7 TV shows you might have missed in December 2022

Gary Oldman and David Tennant lead the pack in fantastic telly aired last month. Here are the TV shows you might have missed in December.

Detectorists BBC

Slow Horses Series 2 (Apple TV)

I’ve been looking forward to the return of this much-loved character-led drama for a year. It sounds dismissive to describe it as a spy story for people who don’t like spy stories. It couldn’t be further removed from James Bond’s escapades, but that’s absolutely fine.

Welcome back to spy purgatory; Slough House, a run-down office with low-stakes jobs for those who couldn’t quite cut it in the security service. Those who should be fired but aren’t worth the paperwork serve their time and punishment here. Series One planted the viewer into what passed as a typical day for the rag-tag team, engaging us despite no one knowing what was happening. Now we know a little more about them, I’m pleased to report their antics are still mired in petty revenge until suddenly, something of global importance shakes them out of their collective doldrums.

Gary Oldman Jackson Lamb Slow Horses

Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb in Slow Horses

Despite his success in series one, River Cartwright (puppyish Jack Lowden) is still atoning for his sins, a humiliating high-profile training mission that shamed the whole agency. There’s no fast-track back to your previous life, whatever they might tell you. You’ve got to serve your time under the irascible Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman, having the time of his life) and hope against hope that there’s space for you back at The Park. Just as long as you’ve not made any powerful enemies.

Writer Mick Herron says Lamb is based on Warren Clarke in Dalziel and Pascoe. I think he’s also clad in Columbo’s unwashed trench coat. Gary Oldman steals every scene, even when up against the imperious MI5 Director, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Their scenes crackle with sarcastic barbs and sensual energy.

Lamb’s slow horses are muddling along; same day, different cock up, and new characters have been demoted to join them; my favourite is steely Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards from Skins and Peaky Blinders). In what amounts to an ensemble cast, everyone’s moment to shine is a little truncated, but with eight of Herron’s novels ready and waiting to be adapted, we hope to see much more of everyone.

This Russian plot is both timely and classic. Embedded Russian spies are known as cicadas, leftovers from the Cold War. Lamb says they are still a threat and could be reactivated by the pervasive Russian state at any time. This series is his attempt to prove the cicada rumours aren’t just a myth. The story is a little more complicated than the first series, and some Russian accents should come with subtitles hardcoded, but Slow Horses remains one of the sharpest, funniest and most gasp-inducing shows of the past two years.

Also, in what I hope is a resurgence of singable TV theme tunes (Yellowjackets, Bad Sisters, Happy Valley), Mick Jagger’s jarring and freaky theme stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Litvinenko (ITVX)

Speaking of outlandish Russian plots, this is the story of real-life Russian defector Alexander ‘Sasha’ Litvinenko, famously the man who solved his own murder. He knows he’s ingested poison and will die soon, but not before telling the police his story in great detail. As a former FSB officer who refused to work and then wrote a book about state corruption, it feels like he’s known for years this is how it will end. “I am troublemaker”, he laughs a tiny, weak chuckle in his hospital bed.

Episode One looks and feels like any other ITV detective show, but the story and David Tennant’s performance are like nothing I’ve seen. His acting is so convincing he loses himself in character. The makeup is incredible as we see him deteriorate over a few days. Watching him need a Russian translator in his final hours is heartbreaking as he loses the energy to think in his adopted second language.

David Tennant Litvinenko

David Tennant as Alexander Litvinenko

This could have been a high-tension action series, with ticking clocks and fists banging on desks, “But Guv! We’re running out of time!” but this is naturalistic, letting the terrifying and fantastical story speak for itself. In 2006, before the Salisbury poisonings, Litvineko’s story – ingesting a radioactive substance at a London hotel or a sushi restaurant – was too incredible to believe. Sasha’s doctors and the police are initially sceptical, thinking he’s a crackpot. His powerful story convinces them, and of course, his swift deterioration in front of their eyes.

