2008 on the goggle box: Drama

Contains spoilers!

I wonder why TV shows do not attract end-of-year lists in the same way as records do. Maybe they do, and I just don’t look in the right places. Or maybe it’s that music is more personal: you can carry it with you; when you buy it, there is a sense in which you own it; there is a greater choice, so what you listen to reflects who you are more than what you watch. Perhaps. Certainly TV is still something you have to experience by sitting in front of a screen – albeit you can take a small screen with you on the train these days if you wish – and the number of things you can do while watching it is limited to things like ironing rather than driving.

The comparison also falls down for books and films; all attract much mainstream comment. TV shows are assessed among select bands of producers and writers, joined only recently by anoraks connected by the internet. It baffles me slightly: for me, the engagement with a drama series is every bit as deep as that with a book or a record – as with other forms, it might be more or less deep or involved depending on the scope, ambition and quality of the work, but in principle it is fundamentally similar. It certainly does not require less skill to write, produce or act in a television programme than it does to make a record or a film. So I’m going to do much the same for TV as I have for music – apart from the compiling a CD bit.

Just as Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have been topping end-of-year album polls, a few shows would probably be making the running in TV lists if they existed. Skins, Doctor Who and Apparitions might be on the list. Unfairly overlooked might be Jericho and Out of the Blue. But if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best TV show of the year in my opinion, I would plump for season four of House.

The writers’ strike perhaps enhanced this show, as its story arc worked beautifully over a truncated season of 16 episodes in a way that would probably not have been the case over 25. Despite each episode being deeply formulaic, the makers of the show are still finding new ways of putting the formula into action: this year, House begins an X-Factor style talent contest to hire a new team of assistants. The drawing out of these characters over the course of the first two thirds or so of the season was masterful; the pay-off in the later part was utterly sublime, and will surely frame the early part of the fifth season.

To turn to more widely-viewed fare, I approached the fourth series of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who with little enthusiasm: much of the preceding series had been merely OK in my eyes, and I feared we were in for a year of re-treading old ideas. Delightfully, I was largely wrong about that: this year’s series was probably the most consistently high-standard run since Christopher Eccleston’s sole series, and also contained some sublime high points. Catherine Tate’s Donna was a far more interesting, and far better-acted, character than Martha Jones; while I was amused to see a set-up at the end of the series for Martha to join Torchwood, only for Freema Agyeman to take the dosh and move to ITV. They’re welcome to her – I’m in the camp that says she just can’t act, sorry.

I found myself lacking the time to do episode-by-episode reviews, but there was barely a story I did not enjoy. The Sontaran episodes were probably the most satisfying of the many Earth-invasion stories we have now seen, bar Army of Ghosts / Doomsday; Steven Moffat’s episodes were every bit as good as you would expect; and RTD’s own Midnight and Turn Left were in my view among his very best scripts ever, starkly exploring the best and worst of human nature in totally different ways from each other. On the down side, while the finale was great fun I didn’t feel Davros added much to the story, nor did I feel the story thread with Rose added to the perfect ending she was given in Doomsday – if anything, it seems to cheapen that episode, which had provided the most emotionally resonant moment seen in Doctor Who. Still, this is nit-picking: the series was a triumph.

Happily, Torchwood found its feet as well, with a more purposeful and convincing set of characters in the Hub than the first series had presented. I still wasn’t too sorry to see Tosh and Owen killed at the end, but Owen’s journey to get there in particular was extremely inventive. Elsewhere in the Doctor Who universe, I still have most of The Sarah Jane Adventures sitting around waiting to be watched, but the episodes I did see suggested it retains its sureness of touch – though perhaps it suffered slightly from overly cute and tidy endings.

