription services like AcornTV and BritBox, whose main business it is to bring those shows over.)

The shows reviewed below are all new to American television this month. All are recommended.

Fans of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, erstwhile comperes on “The Great British Baking Show” and a team for nearly three decades, will find them put to surprising good use as the stars of Peacock’s “Hitmen,” in which they play lifelong friends who work as hired killers. How they arrived at this profession, which they approach with something short of relish, is never discussed nor is it much the point. They are just there, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, and like them, one (Perkins) is a tortured thinker and the other (Giedroyc) a sweet idiot. Unlike Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO, it is not really a character study it is more “Carry On Killing,” a jokey romp which is not to say it is without psychology or character development. There is a bit of an arc through the episodic variations on a theme, and a surprising lot of tense action for a sitcom and a pair better known for ambling about a tent full of amateur bakers, stealing tastes of cakes and biscuits.

In “Frayed,” airing on HBO Max, fabulously wealthy Samantha Cooper (creator Sarah Kendall) learns that her late husband, deceased under unsavory circumstances, has left her destitute. Dragging two confused teenagers, from whom she has concealed her actual past, she returns reluctantly to the industrial harbor town north of Sydney she left in a hurry 20 years earlier, moving in again with her properly wary mother (a terrific Kerry Armstrong) and angry brother (Ben Mingay) and encountering various old friends not unhappy to see her laid low. Set in the late 1980s allowing for amusing hair and fashion and recurring “Dynasty” references it’s a different sort of series than the similarly premised “Schitt’s Creek,” less whimsical or warm; the comedy rides on a bed of sorrow. (Each family member gets a substantial storyline.) Still, as in “Schitt’s Creek,” the viewer suspects that this is the best thing that could have happened to them, and is in no rush to see their fortunes, as measured by money, restored.

“Dead Pixels,” which was set to premiere Tuesday on the CW, is a sharp comedy about gamers that will recall to any who know it Felicia Day’s pioneering web series “The Guild,” which ran on various platforms from 2007 to 2013, though it is more acerbic and expensive-looking. (It’s the youth entry among these shows, I suppose.) Here, as there, a group of players (Alexa Davies, Will Merrick, Sargon Yelda) have thrown in together to gain advantage in a multiplayer online role-playing game, stealing time from work and families to live in a virtual world ironically as laborious as the real one; David Mumeni is the good-looking lummox who wanders into Davies’ office and into their group and who doesn’t understand that the point is not to have fun but to gain imaginary status in an imaginary world. The casting of Vince Vaughn in the film version of the game they play is a cause for despair. (“First they came for the remake of ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ and I said nothing; then they came for the remake of ‘Fantastic Four,’ again, and I said nothing.”) It has been much bleeped to satisfy American broadcast standards and practices.

Set in AD 43 during the first successful Roman invasion of Britain (Julius Caesar had been a century before, but didn’t stick around), Epix’s “Britannia” premiered in the U.K. in 2017. It’s a big, noisy, bloody, little-bit sexy drama of antiquity, with an underplaying David Morrissey every inch an ancient Roman general, Zoe Wanamaker a fierce Celtic queen and an unrecognizable Mackenzie Crook as a Druid priest doing what Druids do. But with real results. Although it briefly seems we’re in for a well-integrated history lesson, it quickly becomes clear that, to quote the poet, we are in “days of old when magic ruled the air.” (Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the series’ theme song, to give you some idea of the creative ballpark.) “Game of Thrones” will come to mind, and there are some similar plot points, but “Game of Thrones” hit so many plot points it would be work to avoid them. Award-winning playwright Jez Butterworth he also co-wrote “Ford v Ferrari” co-created the series, with vivid characters, scenes that play well and the dialogue, which has a modern tang, pleasant on the ear and often funny (“My burning need for vengeance keeps me toasty”).

The premise of Peacock’s Australian import “Five Bedrooms” five people, not all of whom know one another, buy a house together is the sort of thing multi-camera sitcoms are built on; it’s “Friends” without the intervening hallway. It’s fundamentally a comedy, but as a story of people who need people it’s more in tune with, if not as nakedly sentimental as, NBC’s “This Is Us.” Each character gets a turn at narrating; each seems superficially cut to type posh lawyer lady; semi-closeted gay doctor; hunky construction worker; slightly creepy guy separated, but not emotionally, from his wife; lovelorn girl on whose shoulder he cries but will prove more dimensional. Each is keeping a secret, and all are running from or toward the wrong thing, or running from the right thing, which gives them room for growth, and room to stumble. This is not quite my cup of tea, but I quickly became invested in their several fates. (It helps perhaps that, the actors being unfamiliar, the characters felt that much more actual.)

Written by, starring and partially directed by O-T Fagbenle (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), “Maxxx,” now streaming on Hulu, energetically traces the falls and rises of a former boy band singer looking to get back on top; he’s in the dog-paddling stage of his career, just staying afloat, although his self-image has not adjusted to his circumstances. “I thought you were dead,” says his old label head Don Wild (Christopher Meloni, happy to look awful). “I saw them dragging you out of the bottom of my swimming pool.” I’ve been working on the DL,” Maxxx replies, “because real Gs work in silence, like lasagna think about it.” Maxxx’s profile having risen slightly after interrupting a funeral oration Kanye West-style, Wild assigns nerdy music industry hopeful Tamzin (Pippa Bennett-Warner) to manage him; she is as reasonable as he is not.

The series hurtles down some well-worn paths through show-business stories art versus commerce and all but originally framed by Maxxx’s now pathetic, now something-almost-like-charming character; the series holds out the possibility of change, even as it acknowledges the limits. It’s a carrot and stick approach that “Maxxx” manages quite well, though sometimes they just hit you with the stick. (Come to think of it, there is hitting with sticks in a few of these series.)

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