The tender central relationship in Sasha’s final days is not with his devoted wife, as you might expect, but with homicide Detective Brent Hyatt. Neil Maskell is perfect in this role, his doleful expression showing us his emotional investment. He’s an actor I’d like to see much more of in central roles.

Without Tennant, the second episode becomes more focused on the procedural elements of the case. Mark Bonnar shines as DS Clive Timmons; we have faith in his leadership as he keeps the lowly Brent and Dawson on the job without them having to beg. He also refocuses the police and spooks on the details of the crime before they spiral into public health panic. Despite the many political roadblocks, the team are determined to get justice for Sasha and fulfil his faith in them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton (ITVX)

Here’s something else I’ve never seen on TV before. Midway through this first episode, our feisty title character takes up the narration of her own story. Suddenly we hear her in voiceover, taking control of how we perceive her. And, played by the majestic Karla Simone-Spence, Frannie’s voice is powerful.

She’s a black woman from Jamaica now living in servitude in Georgian London who stands accused of killing her employers, the wealthy Benhams, while high on laudanum. The victims are George (referred to frequently as “a great man in society”, which here is a huge red flag) and his sexy French wife, Marguerite. Frannie’s lawyer wants her to admit manslaughter and tell her sob story to the court that she’s a drug-addicted slave inculcated in violence. She refuses, telling us directly that she’s worth more than that. Her story “won’t be another slave history sugared over with misery and despair.”

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

She may be innocent of George Benham’s murder, but she’s undoubtedly got a motive. She’s been dumped at the Benham house by George’s business partner Langton. These men are partners in a social experiment conducted in Jamaica, something they call “a study of the natural mental endowments of each race”. The subjects were Frannie and the slaves she lived with. Frannie, curious, intelligent and literary, was their star pupil. But what brutalities did she have to endure in return for this education? The hints this episode gives us are unpleasant.

“We don’t deal in savagery,” says the racist housemaid Mrs Linux as she locks Frannie in the scullery. Frannie might be in a new country, but the degradation is the same. Her chink of light is Marguerite. Frannie falls in love with her at an impromptu kitchen ball, as the lady of the house tries to find solace from her horrible husband by drinking and dancing with the servants. Frannie finds in her another intelligent woman who treats her as an equal. It seems impossible that their relationship would end in a bloodbath.

You get the sense immediately that this is a smart show, on another level, to recent period drama hits. The characters seem contradictory and multifaceted, explorations of real people. Putting black people with authentic voices in proper historical context is welcome and necessary.

The Christmas Lectures (BBC iPlayer)

I’m glad to report that this Royal Institution Christmas Lectures series is much more engaging than in recent years. Is that human vanity talking? We’re all fascinated by our fellow homo sapiens and the mysteries of their deaths. Cue Professor Dame Sue Black, a forensic science expert, to teach us the secrets of human remains. Professor Black will be familiar to audiences from true crime shows such as History Cold Case; she’s usually found in a trench near a mediaeval monastery, never far away from Professor Alice Roberts. She’s also been used by crime writer Val McDermid as inspiration.

Professor Dame Sue Black Christmas Lectures BBC

Professor Dame Sue Black on The Christmas Lectures, BBC

In past years, some of the experiments have been a bit obtuse and confused rather than clarified the topic, but whatever amusing antics the audience of school children get up to in the name of science; we’re brought back to the skeleton under the sheet at the back of the stage. Who was he? And how can we uncover his origins and the nature of his life and death just from his bones?

Professor Black is an enthusiastic presenter, delicately pitching a topic that could be seen as sinister and macabre as family-friendly viewing, showing full respect at all times to her subject. This is entertaining and informative, exactly what Michael Faraday had in mind when he began this lecture series nearly 200 years ago.

The Cleaner (BBC iPlayer)

When you see Greg Davis on TV, what do you think of it? I’ve got a theory that thanks to the mega success of TaskMaster and his tyrant persona, we forget that he made his name on TV in sitcoms (Man Down, Cuckoo, and he was a particular highlight in The Inbetweeners).

