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This Town: Steven Knight’s 80s-set drama is so confused scenes may as well be shown at random
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This Town: Steven Knight’s 80s-set drama is so confused scenes may as well be shown at random

I have been doing two things that are objectively bad for my mental health lately, and they are: looking at TikTok, and watching The Gentlemen on Netflix. They go together, in a way: The Gentlemen on Netflix isn’t very good (“Alright, Eddie? Kaya Scodelario here. Just going to exposition dump on you without really moving my face or neck”) so you can half-watch that on the TV while half-watching TikTok on your phone, which is very 2024. What my TikTok algorithm gives me is intimate, and classified, but broadly it’s this: American chefs in black nitrile gloves slapping tomahawk steaks before grilling them, Scottish video podcasts where emotionless young men with beards discuss gym supplements, and clips from Peaky Blinders where Cillian Murphy smokes a cigarette and doesn’t say much. That’s what your billion-dollar app has figured out about me. Make of that what you will.

Peaky Blinders is somehow incredible on TikTok, and there may be something in that that explains the extraordinary, electric success of it the first time round. So many scenes are huge and earnest and capital-D Dramatic in a way that you wouldn’t predict would appeal to a wide audience and boost flat-cap sales a million percent but it did, and also, crucially, these Dramatic Scenes somehow work when shorn of all context, clipped into a 9:16 ratio and uploaded to a phone. I’ve seen Tommy Shelby stoically flirt with barmaids, hand out cash to poor widows, order murders and (I’m pretty sure?) infiltrate the highest office of the British government, all without ever watching more than an episode-and-a-half of the show proper. There always seems, in the flashes of Peaky Blinders I have seen, to be someone Making A Move, though in what direction and to what end they are Making it, I don’t ever know.

This is all to say that This Town drops this week (Sun, 9pm, BBC One), and yes, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight has set a second epic show among a period backdrop version of gang-stricken Birmingham where everyone either has a Brummie accent or an Irish one, and also they are all cousins. Your Tommy Shelby this time is Dante Williams (Levi Brown), a duffle-jacketed dreamer who is seemingly addicted to introducing himself to people in the most annoying way possible. (From episode one: “Who are you?” “I write poems. Sometimes about space.”) His father is a reformed alcoholic, his cousin Bardon (Ben Rose) is trying to avoid having to join his uncle’s beloved IRA, he’s in love with the girl from the record shop, his brother is stationed in Belfast and also quite annoying, and people keep throwing petrol bombs while he’s trying to walk home from college. There’s a backdrop here with a lot of tension to exploit – uneasy relations in an 80s-deprived city between multiple races and religions, the stomp of authoritarian boots, the age-old working-class tug of war between the lure of easy money-making crime and the dreamy artistry of youth – but This Town seems curiously afraid of actually doing that. Scenes happen one after another, sure, and they are earnest and capital-D Dramatic. But they never seem connected. They may as well be served up at random through your phone.

The central thrust of This Town, I should mention, is less cut-throat than Blinders: Dante and his cast of weirdos are, eventually (I think?), going to start a band, and he’ll actually have sex and do drugs, and tell his brother that he doesn’t want to be a gangster, he wants to write down words like in songs. Then two-tone music will be invented and everyone will wear those little hats. I am sure if we ever get to that point in the story then it’ll be good, but I am two episodes in and someone is yet to pick up a microphone, and I sort of need Dante to stop sitting on swings and speaking in riddles and, you know, find a rehearsal space. Learn bass. Go to a shop and buy a really skinny tie. Get on with it.

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But then, I wonder, maybe I’m the idiot here. I brought up The Gentlemen at the top because, despite it not being very good, something major had happened by the end of episode one and so I did want to see what was happening next. This Town, perhaps, is the antidote to a brain rotted by TikTok and half-ideas Guy Ritchie had in a 3am taxi from Soho to Wiltshire: chess pieces of story being moved very slowly into place, a powder keg of setting placed behind it, a slow-burning match ready to cause a great explosion. But until that all goes off, I am going to struggle with 40 scenes in a row where a kid walks by a canal until he thinks of a really good poem.

Source: theguardian.com