Monday, February 22, 2010

Lost Interest

I’d always find it amusing when, during a frank exchange about whether American television drama is better than the English product, the witless maroon desperately trying to convince me that Casualty is better than ER or Doctor Who knocks spots off Battlestar Galactica eventually resorts to blurting out: “Well, if you like American television so much, why don’t you bloody well live there!” At that point any kind of ongoing argument is over.

Once that specific retort rears its ugly head, making me out to be a traitor to the mother country, there’s simply no reason to continue. But the fact is that my reply to their outburst wouldn’t have done either of us any favours or helped the discussion one jot. If we carried on I’d eventually have to admit that while I heartily champion many of their dramas and comedies I simply can’t stand American television, or rather the American television schedule.

Back when I was out there for extended periods – whether it was time spent in New York or Burbank, or even the weeks in the rented house in Key West while the ex–girlfriend and soon to be ex– earned their scuba diving certificates – there was never one whole evening spent indoors vegging out in front of the television simply because it would drive me up the wall. Usually the set would be switched on for Jeopardy or a Seinfeld rerun (if there was one going) to play in the background while we prepared to head out to dinner or a movie or simply to hit the bars.

One night I even sat in a theatre, slack jawed, as a Manhattan–based amateur dramatics society utterly massacred Gilbert and Sullivan, and then had to go out to dinner with the jubilant players after their curtain call, as an alternative to staying in and watching the box. The simple reason was that, before the influx of reality shows that are blotted about like a virulent fungal infection, the network primetime schedules were just a massive stodge of dramas and sitcoms. If there was the odd new episode I would make a point of catching, I’d rarely want to sit through another drama or another comedy immediately afterwards.

So what it came down to was the utter lack of variety in the schedules. There were no quizzes or panel shows to help mix things up and, more importantly, no decent documentaries. Flicking through the many channels, whenever I alighted upon something that might have fitted the bill, it was either sensationalist nonsense or seemed to be specifically infantilized for the particularly hard of thinking. Obviously you can’t please all the people all the time, but in the end I’d always be happy to pack up and catch the flight home just to watch some factual programming that didn’t treat me like I was a complete imbecile.

Once the television channels got their breath back after the usual nonsense of Christmas and New Year, which this time around required David Tennant to appear in just about every damn programme going, some particularly fine documentary series started to arrive, but what about the drama? Two decades on from the 1990 Broadcasting Act, every year seems like another sharp kick in the balls for anyone wanting more than just seeing hour upon hour of ordinary folk recounting their woes over a pint or being cheered with a nice cup of tea, or another familiar round of carriages and corsets and uniquely English whodunnits.

In my argument that US television drama generally bettered its UK counterparts, what I’ll always try and get across to those raving spittle–flecked loons unwilling to consider my point of view was the more inventive and original nature of the American material, whether in story or setting. Whenever a British series tries something different the idea somehow never seems to be entirely thought through, like Survivors, which was populated by too many characters that didn’t appear to have the smarts to get through a normal day let alone cope in the wake of a devastating pandemic.

One of the many problems I had with the recent remake of The Day of the Triffids was having the characters being written as a bunch of dunderheads unable to cope with the situation and eking cheap drama out of their rudimentary mistakes. Years ago I took some screenwriting classes scheduled for one evening a week just to get away from being in the studio all hours. For the penultimate class our tutor asked everyone to bring in favourite film sequences that were devoid of dialogue. I took along Michael Mann’s Thief, cued up to the Los Angeles diamond heist that James Caan’s Frank agrees to do for the Chicago crime boss Leo.


It’s difficult to watch clips out of context at the best of times but once the job was done and Frank pulled up a chair and lit a welcome cigarette, when the tutor asked the rest of the class what they thought, almost all of them hated it. Asked why, nearly all the responses boiled down to the fact that because Frank and his crew were experts the robbery went to plan. When they lit the thermal lance to burn through the vault door nobody accidentally caught on fire, nor did and the police get wind of the heist and come bursting in before they had the gems. I tried to explain that because they had such a particular skill set their problems would appear on a different level from amateur crooks but they weren’t having it.