Davis is back to his roots in this adaptation of a blockbuster German TV series Der Tatortreiniger. Paul ‘Wicky’ Wickstead is a crime scene cleaning technician responsible for removing any signs of death from crime scenes. He’s quite pompous because society underappreciates him and his skills, dismissing him as just a cleaner when he’s a scientifically-minded specialist, despite being a curry and beer-loving lad outside of work.

Greg Davies The Cleaner

Greg Davies in The Cleaner

In this Christmas special, Wicky encounters a young man named Robert, who is autistic and single-minded in his desire to eat a Peach Melba ice cream, as he does every Sunday. Nothing, not even the grizzly murder of the parlour owner, will stand in his way. Each episode is a two-hander, engaging format. The first series presents us with unhinged comic characters in particular and locations, similar to Inside No 9. There’s a depth of emotion that I wasn’t expecting; they don’t shy away from complicated feelings about death despite this seeming like a silly sitcom on the surface. Wicky makes Robert’s Peach Melba badly, but Sundays will never be quite the same again. And, as difficult as it is to accept, Robert has to move on. When it comes to death, melancholy and darkness, absolutely go hand in hand with comedy.

Ghosts (BBC iPlayer)

This joyful comedy about death and the afterlife gets its third Christmas outing. The ghosts of Button House want to give Alison, the one living human who can see and hear them, a gift and settle on a self-produced pantomime which lends itself nicely to broad comedy. There are some uplifting moments as Kitty’s stage fright is cured and the uptight Captain does a turn as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.

Ghosts BBC

Ghosts, BBC

Alison’s thoughtful gifts are ready for the ghosts to enjoy on Christmas morning, as she and her husband Mike will be away for Christmas Day. Scout leader and family man Pat is led astray by sleazy Julian (delighted by his Sam Fox calendar) and can’t resist a peek. His present turns out to be a look at his old life via a VHS tape of home videos. But this memento doesn’t comfort him. A glimpse at a half-forgotten past leaves him unsettled. His family life isn’t as he remembers it. If he wasn’t a good Dad, then without that, who is he?

The Ghosts writing team (very nearly verging on national treasures thanks to Horrible Histories and Yonderland) have become experts at delicate storylines that hinge on grief and acceptance. This episode is second only to last year’s Gone Gone, which dealt with a significant loss as a beloved character was written out of the show. The joy here is that comedy always comes first, and watching the strange and unpredictable ways people deal with loss and death is funny. The jokes are fundamental, but these stories have time for sensitive and surprisingly beautiful moments that will stay with you. It’s a pleasure to be in the company of these characters again.

Detectorists (BBC iPlayer)

Speaking of which, another Christmas treat was a welcome return to the TV, where I’d like most to live. Every moment in the rolling Danebury fields feels like a treat. Time has moved on, but a metal detectorist club is for life. But the Danebury team is in trouble because developers want to buy and demolish their meeting place. The ‘Save the Scout Hall’ plot is a well-worn trope but doesn’t feel out of place here.

We relish Lance and Andy’s pleasure and hopefulness in a new claim, untouched fields with the promise of treasure hidden beneath the surface. Their all-consuming hobby rewards the patient and the curious. Maybe they’ve discovered the site of an essential mediaeval battle? Maybe they can claim a portion of the finder’s fee to keep the club going.

Detectorists BBC

Detectorists, BBC

This is a charming tale of missed chances and working out what’s important, fame or friendship. What would Andy give up for his best friend? Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones are pitch-perfect as eccentric middle-aged men testing loyalties and navigating emotions.

This is a non-Christmassy special, and that’s a relief. The Suffolk and Essex countryside are glorious in the sunshine. It warms the heart to return to their beautiful, silly, complicated world. There’s no severe strife that can’t be solved, no hurt or upset that can’t be resolved by a pint in the pub with a friend. Look, I’ve run out of synonyms for heart-warming.  It’s all on iPlayer if you fancy a bucolic English summer as a break from wintery January. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

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