Where have all the new shows gone? Maybe this is the lull before the Christmas special storm. But never mind. Gives me a chance to check back in with a couple of shows already featured in this column. They both finished this week and I have to say they are two of my favourites this year - Spooks and Merlin.
If this is why we pay out TV licence - fair do. But a certain amount of bar setting means that more of the same would also be nice!
First to Spooks. It is slick story telling personified. Everything is done so fast and so smoothly that even when occasional plot holes are thrown up, they are more often than not missed by the viewer (another trait this show has in common with 24.) Which is how it should be really. But Spooks has always managed a couple of other things really well too. In this thriller plot heavy genre, the characters can often seem functional, there to serve the action and nothing much else. But Spooks has always been clever enough to make us care about the characters. We get to know them through what they do, not through needless diversion into banal personal lives. This season Lucas ably stepped into the Adam vacated void but it was Ros who was really the star. She is surely the hardest female ever on British TV, but we also got to see her vulnerable and emotionally wounded, when she slept with the man who wished to bring Britain's economy to its knees, to gain his trust. (A side point, these episodes must be filmed some way in advance but that episode was particular eerie with the current global melt down.) Then there is the boss, Harry Pearce. He didn't hesitate in shooting Adam's murderer in cold blood early in the series, was later tortured when suspected of being a Russian spy, only then to discover it was in actual fact his oldest friend in Section D. Finally, he gets kidnapped in the season finale!
I caused controversy over at Twelvepoint.com for a stand out moment that unfortunately didn't quite work for me. (Although seemingly only from Lucy - bless her!) It was from James Moran's penultimate episode. And no, it wasn't about the SAS smashing through the window in large numbers to arrest Harry (as seems to have been an issue over on his blog.) This made perfect sense to me. Harry was suspected of working for the FSB. Firstly, he may not have been alone. Secondly, the guy has been a spy for goodness knows how long. It's safe to assume he's armed and dangerous. Would you and a mate turn up by yourselves to arrest a sixty something James Bond or Jack Bauer? I'd err on the side of caution. No, the moment that didn't do it for me was when Connie, the real mole, slits Ben's throat. I won't go into detail of the scene but what it hinged on was character motivation. Ben could've left the scene, had the opportunity and all the motivation in the world to do so, but didn't. Why? Cos he needed to be killed off in a shocking twist. The discussion on twelvepoint.com became one of narrative logic versus believability. I think I've said before that I will believe anything. My wife often watches TV with me picking out all sorts of silliness in whatever show is on, and I usually defend it, because I have already suspended disbelief and am too engrossed to care. Believability is in the eye of the beholder. Anything is believable if you make it make sense. But when it betrays character motivation, and therefore narrative logic, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and what follows feels contrived. I don't know James, (I hope he doesn't kill me if we do meet) and I admire his work (the guy literally writes for all my favourite shows, Dr Who, Torchwood, Primeval, in fact, why not Merlin - have a word with your agent James!) but this scene didn't work for me. It did however highlight the other thing that Spooks has never shirked away from - killing off it's main characters AND keeping that a secret beforehand. (No small matter when you consider the tactics the soaps employ in leaking explosive storylines.)
It's a lesson that could be learnt in Merlin. My main gripe with Heroes since season one has been the reluctance to kill off main characters. In a show about good and evil, heroes and villains, with threats to the very existence of civilisation, people need to die to establish the danger and stakes. The season finale of Merlin climaxed with the near death of three characters... but all survived. Fair enough that Merlin and Arthur were going to make it. We'll be needing them for season two. And true also that Merlin destroyed Nimueh, which was pretty cool. But she was a baddie and had only appeared in three episodes. The fact is, either Merlin's mother or Gaius, could and should have been sacrificed, probably Gaius as he is a main player (nothing against the character himself or Richard Wilson who did a very good job.) But as Merlin's mentor, it would've been a sacrifice and wound for Merlin. Season two would then see him on his own, without that guidance. But at the same time Merlin could rise to court physician and play an even more significant role. It remains to be seen how characters evolve for the next series, but what's more, what is there left for Gaius to do? His farewell letter to Merlin was a fitting and emotionally satisfying end. The way it did eventually end - everybody won and nothing was lost. Maybe this is feel good and necessary for the time slot, (however Dr Who and Robin Hood don't seem to shirk this) but it came at the expense of the stakes and the drama.
Having said all that, I thought the first season was excellent and just so enjoyable. Along with the other two shows in this Saturday evening slot, it has become a solid addition to BBC output.
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