There's hasn't been a fire-fighting drama worth getting excited about since ITV's London's Burning was extinguished in 2002 (after a 14-year run), but Sky have decided to fill this gap in the UK schedules with slick new series The Smoke, from the makers of Broadchurch and The Tunnel.
One reason there aren't many shows about fire-fighting is the demands of making fiery sequences look and feel both realistic and exciting. Fire is difficult to shoot and expensive to produce on a modest TV budget, but The Smoke opened with an atmospheric inferno inside a tower block, which packed good visuals and emotional weight. It helped that the blazing action involved an imperilled baby, a mysterious tattooed arsonist, and the show's handsome protagonist (Law & Order UK's Jamie Bamber) being cooked alive before the credits had even rolled.
After this attention-grabbing start, The Smoke settled back on simmer—introducing the slightly dysfunctional team of east-London's 'White Watch', as their brave leader Kev Allison (Bamber) returned to work after nine months convalescence from his burns. This is where The Smoke felt at its most formulaic, with Kev's work mates engaged in on-the-job tomfoolery that couldn't help feel slightly clichéd.
As first episodes go, The Smoke was introducing lots of characters in relatively broad strokes, but the actors managed to make them feel lovable. There was a charming womaniser called Mal (Strike Back's Rhashan Stone), happy-go-lucky Ziggy (Pippa Bennett-Warner), yob-with-a-heart Dennis (Taron Egerton), a loser obsessed with his ex-girlfriend nicknamed Little Al (Gerard Kearns), young family man Rob (David Walmsley), creepy chef Billy the Mince (Dorian Lough), and Big Al (Martyn Ellis) the Station Manager.
However, the story's natural focus was on Kev and the repercussions of his injuries and psychological trauma (intimacy issues with his girlfriend; feelings of self-loathing), and it's here The Smoke started to carve a more interesting and original niche for itself as a character study of PTSD.
As if to seal the deal when it comes to deciding whether or not to watch more—there was an unexpected double whammy in the last act (involving an unforgettable shot of full frontal male nudity) that proved surprising enough for the show to sink a hook. As 'reveal and twist' manoeuvres go, writer Lucy Kirkwood certainly delivered a fine example.
The Smoke has a number of good qualities working in its favour, although I was disappointed Jodie Whitaker (Attack the Block) was underused as Kev's caring girlfriend Trish, in a role that feels wasted on an actress of her talent. I'd have preferred to see her in the team's retardant turnout gear, but hope I'm proven wrong and Trish actually has a big role to play in the storyline.
Time will tell if the adage holds true about smoke signifying the presence of fire, but Sky's glossy new drama is off to a heated start.