HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

Friday

Ozark

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Netflix

The theme of ordinary, everyday characters getting pulled by circumstances down into a dark and violent criminal underworld, and surviving by finding a darkness within, has been a staple of noir stories and thrillers since people first started writing them. But the impact of Breaking Bad, which drove the idea further along the road than most, has been such that any new TV show coming along to dabble in the territory is bound to be judged against it.

Ozark, arriving on Netflix today, is perhaps the Breakingest-Baddest series to have come along since Walter White’s odyssey ended, but, while it won’t conquer the world in the same way, it’s enough of its own beast to escape accusations of being a mere copycat.

For one thing, although it takes a while to realise it, our protagonist, Marty Byrde, a successful financial advisor from the pleasant, dull suburbs of Chicago, isn’t quite as squeaky-clean as he first seems. Played by Jason Bateman, Marty seems in a rut as the series begins. Neither as slick-talking nor ambitious as his oily business partner, his mind is wandering far from his job, consumed by unspoken worries over his marriage to wife Wendy (the ever-excellent Laura Linney), which is stagnating toward crisis.

As this stuff gets laid out, the show is watchable, if hardly compelling, but then comes a surprise: it turns out that one of the things Marty does in the job that bores him so much is launder money for Del (Esai Morales), the head of one of Mexico’s biggest drug cartels. This sideline suddenly sideswipes the plot, sending things careening off in unpredictable directions. Following an unhappy visit from Del, a meeting that ends with bullets and barrels of acid, Marty is forced to up sticks from Chicago, to start a new life in the picturesque boondocks of The Lake Of The Ozarks, a holiday spot in rural Missouri.

With a cash-rich economy driven by the tourist trade, and a lot of small, struggling shoreline businesses in need of investment, this backwater is deemed an untapped goldmine for the money-laundering business. Or, at least, this is what Marty must prove to Del, as he has eight million dirty drug dollars stuffed in his luggage, and a very tight deadline in which to make them all clean – or else watch his wife and their two disgruntled teenage children get executed. But the locals prove smarter than he suspected; and, meanwhile, there’s an FBI man on his trail.

Bateman is best known for comedy, in particular his deadpan frustration on Arrested Development, and it’s his often unreadable, deceptively mild performance that keeps Ozark on its toes. While Marty isn’t quite the straight accountant he originally seems, neither is he a criminal, at first – but, as he grows more desperate, getting mixed up with dingy hooligans and drug runners, trying to protect his mountain of cash while also trying to make it disappear, his business acumen coolly kicks in, working callously toward some very dangerous ends.

Bateman also directs half of the 10 episodes, with a tense, slow-then-faster-burning pace, and a feel for sultry local atmospheres, both meteorological and emotional. Add in an excellent cast (including Peter Mullan; a striking performance by The Americans’ Julia Garner as a teenage girl who’s the smartest in her backwoods outlaw brood; and a wonderful performance by Harris Yulin as a cantankerous old local with whom the Byrdes wind up sharing a house), and it could easily be your next binge.

Saturday

Ill Behaviour

BBC Three

Peep Show fans might want to head online to BBC Three for this new series from co-creator, Sam Bain. A black comedy, the set up is a little dark: Charlie (Tom Riley), has just been diagnosed with cancer. The good news is that the prognosis is favourable, as he is young and of a type that responds well to chemotherapy. But it’s complicated: Charlie is a New Ager, firmly sceptical of drugs and modern medicine, and so decides to refuse treatment, to instead try some alternative therapy. His oldest pal from school, Joel (Chris Geere), has just reconnected with him, and is horrified to learn he’s taking this approach, reckoning he’s signing his own suicide note. As it happens, Joel has just come into a lot of money, and hatches a plan: with the help of another pal, Tess (Jessica Regan) and an alcoholic oncologist, Nadia (Lizzy Caplan), he’ll kidnap Charlie, and keep him prisoner in an isolated cottage, administering black-market chemo drugs … All three episodes are available from today.

Sunday

Poldark

9pm, BBC One

Following last week’s hectic muskets-at-the-ready adventure (seven sturdy men against the whole of Revolutionary France; what could possibly go wrong?), things calm down slightly in Poldarkland this week. Much of the episode, in fact, revolves around the simple pleasure of toads, and the simple delight they bring to Demelza’s, eh, charmingly simple brother, Drake. But will his charming and hilarious wheeze to keep stocking Evil George Warleggan’s pond with fresh amphibians and then giggling lead to romantic tragedy and disaster? Because Evil George doesn’t like toads in his pond. He doesn’t like toads in his pond at all. And, as Ross Poldark knows full well, he likes them in his pants even less. Meanwhile, although physically rescued from imprisonment in that hellish Gallic dungeon, Noble Dr Dwight Enys is still trapped mentally, guilty, depressed, and suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress that even Caroline’s tempting offer of almond biscuits fails to lift. Elsewhere, be warned, there come quite graphic scenes of toe sucking. But not toad sucking.

Monday

Game Of Thrones

9pm, Sky Atlantic

Stout of heart, bleary of eye and dragony of breath, the Westeros hardcore will have been up at 2am this morning to watch as Sky Atlantic broadcast the first episode of this penultimate series simultaneously with its American premiere. For the rest of us, though, Season 7 begins at this far more civilised time tonight. Aside from a couple of excitingly moody-broody trailers, no preview material was available, but we know a few of things: Jim Broadbent is going to show up as a wise old maester; it’s going to go fast, with only seven episodes this run; and there will be blood. Last time we saw the happy gang, the factions were slowly getting into position for the final epic conflict. Cersei has seized the Iron Throne down south; Jon Snow has been declared king up north; Daenerys is sailing in from the east; and the icy army of the dead is on the rampage. All this, and Iain Glen slowly turning to stone. Winter has arrived. The great war is here. Fetch me the almond biscuits.

