Fifty Shades of Bleak: The Fall Returns to Netflix Instant

the fall jamie dornan gillian anderson

[NOTE: No big spoilers for Season Two, but refer back to this post if you missed Season One.]

Unfortunately, the above image is not an official promo for the BBC’s steamy Belfast-BTK series The Fall. It’s actually more of an, um, abstract dream collage representation of what Season Two might evoke to viewers. (Gillian Anderson’s character keeps a dream diary, and Jamie Dornan’s does nudie collage scrapbooking, so I don’t think I’m reaching that far.)

In that Season One recommendation, I mentioned that the show was phenomenal, but that it left us with what I most eloquently described as “an asshole of a cliffhanger.”

the fall season one

“Just gonna drive away in me car with me homely wife and make yeh fuckers wait a few years…”

Without revealing too much, the six new episodes added to Netflix Instant do a nice job of picking up the pieces, albeit at a pace that might inspire some to launch their own killing spree on BBC producers—provided this were a weekly series and not delivered all in one fell swoop. (Recent medical reports show that Netflix is effectively curing ADD through its wonderful full-season-all-at-once template.)

To be fair, the slow build-up doesn’t really come in the form of extraneous plot lines (here’s looking at you, Boardwalk Empire‘s countless hours of Margaret Schroeder fretting over minutiae).

Margaret Schroeder annoying

“The cheeldrin need their day care and I don’t particularly like these flowers and perhaps I’ll go throw a fuss at the dress shop or get tah screwin’ the Irish lad who works for me husband or some such…”

Season Two begins a few weeks down the road from where Season One left off. Paul Spector, AKA “The Belfast Strangler,” (a dreamy, asphyxiation-fetished Jamie Dornan) is still at large. The search quickly hones in on him, and a season-long game of cat and mouse between Spector and investigator Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), unfolds.

If you wanted resolution, there’s definitely more here than in Season One. But the show seems to struggle with the main  narrative predicament that The Killing did in its first few seasons (rest assured, this is a much more carefully constructed and fully realized series than what was going down in the Pacific Northwest.)

the killing holder

A question The Killing took about 12 episodes too many to answer…

That predicament, as I’m sure it has been posed in countless BBC screenwriters’ meetings, is, “When the killer’s caught, what the fuck do we do with this show?”

I’ll leave any speculations on that question in the hands of the viewer. I will say that it’s to the show’s credit how it manages to stay engagingly suspenseful even as Season Two’s narrative meanders along. I should underline that this season of The Fall is much more of a criminal suspense show, and much less of a bloody thriller.

That last note brings up an issue that one could say is either a narrative fault of Season Two or a moral fault of its viewers (present company included). Essentially, it’s simply not as compelling to watch as Season One, and much of that has to do with a lack of, well, murder.

A large degree of this show’s allure comes from the fact that Paul Spector often blurs the antogonist/protagonist line. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a really, really bad guy. But c’mon, his shirtless-prone character often seems less like the BTK Killer and more like the equivalent of Ted Bundy in a Calvin Klein ad.

Jamie Dornan Calvin Klein The Fall

Jamie Dornan: Just your prototypical, run-of-the-mill serial killer

The point? As fans of crime shows, we are implicit in wanting to see how much bad guys can get away with. We like it when the body count rises; the deadlier the game, the higher the level of intrigue. And our baddie really does not get away with much at all for the majority of Season Two.

So yeah, I respect The Fall for being a really good crime show that succeeds without pandering to its audiences’ base bloodlust. But the fact remains that we still came to watch a serial killer show. Season Two leaves that desire wanting.

The series seems very aware of this predicament. It even builds it into a dialogue exchange as Gibson watches a video of Spector in the midst of nefarious acts:

Spector, to the camera: “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Gibson: “Who [are] you talking to? Yourself? Me? People who like to read and watch programs about people like you?”

