A Writer Chooses TV Drama
It’s tough watching TV when you know the tricks other writers use to grab your attention. It makes ‘Game of Thrones’ unwatchable, waiting for the next violent or sexual confrontation beat to come up with the regularity of a metronome, but at least it can be viewed as trashy fun.
‘The Following’, in which a blank-eyed Kevin Bacon uncovers a cult, is way worse. Cancelled after three series, it began with huge audiences and quickly shed them. James Purefoy played a serial killer murdering according to vague ideas mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe stories, which got it off to a bad start, Poe being a wonderful writer but hardly the most layered thinker and not someone you’d base an entire religion around.
The twist was that Purefoy had spread the word to his followers and they were so deep-rooted that they’d been hidden for years waiting to start killing. So, writer Kevin ‘Scream’ Williamson’s big idea was ‘The Invaders’ with a cult.
The problem with this is that the absurdly complex plot had more holes than a Greek fisherman’s jumper. (And what was the guy from ‘Beetlejuice’ doing on the poster above?) Most obviously, a matter of cui bono? What is there in Poe that would convince an attractive, intelligent young person to spend years pretending to be someone else so that they could kill according to Poe? It was also a joyless follow-the-plot matrix of deaths and squad cars waiting outside houses at night, with no visual interest whatsoever. Oh, and lots of flashbacks. We love those, don’t we?
The slightly-more-stylish ‘Hannibal’ suffers from the same problem; a disjunct of belief, with Lector and Will Graham trading pseudo-intelligent quips amid murder-as-art scenarios. These series, like ’24’, are entirely plot-driven without even the merest hint of honest human emotion in them. Writers look at such shows and can jot down everything the scripters watched in the last five years.
The curse left behind from ‘Lost’ (plot; plane crashes on island – does island represent purgatory?) which outrageously threw in hooks knowing they weren’t going to be resolved, has finally dissipated, which is why shows like ‘Breaking Bad’, with finely-wrought storylines, intelligent characterisation and rewarding outcomes thrilled writers. ‘Better Call Saul’ has good points but feels forced, as if writers were asked to continue something beyond death.
For me, ‘Babylon’, ‘True Detective’ and ‘The Bridge’ (especially the latter) ticked all the boxes and avoided cliches. Details bug writers – no detective follows a dangerous lead alone, no house is investigated in total darkness with a torch (especially during the day, ‘Following’-makers!), no-one plays catch-up with criminal masterminds. Why do films like ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Marshlands’ work so well? They have a believable edge, a verity that takes you through the storyline.
The biggest problem that TV shows face – and it’s one that only ‘Breaking Bad’ truly overcame – is how to stretch out key events across so many episodes. All series have holding shows which don’t move things along and are there simply to reach the network requirement; although ‘Breaking Bad’ made a virtue of theirs with ‘Fly’.
The tendency now is for shorter runs with bigger stars and hence less commitment. ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Jonathan Strange’ were simply their books played at the appropriate length, ie. including the scenes that would have been cut in a film version.
But as it’s a paradigm that suits execs for once, we’ll hopefully be seeing more of this.