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19 September 2018

The revolution starts here: why Killing Eve is the future of television

Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge really might, after all, be the best thing to happen to women and TV in 45 years.

By Rachel Cooke

Only if you’ve been away visiting another planet will you be unaware that Killing Eve by Phoebe “Fleabag” Waller-Bridge is a new series that supposedly rewrites the rule book when it comes both to thrillers and female characters – and that it is now available in its entirety on BBC iPlayer. Here on this planet, where I resolutely remain most of the time, I grew slightly sick of hearing about this one-woman television revolution in the weeks before it aired. Yet it turns out that such talk wasn’t just hype. Killing Eve is completely delightful, and I think now that Waller-Bridge really might, after all, be the best thing to happen to women and TV since Sarah Jane Smith snuck aboard the Tardis in 1973.

Back then, we all assumed that women, whether in denim waistcoats or not, would be everywhere by the year 2000. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Even as Jodie Whittaker takes over on Doctor Who (presumably her new assistant will be a bloke), the majority of female characters still exist only in relation to their male counterparts, and conform mostly to the old stereotypes. Those who work, for instance, will often be lonely, while those who are frisky are likely to bring all manner of trouble on their heads.

Killing Eve (9.15pm, 15 September) really does feel different. Here is an MI5 officer, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), who just happens to be female, and here is a serial killer/professional assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), another woman, whom she’s determined to catch. Both are good at their jobs, and both, too, appear to be quite content with their lot. If they show any signs at all of boredom or ennui, the cause is usually only the (slightly dreary and over-cautious) men in their lives. All they really want is to be left alone to get on with what they do best – and sometimes to get drunk, to have sex, to eat lunch, and to spend too much on silly luxuries. 

The revolution doesn’t end here. Killing Eve is knowingly cartoony and preposterous, the script nodding to, among other things, Get Carter and Austin Powers. Early on, Villanelle kills one target with a hair pin, having climbed the walls of his Tuscan villa, Spider-Man-style; Eve arrives at a hospital to see a witness in her protection only to discover that in as long as it took her to faff around with her unruly hair in the loo, this woman and three others on her ward were murdered. But there’s also something wonderfully earthy and true about the dialogue.

Waller-Bridge’s characters are deliciously droll, in a recognisably English way (“That one could have gone better,” says Eve’s boss, after the hospital massacre). They’re also given to long-running office in-jokes, to pinching food and choice swear words from each other, and to saying things for effect. Above all, they’re straightforward about human stuff. For instance: conjugal relations. “You wanna have sex?” Eve asks her slightly-too-solid husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), clicking on the bedside light. Only then she gets distracted, talking about her job. When she finally remembers her question – it’s definitely not an offer – it’s him who’s too knackered, not her.

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It’s beautifully cast. I adore David Haig as Eve’s MI5 colleague and pal, Bill, and Oh is wonderfully nonchalant – yet, so intense – as Eve. For me, though, the star is Comer, an actor who can do pretty much anything and make it look both effortless and, when the need arises, very funny. A fantastic mimic, she is tough and sexy, the two things wrapped around one another so tightly as to be almost indistinguishable.

Bad Move, Jack Dee’s sitcom about a couple who swap the city for the Yorkshire countryside, is back for a second series (8pm, 19 September). Though it never quite takes flight, somehow – Dee and his co-star Kerry Godliman have zero chemistry – I still cleave to it, as some kind of semi-antidote to various smug sods of my acquaintance who are always telling me how filthy London is. “Ooh, takeaway!” exclaimed Nicky (Godliman) in the first episode, as Shannon (Sue Vincent), the monosyllabic woman who runs the village shop, silently ate noodles from a carton. “Where’d you get that?” Shannon slurped on for a few moments, and then replied: “Leeds.” 

Killing Eve (BBC One)
Bad Move (ITV)

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This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war