I think my problem with most new original British dramas is they lack cleverness, or at least the kind of cleverness that I look for. Are people scared by intelligence? Or don’t they like to be made to think, instead wanting any old nonsense that they can stare glassy–eyed at as their day winds down? When that’s what they’re given, because the numbers say it’s what they want, television drama over here isn’t going to get better but worse. Aside from documentaries and news, I currently watch the BBC channels just for the Monday night double bill of University Challenge and Only Connect and the XL version of QI. Everything else is just the wrong kind of mulch and ITV1 and Channel 4 don’t even figure on my radar anymore.

Still, that doesn’t mean I blindly gorge on imported shows to make up the shortfall. As new seasons arrived in the New Year, I was surprised by how many dramas I’ve given up on and stopped watching. Some I’ve grown tired of over the past few years, either because they’ve become too predictable or simply gone off the boil, so that struck House, Heroes and 24 off the list. Others, like Fringe, Big Love and True Blood, I just didn’t take to. Joining them now is Leverage. It recently arrived on Bravo with a great pilot but two or three episodes in turned out to be not that much better than Hustle, which had a reasonably decent first year based on the novelty factor and then snuffed that out by coming back, again and again, with just the same old, same old.

So that just leaves me with only a handful of dramas worth watching, and the one thing almost all the shows share, apart from the smart writing and fine performances, is a subject matter we don’t ordinarily see over here in the UK. Watching the new third season of Mad Men on BBC4 it had me wondering why there hasn’t been a British drama set in an advertising agency other than Les Blair’s Honest, Decent & True, broadcast in the Screen Two strand almost a quarter of a century ago. Obviously there’s more to Matthew Weiner’s drama, with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce the backdrop for characters creating a new image and identity for themselves, turning their lives into an ongoing campaign, but that kind of work arena is particularly fertile ground.

Having worked at a design and advertising consultancy during the fag end of the 1980s before (quite literally) taking flight – and followed that with the years working on commercials – I’ve met my fair share of “creatives”, account managers and producers, along with clients so utterly witless they deserved to be fleeced for every penny on campaigns that weren’t as significant as everyone made out. Though most were best categorized as pond scum there were still enough intriguing characters with a handle on what they were doing to make it interesting. They may have been more brash and self–important than most ordinary folk but that kind of behaviour isn’t exactly exclusive to their line of business.

Yet when it comes to a homegrown attempt at using an advertising agency milieu we get the BBC Two sitcom The Persuasionists. On the evidence of the ten minutes I sat, stony–faced through, this garbage was not only devoid of comedy but a basic grasp of advertising, resorting to every stale cliché in the book. No wonder it got kicked from its original time slot and bounced around the schedules as the remaining episodes were burnt off. Compared to Channel 4’s superior Free Agents from last year, where a talent agency setting allowed supporting characters to be spectacularly reprehensible in an environment that tolerates such behaviour, while the leads dealt with more familiar trials, The Persuasionists looked even more pathetically obvious and slovenly thought out.

If intelligence is frowned upon it also seems that ordinariness is valued over invention in ongoing drama. When did adult UK drama step away from creativity? By that I don’t mean blowing the lid off the dressing–up box or splashing out on extravagant sets. Some time back I chanced upon an episode of Waterloo Road, an incredibly pointless Grange Hill–for–grownups as far as I could tell. It reminded me how much fun Channel 4’s anarchic Teachers had been, at least until the more interesting actors jumped ship and the fizz quickly fizzled out. Although in retrospect the increasingly bad behaviour of the staff at Summerdown Comprehensive turned out to be rather tame in comparison to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad.


