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Writing about television means being asked, by friends and colleagues and strangers at parties, for recommendations of what to watch. And I’m more than happy to be asked, because there are two shows I press on everyone: Succession and Guilt. Both, it turns out, are returning with new series this week.
Guilt was a stealth hit for BBC Two in 2019: four episodes of sublime, blackly comic drama; Fargo by way of Leith. It was pretty well perfect. And so, inevitably, series two can’t live up to it. It’s good, but not that good. Sorry to put a downer on things, but I’m just trying to manage your expectations here.
Part of the brilliance of series one was the simplicity of the premise. Two brothers driving back from a wedding one night accidentally knocked down and killed an elderly man. Their efforts to cover up the crime led them down increasingly desperate avenues. The fun was in seeing people in over their heads.
Series two is more complicated. There is a prologue involving characters we’ve never seen before, resulting in two dead bodies and a bagful of cash, before we’re reintroduced to Max (Mark Bonnar), who is just getting out of prison after a two-year stretch. Where once he had an expensive lifestyle, he’s now living above a Chinese takeaway. His brother has moved to Chicago, so the comic riffs have to be provided by Max and Kenny (Emun Elliott), the recovering alcoholic private investigator who now has a subplot involving a woman who attends his AA meetings.
Max has a difficult history with Kenny but goes into business with him, because when you’re an ex-con whose law firm has been taken over by gangster Roy Lynch, your options are narrow. It took me half an hour to realise that Roy was in series one, because then he was played by Bill Paterson and now he’s played by Stuart Bowman. Keeping the character but casting a new actor is quite discombobulating.
But there is still plenty to enjoy here (apart from the AA woman, who is hiding her true identity yet is so boring it makes your eyes water). The script is sharp. Bonnar’s performance as Max – amoral, cunning, cowardly, and yet we’re rooting for him – is still top-drawer. “Not many men go inside and come out better,” says Roy. Max: “Well, I couldn’t have come out worse.”
The episode worked hard – maybe too hard – to establish every character and lay the ground for various plot developments. There are shades of Shallow Grave. But I have faith in writer Neil Forsyth, because anyone who could produce the magic of series one knows how to produce a cracking thriller.