Monday, 15 September 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 5 (spoilers)

Now that I am back online properly, I can get back down to business. And as the Red Planet Prize deadline is looming, I've been reading a few first ten pages for people. So naturally I've also been watching and thinking about tv shows. And it occurred to me, that although a lot of talk surrounds what goes into the first ten pages to make them as good as possible, there are of course a few steps before that. The most important one is the concept itself. So lets look at three very different shows, Spooks Code 9, Mutual Friends and Lost in Austen.

Spooks Code 9 has finished its run on the youth focused BBC3. I love the original Spooks, although I thought the last series was the weakest, mainly because it seemed to struggle with the new format, i.e. more continuing series than 'story of the week' based. Funnily enough, Code 9 seemed to have both hats on. The first three had an A Story of stand alone missions with a continuing sub plot of who was the traitor inside MI5. The last three seemed to flip this around, and the focus became much more centred on who was behind the first and upcoming second bomb. The writing was ok overall, and there were stand out moments, like the bank hold up and breaking the terror suspect out of prison. And if it had been performed by the likes of Adam Carter, I would've been totally on board with it. But at no point during the series did I by into the concept. We were told that post nuclear attack on London, terrorists were getting younger so MI5 recruited younger operatives to infiltrate these groups. Er, what? Why? There was nothing to back up this under thirty universe this show created. It looked and felt odd. And at no point did these twenty somethings convince playing spy games. It was dubbed as Spooks for the Skins generation. But did someone forget that Skins is about teenagers, er, being teenagers. Spooks Code 9 was completely ludicrous (as was its conclusion when the traitor was revealed to have some seriously weak motivation for doing what she did, something I will come back to,) and for me was an example of the concept letting down the work put into it.

Mutual Friends (BBC1) is far safer fare. It's a domestic comedy drama, about the lives, loves and secrets of a group of middle class, middle aged ish, Londoners. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Well written, well acted drama can work almost anywhere. In the main, you just need cracking characters. And here's the rub. Where I am really struggling with Mutual Friends is, all the characters seem like arseholes. The argument is always that empathy and not sympathy matters, that characters don't have to be 'nice,' as long as they keep you interested. And there are plenty of examples to back this up. Think of shows like The Sopranos, Californication or House - are the leads in that nice guys? No. But we are fascinated by what they might do next. And we understand the moral universe that these guys operate in. We get that Tony Soprano genuinely believes that what he does, is in the best interest of his biological and crime family. You've probably guessed by now that what I'm talking about is motivation. If we understand that, we buy into what 'unpleasant' characters do. In the last two scripts I've written, both the protagonists have been anti heroes of sorts. And I consistently got feedback that the reader didn't like them, and subsequently didn't care about them, which is script suicide. And the main reason for this is that I wasn't doing enough conveying their motivations. The trouble with Mutual Friends, as far as I can see, is that the characters behaviour is generally baffling. And so when they are having affairs, neglecting their children, behaving like idiots, you just want to slap them.

Finally, we come to Lost in Austen (ITV1). This is probably the most high concept of the three, although surely became infinitely more sellable post Life on Mars. In fact every bit of press and promotional material I've seen has described it as Pride and Prejudice meets Life on Mars... which is exactly what it is. And I think it's fantastic. I would've loved to have written something like this. Take a modern, twenty first century person and plunge them into an older world, slap bang into the middle of a famous story. It's such a simple idea, such a basic concept... but that's the beauty of it. And of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Because until something thinks of it and makes it... etc etc. Peter Fincham and Laura Mackie must be doing cartwheels across ITV HQ. It's well known they have been desperate for a series hit and stated unequivocally that what they wanted was traditional drama series, with a twist. It doesn't get much more traditional than Jane Austen, and the twist is pretty smart too. I've read Pride and Prejudice but I doubt I know the book anywhere near as well as its fans do. But I have the advantage of my wife providing DVD like commentary just in case I miss a reference or in joke. But it's easily recognisable and at the same time gives us an idea of what it would be like if we were indeed taking part in this famous story. What will be interesting to see is how far it can last. The creators of Life on Mars confessed that ultimately it had an in built, rather short, shelf life. Would Sam Tyler get back to his own time/wake up from his coma, or not? And there is only so long you can string that out. So too, the Pride and Prejudice story has a limited shelf life, and either Amanda Price will get back through the door in her bathroom and back to her own time, or not.

So what can we take away from all this? I think it obviously demonstrates the many different things that need to work for a tv series to be successful. Getting one or even two right won't be enough. But just to come back to our starting point of the concept. The safest concept here is possibly Mutual Friends, and this is also probably the weakest of the three so far. Spooks Code 9 might of looked like a safe spin off from a very popular show, but failed precisely because of it's spin off/concept nature. The craziest one, Lost in Austen, is the most entertaining. It works because it takes something safe, familiar and traditional, and ensures the spin off/concept nature make sense within the context of that world. We've already bought into Sam Tyler going back in time and John Cusack discovering a door into John Malkovitch's head. So we can buy into this too. When thinking of ideas, it's always worth asking the question, what is familiar about this idea, and what is original? Because both elements are going to have to work and come together.

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