Shane Meadows’s This Is England ’90 began with an episode in which nothing happened, amiably, and ended last week with one in which everything happened, upsettingly. A curious newcomer lured in by the nostalgic opening montage and Madchester soundtrack might well have felt, midway through episode three’s harrowing dinner-table conflagration, like they’d been sold a dodgy pill.
This Is England is an extraordinary project. It began in 2006 with a film set in 1983, in a generic post-industrial town somewhere north of Birmingham. On television it has evolved into something akin to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, allowing actors and viewers alike to grow old with the characters. Each instalment reflects the music and fashion of its era but little else. This isn’t the kind of drama, thankfully, where someone shouts, “Turn on the telly! Thatcher’s resigned!” It’s interested in ordinary lives.
Still, in this series you could enjoy hanging out with Lol, Woody, Shaun and the rest while itchily wondering when something was actually going to happen. Some of the long improvised scenes were as baggy as Gadget’s rave gear. The plot, when it finally arrived, was about consequences. Given that Meadows has suggested this will be the characters’ last hurrah, it’s fitting that they were forced to reckon with the past, specifically Combo’s (Stephen Graham) racist attack on Milky (Andrew Shim) in the first film and Lol’s murder of her abusive father inThis Is England ’86. Studying the faces of Graham and Shim during the two men’s heartbreaking final showdown in a cafe that felt like purgatory, you were struck by how shrewd Meadows’s casting choices were a decade ago. Struck, too, by how implausible it was that Combo, a reformed thug who moves like a wounded bear, could inhabit the same fictional universe as sitcom dolts Flip and Higgy. There was comedy and there was tragedy but Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne struggled to connect the two.
The shaky pacing was particularly unkind to Kelly, whose decline and redemption never quite clicked. Her gang rape in episode two was depicted in psychedelically gruesome detail yet never mentioned again, and who knew that it was so easy to recover from heroin addiction, single-handed, while sharing a flat with Britain’s most unappealing junkies? Chanel Cresswell did a remarkable job of turning this fractured storyline into something that felt like truth. The most winning subsidiary character was Michael Socha’s Harvey, with his blond quiff, white jeans and brusque pragmatism, cutting through dither and delay with a curt: “No, mate, I’m not having it.” They could have used Harvey in the editing suite.
It says something about the scale and depth of the This Is England saga that you could finish feeling that this series was the least coherent instalment and yet still be saddened by the thought of never seeing these characters again. Too few dramas take time to follow the rhythms of everyday life, or to acknowledge how long it takes to process a traumatic event. If a story this sprawling had a central character, it was Vicky McClure’s magnificent Lol. If it had a theme, it was the hard long-term work of friendship. If it had a credo, it was the advice that Woody gave Milky: “Forgiveness is fucking underrated, mate.”
Consistency isn’t a priority for Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof’s drama The Leftovers, which returned for a second season with new credits, a new location and new characters. Some familiar faces eventually turned up to reassure you it was in fact the same show but it was a close-run thing. The impressively bleak first season cleaved to Tom Perrotta’s novel about the grief and religious mania following the unexplained disappearance of one-tenth of the world’s population. This one strikes out on its own, opening in Jarden, Texas, the only place in America to suffer zero “departures”, via (why not?) a long, wordless, allegorical prologue set thousands of years ago. Scarred for life by viewer rage over the finale of Lost, Lindelof clearly aims to retain that show’s disorienting twists while avoiding its ultimately self-defeating mythology. The first episode, directed by Mimi Leder with shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock, was beautiful, confounding and nauseous with impending doom. Rebooted, The Leftovers is already on course to become either the boldest US drama on TV or the most maddening.