In a stylistic touch, Gibson appears to be breaking the fourth wall as she asks this question. OK, The Fall—you got us. We are guilty of, uh, being fascinated by your serial killer show.
Breaking Bad you got me Bryan Cranston heisenberg

But here I am pointing out a lot of faults in what I think is actually one of the most intelligent and compelling series currently filming. So let’s get to some of the pros.

Gillian Anderson, for one, is bar-none one of the best actors working in television. The icy portrayal she gave in Season One becomes more fleshed out here as the show delves into her sexuality, morality and—god forbid—sentimentality. “You can see the world in that way if you want,” she says to a colleague who calls Spector an evil monster. “You know it makes no sense to me. Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”

For a character who maintains poise in her profession by playing the one-note, sinister, head-motherfucker-in-charge, Anderson infuses an uncanny dramatic range into the arena of emotional subtlety.

gillian anderson the fall

Give this woman a friggin’ Emmy, already!

As for Dornan, he does a fine job, but the underpinnings of his psyche don’t exactly reach Lecterian heights. He’s either angry or manipulatively heartfelt or vacant—and that’s about his emotional range. It would be nice to see a bit more.

And while we’re on the subject of Dornan, let’s address the handcuffed, spread-eagled elephant in the room. What I’m talking about, of course, is that in less than a month from Season Two debuting, Fifty Shades of Grey will hit theaters.

Let me put the twisted sickness of that in perspective. In The Fall, Dornan plays a man who uses his handsome wiles to gain the trust of women and then bind them with rope and perform erotic choking acts on them. In Fifty Shades… well, I know nothing about Fifty Shades, but I’d imagine he does the same exact thing. Only difference? Christian Grey is a sex symbol that will have women lining up around the block on Valentine’s Day. Paul Spector, on the other hand, is a murderous rapist.

I wonder if Dornan got the part when some Hollywood exec was watching The Fall and thought, “Hey, this guy’s hot and really does the BDSM thing well. Let’s just cast him in a role where he does the same thing without killing his sex partners.” It would kind of be like if Anthony Hopkins had followed up his role of Dr. Lecter by taking Robin Williams’ place in Patch Adams.

patch adams hopkins silence of the lambs

“Would you like a bedtime story, Clareeeece?”

As far as what else keeps The Fall moving, its creator Alan Cubitt altruistically gives several of Season One’s role players much bigger parts. Spector’s 16-year-old worshipper Katie (rather creepily sexed up by the 22-year-old Aisling Franciosi) becomes a key player in Spector’s criminal movements. Her performance and those of other more-seasoned actors are all well played. The only issue is that Anderson and Dornan dominate this show so heavily, it’s difficult for anything that’s not centered on their characters to carry as much intrigue.

All said, despite a slower pace and my nervousness that The Fall could easily go the wayward route of The Killing if it doesn’t figure itself out, it remains perhaps the best current crime series this side of True Detective. Queue it up without further delay.

IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

Nursing Your “Serial” Hangover: “True Murder” Podcast and The Secret Life of Phil Champagne

true murder true detective dan zupansky

Despite my best efforts, I can’t always be glued to the idiot box. Life’s duties have a way of throwing one into that dull chasm known as the real world. It’s a place where, unlike on the silver screen, the chances of catching someone jumping onto a moving train while being chased by a psychopath in a human-skin mask as a horde of zombies explodes in the background are, unfortunately, rather slim.

zombie explosion leatherface

A woefully seldom occurrence, in my experience…

That’s why I’ve decided to expand this blog’s scope to include the occasional non-film, media recommendation. Don’t worry, the majority of our content will continue to be Netflix Instant-related. But when I land upon other great pieces of media that are free, streaming and deal in our everpresent theme of crime, thriller and horror storytelling, it’s hard not to bite.

true crime sexy

Who says podcasts can’t be sexy?

Such, is the case with “True Murder,” a Canadian weekly podcast in which Winnipeg-based host Dan Zupansky interviews true-crime authors.

