A year on the goggle box – Part Two: Other Drama

Surprisingly, I’ve concluded that the most consistently satisfying drama came from the independent sector this year. Even more surprisingly, perhaps my favourite series overall was on ITV – the third series of Doc Martin took the Martin – Louisa relationship on its full journey, and was utterly charming every step of the way. If it had a flaw, it’s that some of the subplots were perhaps a little too well-signposted and climaxed in a bit of an unsatisfying way, Pauline’s gambling addiction in particular. But the series didn’t shy away from being cruel to its characters at times, and ended on a pleasingly uncertain note that makes me anticipate the next series keenly.

Also from ITV, Secret Diary of a Call Girl was unusual for representing a half-hour drama – actually, with adverts, about 22 minutes. I’ve got all the episodes sitting around waiting to be watched, but curiously I can’t be bothered, and didn’t have the time when it was being broadcast. But it was probably quite good, if you like light drama arising from prostitution.

The Channel 4 stable also produced a bit of a mixed bag this year. I missed both Boy A and The Mark of Cain, so I hope they get repeated soon as I gather they were tremendous. Not at all tremendous was the flaccid fourth series of Shameless. It’s hard to pin down why it failed so miserably, as superficially its traditional balance of pathos and humour is more or less still intact. The key problem is perhaps that it was originally gripping because we were being let in on the lives of the characters, finding out about how they survived and seeing them respond to the challenges life threw at them in a way that was at time rough, but always warm-hearted.

Now the key emotional lynchpins of the series – Fiona and Steve, Kev and Veronica, and Frank and Sheila – have either left or split up, and we have pretty much got to know the other characters as well as we’re going to. What’s left is not a set of journeys for the characters to go on, but a series of Things that Happen to them: the show is reduced to being no more, and no less, engaging than Coronation Street, in which the plot is laid on top of the characters rather than seeming to arise naturally from them. The Maguires are essentially uninteresting, and the romance with Karen therefore has the same problem; even the traditional Debs-centric episode failed to engage me. Only the Frank – Sheila – Monica triangle was vaguely arresting, but that was resolved halfway through the run – Frank’s spluttered and inadvertant confessions to each of them in turn marked perhaps the only really successful scenes of the series. The climactic scene of the cast miming along to Take That represented its undeniable nadir, and really served to vindicate the brave decision to wind up Shameless’s superb contemporary No Angels after its third series last year. Unfortunately, we have a fifth series of Shameless to endure in 2008, which I fear will dilute its appeal even further.

Far superior to Shameless, perhaps surprisingly, was its stablemate Skins. I say “surprisingly” on account of the truly dreadful advertising that preceded the show, which made it seem utterly obnoxious. Frankly I’m not even sure why I even bothered to watch the first episode, but I’m glad I did: it’s certainly not a depiction of teenage life that anyone in the real world would recognise, and I suspect it will appeal more to people in their 20s and 30s than teens, but it was nevertheless a highly successful lesson in How To Make TV Drama.

The characters were interesting, generally sympathetic and consistently well-acted (the lead character played by the guy from About A Boy was unfortunately the only exception to the latter two points – he’s a difficult character to portray engagingly or sympathetically, but there can be little doubt Nicholas Hoult didn’t manage it). The episodes combined some slow-burning character and plot development with a focus on each main player by turn, often with a surprising amount of pathos. The last few episodes, in which Tony’s machinations finally and deservedly bit him on the arse, contained some of the most gloriously vindictive actions by any characters in any TV programme I’ve ever seen. The humour was sharp and at times a bit cartoonish, but as with Sugar Rush in 2005 and 2006 this generally worked, the Russian-set episode being the only one in which it fell down. The strained romance between Cassie and Sid was perhaps the sweetest relationship on the small screen all year. All told, this was much better than its own publicity suggested, and well deserves its second series commission.

Where American drama is concerned, I’m afraid I never got into Heroes. I saw the first couple of episodes, and they certainly seemed very good, but I just didn’t have time to watch the rest: they built up on my hard drive until eventually I just had to accept it was going to pass me by. That said, at around the same time I got totally hooked on DVD sets of Battlestar Galactica, which is utterly compelling character-driven drama, albeit with a sci-fi backdrop, that benefits from an instantly relentless pace, in contrast with the slow-burning Heroes.

The only other US drama that maintained my interest was the ever-dependable House. The second half of the third season didn’t have the same impetus as the first, which was dominated by the long-running duel between House and Tritter, but the characterisations and gripping medical scenarios made it eminently watchable up to its slightly surprising conclusion. I’m not sure whether Chase, Cameron and Foreman return to work for House next year, although apparently they all feature in the early episodes of the next series in some capacity or other.

Click here for the thrilling final instalment…
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