Skins was another sure-footed second series this year. Reading RTD’s views on the first series in his book is rather interesting. I think he misreads the show somewhat: to my eyes, they seemed to have got the tone right after the first four episodes or so of the first run, and then kept it running solidly to the end of the second (bar 2007’s now-notorious rubbish Russian episode): certainly it is no longer a show from which we would expect comedy characters like Mad Twatter, gloriously-named though he was. Instead, it proved a show that put its characters through the wringer like almost no other: Sketch’s downfall on-stage, the death of Sid’s dad, the unveil of Cassy when Sid and Michelle return home and Chris’s death were all utterly stunning moments in television – many programmes can’t manage a single climactic moment like that, but Skins was awash with them. Although I couldn’t manage to feel much warmth towards Cassie this time round – all she ever seemed to do was fuck things up for other people. Still, Hannah Murray’s portrayal was superb throughout. Bryan Elsley’s fearless approach to making drama continues with a new cast in 2009, and I can’t wait – I fully expect it to be brilliant, but even if it falters it is bound to do so in a fascinating way.

Another of the TV moments that sticks in my mind from this year was the revelation of Tom and Debbie’s relationship in Shameless, which I’m pretty sure actually made me say “oh God!” out loud, even though there was nobody else there. This time last year, I was lamenting Shameless’s descent into drivel and dreading the prospect of a huge 16-episode run in 2008. Once again, I was proved gloriously wrong: Shameless was on top form this year, with its characters back to being dissected in the most fascinating and rumbustuous way. A great example: Frank is in a drug-induced conversation with his younger self, who asks him when he started drinking; the realisation of the answer to the question strikes him for the first time as he says it out loud: “just after Mum died”. David Threlfall would be a great choice for Doctor Who; despite reports that Shameless will be reduced to eight episodes in 2010, it still seems that his commitment to the show will rule him out of the reckoning. Shame.

Let’s leave the high profile shows for a moment: two of my other favourites this year have in common that they were both imports, both overlooked, and both cruelly mistreated by the networks that commissioned them. Well, in the case of Jericho, that’s a bit debatable: excellent though it was, it simply didn’t attract the viewers in the US, though whether that was through network mismanagement or not I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a story you might have heard: the series revolved around a small town in rural America after a co-ordinated nuclear attack destroyed most of the country’s major cities; it follows the fortunes of the town – the titular Jericho – and its inhabitants as the USA’s rule of law, government and infrastructure disintegrate. At the same time, clues start to emerge about the true nature of the mysterious terrorist attacks.

Perhaps the superficial similarity of Jericho’s premise to a series of 24 made viewers regard it as old hat; if so, they were missing out on a totally different beast. It was a compelling programme: I picked up on the first series as part of a set of re-runs on ITV4, and could happily watch two or three episodes at a time – it’s one of those programmes where you hate having to wait to find out what happens next. The second series – only seven episodes, after which the axe fell in the US for a second and apparently final time – made its debut on ITV4 in the autumn and delivered the goods in a satisfying way. I recommend you seek the show out on DVD in the new year sales.

The second of my pair of imports was an Australian soap – the first time I’ve watched one of them since giving up on Neighbours in about 1994. I’ve written about Out of the Blue elsewhere, but I remain annoyed by the BBC’s handling of the show: with an evening repeat or weekend omibus I feel quite sure it could have picked up a strong audience. Trouble was, the BBC wanted it to pick up the Neighbours audience and gave it about two weeks to do it – it failed, and was shunted off to BBC2. It was interesting to hear Russell T Davies say at his National Film Theatre event to promote his book that, back in 2005, the BBC had made contingency plans to shunt Doctor Who off to Sunday afternoons half-way through its run if it had flopped; alas, for Out of the Blue, similar contingency plans were put into operation prematurely. The show has 20 or 30 episodes left to run in the new year, after which the BBC will stop making it; I gather, however, that at least one foreign broadcaster has commissioned another run of episodes, so I hope they will find their way on to UK screens. Alas, it looks like it won’t happen until – at the very earliest – one of Five’s digital channels has completed a run of all 150 BBC episodes, for which it has just acquired the rights. No small irony given that Five was the destination of Neighbours after the BBC opted to stop paying for it.

