It’s been said before and it will be said again, but there is just so much good TV around at the moment. I know I will never catch up with everything I want to.
There was a point when it felt like things were manageable, a point where, even if you'd missed a good drama, or a cracking, under-reviewed comedy, you'd find a fallow week to catch up. I can't exactly put my finger on the moment when that changed, but it has definitely happened.
That’s especially true for the second half of 2022, as there are so many shows I’m already invested in coming back to, as well as big exciting debuts like Netflix’s long-awaited take on Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic series The Sandman and Prime Video’s mega-expensive (and mega-anticipated) Lord of The Rings adaptation, The Rings Of Power.
Even the rest of June and July, traditionally quiet months where people take vacations and big blockbusters designed to entertain bored children take over theaters, are packed full of returning classics. You’ve got the second season of Hulu’s mannered, but supremely addictive, Only Murders In The Building, the return of Westworld for a fourth run on HBO Max and FX’s delightful vampiric comedy What We Do In The Shadows all on the way back.
I’m also determined to give Apple TV Plus’ new drama Black Bird, which has a starry cast that includes Taron Egerton and the late Ray Liotta, and has been developed and written by muscular crime maestro Dennis Lehane, a real shot, too.
With a job to maintain and a family to look after, not to mention that it’s Love Island season and my wife is an editor at a women’s magazine, fitting all this in is going to be tough. And what that generally means is the opportunity afforded to us all by television becoming on-demand (i.e. being able to try before you buy) just goes by the wayside.
But sometimes, just sometimes, when an unplanned spare hour appears, you do get the chance to try something new. You get that total, unexpected joy of discovering something brilliant. That happened to me over the weekend, and now it’s all I want to watch.
What is this show?
The show is Irma Vep. It’s on HBO Max and it stars Alicia Vikander in the title role.
Irma Vep is hard to sum up, but I’ll give it a go. Vikander plays Mira Harberg, an American actress who has spent the last few years of her career making huge science-fiction blockbusters, but is now bored and in need of a palette-cleanser.
To jump-start her acting mojo and get away from a broken relationship, Mira has come to Paris to star in a remake of the French silent film classic Les Vampires.
Despite its title, there's nothing of the Twilight-nature about these Vampires; they are instead a criminal gang terrorizing early 20th century Paris, and Vep becomes their muse.
Mira, whose personal life is falling apart, starts to lose the distinction between her role on and off-screen, as Irma's criminal instincts begin to bleed into her own life. As well as that, René Vidal, the eccentric director of the remake, is in the midst of his own crisis. He's pissing off his producers, cast and financial backers, and the movie's production is in total turmoil.
The series has been overseen by Olivier Assayas, who put the story on film in 1996 with Maggie Cheung in Vikander's role. Assayas partnered up with HBO, and Vikander, whose name I'm sure was a big part of getting this series made, to extend the story and give it a new audience.
An unexpected pleasure...
When you watch a lot of TV, as I do for this job, you start to see the mechanics of a series. The exciting premiere episode, the couple of quieter instalments to bed in all the characters, the cliffhangers, the twists, the turns, the juicy worm dangled in the final episode to make sure the creators, cast and crew get to go again next year.
Irma Vep, certainly from the first two episodes, doesn't pay any attention to that structure. It leaps around, from plotline to plotline, but somehow it never feels jarring or messy – more like you're at the front of a rollercoaster, happily being yanked around.
The show is difficult to define in terms of genre, too. Partly, it's a cinephile's paradise, looking at the chaos of making a movie and the array of hangers-on the industry attracts. Partly, it's a drama about relationships, with Mira's love life constantly being picked apart. But, mostly, it's a drama about gigantic egos and people who do stupid things on the pretence of artistic vision.
I have no idea how the show is going to play out, no clue how it might end and what Assayas is planning. It might be fantastical, it might be a musical, it might go full David Lynch and head into another realm. I cannot wait to find out.
Irma Vep goes out weekly on HBO Max, with new episodes available to watch every Monday. It'll stream on Sky and Now TV in the UK later this year.
Want more great HBO Max shows to get stuck into? We've got them all here...