By Any Means is aiming for the ‘enjoyable nonsense’ section of television, the one previously occupied by Spooks and Hustle. All things going to plan for the BBC, it’ll be badly written and filled with plot holes, poor logic and bad characterisation, but also fun to watch.
This first episode featured the show’s central characters, a non-descript group of sanctioned vigilantes, going after a gangster who had wriggled out of the hands of justice. Using all kinds of trickery, implausible gadgets and snappy banter, they got the bad guy locked up.
By Any Means is essentially a remake of Hustle. It basically is Hustle, with a slight alteration to the premise. They have made just two changes: they switched Hustle’s con men who go after bad guys for a vague group of ‘cops’ who go after bad guys, and they have different actors.
In every other detail though it is Hustle. It has the same writer and creator. The same core group of good guys who operate outside conventional rules. The exact same jump cut obsessed directing. The same desire to fool the audience with trickery. The same elaborate scheming. The attempts at being cool. The ‘witty,’ good looking protagonists.
I could go on and on, but I won’t because I don’t need to make this argument; if you’ve seen this show, and you’ve seen Hustle, then you know they are the exact same.
Hustle was killed after eight seasons though, because the audience were so familiar with its beats and rhythms. You could predict every plot element easily. So why have they effectively resurrected it? This episode of By Any Means built to a conclusion where the bad guys were chasing a police van they thought a police witness was inside. But because the show is so similar to Hustle, the audience know exactly what is going to happen: the police witness isn’t inside the van.
This show also isn’t as good as Hustle. A big part of that latter show’s success was the acting of Adrian Lester, the show’s central protagonist, who managed to disguise a lot of the awful dialogue and plot holes. Warren Brown is decent enough as Jack Quinn, the lead in By Any Means, but the ensemble of actors is just not as good as that in the early series of Hustle (John Henshaw, who played the undercover criminal here, is a good actor though).
The real problem though is with the writing, which is very lazy. As mentioned above, creator Tony Jordan has stolen 90% of the show from his own previous work. When he isn’t doing that, he’s stealing from other people; the opening scene in this episode with the criminal tricked into thinking he’d be meeting some Arsenal players is stolen entirely from the opening of the film Sea of Love, where Al Pacino tricks some criminals into thinking they’d be meeting the New York Yankee players.
The characters are all obviously unrealistic; super cool and attractive and witty and with great hair cuts. God forbid any of the good guys have actual shades to them. No, they must all be as likable as possible.
Then there’s the central concept of the show. Who are these guys? Vigilantes, yes, but they must be officially sanctioned because the police cooperate with them. Who would authorise a group to work outside the justice system? It would need to be at a high level, someone who would face prosecution themselves if anybody ever found out they had authorized a police force to continually break the law.
The writer must have faced these tough questions when he came up with his initial idea and he seemingly decided to address them by saying: ‘Fuck it; I’ll not bother answering any of them.’ The characters in this episode were repeatedly asked if they were police and responded by saying, ‘It’s a grey area.’ It’s like a little wink to the audience that, yes, the show is implausible and makes no sense. Simply acknowledging a major flaw doesn’t excuse it though.
Obviously not every show needs to have some Shakespearean level of writing but just being a ‘fun’ show doesn’t excuse lazy writing. The massive series of flashbacks at the episode’s end was ludicrously awful. The show’s main trick was to not show the audience a fuckload of pertinent scenes and then reveal them all at the end via flashback. That’s a really cheap and artificial way to implement a twist.
Some of the writing isn’t lazy though; it’s just bad. I cringed at times watching the attempts to make the characters Ocean’s Eleven cool. There was a scene where two of the good guys were toying with the criminal and started singing ‘I know a song that will get on your nerves.’ It was embarrassing. The characters are not as funny nor as cool nor as likable as the writer thinks they are.
‘That’s how the world works,’ Jack Quinn told his new recruit at the end of this episode. ‘Good guy and bad guy, black hats and white hats, just like in the films.’ But the world doesn’t work like that. That’s the way it used to be portrayed, in the films, and on TV. And then television improved, and started showing realistic characters; good guys who were far from perfect and bad guys who had motivations and reasons for doing what they did. TV started making attempts to be something other than empty entertainment. But By Any Means clearly rejects that. Its world is one of clearly defined heroes and villains, one where plot holes don’t matter and where logic is extremely bendable. And that would be okay if the show made at least some attempt at being original. Instead, they’ve made a cookie-cutter rehash of an earlier, tired show, and filled it with bad writing. By Any Means is just a lazy, copy and paste version of Hustle.
- The opening credits are pretty cool.
- Jack is the name of the main character. ‘Jack’ is your default hero name. See: Jack Bauer (24), Jack Shephard (Lost), Jack Harkness (Torchwood). If there’s a nerdy character in this show at any point, he’ll be called Brian. If there’s a working class guy, it’ll be Dave.
- Do you like jump cuts, zooms, slow motion, and shaky cameras? Then you’ll fucking love this show.
- ‘We need to think of a way to flush him out into the open.’ ‘Take it that’s the royal we?’ The writer seems to think the ‘royal we’ means ‘you.’ It doesn’t. A mistake like this getting from the first draft through to the final show suggests to me that the BBC does no editing of its scripts. It really should.
- The banter in the episode was awful. It was like a shit version of a Quentin Tarantino film. A particular low was the joking about women’s periods.
- The little trick the characters pulled with the psychiatrist was kind of cool. Hustle was good at coming up with these things, and it was one of the few redeeming things about this episode.
- This is one of those TV shows were if you criticise it you are accused of being ‘joyless’ and told that you need to ‘lighten up; it’s just a TV show.’
- The Guardian‘s TV critic, Mark Lawson, thinks that the show’s writer Tony Jordan is one of TV’s best and most inventive. I disagree Mark, I disagree quite a bit.