COBRA: The bleak political disaster thriller you don’t need but will watch anyway
Ivan Radford | On 17, Jan 2020
Geostorm meets Brexit. That may well have been the pitch for Sky’s new drama, COBRA, which erupts onto our TV screens with all the subtlety of a plane crash – and then, within an hour, actually crashes a plane for good measure.
The premise at once ludicrously overwrought and absurdly simple: solar flares are threatening to wreak serious problems with the country’s infrastructure, with the potential to plunge the whole country into darkness. It’s no spoiler to say it does, but the fun comes with the fact that scientists won’t know for sure whether it’s a disaster until about 30 minutes before it all kicks off, which means that when Bad Things Happen, everyone panics.
Well, not everyone. COBRA takes its name from the top secret cabinet that meets during national emergencies to work out the best response. At its head is PM Robert Sutherland (a cool and collected Robert Carlyle), supported by his private secretary Anna (Victoria Hamilton, ruthless and focused), Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat Fraser (Richard Dormer, sharp, shrewd and brutally blunt) and press secretary Peter (Edward Bennett, desperate and determined). In between them all is Home Secretary Archie Glover-Morgan (David Haig, manipulative, selfish and cunning), who is just waiting for the opportune moment to seize power.
The result is a wonderfully daft situation that balances barely plausible pandemonium with constant political sniping and game-playing. On the one hand, we watch as someone tries to rescue a baby from a blazing plane wreckage just off the A1; on the other, we see Anna troubled over what to about the sudden arrival of her brooding ex, Fraser fretting over his dad in a care home, and Robert’s daughter getting involved in drugs. Which one are we meant to take most seriously? The answer is all of them, and there’s something brilliantly heated about the way COBRA treats everything as a potentially life-changing ultimatum.
That makes it sound like the show is stupid, but it’s clever in just the right ways. Writer Ben Richards (a Spooks and Strike veteran) stitches the madness together with precision, keeping the pace moving at a gripping lick and lacing every exchange with a barbed one-liner, rib-jabbing nod to current events or a dose of humour.
“You voted to leave the EU, Archie, not the human race,” retorts Robert halfway through a debate over whether to help France with its own aviation crisis. “I’m not some volunteer you get handsy with on the battle bus,” declares Anna, putting Archie in his sexist, morally dubious place. David Haig, of course, laps it all up with a delightfully horrible grin, playing the villain with panto-like glee. If he had a moustache, he’d be twiddling it.
There are questions of plausibility, of course, as everything professional and personal happens to go awry at the same time, and there’s not much in the way of what Donald Trump or other global figures are doing, via the news or social media – something that’s only really an issue because the drama allows Brexit into its alternate reality. But things move at such speed, and the cast are so convincing, that you don’t really consider all that until you’re already halfway through.
Victoria Hamilton is eminently watchable as Robert’s vital right-hand woman, while it’s a treat to see Robert Carlyle sink his teeth into a leading TV role; he gradually evolves into your dream Prime Minister as he faces a national emergency with a humanity that’s missing from news headlines. He’s Britain’s answer to Jed Bartlet in The West Wing. Whether you’re tuning in for the high-stakes power-plays or the never-ending sense of impending calamity, there’s something irresistible – and oddly cathartic – about watching a leader calmly and compassionately steer their way through a total nightmare. Entertaining, polished and well acted, this is the bleak political disaster thriller you didn’t know you needed.
Cobra: Season 1 is available on Sky One. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial. (An Entertainment Pass auto-renews at £8.99 a month until 1st September 2020, £9.99 thereafter unless cancelled.)