Sure, the mid–life crisis scab has occasionally been picked at over here but it usually resorts to the predictable, involving wives being trading in for younger models, flash cars, and men acting like complete cocks. Nothing has approached the wonderful extreme of Vince Gilligan’s drama in which a middle–aged Albuquerque high school teacher, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, teams up with one his none too bright ex–pupils to cook up and sell crystal meth to provide for the pregnant wife and child he’ll leave behind. While it would be wrong to say that hilarity always ensues, at the very least Breaking Bad is a good learning experience, especially if you want to know the best way to dissolve a body in restrictive surroundings.

Having the show’s second year stripped into FiveUSA’s Christmas schedule was an unusual and sometimes somewhat inconvenient festive treat, but once the thirteen–episode season was hastily gobbled up it left a void that has only recently been filled with Sons of Anarchy. There have been many adaptations of Shakespeare in the past – some years ago the BBC updated a quartet of plays in Shakespeare Retold, an idea which seemed like an afterthought to the contemporary versions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – but Kurt Sutter’s loose take on Hamlet steamrollers over the lot of them by shifting the setting from Elsinore to the small Californian town of Charming and turning the characters into the local chapter of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle gang, running guns and keeping unwelcome drug dealers off the streets.

Could we make something like either of those two shows over here? Probably not, simply because the tiny–minded middle Englanders who cuddle up to the comfortable, inoffensive stories that hark back to the golden days of Albion would no doubt become apoplectic if some comparable subject matter appeared on screen. But I think the other contributory factory is the scale of landscape where “bad guys” – for the most part the more interesting characters – can go about their business. With everyone virtually looking over each other’s shoulders and the net curtains twitching, this kind of extreme behaviour would make for a lively episode of Midsomer Murders but by the end any survivors would be in shackles and the status quo would be redressed.

Obvious the subject matter tends toward particularly brutal situations. Five episodes in Sons of Anarchy has seen a Korean Elvis impersonator taking a severe beating, a rapist having his balls posted to the victim’s father, and an ex–gang member having his SOA tattoo forcibly removed with an acetylene torch. For all the savage violence, it’s saved from being simply gratuitous by good storytelling and well–judged comic relief to counterpoint the sturm und drang that doesn’t tip over into clumsy broad comedy, best exemplified by rookie gang member Juice who has so far woken up in only a giant nappy with the sign ‘slightly retarded child, please adopt me’ stuck to his chest after accidentally doped himself up, and then spiked a piece of meat meant to knock out a rabid guard dog with meth.

Joining the watch list, provisionally, is Caprica. I’ve never been an especially big fan of sequels and prequels less so because the former are usually unnecessary and the latter even more unnecessary. Hampered by continuity and lacking in real suspense, most simply exist as callous money–spinners to extend a story that has reached its natural conclusion. But with the clock running down on Dollhouse and Eleventh Hour over here we really need some more intelligent science fiction to step into their place. Otherwise what’s the alternative? Stargate Universe? The only fun I got out of that was discovering Joseph Mallozzi, one of the show’s writers and consulting producers was actively soliciting input for the next season from the fans. What a complete maroon!

At least Caprica has an intriguing premise to work with, stirring up a mix of hedonism, technology and hubris that we know is going to end badly for everyone involved. Dealing with those issues means it’s far removed from the silly alien guff that turns science fiction into the sort of twisted masquerade ball that should only intrigue children still learning to crawl. With only the Adama family a direct link to the characters in Battlestar Galactica it removes itself far enough from the original series. As long as it doesn’t stray too far into the twatty teen preserve favoured by the likes of Smallville it might be interesting to see life in the Colonies before the fall. Although the moment a young Laura Roslin appears in William Adams’ classroom I’ll be lunging for the remote.


After that, all that’s left is Lost. A few days after the final season kicked off I was out with the usual crowd, meeting up at the BFI Southbank. Retiring to The Riverfront bar I gauged their opinion on the two–part opener only to find none of them had actually caught it. In fact amongst those who once watched it, almost all had given up years ago. The relatively lacklustre third year when the narrative seemed to be stretching itself out had been the tipping point, in fact it seemed to be the time when most people bailed on the show. I suspect if it had carried on that way I might have thrown in the towel as well but then producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof went to the network and asked to set an end date for the show.

