BOX OF SUMMER FUN
At first glance the cupboard looks bare, but there are some great shows in store
Ican’t recall a time when it seemed there was so little to watch on free-to-air TV, as we fall further into the summer break and with ratings not due to start until February. Only last week this column was talking of the way those of us who look for surprise and originality in our viewing have never had so much to choose from, and that’s still the case if you subscribe to Foxtel and Netflix and Stan.
The streamers’ libraries are enormous and Netflix in particular is now catering to a huge audience, having recently announced an unexpected jump in subscribers, a constituency that is young and upscale and desperate for original content.
But even the relatively new streamers are not offering much that’s new through the summer, although Stan exclusively brings us the fourth season of three feature-length episodes of Sherlock, starring the now truly famous Benedict Cumberbatch as Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective. The first episode becomes available on January 2, the same day it lands in Britain.
The first film, The Six Thatchers (based on Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons), finds Holmes not only waiting to see how his arch-nemesis Moriarty will make a posthumous move against him, but determined to discover why someone is destroying images of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Stan also premieres the critically well-received breakout original drama Underground on January 24, with all episodes available on demand. It’s the epic series about slavery and escape created by Heroes writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and executive-produced by musician John Legend.
While criticised in some quarters for using slavery as a backdrop for a story about adventure and intrigue, it has been lauded for using humour and contemporary songs to bring to light a black empowerment story glossed over in the great, largely white, narrative of American history.
So there are several options for new shows on the two streamers but the free-to-air networks are dominated by Ten’s thrillingly brutal Big Bash cricket series, which is already under way, and the traditional tennis coverage on Seven, which this summer will offer a fully integrated version across broadcast television, online and mobile. It seems every tennis match in the country will be seen somewhere on Seven; it’s as if the network wants tennis to become an extension of ourselves, to change how we think, behave and even dream. Oh well.
SBS is relatively quiet across the summer but is premiering the second season of the mercurial Shaun Micallef’s Stairway to Heaven (Wednesday, January 18, 8.30pm), in which the clever comic, like so many comedians before him, not content to make us happy, is still on a quest to find the meaning of life. TV’s great debunker remains envious of those with “unshakable faith”, and journeys across the globe, immersing himself in some of the world’s most esoteric religions and beliefs. Why do so many comedians dream of becoming Hamlet?
For diehard fans, Michael Hirst’s international hit Vikings (Wednesday, January 11, 8.30pm) returns to SBS with the final episodes of season four, again apparently inspired by real-life events such as Bjorn Ironside sailing through the Mediterranean and Ivar the Boneless becoming the most feared warrior of all time. Educational and entertaining, this one.
The ABC seems quieter than it has been for some summers but look out for the ubiquitous Stephen Fry in Stephen Fry in Central America (Tuesday, January 10, 8.30pm), a newish series in which he travels on an old school bus through Mexico and the entire Central American isthmus to the Panamanian border with South America. Yes, it’s another of those celebrity travelogues, a genre so drolly exploited by Michael Palin, but it looks terrific and is imbued with Fry’s witty cheekiness and inquisitiveness.
Also returning is the similarly omnipresent Kevin McCloud with a series of four Grand Design specials, beginning on Sunday, January 8, at 8.30pm, in which he draws on 15 years of Grand Designs — and the astonishing and often imprudent homes he has filmed in this time — to look at the challenges of self-building in the city, wilderness, suburbia and countryside.
There’s an ABC Boxing Day treat for Whoverians with the Doctor Who Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, written by Stephen Moffat. It sees the Doctor team up with an investigative journalist and a superhero to save New York from a deadly alien threat.
And on the same day on iView you can catch Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks, an animated series based on one of the most celebrated Doctor Who adventures. The original film was destroyed, and the new show is ingeniously based on original audio recordings, surviving photographs and film clips.
Foxtel is again where the summer action is this year, the network determined to outfox the circling streamers with overwhelming original content. The Walking Dead returns for the final eight episodes of season seven on Monday, February 13, at 1.30pm and prime time at 7.30pm on FX, express from the US. You’ll be watching with more than 200 million viewers in over 200 countries, and there seems little doubt Sheriff Rick and the now reassembled surviving characters are about to embark on a bigger battle than anything they’ve experienced since the dead started wandering.
If you need a break from zombie mayhem there’s yet more McCloud, who presents the second season of Lifestyle’s Grand Designs: House of the Year (Thursday, January 26, 8.30pm) in which, together with the Royal Institute of British Architects and a selection of guest reporters, he looks for the best new home in Britain.
The Job Interview (Lifestyle, Monday, January 30, 8.30pm) also looks interesting, a reality series in which real jobs are matched with people desperate to fill them, the recruitment process compressed into one intense day.
But the big Lifestyle series is undoubtedly the seventh season of the always happy Great British Bake Off (Tuesday, January 17, 8.30pm), the show that more than almost any other represents a safe haven in a hostile world, now seen in more than 200 countries, many of which have their own versions.
The popular Coast Australia (Lifestyle, Monday, January 9, 7.30pm) returns too, with British archeologist Neil Oliver showcasing different strips of our coastline and gathering stories about their history.
Dear old Rick Stein is back on the same night in Rick Stein’s Long Weekends (Lifestyle Food, Monday, January 9, 8.30pm), mooching around Bordeaux, Berlin, Reykjavik, Bologna and Vienna on another of his culinary reveries, throwing in the odd literary quote as he checks out the bars and cafes.
There’s more premium original content on Vikings, Underground, Stairway to Heaven;
Stephen Fry in Central America Foxtel’s BBC Worldwide channels, all of which were given a competitive facelift earlier this year. BBC Knowledge premieres Saving Lives at Sea (Sunday, January 1, 7.30pm), an observational series that follows the decent and generous volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution — there are hundreds of crews across Britain — who risk their lives to save others when they shout for assistance.
In Land of the Midnight Sun (Wednesday, January 11, 8.30pm), Alexander Armstrong embarks on an epic adventure into the Arctic winter for a 12,000km journey halfway around the planet, a challenge that we’re told unfolds in the spirit of the ultimate Arctic adventurers.
BBC First has the two top dramas of the summer to provide several hours at least of absorbed viewing.
Close to the Enemy (Sunday, January 15, 8.30pm), by multi-award-winning writer and director Stephen Poliakoff (Dancing on the Edge), is a complex espionage thriller set in a bombdamaged London hotel in the aftermath of World War II. A secretive unit has been established with a mission to sweep up German scientists and engineers and their knowledge before competing powers (especially the Soviet Union) can get them.
And Ordinary Lies (Saturday, January 21, 8.30pm) is a new six-part anthology drama (the second in a critically successful and popular series) from award-winning writer Daniel Brocklehurst ( The Driver, Accused), centred on the call centre and warehouse of a sports sales company in Wales, each episode delving into one of the lies behind the lives of the characters.
Suddenly, having started this survey with a little resignation and sadness, I’m beginning to get quite excited. Happy summer viewing to all First Watchers.
Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok in
top; Alano Miller, Aldis Hodge and Theodus Crane in far left; Shaun Micallef’s below,