Channel hop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 August, 2010, 12:00am

The manipulation of Saddam Hussein's public image over the past few decades has been anything but subtle. Even as his cult of personality built him up as a glorious leader of the Iraqi people, the American media steadfastly labelled him evil incarnate; and who can forget his role as Satan's irritable bedfellow in the South Park cartoon series?

By comparison, the portrait of Hussein painted in House of Saddam (HBO; Mondays at 11pm), a biopic co-produced by the BBC and HBO, resembles that of a human being. The four-part miniseries follows key events in the dictator's life, from when he wrestles the presidency from General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in 1979 to his trial and execution in 2006. What is likely to capture audiences' attention, however, is the dramatisation of his private life, which reads like a season of The Sopranos.

Like Tony Soprano, Hussein (played by Yigal Naor; Green Zone) is portrayed as a complex family man. In the game of politics he sees it as perfectly natural to use his kin to leverage greater control, either by placing them in positions of power or marrying them off to potential allies. In part one of the series we are introduced to his closest family at youngest daughter Hala's seventh birthday party. Hussein's vulnerability towards the women in his life - an overbearing, Machiavellian mother, a neglected wife, a younger mistress and three adoring daughters - give insight into the man, albeit one capable of ordering the systematic dispatching of enemies to make way for his ambition.

Ultimately, we are looking less at a history lesson than a high-stakes family drama, with good production values and well-cast, attractive actors. With the recent surge of US-made dramas on the Iraqi War - Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill, to name a few - House of Saddam is a welcome shift of perspective.

Moving firmly into the realm of fiction, Twin Peaks-esque series Happy Town (Fox; Sundays at 8:30pm) explores the seedier layers of life that lurk beneath the veneer of small-town respectability. Before you read any further, we must warn you that only eight episodes were ever made of the series; and sadly, the creators did not have time to wrap up all of the mysteries before the show was cancelled. If you are among those who need closure to a good intrigue, best skip this one.

Haplin - a fictional town somewhere in chilly Minnesota - has treaded softly on peace and prosperity since the last mysterious abduction of its residents occurred five years ago. A series of seemingly unrelated events - a young stranger comes to town; the local peeping Tom is found murdered in an ice-shack; the sheriff goes insane - reawakens a collectively suppressed fear among the townsfolk that centres on the 'Magic Man', a shadowy figure believed to be responsible for the disappearance of seven people, including town-founder Peggy Haplin's granddaughter.

It is now up to the sheriff's happy-go-lucky son, Deputy Tommy Conroy (right; Geoff Stults with Amy Acker), who looks uncannily like a young Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks, to take up the investigation and reassure the people of Haplin that nothing weird is going on, except that things do get stranger and stranger; and each character is hiding secrets that are presumably tied to the disappearances.

With Fear Itself (ATV World; Mondays at 10pm), there is zero risk of inconclusive endings. Each of the 13 episodes of this horror anthology deals with a self-contained nightmare come-to-life, from waking up in a serial killer's body to being trapped in a vampire feedlot.

The series was borne out of 2005 anthology Masters of Horror and similarly contains stories directed by big names in the horror genre, including Stuart Gordon (Masters of Horror, Stuck), Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian), John Landis (who directed Michael Jackson's Thriller video in 1983) and Rob Schmidt (Wrong Turn, The Alphabet Killer).

In the episode Eater, Elisabeth Moss plays a rookie cop assigned to guard a prisoner in transit overnight. The hazing she receives from colleagues as the only female officer in her precinct is a nod to a similar dynamic dealt to her Mad Men character Peggy Olson. In Eater, however, she's not fighting male chauvinism for a promotion, but for her life.

Pick a nightmare, any nightmare, and have a good time. After all, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'