Sunday, 17 August 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 1 (Spoilers)

I'm hoping this will become a regular weekly post of a small round up of some of the things I've watched over the previous week. I'll include tv and film and I should note that I very rarely watch things 'live'. Almost everything gets recorded and watched later so I may not include the latest stuff. But for this I don't think that matters. This is not a weekly critique that appears in newspapers. Most of the time those drive me mad. It got to the stage where they just depressed me. Not because the reviews were bad. Let's be honest, a lot of tv is bad, so naturally dodgy reviews would follow. But I started to feel that the critics hated, absolutely hated, watching tv (and movies.) I love both and I used to think what a cool job it would be to get paid to watch and write about tv and movies. But I think when something you love becomes your job, there is a danger you fall out of love with it. The element of choice is gone and now you not only watch stuff you would otherwise love to catch, you have to watch everything. And these guys have probably watched so much rubbish that I think before long they go into a show with a preconceived idea that it is going to be crap, and the show has to be really quite good just to get even a passable review. A very artistic friend of mine once balked at the idea of using her talent as a job. That was her hobby and if it became a question of earning a living out of it, it would spoil it somehow. This is relevant to screenwriting too of course. Do we not do it because we love it? Do we therefore also come to hate it somehow? I'll pick up on this in a later post but for the meantime, just leave it that maybe there should be a shelf life for tv and film critics?!

But I will look at stuff from a screenwriting point of view. During my Masters we workshopped all the time. You were never allowed to just say something was rubbish or you just didn't like it. You always had to analyse why. And for some weird psychological reason it's a lot easier to spot the weaknesses in someone else's work than your own. But of course ultimately, you have to take the lessons learnt back into your own scripts. And this is what I am going to try and do with this weekly post. But as this is the first one I will focus on one show that came to a close this week.

Bonekickers got a right kicking from virtually everybody. Robin Kelly has mounted a decent defence in a recent blog and he makes some good points. Overall I think the series was poor, primarily because of the dialogue, characterisation and a rather muddled tone of taking itself too seriously and then being jokey at the wrong time. But it's the concept itself that seemed to cause the writers the most problems. It's catch 22 that the macguffin had to be important enough to warrant everyone chasing after it, but at the same time couldn't stay in this world as it would change it fundamentally (and we've all got to come back for a new episode next week. It's hard to do Indiana Jones every week, although having said there was a young Indy tv series - does anyone remember what that was like?) But it's quite significant that Indy is set in the past. The world was bigger, media was less prominent. So you can bury the Ark in a warehouse and the holy grail can fall through a crack in the earth and life can continue. But in Bonekickers, when your discoveries are big news on the tv and Internet, they had to come up with ways for them to get buried or destroyed at the end of each episode. And it got ridiculous. This culminated in the final episode. We've been watching the gang chase this magical sword for six weeks. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur, a sword that reappears over the centuries belonging to different people, including Boudicca and Joan of Arc. And what happens when they find it... it breaks! Because of course the sword is so powerful if it stayed intact it would be the ultimate WMD. But talk about anti-climax! This is something that needs to be seriously looked at if there is a series 2. The artifacts have to be significant enough to tell a story about, but real world enough that they don't have to be destroyed every week! In fact if memory recalls, in Episode 4 the prophetic Babylonian tablet they found wasn't destroyed at the end - and this may be one of the reasons that I think this was the strongest episode.

But going against the grain I actually hope Bonekickers gets a second series. Why? Because it's like nothing we have seen before on British TV. It's not cops and docs, it's not comedy-drama social realism. It's extremely ambitious. And these guys, Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, know what they are doing. Check out their credits. They have cv's we would all be proud of.

So what can we take away from this into our own work. Well, on Creating Life On Mars (on BBC4) Matthew Graham pointed out that that show was a very American pitch but of course a show totally specific to Britain. Tony Jordan was also on the programme and when I workshopped with him earlier this year, we had a round table discussion about what we were NOT doing on British tv. Some of the suggestions we came up with were ludicrous but the message was clear. When thinking of ideas for a tv series, think big, think ambitious. This doesn't have to involve aliens. It could, as Life on Mars proved, just be a cop show... but a cop show with a difference. Credibility is in the eye of the beholder. There is nothing 'realistic' about Heroes for example, but everything that happens is credible within the world that is created by the show. This is what Pharoah and Graham attempted with Bonekickers, and for that they should be applauded. Give them another go, I'd be willing to bet it will be better second time around.


sam said...

Hello Jez, Refreshing review. I missed Bonekickers but do wonder how much influence the development people and suits had? TV is a collaboration until the critics get hold of it and then it becomes the writers fault :) Maybe they think you have to tie things up neatly or it will unnerve the nation? Maybe they should take a look at The Wire? I guess it depends how much you want to suspend disbelief too... like watching Spooks or the new Dr Who and the spin off. Do ratings and fete-ings make something good or should we just measure it in how it made us feel whilst watching it? An hour wasted or an hour's indulgement? TV is after all just entertainment and there's always Newsnight if you're desperate to be grounded again before you turn in. I finished the same MA at the turn of the century and now make a living writing. It took time to break in and luck/right time & place should never be underestimated but it always sounds shorter when people precis it. I do think maybe it is harder now though, less serialised drama to take a chance on new people sadly. But you know Phil Parker once told me that successful people all have one single thing in common - they didn't give up. So Hodie Non Cras and Good luck.

Jez Freedman said...

thanks Sam, encouraging words for all I think!

Lisa said...

I wonder if Bonekickers would have benefited from being one single story told over a number of episodes. Personally, I hated it but I think that was the pedant in me coming out because my background is archaeology, history and working in museums. What blew it for me was the fact that they supposedly had a consultant in the form of Mark Horton and it was still a really bad representation of archaeology. Yes, archaeology is slow and painstaking but I'm sure they could have jazzed it up without it becoming ridiculous.

I'd love to see this show work and work well. I think the premise was great, just badly executed.