Tuesday

Bull

9pm, 5USA

Calling a TV series “Bull” is inviting trouble, and there is nothing in the pilot episode of this clunky, daft, self-satisfied and slightly creepy new American import to make you think it’s badly named. Loosely based on the early career of co-creator Phil McGraw (aka Oprah’s Dr Phil), but updated to the present so they can get over-excited about technology and social media, it follows the adventures of Dr Jason Bull (NCIS’s Michael Weatherly). A cunning psychology expert, rather than using his talents to heal mankind, he has founded Trial Analysis Corporation, a firm that offers wealthy lawyers pricey advice on selecting jury members, and then works out how to subtly manipulate them in court: by psychologically profiling them (Bull can think his way inside people’s heads just by frowning slightly) and collating data from their various online activities, to play on their prejudices and feelings. The show doesn’t seem to care how sinister this is. But the big problem is that, as drama, it’s just another lumpy clone in the sarcastic-genius-leads-a-maverick-team genre exemplified by House.

Wednesday

The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat

8pm, BBC Two

In the latest in the wave of sort-of documentaries in which people dress up and pretend to go back in time, four modern confectioners dress up and pretend to go back to Tudor times, creating sugary dishes of a kind not quite tasted for hundreds of years. Their efforts are overseen by food historian Dr Annie Gray and social historian Emma Dabiri, who explain the place sugar played in 16th century Britain. Back then, the white stuff was so valuable it was kept under lock and key, and sweets were strictly the preserve of the elite – and only made possible through the slave trade, which the taste for sugar further fuelled. A guilty pleasure, indeed. Using original recipes, ingredients and equipment, the four confectioners (chocolatiers Diana Short and Paul A Young, sweet consultant Andy Baxendale, and wedding cake designer Cynthia Stroud) work at creating a sumptuous banquet including candied roses, sugar plates and goblets, elaborately decorated marzipan and a spectacular model banqueting house made entirely of sugar. Mind your teeth.

Thursday

The Mash Report

BBC Two

Now in its 10th year online, The Daily Mash is the UK’s favourite satire website, offering constant parodies of whatever’s happening in the news, even though, increasingly, the real stuff is much funnier, scarier, and harder to believe. It’s a measure of how terrified of, and how desperately it wants to be cool friends with, the internet the BBC remains that it has been trying to adapt a TV series from it for a couple of years now, rather than, for example, just giving some money to some young people with ideas to make an actual new TV satire of their own – you know, it worked out pretty well when The Day Today team did it. As it’s being filmed close to transmission to stay all topical, no preview material was available for the show, which is fronted by comedian Nish Kumar. But we are promised that, “In front of a live studio audience, Nish will analyse the week’s news stories, brilliantly lampooning everything from hard news to showbiz and zeitgeist cultural phenomena.” That’s the brilliant, zeitgeisty plan, anyway.

LAST WEEK ...

Until recently, the summer months were TV’s fallow period, when the few new programmes were largely duds the channels were trying to slip out while no-one was looking. Because there’s so much more TV around now, though, the season is no longer quite as lifeless as it was traditionally. All the same, things still tend to slow down and, if you’re not keen on the hours of sport and music festivals that flood the schedules, it can be even harder than usual to find something actually worth watching.

So it is that, this time every year, I head off on a virtual safari into the uncharted reaches of the BBC’s iPlayer, to see if any new exotic species from the archives have been let loose and are hiding in the foliage. Last week, I stumbled over one of the greatest recent additions: Borrowed Pasture.

A documentary made by the BBC’s Welsh Film Unit in 1961, the subject is two Polish men in late middle age, Mr Bulaj and Mr Okolowicz, who have taken root in Wales. Ex-soldiers, after fighting in the Second World War they refused to return to a Poland falling under the iron control of Stalin’s USSR, and so remained in the UK, exiles severed from their families, and missing them more with every passing day.

They settled in a wild place, out on a small, derelict farm in Penygaer, Carmarthenshire, which had been untenanted for 20 years before they took it on, left rotting and going to wilderness. The programme catches up with them 12 years into their seclusion, as they struggle to work the stubborn land and raise a small dairy herd, despite the fact neither had been a farmer before.

The film captures the desolation of the place, the effort of the days, the ingenuity and stoicism of the two men, and the great, sad loneliness of the whole planet around them, a sense reflected in and magnified by the bare landscapes. It’s important to add it also has humour, and is as visually beautiful a 30 minutes as you are likely to see on TV anywhere.

Shot in sharp, vibrating black and white, Borrowed Pasture is redolent of a lost period, yet feels more modern than most TV documentaries made today. Without being “arty,” it has a style and lyricism that lies closer to cinema than television, but lies even closer to photography and poetry. In fact, its director, John Ormond, would later become better known as a poet, and he composes his film with exactly that kind of care, building rhythm in editing, building a whole world by focusing on the smallest, intimate details, life in isolated fractions. It doesn’t hurt that, to read his script, Ormond enlisted Richard Burton, who speaks every word like he means it, in that voice that is like having clean whisky, smoke and honey poured onto your soul. Take half an hour: it’s a holiday for eyes, ears and brain.