Friday 27 November 2020

TV review: Vera, series 3 episode 2 (‘Poster Child’), ITV (2013)

Last week I watched this as a rerun on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s main channel. Unlike a lot of episodes of this TV show, ‘Poster Child’ includes some running. Not walking, but actual jogging along outdoors. Near the shore, in fact. Even Vera (Brenda Blethyn) at this point is seen hurrying forward along, arms raised to her sides and hair floating in the air. 

The beauty of this episode is in the way that the writers have brought narratives to do with the West’s international military exploits into the story of a murder in northern England. The inclusion of Malik (Amir Boutros) allows the filmmakers to draw moral equivalencies in a way that Twitter users would be familiar with from all the flame wars that continually carry on in cyberspace. 

The story in ‘Poster Child’ is a bit far-fetched and links between all of the secondary characters stretch the viewer’s credulity, nevertheless Blethyn’s soft-spoken, dowdy glamour enthrals. Joe Ashworth’s David Leon, Vera’s second-in-command, is shown dealing with PTSD in a credible – and suitably low-key – manner. At the right moments his wife and three children appear – as if by magic – to provide the support necessary to a working man under stress. 

This adds lustre in the gaps between tonic events, such as the occasional phone call from one of the two daughters of Dan Marsden (Reece Andrews) and his wife Laura (Saskia Reeves). Karen (Amy Cameron), their natural daughter, manages to phone her mother during her captivity while Mira (Shifaa Arfan) – who’d been adopted from Baghdad by Dr Marsden after, aged six years, being caught up in a US bombing strike and had been badly injured – is suffering the effects of insulin deprivation; she’s diabetic and needs meds to survive.

In an effort to rescue the two teenagers, Vera bustles doggedly and, reassuringly, from time to time crankily chides Detective Constable Kenny Lockhart (Jon Morrison) amid all of the accompanying procedural activity. In this busy episode time is of the essence. The filmmakers do well to keep the action trotting comfortably along but the participation of Jonah Regan – a photographer played by Dean Andrews – doesn’t do much for the episode’s coherence. It’s all too neat.

There’s a lot of art involved in making a complex mystery hang together and be entertaining over the period of time these episodes consume – about 90 minutes each. Even though it’s easy to make fun of ‘Vera’ – and in recent months an ABC skit show did just that – there’s something entrancing about a middle-aged, overweight female in a position of relative power – you rarely get office politics with this comfortable show – so that most older Australians can feel compelled to watch (and the ABC’s audience skews older). Vera strides purposefully through a cascade of intellectual obstacles like an icebreaker, pushing aside every conundrum and turning puzzles into heaps of frozen slush, ready to be cast aside in our journeys to a conclusion. 

It’s also got a social conscience, enabling viewers to feel justified in spending an hour-and-a-half zonked out in front of the box. If ‘Vera’ were a confection it would be a chocolate-coated hazelnut: the kernel of goodness inside functioning to reduce the guilt associated with all the sugar.

In ‘Poster Child’ the show’s creatives have acquitted themselves to an acceptable standard though the character of Karen is a bit under- (or over-) worked, and I wasn’t sure if this was due to the writing or the acting. She just didn’t entirely convince; I felt her insistence on Mira’s attractiveness to their parents – “Mira,” she seems to scoff, “always the favourite daughter” – somewhat over-used. 

Even here I’m reduced to endless qualifications; just like the show’s star: a jog down the middle of the road. By the end I was hoping that Mira would steal Karen’s boyfriend just to make Karen’s predictions come true. 

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