Monday, March 03, 2008

Disappointing Narratives

Such is the dearth of good contemporary drama on television that when a new series comes on you want to give it time, even if it falls well short of what you'd hoped for. When two disappointments come simultaneously it makes you wonder whether there's something wrong with the format/the commissioning process or the broadcaster? In both cases, the BBC. "The Last Enemy" began promisingly, albeit bafflingly so, but three episodes in I'm keeping watching it more out of sympathy than enjoyment. It's not bad per se, (more of that in a minute), but it lacks both a centre, and a meaningful narrative arc. Its like a Faberge egg, glitzy, cleverly constructed, but ultimately pointless. The "surveillance" society that underpins it is the most interesting bit - yet its nothing more than a glorified cold war thriller in the way it uses this information. Had it been released as a cash-in follow up to "The Ipcress file" it wouldn't have felt out of place. Probably what lets it down is the lack of genuine belief in any of the characters or their improbably relationships (the obsessive compulsive Stephen Ezzard seems to have dropped his OCD just as soon as the writers had done away with a need for it), plus, a distinct cheapness to the sets and the filming. This is surely TV, nothing more. The heart of T.I.A. is a desktop computer in a grubby basement room at the Houses of Parliament, and every second scene is either in a council tenement or a dockside warehouse. The Bill has better production values. There's enough loose ends (is it anything else?) to perhaps keep me watching till the end, but I've so little interests in the lead characters plight, that I don't think I'd be that upset if the bad guys got away with everything. Yet, if "The Last Enemy" seems a misfire, at least you can see why it was commissioned; "Ashes to Ashes", ill-conceived follow up to "Life on Mars" is an absolute disaster. "Life on Mars" wasn't ever quite as good and clever as it thought it was, with some episodes little more than second rate police procedurals only loosely linked to the central concept. "Ashes to Ashes" tries to mash together its two timezones but you almost have to go out and make a coffee during these bits, so excruciating are they. Keeley Hawes, a favourite actress of mine in the past, is unbelievably bad in this role - but it's hard to say what she could have done better with such a messed up narrative. Yes, when Gene Hunt appears on screen there's the usual fun, just about, that made "Life on Mars" such a pleasure, but overall, I'm not sure I can bear another episode. Only "Torchwood" in its new series, rescues the BBC's contemporary drama output from disaster, with only the last episode, featuring the Grim Reaper and a 12th century plague and Owen "defeating death", being a bit of a misfire - easily made up for by the brilliance of earlier episodes. You notice that all of these shows have both a "concept" to deliver and a weekly episode to knock out, and it seems the pressures of dealing with both is showing. Situation drama, in other words, with wooden characters, and a troublesome narrative arc. With a box set of, say, the Wire, Battlestar Galactica or the West Wing, just an internet order away, the Beeb needs to do better.

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