That was probably the smartest thing the pair ever did. After all, American television is not exactly an environment conducive to drama that strives to have a specific beginning, middle and end. If the show is a hit the network is going to want to keep it on the air for as long as possible. That’s fine for something specifically character–driven or one that has season–long story arcs, but a drama that specifically knows where it’s going usually finds itself having to pad out the mid–section. When that goes into effect there’s the danger audiences will turn off because it’s started going nowhere fast meaning that in all likelihood the show will be cancelled before the planned resolution, which means that in the end nobody benefits.

So when Lost was perceived to be treading water and the numbers went down the pair brokered a deal for two more seasons worth of episodes spread over three years that piqued my interest. Once that was in place, Lost was off to the races. I’d always been amused by folk whose excuse for bailing on this or any other show was because the believed the writers were “just making it up as they go along!” With everything else going on in life, trying to remember how a drama began when you’re three years down the line is tricky at the best of times. When FlashForward came out and fucked it up so badly, I went back and watched the first few episodes and it’s pretty much all there in embryonic form waiting to be realized.

What I was most surprised by was how the flashbacks, which the audience was lulled into thinking were simply a device to help establish the characters and their connections as well as provide an alternative to everyone standing around amongst jungle vegetation, prepared viewers for the far–reaching time shifts that occurred throughout the previous year and the current “flashsideways” or whatever it is the alternate reality sequences are being classified as. Adding this new dimension to what is already a particularly mind–bending narrative, it’s obvious that with only a dozen episodes left Lost isn’t going to ease up and coast toward the finish line.

Perverse as it may sound, I hope we don’t get answers to absolutely everything. When this Chinese puzzle box is finally unlocked I want a satisfactory resolution for the characters rather than a checklist of all the incidentals. But then what do I know; I was happy there was no explanation regarding Starbuck in the finale of Battlestar Galactica.

4 Comments:

At 5:32 pm, Blogger Ian said...

I'm one of those folk who thought "Lost" went off the boil a bit just a few episodes into Season 2 - but that may be coloured by the fact that I was trying to watch that season in real time with greedy Channel 4 shoving ad breaks in every few minutes and it just wasn't working with constant interrputions and weekly breaks. These days I avoid watching the stuff live and wait for the boxed sets - much more satisfying. I don't understand the flack "Lost" gets from so many - most of the so-called problematic 'questions they never answer' (where did the polar bear come from? Why did the plane crash?) HAVE been answered and to me the series has been internally consistent from start to finish, whilst managing to introduce stuff that's genuinely fresh and surprising every season, with moments of pure genius (that shock "It's not a flash back, it's a flash forward" ending to one of the seasons being one of my 'Best TV moments of all time' surprises).

I gave up on "House" very early - seemed to be exactly the same story every week and no matter how good Hugh Lawrie is, that doesn't make for great viewing week-in, week-out.

I'm also with you on "Fringe". Very disappointed with the show given the fanbase, praise and who's behind it. The characters are inconsistent and it's clear the writers are pretty much making it up from one week to the next. It's only John Noble's performance that makes it worth watching.

Have avoided "Caprica" - mainly because I thought "The Plan" was such an incoherent, poorly edited and directed mess I gave up on it half an hour in.

Wondered what you thought of "Dexter". Season 1 was gripping. Season 2 was just a dull repeat f the first season's main story, which made me think it was going the way "24" had gone. But Season 3 has put it back on course with some genuine surprises and wonderful dialogue, and I'm now waiting anxiously for Season 4 to see if it does a "Weeds" and jumps the shark badly in its fourth season.

Also, have you seen "Lie to Me" with Tim Roth? I'm only a few episodes in, and it is rather formulaic, but there's enough good writing (so far) to keep me interested.

Got "Sons of Anarchy" in the to-be-watched pile so looking forward to that one too.

