This month on US TV: Timothy Olyphant dispenses old-school justice; Jerry Seinfeld’s The Marriage Ref is an A-list misfire; and The Pacific is great … if you love war dramas
Two things that should have happened a long time ago happen on new show Justified. First thing: a decent adaptation of Elmore Leonard source material which, Out Of Sight aside, has never happened. Second thing: a credible starring role for Timothy Olyphant. He brought the glower and the vengeance to Deadwood but, unfortunately, close proximity to Ian McShane tended to render him invisible. Now, he’s front and centre in Justified, playing Leonard’s deputy marshal Raylan Givens who wears a big hat and speaks with a quiet voice when he’s informing someone he’s about to shoot them.
Pilot episodes are deceptive and treacherous. Money, time and care are poured into them. The first episode of Justified is especially worrying because it’s one long dose of awesome. It kicks off in Miami with an intimate and typically low-key stand-off between Givens and a local gun-runner. It ends up with the bad guy spurting blood from various holes. The Deputy Marshall, whose signature defence of his old west approach to police work is “I was justified in shooting”, is dispatched back to his home town of Lexington, Kentucky. This former mining community is now crawling with crystal meth-addicted rednecks, patriots with armouries in their basements, conspiracy nuts and – in the first episode – a former acquaintance of Givens who now heads up a neo-Nazi group. Watching Olyphant with his big hat and his quiet manner out-gun, out-quip and generally manhandle the local thug population is a pleasure. He doesn’t adopt the “look-what-a-cool-dude-I-am” demeanour which grievously blighted previous Leonard adaptations, naming no names (John Travolta in Get Shorty. John Travolta in Be Cool). My only qualm? The pilot not only has the expected attention to detail but it’s also lifted entirely from the Leonard novella Fire In The Hole. Will my high expectations collapse when the show’s writers have to dredge up original material? Hope not, but I’m sticking around to find out.
Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Silverman, Jason Alexander, Madonna: some pretty funny names there. Plus Madonna. You might imagine a project attracting that magnitude of talent would be worth your while. And you’d be right. For the wrong reasons. Here’s what happened: Jerry Seinfeld and his lovely wife were having a fight. Nothing major. No bulging veins or wild accusations, just a little domestic disagreement. Except there was a third person present. A hugely embarrassed third person who wanted to skulk away. “Not so fast!” screeched Mrs Seinfeld. She went on to demand the unlucky guest play the role of adjudicator, deciding who was in the right. After the decision had gone in her favour, Mrs S proclaimed “This is a show!” A hugely expensive, diamond-studded lightbulb went off over Seinfeld’s head: a show where an independent party sorts out marital disputes? GOLD! He took it to a producer who flipped out over it. They took it to the NBC network who bought it in less time than it’s taken to write this paragraph. Seinfeld named it The Marriage Ref and recruited one of his old standup buddies, an inoffensive clown called Tom Papa, to fulfil the titular role.
Now, if ITV bought The Marriage Ref – and they might well do – they’d run it on a Saturday night, probably with Vernon Kay hosting. They’d more than likely recruit Les Dennis-level celebs to fill out the panel charged with the duty of watching clips of bickering couples and picking a winner. It would be a cheap, tawdry show which no one involved would regard with pride. And it would be approximately 800 times better than the one currently airing on NBC. If Jerry Seinfeld had simply stopped being funny, his excited participation in a panel show where he watches video clips of couples clumsily re-enacting fights about dead pets and garish furniture would be easy to understand. But he is still funny. He was great in the Curb Your Enthusiasm Seinfeld reunion episodes. And that’s what makes The Marriage Ref stupefying and impossible to watch. You can’t pay attention to the couples. You don’t care about their gripes. You certainly have no interest in the verdict of Tom Papa. The only thing on your mind is: Jerry Seinfeld thinks this is funny? Which leads to: Ricky Gervais think this is funny? Larry David? Tina Fey? Madonna? Mrs Seinfeld was not wrong. The Marriage Ref is a good idea for a TV show. Just not one that involves talented people.
Here is a public service announcement: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who previously partnered with HBO to great and profound effect in the second world war drama Band Of Brothers have reunited to present The Pacific. This $250m-budgeted 10-parter (showing next week on Sky Movies) follows a band of marines to Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and beyond. There, that’s my job done. I admire the commitment on the part of Hanks, Spielberg and HBO. I hope they have further series planned. I appreciate the way The Pacific focuses on a trio of marines rather than Band Of Brothers’ teeming hundreds. I’m blown away by the scope and the savagery of the battle sequences (the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are the model for the entire 10 hours). It fully deserves all the praise it’s already receiving and all the awards that are heading its way. But … It’s. Just. Not. My. Thing. There, I said it.