In an extra blog for this week, I’m reviewing the first three episodes of new ITV conspiracy thriller Paranoid. Why I’m choosing to review the series at this point will become clear. Spoilers ahead.
I’m not going to mince words. Britain’s televisual output is pants. Apart from some comedy gems and one decent sci-fi series, Doctor Who (which was only decent until Matt Smith bowed out), our unimaginative schedules are saturated with the same old cop shows, medical dramas and soaps.
But even though the central characters of new TV series Paranoid are cops investigating a murder, it was being touted as a “conspiracy thriller”, not a cop show. Most of our whodunits follow a conventional path from the discovery of a body to the revelation of a killer, but Paranoid was promising something more complicated than that.
Unfortunately, Paranoid, co-funded by ITV and Netflix, is a terrific example of how NOT to do a conspiracy thriller. Where did it all go wrong? First and foremost, it’s the writing. Instead of coming up with an interesting and inventive story, it’s as if writer Bill Gallagher has researched the big book of conspiracy clichés and thrown them all in. Everything here is been-there-done-that.
There’s a mystery observer watching the police as they investigate the murder of Angela Benton, punctuated by breathy POV shots and lines like “There’s someone out there, watching us.” CLICHÉ. The police are receiving notes from this observer with derivative messages like Look into Angela’s past and You have no idea what you’re up against. CLICHÉ. Angela’s presumed killer is a “psychopathic schizophrenic with OCD” who falls from a bridge to his death before the police can question him—or was he pushed? CLICHÉ.
But not only are these plot points completely unoriginal, the way they play out is simplified and dumbed-down, and makes our detectives look stupid. For instance, in the first episode they discover that Angela has a typewriter, not a computer, but it’s not until Episode 3 that they realise this—and whatever she was typing—is actually important to the investigation.
The detectives know in Episode 1 that Detective Galen (who they daftly dub the “Ghost Detective”) is sending them boxes of clues and secretly interviewing witnesses. But our officers are so hapless they have to go to the bridge where the schizophrenic fake killer died and have a how-are-we-going-to-solve-this chat before they’re able to work out: “We need to find out who the Ghost Detective is.” Well duh! Of course you do, you idiots!
And in Episode 3, Alec is visited by the Ghost Detective, whose sole purpose for visiting is to tell him, “Angela knew something!” Good heavens, did she? Thank you for telling us something every viewer worked out in the first ten minutes of the series.
But issues with the writing extend way beyond the plotting-for-10-year-olds. There’s the characters, who all manage to be unlikeable or stereotypical or both. None of them seem real in any way. Nina, played by Game of Thrones’s Indira Varma, is brash, tough and gobby one second, wailing about her boyfriend breaking up with her the next, and shagging her co-worker on a bench the next. I’m guessing Gallagher wanted to make her steely on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, but it doesn’t work. It’s forced and unlikely and she doesn’t behave anything like a real detective would.
Her co-worker and shag partner, Alec, is even less realistic. He talks and behaves like a child at every turn and his juvenile, shoehorned-in love spats with Nina are straight off the school playground and missing any discernible chemistry. The rest of the characters are as subtle as a brick to the face, such as shouty stereotypical boss man Michael, Alec’s deranged mother and pensive Quaker Lucy who is weird for weird’s sake.
And oh my, we then have what can only be described as a masterclass in bad dialogue. Nina says, “I keep chasing it round my head but can’t catch it,” like no human being said ever. In reference to the missing typed pages that the detectives take 3 episodes to realise are important, she says, “The pages, the pages, the pages!” A cheesy plot signpost if ever I heard one. And in reference to those same pages, Michael says, “Those pages mattered to him, so we have to make them matter to us. Like bright lights stapled to our foreheads.” Bright lights stapled to our foreheads?!
However, it’s Robert Glenister’s Bobby who gets the lion’s share of awful lines. Here are some real corkers:
“Crime, it breaks people’s lives. It can’t be allowed.”
No, Bobby, that’s why it’s called crime.
“The biggest cop, the cop that’ll get you, is the cop in your head.”
“This bloke killed two people. He tried to kill my mate. Do you think I’m gonna let him walk free? The man who threw Alec in…. kills people.”
Wow, it’s positively Shakespearean.
Finally we come to the acting. Yes, that’s terrible too. Something else that drew me to this show was Indira Varma, now famous for playing Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones. But there’s no subtlety to her performance whatsoever — she’s all noise and bluster. However, she’s not as bad as the rest. The immaturity of Alec’s character can be blamed in equal parts on the script and Dino Fetscher’s gormless, whiny, teenage-boy-like performance. And Robert Glenister is just as bad, all brooding and serious and obvious, not a trace of nuance to be found. Lesley Sharp as Lucy is probably the best, but I guess she doesn’t really have to do much: just speak softly and look thoughtful and vacant.
The reason I’m reviewing this now is because, at the end of the third episode, “The pages!” are burned by Angela’s real killer. And I realised that I don’t give a flying fig what’s in them, that I don’t care what Angela wrote, what she knew or who killed her. This conspiracy thriller has failed and I won’t be wasting any more of my life on it.
I actually started watching Paranoid right after finishing Season 1 of US series True Detective. This also has a strong thread of conspiracy running through it, yet the difference in quality could not be starker. True Detective’s plotting is intricate, its dialogue complex and profound, and its acting Oscar-worthy. Meanwhile Paranoid is cheap, talent-free drivel that has done nothing to change my mind about the depressing state of British TV.
This week: story updates and “show, don’t tell” advice for writers
You can read my review of 24: Live Another Day here, a far superior conspiracy thriller that doesn’t insult your intelligence.