 
At 7:34 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Ian,

Good to hear from you. The Lost flashback that turned out to be a flashforward was the finale of season three. That was a real stroke of genius and a real wake-up call to anyone thinking the show was getting predictable. With so much to pay attention to, it really is the sort of drama that needs to be watched without the constant ad breaks or the weekly pause between episodes.

When the transmission date of this final series was announced, having recently gone back and watched the first few episodes I wondered if I should try and see the whole run beforehand. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen so I caught the season openers and finales of both three and four and tried to watch all of season five, although I had to quickly skip to the end and then watch the episodes I’d missed during the week following the season six premiere. Even then I picked up a lot of information that I’d missed or simply forgotten and it certainly helped going into the final stretch. So the best way to get the full Lost experience is certainly through DVD.

When Fringe turned up it just looked like Department S and The X-Files and was too all over the place for me. I watched the final episodes of the first season because I was told I should then started on the second year and it all fell apart again. Even Noble was beginning to annoy me by then I just preferred the scenes with the cow.

Though I‘m hanging in with Caprica there hasn’t been that post-pilot wow moment like the revelation of John Locke’s physical impairment in Lost, Baltar taking a break from testing blood samples to bang the imaginary Six in Battlestar Galactica, and Jesse Dupree dissolving not just the body but the bathtub in Breaking Bad. I know what you mean about The Plan. It was like a collection of footnotes.

I thought the first season of Dexter was absolutely brilliant because it was something really different. The second season wasn’t so great. The only thing I can remember about it was that awful actress from Hustle being in it. I didn’t bother with the third year. The latest season has John Lithgow it in so that’ll be something to watch.

I haven’t seen Lie to Me yet. I have to saw I don’t mind the formulaic. In fact one other show I watch on a regular basis is NCIS. It’s certainly not groundbreaking but they’ve put together a group of actors who really work well with each other and their byplay is more interesting and entertaining than the various cases to solve each week. Obviously it’s popular because it seems to be on almost every channel all the time.

 
At 9:10 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I was very taken with the pilot for a show called WHITE COLLAR last year. I expected lightweight and predictable - charismatic forger teams with by-the-book FBI guy to lend his expertise in pursuit of art crimes - but it was a step up from that. It had a streak of darkness running through it and a textured, intelligent performance from CARNIVALE's Tim de Kay as the FBI agent. The plotting was sharp and twisty and New York locations gave it an extra edge.

I've seen about three episodes of the series that followed and those stories aren't quite in the same class... they feel safer, much more conventional. But viewed as a standalone the pilot's well worth a look.

 
At 10:38 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Stephen,

I’d read a few reviews of White Collar and although the people had some issues with the show they liked it. With Leverage I thought the pilot introduced the characters’ backgrounds with these great little vignettes that had me howling with laughter but by the second or third episode... it wasn’t exactly in a rut but rather than paying attention to the story I was trying to figure out where the slight of hand had occurred.

Maybe Five or FiveUSA will buy or Virgin1 will snap up White Collar. I was thinking how, almost two decades back it used to be Channel 4 that I always went to for the great American dramas like NYPD Blue or ER or Homicide: Life on the Street. Now 4 has steroid soap opera fluff like Desperate Housewives.

A couple of days ago ITV premiered Married Single Other, a new “romantic comedy drama” that was supposed to be the new Cold Feet. It was pretty sucky, which was a shame. I don’t know why we need a new Cold Feet because, well we’ve already got Cold Feet. And before that there was thirtysomething, which I don’t think has been bettered in terms of ensemble relationship dramas.

It just frustrates me that aside from the odd six–part serial – like the conspiracy dramas that turn up once every few years – we just get the same old, same old here. Why the hell can’t we get continuing drama series like, say, White Collar made in this country? Obviously there isn’t the money for the UK version of something big–budget like Lost, but just having dull, dull Holby hospital dramas all year round is so utterly dispiriting.

 

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