One new BBC commission that did manage to make it through its run in its intended scheduling position was Merlin, the second “tried and trusted formula” drama commissioned to attract the family audience that Doctor Who had re-discovered. It was a strangely uneven show: if anything, it showed how sure-footed Robin Hood had in fact been. In Hood, the characters were well set-up and consistently well-acted, and each series told a story across its run. In Merlin, the characters seemed more sketchy, the acting and production values more haphazard, and the series overall rather aimless.

But that’s not to say it was bad: rather, it seemed to give the impression of a show struggling to find its feet, not unlike the first series of Torchwood. It showed undoubted promise, and the BBC were right to show the faith to re-commission it; most notably, Merlin held its audience despite not having a consistent timeslot on Saturday evenings. The idea of exploring the start of the relationship between Merlin and Arthur was inspired; it also gives a clear “destination” for the series, as Uther Pendragon is still alive, and Guinevere and Morgana are not in their accustomed positions of legend, but are instead a servant girl and Uther’s ward respectively. Perhaps the production team were wary of taking too many strides towards the characters’ eventual destiny too soon: Morgana’s emergence as a seer has so far led nowhere, though hints of her estrangement from the Pendragons have been shown. Mordred, Excalibur and Lancelot all put in appearances, but for one episode each and really seemed to go nowhere. Hints were given too of Guinevere falling in love with Arthur, although for most of the series she seems more interested in Merlin.

Comment on the series initially focused on the identikit plots: a mysterious stranger would turn up at Camelot and be welcomed by Uther, only to turn out to be a sorcerer with nefarious purpose. Merlin would then save the day with some magic to which everyone else remained oblivious. It had the unfortunate effect of making all the characters look like idiots. Some commentators also picked up a homoerotic frisson between Merlin and Arthur – perhaps it would be more fair to say that Colin Morgan and Bradley James were among the very few pairings of cast members between whom there seemed to be any particular chemistry. Richard Wilson was invariably watchable as Gaius – without him I rather suspect the show would have crumbled. Morgana remained under-used; hopefully the second run will give her more screen time – and maybe even re-cast Gwen, who came across as both wooden and wet. Michelle Ryan’s hypnotically seductive Nimueh seemed under-exploited, while the death of Gwen’s father was rather thrown away, going unmentioned after the episode in which it occurred. Oh, and the dragon was a bit of a waste of time too; there were hints that the dragon was pursuing his own agenda here and there, but it might have been more interesting to have him manipulating Merlin to his own ends rather than just periodically whinge at him.

I’m looking forward both to new Merlin and the third series of Robin Hood, but both suffer somewhat from having to meet 13-episode runs. For series of self-contained episodes with smallish casts and only one setting, it’s too many. Doctor Who can do it because it has a new setting almost every week, but for other shows ten episodes would be quite enough.

Staying with the BBC for a moment, I can see why Dan Paton and others might write off Survivors as boring, but on balance I felt it was pretty effective… with a massive “BUT” looming in a moment. It certainly succeeded in building up a set of characters that I cared about. But it was undeniably slow-paced (that’s not the big “BUT”): almost certainly this reflects the source material – it claims to be based on the novel by Terry Nation, but (that’s not the big “BUT” either) that was itself bound up with his TV series of the 1970s, so a slow pace is not unexpected. Overall, it perhaps lacks the desperation seen in Jericho, where the collapse in civilisation was stark and immediate; in Survivors so far, things have seemed fairly cute with occasional interjections of the horror of the situation. Maybe it needed to go further in exploring the horror – then again, Jericho was about a pre-existing community trying to survive and so could juxtapose collapse and cohesiveness; in Survivors, there are no communities left to begin with.

