Sunday, 1 February 2009

Things we noticed watching TV this week 21 (Spoilers)

ITV's 9pm Monday night 3 part thriller slot (we need a shorter name for that) continues to be rather interesting. Unforgiven was written by Sally Wainwright and directed by David Evans (who always picks interesting projects and who I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of years ago when he signed my Fever Pitch DVD and we shared our love of subbuteo!) It was the story of Ruth Slater (played brilliantly by Suranne Jones) who was released after serving 15 years for killing two policemen. They had come to evict her and her sister from their home, because their father had died and their mother long gone. (An interesting side point that was barely touched on by the show - is it right that a convicted double murderer gets just 15 years??)

But anyway, Ruth was out and as well as adjusting to society, her main concern was finding her sister, who was just six when she was sent down. A leap of faith was needed to buy the fact that not only was Ruth re-settled in the same town she grew up in, but kept the same name too. Both are seriously unlikely and very easily resolved which always irks a little as it seems sloppy. (Her name for example was never important and would it have harmed or enhanced the drama to have her live elsewhere but defy social services and travel back to her home town?) However, once you got past that there was a very engaging, tautly constructed story. It once again demonstrated the importance of character. What I was particularly impressed about was that everyone in this drama was soundly motivated. From Ruth, to the adoptive parents of her sister, to the sons of one of her victims. You may not have always agreed with what they were doing - but you understood it completely.

There were a couple of problems though with the finale as I saw it. Firstly it felt really rushed, compared to the slow burning drama of what had gone before it. And it was a shame that the first conversation between the two sisters was mixed in with the plot about the abduction that had gone awry, and you had people passing around mobile phones and everyone talking really fast to one another, all frantic, frantic, frantic. We'd waited almost three hours of screen time for Ruth and her sister to be reunited and when it came it was almost a side issue to the main action. Having said all that, the final scene, when the two actually share a quieter, more intense moment, was one of the most emotionally powerful I have seen in a while. The other thing was, the big twist pay off was that it was not Ruth after all who had shot the policeman - it was the younger sister (who had blocked out this trauma) and Ruth took the blame for her. The shame was that the drama had asked us to root for Ruth, even though she had done this terrible thing, and had largely succeeded. It now backed away from that with this get out clause.

Equally absorbing over on BBC1 was Hunter. A spin off from Five Days, it brought together again DSI Iain Barclay and DS Amy Foster (Hugh Bonneville and Janet Mcteer) Shown as two one hour episodes on consecutive nights, this was an old fashioned cop drama with an interesting case at its heart. Despite the showcase for the two leads, I felt it was more about the plot, (clues, evidence, twists etc) than it was about character. Basically we knew that Barclay was cranky and Foster (who didn't do much) was an alcoholic - and their relationship may or may not be more than just professional. This is not to say that the drama didn't work - it was just another route of how to get there, and so provided an interesting comparison. The case in question was the abduction of two seven year old boys, connected by the fact that their mothers had at one time had an abortion. The abductors were pro lifers (an odd term - are pro choicers anti life and if so what does that say?) who wanted a broadcast of a damning video they had made about abortion, otherwise they would kill the children. Their reasoning being that are these two lives worth more than the hundreds and thousands that are aborted every year? Yes I see the oddity in pro lifers threatening to kill young innocent children, but in the context of the drama it actually did work. (I don't want emails accusing me of suggesting that it's ok - I am merely talking about the script and character motivations!)

So anyway, meaty stuff. It didn't really seek to answer any questions, merely pose them, which is probably how it should be with drama most of the time. The closing scene for example had Foster admit to having had a couple of abortions, being extremely thankful for them as she can barely look after herself let alone kids, and that they would've messed up her life. Barclay's understated response was something like "would they?" And we understood that her life was pretty screwed up as it is and having kids may have been just what she needed. It's a controversial subject and one that I have never really understood. Jewish law is pretty clear that abortion is prohibited apart from exceptional circumstances (rape, incest, serious danger/illness both to the mother and baby.) Aborting a baby because of inconvenience has always struck me as appalling. (Again, easy on the emails, I like to stick to screenwriting on this blog.) But the topic clearly has many passionate arguments and sides and here it was wrapped up in a cop show, whodunit, race against time thingy - which worked well. However I'd quite like to see it tackled as straight drama, maybe a little bit like the excellent Tony Marchant series, The Family Man, did about fertility treatment three years ago. Anyone?

But anyway, back to Unforgiven and Hunter, and for me what I took away from it was the old debate of character over plot or vice versa. Of course as we all know, the argument is essentially redundant because ideally you want and need both. But these two shows were examples of how drama can still work when the focus is clearly on one rather than the other.

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