For 25 minutes last Thursday, it seemed a new thriller called Hunted might be free of 9pm-BBC1 drama cliché. The first episode’s bold and exciting first half gave us the back story of superspy-for-hire Sam (Melissa George), almost without dialogue. We saw Sam in Tangier, using cold cunning and brutal violence to spring a captive out of a torture-house.
She arranged to meet a colleague with whom she was expecting a child, only to get to the rendez-vous and be ambushed. A bullet to the womb didn’t stop her killing her attackers, but did put her out of the spy game. A bewitchingly unusual sequence followed in which Sam, holed up and grieving alone in the Highlands, trained herself back to fighting shape, testing her fitness by holding her breath in the bath day after day, all the time checking the newspapers for coded messages that were indeed there.
Everything was visual, immediate, Bourne-ish, intriguing – and as anyone who saw her in the first season of In Treatment knows, Melissa George can really act. But when Sam finally returned to work in London, the weekly format kicked in and a deadening blanket of familiarity came down. Suddenly she was in a swish office full of bantering misfits, whose new assignment was dished out via a Quantum of Solace giant tabletop iPad: save (or sabotage, I forget, it doesn’t matter) a billion-pound Pakistani utility project. Someone talked about finding “the agenda behind the agenda”, making us long for the time when nobody had any lines.
Several yawnsome implausibles later, Sam was embedded in the mansion of a dodgy businessman, posing as his grandson’s tutor but really rigging the place with surveillance equipment. In episode two this week, Sam’s colleague was captured by goons and tortured in the house’s secret basement. Sam had to beat the impregnable security system and kill him before he talked.
Hunted is the new show by the producers of Spooks, and is similar on the surface: a crew of troubled high-achievers take on the world’s scariest nutters, armed with incredible luck and fanciful technology. But they’re mercenaries working for themselves, not the government.
In Spooks, the spies risked their safety to stop London being nuked, say, or 20 world leaders dying in a mass garotting. Things were at stake, and the psyches of people doing an insanely dangerous job for their country created great characters. Spooks had nous, too – Sir Harry and his underlings routinely saw through geopolitical bluffs and cover-ups that the real BBC News would dutifully report as credible.
Hunted cares little about how or why. It’s a bunch of people we don’t know or care about, doing it for the cash. Essentially, Spooks has been privatised.
Ludicrous gadgets, cheesy dialogue or any glimmer of personality among the supporting cast might at least create funny hokum. Instead, the sink-or-swim second episode was mostly Sam sneaking around avoiding detection by fractions of a second, opening and closing doors like she was in a Ray Cooney farce. On her ventures outside, a run-in with one of the people who are trying to kill her let her show off her other main skill, apart from hiding in dark corners: beating enormous men in grindingly long hand-to-hand combat scenes reminiscent of The Fast Show’s dockside punch-up.
Can Sam evade whoever it is who wants to do her in, and do whatever it is she’s being paid to do, so whoever’s paying her is happy and the other people, whoever they are, are foiled? I don’t really mind.
Homeland (Sundays C4) delivers its silliness with such class and skill, it’s got away with the series one ending, where bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) had her brain erased with electro-convulsive mind rubbers to plug the creaking dam of a plot. Carrie cannot recall that she was right all along and former Iraq POW Nick Brody (Damian Lewis), who’s now a Congressman and who used to share Carrie’s bed, is an al-Qaeda terrorist.
Carrie started season two at home, growing vegetables and staying on her meds. Before long she was back in the CIA, trawling Beirut for an informant who might be able to help stop an attack on the US. Meanwhile in Washington, DC, Brody was picked as a Presidential running mate just as his real masters asked him to steal secrets to help the coming attack.
In the sort of uncomfortably believable what-if scenario that Spooks used to excel at, all this was prompted by Israel bombing Iran. The consequences of that, and of the discovery by Brody’s family that he has converted to Islam (that’s all they know, so far), maintained the political dimension that makes Homeland so much more than spooks planting bugs and running down corridors. Claire Danes’ uniquely expressive features had given us all the doubt and fear Carrie felt before going back into service, so it was hold-your-breath tense when she was chased through a bazaar by a Lebanese agent.
Once she’d kneed the guy in the balls and slinked off, Carrie broke into a wide, girlish smile. Hunted is too busy being stark, violent and ruthless to let that sort of light in.