The big “BUT” is this: after five slow episodes, gradually building the characters, the sixth offered some big pay-offs, bringing back numerous apparently guest figures, plus the putative new government… and then it ended in a dirty great big cliffhanger! Now, there’s easily enough mileage in the show for a second series, and I would guess that the second series is when the show will depart from the source material completely and tell the story that Adrian Hodges really wants to tell… But I couldn’t help but feel somewhat taken for a ride at the end – having invested in a well-made but rather slow and demanding series, I was given next to nothing for my efforts. Plus, if the BBC had opted not to commission a second series, Hodges wouldn’t have got to tell his story anyway. I wonder if the lesson is that it’s better for a show-runner to get his story hammered out at the first opportunity, and worry about leaving himself short of plots for a future series if and when it becomes a problem. House provides an excellent example of a show that apparently told all its stories after a couple of series, but found a brilliantly successful way to find new twists on its formula; Survivors has taken a different approach – I’m hopeful it will be rewarding come the second series, but I’d rather have had a bit more satisfaction from the first.

A show deliberately pitched in an eccentric way was Pushing Daisies, imported from the US and shown by ITV at 9pm in an unusually bold move for imported drama (remember when BBC1 would put the imported Perry Mason on in Saturday primetime? It seems like a lifetime ago). The programme’s heavily stylised, fairytale-cum-cartoon idiom generally found favour with viewers and critics, and it was certainly very enjoyable: Anna Friel and Lee Pace were hugely watchable, working with some very sharp scripts. That said, the overt wackiness was clearly an effort to put across an uncanny plot scenario in a way that was more palatable to the US network than the show’s predecessor Wonderfalls, which also featured Pace in the cast. Indeed, a minor character from Wonderfalls is due to appear in a second-series episode of Daisies. Ultimately Brian Fuller’s experiments with tone proved only marginally more successful than the streetwise style of Wonderfalls: Daisies has been cancelled in the US after two series rather than one. But if you liked Pushing Daisies and would enjoy something similar but with more bite, I can’t recommend Wonderfalls highly enough – it remains available on region 1 DVD.

The second series of David Renwick’s Love Soup aired at around the same time as Pushing Daisies. When I last blogged about it, I expressed doubts about the tactic of adapting it to fit the absence of the leading man from the first series. Alas, it proved enjoyable and funny, but ultimately unsatisfying: the confirmation that Alice had indeed missed her soulmate due to Gil’s heart attack made for a horribly downbeat and unsatisfying ending to the series, even though it had in every other respect been superb. Still, I’m looking forward to the New Year’s Day special of Jonathan Creek, with Love Soup refugee Sheridan Smith, whose turn in the play Tinderbox at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush was my only serious theatrical experience of the year, and a really worthwhile one.

Finally for drama, let’s go back to the start of the year for Ashes to Ashes. I perhaps can’t add much to my comments at the time: I enjoyed the setting of the 1980s more, as it means more to me than the ’70s, and certainly don’t think the excellent Keeley Hawes deserved the stick she got for her performances. But I’m not sure I care about Drake’s backstory: the climax showing her parents’ death, with the clown make-up special effect, was mesmerising – but where can they go next? As with Life On Mars, the climactic storyline might end up being nothing to do with Drake’s modern-day life – and I seem to be the only person who felt like Life On Mars ended by taking the viewer for a mug.

Looking ahead to 2009, there are some new series of the shows above to enjoy. A programme I’m particularly looking forward to is Being Human, the BBC3 series commissioned off the back of an excellent pilot earlier this year (the same batch of pilots that gave us the ultimately unmade Phoo Action – which was fun as far as it went, but perhaps would indeed have struggled to maintain a full series). Unfortunately perhaps, the cast has been substantially retooled between the pilot and the series: in particular, Andrea Riseborough is now absent – she was brilliant in the pilot and put in an excellent, and totally contrasting, turn in Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore this year. That said, she’s been replaced by Leonora “Sugar Rush” Critchlow so it’s not all bad. The real question is whether the sharp and sassy vision of Toby Whithouse’s pilot has been compromised by BBC3’s apparent desire to pitch it at a slightly younger audience. I do hope not. There is a screening of the first episode at the NFT on January 16th – I might report back then.

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