I landed upon Zupansky’s show while driving along a dark stretch of Midwestern highway one bleak, wintry evening. Outside of Janesville, WI—the home of skin-wearing madman Ed Gein—I was still a few hours away from my destination. Then suddenly something horrible happened: I had reached the end of the final episode of the “Serial” podcast.

Ed Gein meme

Sorry, never can resist a good Ed Gein pun…

The horrible thing wasn’t so much that a show I knew would have no resolution ended up lacking resolution. It was that I still had time on the road, and all I could get on my radio were Evangelical preachers yelling about the horrors of not sending them $14.99 and a slew of “new country” stations that would make Townes Van Zandt roll in his grave.

Townes Van Zandt whiskey

Townes wouldn’t have stood for any of this “new country” malarkey

Frantically, I pulled to the side of the road, googled something along the lines of “crime murder podcast” and clicked on the first decent-looking thing that popped up. I was now entering the world of “True Murder.”

The show started with a sinister, low-budget intro name-dropping Ted Bundy and the the BTK Killer as Michael Mann-esque foreboding synth music played in the background. Then a mild-mannered Canadian broadcaster came on and started getting very excited as he politely interviewed an author about a man in Florida who had been abducting people and ritualistically drinking their blood. I was hooked.

I’ve since maken it a point to stream “True Murder” whenever I’m on a lengthy road trip. And one of the more compelling episodes of Zupansky’s show deals with the case of Phil Champagne (helluva name), a middle-aged businessman who was presumed dead in 1982 after drunkenly falling off a boat near northern Washington state’s Lopez Island.

Lopez Island farm

I once went to Lopez Island and took this picture of chickens digging through cow bones at a hippie farm.

Turns out Old Phil actually wasn’t dead, despite freezing waters and an 18-hour coast guard search. So with a marriage falling apart and a $1.5 million life insurance policy that would go on to his brothers, he decided to change his “lackluster existence.” Which basically meant letting no one know he was alive for ten years.

I won’t tell the whole story (that’s what “True Murder” is for), but during his disappearance, he got in with Mexican cartels, used his charm to milk money out of rich housewives, and eventually became a low-level counterfeiter whom the Secret Service targeted as a criminal mastermind—all as man named Harold Stegeman.

Phil Champagne

Phil Champagne: “The last of the great gentleman crooks.”

What makes this episode of “True Murder”—perhaps the most tame (subject-matter-wise) in the series’ arsenal of several hundred broadcasts—is the author Zupansky interviews.

Burl Barer (another helluva name) is a true-crime original, and author of Man Overboard: The Counterfeit Resurrection of Phil Champagne. He’s an immodest personality who refers to himself in the third person as the “legendary Burl Barer,” and “the iron man of true crime.” He’s also a brilliantly eloquent and charismatic storyteller which, ya know, makes for good podcasting.

So what else do you need to know about “True Murder”? First, it’s a taped live show, so it’s nowhere near as carefully constructed or seamless as “Serial.” On the flipside, however, it details hundreds of mind-blowing serial killer and crime stories, and most of them end with a great sense of resolution (something “Serial,” due to the constrictions of its format, can’t really achieve.)

Zupansky also goes out of the way to make sure that while live, each of his shows follows an escalating narrative. So as he interviews one true crime author to the next, “True Murder” essentially becomes an audiobook Cliffs Notes to some of the most fascinating murder cases on record.

Of course there are times when his subjects aren’t the most interesting interviews, or when they fail to show up for the live show altogether. But that’s why I’m recommending you start with one of his better recent episodes. (Here’s a link to the Phil Champagne podcast.)

And there’s something just incredibly charming and hilarious about Zupansky’s Canadian politeness mixed with his zealous fascination toward human dismemberment.

So if you find yourself on a long, winding road one dark night in the midst of some ghastly land, I highly recommend pulling up Zupansky’s archive on blogtalkradio. It’s true-crime storytelling at its most bleak, deliciously campy and endlessly engaging.

-Sam Adams