The week in TV: Forensics: The Real CSI; Soulmates; Can't Get You Out of My Head - review

It’s all hard work and heartbreak as the BBC returns to the real CSI. And if you have questions about anything, just ask Adam Curtis

Phil Field in Forensics: The Real CSI.
‘Enthralling increments of discovery’: Phil Field in Forensics: The Real CSI. Photograph: Ryan McNamara/BBC/Blast Films

Forensics: The Real CSI (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel Netflix
Soulmates Amazon Prime
Trump Takes on the World (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (BBC Three) | iPlayer

“Very dense splatter. Linear distribution from a moving object that’s wet with blood.” Much as such sentiments flit into mind over Mrs Brown’s Boys – even more so at the now-palpable contempt with which the BBC treats its lockdown audiences during primetime Saturday night – this actual line came from another Beeb production, of lurchingly different, ie decent, quality.

Forensics: The Real CSI tracked, with patience and diligence from all involved, just what happens at the hard edge of true crime. Much of which is needs-must boring. The main players may be stuttering or stoic, or unlikely to triumph in any desert island gameshow awarding points for naked, oiled exuberance, but this opener to a new chapter of the garlanded series showed all the bloody dull heft that has to lie behind putting someone dangerous behind bars. Even when they’ve called 999 and announced: “I’ve just murdered my wife.”

Maybe that should be “especially when”. An admission of guilt does not a successful prosecution make: it was up to a small team, and their enthralling increments of discovery, to prove that chappie had murdered not just his wife but, unaccountably, the neighbour’s wife. This was a heartbreaking little watch, told (rightly) dispassionately. I ended viciously sorry for all of them, victims and killer, and softly applauding this country’s rule of law.

Seems we can’t get enough in recent years of true crime, and Netflix, never one to let an unjumped bandwagon go bereft of company, got in on the act ages ago. Their latest focuses on LA’s notorious Cecil hotel, which Americans weirdly choose to pronounce Cee-cil. That’s not entirely the point: arguably more important is the fact that Elisa Lam, a young Vancouver student, went missing from it one night in 2013.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is an overblown and overlong four-parter (despite pedigree background, it repeated itself and often deliberately withheld info) that shows, if nothing else, the size of the Google rabbit hole. We have always had “citizen sleuths” – 1930s thrillers couldn’t have survived without them – but they were usually just a couple of posh hobbyist. Fast-forward to the internet age, and globalised online conspiracy theories, and it turns out that a few keyboard smugtivists actively hampered the investigation into how Elisa died.

The cyber-sleuths even had a tuberculosis conspiracy: turned out there had been an outbreak in the nearby utter disgrace of Skid Row, and one of the tests for TB is named Lam-Elisa. This became a CIA conspiracy to kill vagrants, the ground zeros being the Cecil hotel and Elisa Lam, whose name the CIA had so cunningly disguised. Millions believed that one. I mean, the greatest sin against life is incuriosity, but some of these people need to tap theirselves on the heid. The truth was more prosaic. Didn’t make it less affecting. RIP life-loving, life-questioning Elisa.

Soulmates has a wonderful premise: that a “soul particle” is discovered in 2023, allowing you to discover your soulmate by gazing into a brain-reading machine. It has a Black Mirror quality (and writing background) to it, and is intensely, cloyingly watchable. Sarah Snook (Shiv from Succession) is particularly endearing, as a woman who’s never questioned the goodness of a fun, funny marriage until The Test For Something Better. It is, as I say, a fantastic premise, which could have led to many philosophicals: sadly, it doesn’t really progress over its six episodes, and feels as if the writers have rather crammed in too many current orthodoxies for the sake of box-ticking, and thus taken their foot off the gas of imagination. Tiny warning: I’d hesitate to binge if you’re newlyweds. Or 24-year veterans beset by a shonky marriage.

Sarah Snook in Soulmates.
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‘Endearing’: Sarah Snook in Soulmates. Photograph: Jorge Alvarino/AMC

I learned a little from Trump Takes on the World. I learned, for instance, that even evil oil giants were taking out full-page ads during climate summits begging their president to remain in the Paris accord. And it had great takes on all involved, and the usual tremendous access that its production company, Brook Lapping, and producer Norma Percy always achieve: there were interviews with European presidents past and present, head-shaking at a mad child. This six-parter is the first definitive post-Trump documentary, yes yes.

But is there still anything – a dung beetle crouching, say, in the lost caves of Mount Parnassus – which is not aware of the fact that Donald Trump was perhaps not the best of men? That he kicked over the ancient apple carts of diplomacy, and tweet-pic’d his own dump in the remains? He’s almost gone, just playing out the tawdry codicil.

Two years in the making, Adam Curtis’s latest wonder, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, is hard to precis. It would take my sparrow brain about 12 seconds to precis the average episode of Death in Paradise. It would take that same brain until about 2054 to encapsulate the scope of what Curtis is attempting to achieve: nothing less than a vaulting, all-embracing historical exploration of how we find ourselves in our current angry anxiety.

A still from Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head.
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‘He has quietly explained the world’: a still from Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Photograph: BBC

The rather terrific news is that it works. Adam Curtis has quietly explained the world. He has focused – it’s an eight-hour watch over six instalments, yet themes come together – on class and race in Britain, on power struggles in China, on the perpetual suburban paranoia of post-50s America. He doesn’t have any pat conclusions – Curtis tends to take steps to distance himself from tribal politics – but the overall message is of mismanaged power. Since the birth of modernity, he seems to be saying, there have been revolutions, resulting in some bliss, some misery; but, after the torches flicker out, same old, same old.

After the arguments over individualism and collectivism were almost over, there descended, in the 1990s, a new politics, a “caring technocracy”. Nothing changed. Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a powerful catalyst to new thought. It helps that it has the trademark Adam Curtis monochrome 50s montages – he has access to all BBC film libraries, and they tend to leave him alone – and wonderful, just-so soundtracks, ranging from the Raveonettes and the Mekons to Marlene Dietrich. The most challenging, complex watch I’ve had this year: thought-provoking and perhaps, when you’ve thought about it, a little redemptive.