Catching The Mood: How Writers Hit Or Miss

The Arts


There’s a writers’ saying; If you try to jump on a bandwagon, it’s already too late too board. This is because writing is like slow cooking or gardening – it takes a long time to see the final result.

Yet some writers manage to ride the national mood. There’s a simple reason why fantasy films are huge these days. Back in the late 1920s musicals became popular because the US economy was shrinking, and escapism was a pressure valve for many. Now, with entire continents beset with uncertainty, that mood is back and escapism is king.

Yet with the rise of the right came a jump in the sales of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ added a powerful feminist message that proved timely. The virtually incomprehensible ‘Westworld’ has tapped into current fears of identity loss and AI (coupled with constant sexual bouts legitimised by the presence of A-list actors). ‘Game of Thrones’ ceased to be a cheesy R-rated version of ‘Lord of the Rings’ when it veered from the books and reflected realpolitik concerns. Escapism could cloak some genuine modern themes.

Show commissioners look for work that reflects the mood, and showrunners keep series on track, but what happens when they misjudge the mood?

I stumbled across ‘BrainDead’ by mistake. It aired last year and was cancelled after one season before turning up on Amazon downloads. A lousy title, an absurd premise, an uneven tone. But it had been made by Ridley Scott’s company, Scot Free, so I gave it a go. The concept; ‘The West Wing’ meets ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. The tone veers from laughs to satire to horror. It’s cheap looking. The US senate seems to consist of about six people. But it was quirky (the weekly recaps are sung) and smarter than it first appeared. As the hard right and left (but more right) get taken over by brain bugs, the US senate morphs into a nightmarish ‘Brazil’-like hotbed of Mccarthyism, with the FBI ready to torture and implant the innocent.


But the show-makers had misjudged the national mood, which is still pro-Trump. Yesterday the POTUS told the police it was okay to rough up anyone they arrested, and the same scenario is right there in the show – although even the writers didn’t go that far.

And there’s the problem. The ‘BrainDead’ creators admit they made one huge mistake – getting the series onto the CBS network instead of cable, where it could go so much further. There’s no question that it would have flourished there, running ahead of the current administration’s concerns instead of having to appease advertisers.

For a while the fate of ‘BrainDead’ hung in the balance – its figures were weak (network is not the home of fictional satires these days) but it looked as if it would go to a second season. Then the axe fell.

‘Brazil’ famously bombed covering the same ground. Satire never gets mainstream figures. As writers we take the offers we can get, at the times we can get them – and if we get a little too quick-witted or find ourselves swimming upstream when everyone else is headed down, we fail.

As for the hits – given the ever-elongating gestation times under which we operate, it’s a matter of luck.

5 comments on “Catching The Mood: How Writers Hit Or Miss”

  1. Steveb says:

    I love Brazil bombed or not a masterpiece
    Good point about Cable, that’s the place inUS to build an audience
    PS Just watched The Party did Timothy Spall lose weight or what???

  2. Rachel Green says:

    I was an avid watcher of Braindead. I’m sorry it got axed. Game of Thrones new season seems on he nose with current politics.

  3. admin says:

    I also loved Taboo, although period shows are less likely to suffer from ‘bandwagonism’.

  4. Chris Webb says:

    I liked Taboo up until the end of the last episode.


    In the theatre there is a sort of rule, or maybe more of a convention, that if someone brings a gun on stage they have to fire it. I think the same should apply to a large consignment of gunpowder in a TV drama, especially if we are told it is particularly volatile due to the process used to manufacture it quickly.

    For several episodes we were convinced that somebody, maybe even everybody, was going to get blown to kingdom come in the mother of all explosions. The “they sailed off into the sunset and lived happily ever after” ending was just lame and pathetic, totally out of keeping with the ultra-dark tone of the series up to that point.

    I suppose the Machivellianism of the Honourable East India Company was a reference to modern multinationals.

  5. Lauren says:

    Taboo ain’t over by a long shot. Season 2 filming doesn’t start until 2018. So plenty of time for explosions.

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