REVIEW: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (S3 8/8)

There’s no doubt about it: The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco has improved immeasurably during this second batch of four episodes.

The pacing is better, the stories are meatier with greater substance, and everything feels more in sync.

Last week, the first part of the final two-part story, there was even a twist in the usual TBC:SF storyline: Jean, Millie, Iris and Hayley had gotten themselves involved in a Russian spy caper, culminating in Jean being kidnapped and tortured by Russian agents.

It was a race against time for the remaining Circle to find her before it was too late.

It was almost as if TBC:SF was attempting to be an adult, gritty crime drama.

And, for the most part it was succeeding.

As ever, there was some codebreaking involved. This is the show’s schtick and it needs a segment where the Circle is huddled over some sort of code.

Just a word about these puzzle scenes. I tried to figure out why watching people crack codes can be so exhilarating. Dan Brown made a whole career out of it, and TBC:SF is infused with the same kinds of thrills.

I remember a show on British primetime in the 1980s called 3-2-1.

It was truly bizarre.

Groups of people tried to solve riddles and puzzles, and then win prizes. At the heart of it was a character called Dusty Bin (told you it was bizarre) and during the last part of the show, the host, Ted Rogers, would reveal the answers to the clues in the most baffling way possible.

It went something like this: a couple watched a scene starring celebrities, who, at the end of each one, would bring the contestants a clue and a riddle. They would then chose to reject one after trying to figure it out.

The riddles were so ridiculously oblique you had no clue what was going on.

It’s the same with TBC:SF. The thrill of it is watching the Circle talk at each other as each layer of code is broken. The reveal is often baffling and leaves you thinking: how did they get that answer?

It doesn’t matter how they got to where they got to know, watching them get there is strangely satisfying.

Using this method, they figured out that Jean was being kept in The Grosvenor Hotel, and hatched a plan to get her out. But not before something else happened: Hayley and Ilya the Russian cellist’s friendship had progressed to the point where he was invited around to he apartment. There he stole the new encryption machine Hayley had constructed.

Ilya had played her. The Russians wanted the machine.

And then the finale: the Circle busted out Jean from the hotel just in the nick of time (of course they did), they managed to track down Ilya and determine that he was part of a group of spies including Deborah Mitchell, who wanted to defect and take the machine with her. The fact that Micthell was involved was no real surprise.

They accomplished all of this with time for a drink in the jazz bar right at the end, with Hayley professing her love for Jean and figuring out that there was a Russian mole on the inside, whose identity was still to be revealed.

It was hardly Line Of Duty, but it did set things up for an arc in the next series, if there is to be one.

As they clinked drinks and laughed to each other with jazz blaring out from the stage, we were left to ponder TBC:SF.

It won’t change the world or reinvent the wheel. Quite the opposite: it often relied on too many familiar beats and stuck to a fairly rigid structure (not least the bar, which felt like a device you’d see in a sitcom or soap opera). But it was watchable, especially these last four episodes.

I just wish it taken a few more risks, threw off its shackles and really went for it more often. Not that the look of it helped. It looked cheap and cheerful, too bright and something you’d see somewhere in a daytime schedule.

Edgy, but not too edgy enough for primetime.

And yet, I wonder if it will return, or enough people have enjoyed it.

We’ll soon find out. Farewell for now, Circle ladies.

Paul Hirons





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