CHRISTOPHER STEVEENS reviews last night’s TV: These Outlaws get so confused… I don’t know if to laugh or cry.

The Outlaws


The Long Call 


Comedy thrillers must make their decision at the end. The main aim of comedy thrillers is to make us laugh, or gasp. It can’t do them both at once.

The Outlaws(BBC1), a series of six episodes about people atoning in petty crime through community service.

Eleanor Tomlinson (as social media celebrity Gaby) is snapping selfies while Christian (Gamba Lee and Darren Boyd), fight over a spliff. Rani (Rhianne Barrreto), an A-level student and shoplifter, is hiding a gun and outwitting a gang armed with machetes.

Hard-edged TV dramas about drugs crime can come laced with lethal jokes — Breaking Bad proved that. Funny sitcoms can have action sequences that are Hollywood-style, as James Corden proved in The Wrong Mans.

There's the basis of a really good serial in The Outlaws, writes Christopher Stevens

Christopher Stevens writes that there’s the basis for a really great serial in The Outlaws

But both shows knew exactly their goals. Stephen Merchant, who stars in The Outlaws and writes, flip-flops between them. When he’s on screen, Merchant — as nerdy Greg — is definitely playing it for laughs, and crude ones at that. He is 6in7in tall and his opening line was a joke about whether the rest of his body was ‘in proportion.

We don’t know yet what each character did to merit their sentences. It will not surprise anyone that a portion of a later episode on Graham Norton’s chat program last week revealed that Greg was literally caught with both his pants down.

This is the foundation of a great serial, an ensemble drama with crisscrossing storylines such as The Syndicate and The Split.

Merchant’s script indicates that Merchant believes that this would be unworthy. Just as we’re getting to know the characters, he warns us not to believe in them: ‘Everyone’s a type — you’ve got your Right-wing blowhard, Left-wing militant, celebutante and shifty old timer,’ says Rani, who describes herself as a ‘studious Asian good girl’.

Vocabulary for the night: 

Dim Greg was being battered by long words in Succession, Sky Atlantic. He couldn’t even translate the words ‘Popinjay, histrionic, intransigent, and’meretricious’. Is there a drama where the verbiage was so loved?

After that, it was hard to understand why Christian’s friends, riding in a Range Rover with tinted windshields like rap artists, were forcing him into an armed robbery. They’re just cardboard cutouts — the script already told us so.

Christopher Walken, a movie star, plays Frank the forger with New Jersey Mafia accent.

He has a wordy catchphrase, ‘Greetings and felicitations,’ which might work with a Cockney swagger — said by David Jason, for example. Walken sounds like Tony Soprano chewing a thesaurus.

It is not hard to find the right pigeonhole. The Long Call(ITV), which aired on four nights this week. This drama, set on the North Devon coast, is adapted from Ann Cleeves’ book about rural crime. It is similar to her long-running predecessors, Vera Shetland and Shetland.

Ben Aldridge portrays DI Matthew Venn. He returns to the town where his faith was rooted in evangelical Christianity.

His mother Dorothy, a strict Juliet Stevenson, exiled him years ago after he was openly gay. Though Dorothy seemed constantly on the brink of rolling her eyes and speaking in tongues, it was Martin Shaw who stole the first episode — menacing, wheedling, devious and controlling as the church elder Dennis.

Venn is so uncomfortable being around these people that he can’t tell his colleagues that his father has just passed away.

He’s too distracted to leave the murder investigation of the drunken chef who was stabbed to death at the beach to his sergeant Jen (Pearl Mackie).

Or maybe the breathtaking views from the sea are distracting. For great landscapes, you can count on Ann Cleeves drama.