Paul Casserly on the delights of slow television.

Frantic TV has its charms. Take Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus (nee Elaine from Seinfeld), flails around like a mad woman's knitting as a bullying politician who claws her way to President. It gives the viewer a cortisol-inducing thrill ride and ages you with its quickfire demonstration that politics is not for widdle babies, though to be fair, Julia's appalling Selina Meyer makes the idea of working for Maggie Barry seem like it might be child's play.

But I've been enjoying the other end of the spectrum of late and have a trio of slow-moving gems to recommend.

the tone is as remarkable as the director's name on the credits is surprising: Ben Stiller

Escape at Dannemora

(Soho, Neon)

This is a glacial but drama-fuelled retelling of a true story concerning a prison break in the US in which a female prison guard (Patricia Arquette) has an intimate and ultimately disastrous relationship with two inmates (Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano). We know the drill with prison dramas but we don't usually get the feeling we're watching them in real time.

The slow burn of the planning phase is rolled out like a marathon, the ducks that need to be lined up are but a few, but getting them plumb is thrilling even as it tugs at the attention span. Episode one of this seven-parter is a perfectly honed thing, the tone is as remarkable as the director's name on the credits is surprising: Ben Stiller? He's got a dark heart all right, we kinda knew that, but he's really found his calling here.


Let it drift along, drag you in and remind you that breaking out of the nick ain't as easy as it looks on Hogan's Heroes. Arquette's character is a study in the terrifying nexus of self loathing and self obsession and Del Toro is just gloriously ghastly; his fellow jailbreaker (Paul Dano) is the viewer's closest friend, though the long-suffering husband, played by Eric Lang, steals the show with his hangdog sadness of epic proportions.

Go South (Prime)

In the time you take to watch Escape at Dannemora you'd only be halfway down the North Island via the train. I haven't taken the trip since the late 1980s, but it remains a sort of obsession. The last time rail had an impact on our TV schedules was when Marcus Lush played the pig in muck in his much loved Off The Rails series.

Go South, which ran recently on Prime and is available via it's on-demand service, is a real slowpoke. A full 12-hour version ran overnight, though I only made it through the highlights package, which weighed in at a mere three hours. Initial signs were not good as the off from the Auckland rail station was underwhelming. But before long I was off and involved in this strangely familiar journey. There is no voice over, just the occasional text giving potted history and geographic pointers. I found myself drifting, attending to emails, watering a plant, but the train rolled on and dragged me back. A drone shot popped up to reveal a beauty spot, and finally the ultimate rail-based wonder, the magnificent Raurimu Spiral.

Slow TV of this kind was pioneered by the Norwegians a decade ago with a seven-hour train journey. Ocean cruises and moose hunts have followed. Like them, Go South is gloriously boring and wondrous at the same time. I sat transfixed, and then wandered away, only to come back to see where we were up to. Sort of like a slow-moving cricket test but without Simon Doull droning on.

In The Zone

(TVNZ On Demand)

Fans of real-estate jargon will be familiar with the enticing phrase "Grammar Zone".


A tried-and-true method of getting your kids ahead is to pack them off to a fancy school. Problem being, if you live in South or West Auckland you can't go to Grammar, because you are "out of zone". Rich immigrants and pakeha families with plenty of dosh have little trouble.

Enter African American Terrance Wallace, the star of this affecting feature-length documentary. His near-death experience on the mean streets of Chicago has evangelised him into some sort of educational superhero. His plan is to get poor brown kids into the zone to give them a leg up. To aid his mission Terrance finds a boarding house owned by a local iwi that's a stone's throw from Grammar and starts to fill it up with kids, some of whom go on to great things.

But this is no short-and-sweet Sunday night current affairs romp. There's plenty of time to soak up the scale of the challenges that come with Wallace's vision and to ponder the discrepancies of race, class and real estate.

A two-hour tribute to a man who found his crack and a way to shine a light through it.