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Rellik v Liar: which primetime Williams brothers drama should you watch?

The two shows are going out on the same night, in the same slot, on BBC One and ITV.

Harry and Jack Williams are brothers who write TV shows together. They started out doing sitcoms, but that proved disastrous – anyone for Roman’s Empire? – and for ages they couldn’t get arrested. Then, in 2014, everything changed with their thriller, The Missing. Suddenly, they were hot.

Their new series, Rellik and Liar, are going out on the same night, in the same slot, on BBC One and ITV respectively. And so, like a couple of colossi – albeit colossi in spectacles, jeans and woollen sweaters – they bestride the primetime schedules.

Their big thing is messing with chronology, the better to enable us to see the same story from different points of view: the truth, they like to remind us, is ever elusive, and chasing it can send a person half-way round the bend. I admire this: their relish for a challenge. But it’s not without its risks. Rellik (11 September, 9pm), for instance, is a crime story told backwards, and while it might be possible to pull off such a trick in a novel, on television, where motivation is so much less important than the chase, it would seem to me to be almost impossible.

Of course, I’ll have to reserve judgement on this for now, but what I can say is that the show’s structure is absolutely exasperating; ultimately, the audience may not stick around long enough to find out if they’re capable of keeping people guessing right to the end. Without any forward trajectory, it’s impossible to get involved: every time the action spins backwards – “5 hours 10 minutes earlier” it’ll say on screen, or “3 hours, 33 minutes earlier” – your interest drops another notch.

The drama involves – a touch queasily, given what we read in the newspapers – a killer who likes to douse his victims in acid. Most of them are dead, but one, DCI Gabriel Markham (Richard Dormer), has lived to tell the tale, albeit with a face that is horrifically scarred. Somewhat improbably, he’s leading the investigation in spite of this. Dormer is predictably brilliant – fiendishly sexy beneath the fire that burns on his cheeks and neck – but much more than this I cannot tell you, given that I have not the foggiest idea what is going on.

Liar (11 September, 9pm) is an altogether different proposition. With its mainstream (or perhaps I mean middle-of-the-road) stars, Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, and its middle-class setting (she plays a teacher and he a surgeon, both of whom live in some style on the Kent coast), it’s aimed at the same audience as the BBC’s Doctor Foster: picture working women up and down the land eating their supper on trays in front of it.

In the first episode, Laura (Froggatt), newly single having recently dumped her (how convenient!) copper boyfriend, Tom (Warren Brown), agreed to go on a date with Andrew, the dishy widower father of one of her students and the colleague of her sister, Katy, a nurse – and it went swimmingly until the moment when, at the end of the evening, she invited him in to charge his dead mobile. After this, something happened. She says he raped her. He says they had a great time, and that the sex was consensual. There being no signs of any violence on her body, now that she has reported the rape to the police, it is her word against his.

Again, it’s hard to know where our colossi are going with this. With six episodes to run, surely it can’t be the case that – take your pick – either she will turn out to be a liar, or he a rapist. How would they spin that out? Sure enough, a certain uncomfortable fuzziness has already entered the proceedings. Laura has had mental health issues in the past; Andrew’s wife committed suicide; Katy is having an affair with Tom.

Revenge, too, is in the air, Laura having now denounced Andrew as a rapist on social media – an act so unlikely given she is seemingly both so scared and so desperate for the case to proceed that it seems like an obvious (too obvious?) red flag in terms of her truthfulness. It’s all moderately gripping, I suppose. The performances are workmanlike, and the mood suitably tricksy. But I still feel uneasy with rape being used like this, as a mere cog in the suspenseful wheels of what will doubtless turn out to be a highly elaborate plot.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left