Monday, June 28, 2010

Britain rises to the TV challenge

In a gloomy, wet weekend that had its disappointments, a beacon of light was provided by the finale of series five of the new Doctor Who.

Complex ideas literally fizz out of Matt Smith's Doctor, indicating a pleasing determination on the part of new producer Steven Moffat not to pander to the Saturday evening lumpen-publikum like his predecessor. Ratings have dropped, but a certain carry on in South Africa may have contributed to this.

As someone who started watching Doctor Who as far back as 1971, I can honestly say that Matt Smith is by far the most inherently fascinating incarnation of the Time Lord yet. His comic timing is spot on. And Karen Gillan is also the strongest of the companions since Russell T. Davies rebooted the concept in 2005.

Even V is now hooked, and she used to regard catching up with the series as a bit of a chore. (Me too at times, I have to admit.) Now she can't wait for the Christmas special.

For so long British TV drama has lagged behind the output from across the pond. But now there are several multi-season shows from the BBC which are worthy of comparison, such as Survivors, which started off so terribly, but has pulled itself up to become one of the most gripping and well-written TV narratives in the UK.

The opposite appeared to happen with the now defunct US show Heroes which showed so much initial promise before declining into incoherence.

FlashForward (now also cancelled) had an interesting premise and also seemed keen to suck in audiences beyond the geek heartland, but its self conscious soapiness created a terminal inbalance in both plot and character. Viewers of Survivors can find more and more reasons to care about its characters (even the flawed Tom), but FlashForward's former stalwarts were surely struggling to give a hoot about its central FBI team and the various conspirators who rather conveniently tagged along with them.

The show that was supposed to herald a new era in sophisticated American TV drama was of course David Simon's The Wire, a series retrospectively praised recently in the LRB by Michael Wood:

"Part of the lure of The Wire, of course, is its drawn-out storylines. Not only are there multiple narratives in any given episode, but a single complex story threads its way through a whole season. This is a method that creates both a sort of viewing leisure, and an unusual, slow-burning suspense. Richard Price, the author of Clockers and Lush Life, who worked on several episodes, calls The Wire a ‘Russian novel of an HBO series’, and Simon himself is fond of this metaphor too, speaking of ‘a novel for television’ "

Multi-strandedness for the masses duly arrived in the form of Lost, which concluded with a bit of a splutter last month after six seasons. WTF? its loyal fanbase asked. What happened to time travel, the Dharma initiative etc. After so many possibilities had been opened and so few of them closed, the final set-down was the very one we could all have guessed back in 2004 without having to tear our hair out over what exactly was the matter was with Desmond.

This may in part explain why the writers had given the illusion (unlike those of Heroes say) of knowing exactly where the longer narrative was going at any one time. In the end I would rather they had focused less on creating new characters and themes in the final season and more on tying up the loose ends from the previous ones.

What was so impressive about Moffat's creative contribution to the new incarnation of Doctor Who was the way he weaved a series of threads through all the stories, his own and those of other contributing writers, and then properly tied them back in the concluding double-episode.

David Simon's new show Treme, set in New Orleans, is currently running on HBO. I watched the start of the first espiode and thought hmmm, this is a bit heavy.

I'm still following Dexter and True Blood because these are not only well-written but also a bit less up themselves than some of the aforementioned offerings. The writers of Dexter have certainly surprised me with their ability to keep up (and even extend) interest in this character and I'm looking forward to season five in September...though V's not a fan, largely because she hates voiceovers.

The updated version of V is also quite fun. It's a bit soapy like FlashForward, but the cast is much stronger and it seems to have a better (and simpler) idea about how it's going to generate the necessary dramatic tension going forward. It has yet to be scrapped by the network too.

It's possible that a whole generation of the best writers in America have moved from the silver screen to the LCD/Plasma screen, but the jury is still out on whether they have fully realised the potential which we all anticipated in the mid part of the last decade. But the Brits are now catching up for sure. And we don't have that annoying tendency to cancel shows before any kind of satisfactory wrap-up can be achieved.

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