The sad decline of my one-time favourites

25 June 2022

9:00 AM

25 June 2022

9:00 AM

The Last Kingdom


The Boys

Amazon Prime

Secret State


I don’t think it’s my imagination: it really is getting harder and harder to find anything worth watching on TV. But then, why should it be otherwise? Entropy has afflicted every aspect of our culture from holiday flights to the supply chain to the efficacy and integrity of our political and legal system to the quality of pop singles, so we should hardly be surprised if the quality of material on the gogglebox has taken a dive too.

One metric of this is the decline in quality of long-running TV series. Game of Thrones was not the exception but the rule. Even the series I sometimes consider to be the best thing ever on TV – Sky’s Gomorrah – became simply unwatchable by its fifth and final season. This was also pretty much true of another old favourite of mind, The Last Kingdom.

Somehow – gritting my teeth and getting the Fawn to bind me to the armchair and pin my eyelids open with needles helped – I managed to make it through to the very final episode on Netflix. The last 20 minutes reminded me of that much-mocked coda to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where every last loose plot end is bound with pink ribbon and we’re bashed over the head with the message that everyone lives happily ever after.

Obviously, I understand why they did it: fans have been following the adventures of Uhtred, son of Uhtred (implausibly but charmingly played by Alexander Dreymon, a German model who never did quite master the English accent), since 2017; they’ve been driven berserk by the endlessly repeated phrase ‘Destiny is all’; they’re familiar with all manner of Anglo-Saxon period detail, like how vitally important it is to die with a sword in your hand lest you be denied entry to the mead hall in Valhalla. So naturally, they wanted a proper pay-off.

But did it really have to be quite so cheesy – Uhtred giving his two surviving kids a big hug and cosying up to his former nemesis, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth); a montage featuring flashbacks of all his big romantic moments? My suspicion is that at some stage after its move from the BBC to Netflix, the production got hijacked by people who didn’t much like or respect Bernard Cornwell’s gripping historical novels and handed over the scripts to a bunch of barely literate girls who saw the whole thing as a kind of late 9th/early 10th-century Bridgerton.

Political intrigue and historical authenticity, not to mention decent acting, gave way to romantic slush, unconvincing dialogue which could never make up its mind whether it wanted to be cod-Shakespearean or yoof-friendly, and pacing so rushed (at least two books crammed into every season) that you could scarcely make head or tail of who was who or what was what. If it hadn’t been for the set-piece battle scenes I would have given up long ago.

My friend Toby Young has been waxing lyrical about Season 3 of The Boys, particularly the jaw-droppingly sick and tasteless opening scene. A superhero called Termite, who has the power to shrink himself to micro size, climbs inside his boyfriend’s willy in order to stimulate him from within. Unfortunately, just before, he has snorted too much cocaine and sneezes at the wrong moment, causing him to grow back to normal size while in situ, with predictably messy consequences.

There’s a lot of this in The Boys(based on Garth Ennis’s dark graphic-novel series): people are forever exploding suddenly and unexpectedly, almost to the point where it begins to lose its shock value. While I totally respect the wit, puerile inventiveness and gross-out naughtiness, I’m not convinced that it’s as transgressive as it thinks it is. I don’t think it critiques crass, dumbed-down, perverted modern culture so much as it celebrates and endorses it. You finish each episode with a nasty taste in your mouth, not helped by the fact that so many of the characters – the repellant Homelander especially, but even quite a few of the supposed good guys such as the perma-irritating Butcher (Karl Urban) with his irksome English accent almost as unconvincing as Alexander Dreymon’s – are so ghastly you wish they’d all self-explode and put us out of our misery.

I’d initially intended to review Secret State (STV), a rather enjoyable conspiracy thriller I found in the featured catch-up TV on my Sky box. With its amazing old-school cast (Gabriel Byrne, Charles Dance, Gina McKee) and a labyrinthine plotline (accidental PM with hopelessly old-fashioned morals and sense of duty bravely takes on the sinister forces of murderous US corporatism), I was going to praise it as the kind of honest, old-fashioned entertainment they don’t make any more. Turns out they still don’t: heaven knows why it was advertised as something new; it was made in 2012. Oh well.

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