Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 26 (spoilers)

The US are remaking Life on Mars for American TV. The US are remaking The Office for American TV. The US are remaking whatever other cool show over here etc etc. That's great. Nothing wrong with that. If nothing else they don't get the rights for free so it's money in the bank for British talent. But it's also just about producing great television. So it was a little bit weird that Law & Order UK was getting stick before it even started for just being a spin off of the longest running US show ever. One complaint was that it was using stories already written for the US show, now adapted for British audiences and legal system. What's the big deal? Things are adapted all the time. From true stories, novels, plays and yes, other screenplays. Note that Law & Order UK is not a remake, like Survivors and Minder for example, but an extension of a very popular franchise that is now providing work for British writers, producers and directors. Shock horror! (And not that I am against remakes per se. Some work, some don't.)

So anyway, hopefully some of the critics have actually watched the show because I think it has been absolutely fantastic. Chris Chibnall and his team of writers have immediately constructed a returning series which could go on to become a British institution. And it's an absolutely classic example of how to do it. Purely plot driven, with a different story every week, we know very little about the returning characters and their private lives. It's designed so the viewer can watch the show at any time, in any order of episodes, and be completely absorbed in it, not having to worry about what they might have missed. So the plots have to be damn good and so far I think this is where the show has consistently delivered. They have always been engaging, with some interesting elements like the argument about the boy being genetically predisposed towards violence in episode two. I have pretty much zero knowledge of the British legal system but the show provides an insight into its complexities, challenges and frustrations. With viewing figures holding at a very good level, and the general doom and gloom surrounding ITV, it's great that they have this success on their hands. It could become as big as The Bill, so that would be two 9pm slots taken care of - just gotta fill the other five now!

On the other hand, I gather Mistresses was never intended to be a returning series. Originally written as a complete serial, the first series was so popular the ending was tweaked and it was recommissioned. I was delighted at the time as it was one of my favourite shows of last year. It was so brilliantly written and characterised, that even the more outlandish plot points were pulled off with flair and believability. Most importantly of all, you actually liked the four leads, despite or maybe because of their flaws.

But maybe some things are best left as a serial. Take State of Play as a classic example. A brilliant piece of television, that began and ended, never to be repeated, drawn out or extended in some ill conceived sequel. I was worried from episode one of Mistresses 2, as it became apparent that the original creators, Lowri Glain, SJ Clarkson and Rachel Anthony, seemed to not be involved with the new series. And although lead writer, Richard Warlow, was back, there seemed to be a collective "what do we do now?" Series one and two were broadcast just over a year apart, but bizarrely the story picked up 18 months after it left off. I would've thought the better choice would be to go for a shorter narrative time gap, not a longer one. It felt wrong. 18 months is a long time and yet none of the characters had seemed to have moved on that much. I don't want to hear that that is the case in real life. It's true that there is not much difference between what I am doing now to what I was 18 months ago - but no one is making a TV drama series about my life! For one thing, Katie was suspended for 12 months at the end of series one for her affair with a patient. What had she been doing for the other six then? Were we expected to believe that Siobhan and Hari had been living like we saw for EIGHTEEN months. How long had she been sneaking out in the night to have sex with strangers in hotel rooms and how the hell could Hari not have noticed until now?? Jessica and her husband are only supposed to have known each other for a short time, so what had she been up to the rest of the time. Trudi and Richard had not seemed to have moved on either, with only now marriage becoming an issue between them. So it would be fair to say that for me it did not get off to the best of starts!

But that is recoverable if what you then put on screen is brilliant. And I know people who enjoyed the series. But I can only speak for myself when I say that I could not engage in it at all (and yet still watched the whole series - being the eternal optimist and loyal viewer that I am!) The four leads just seemed to be really annoying this time around, and instead of investing in them emotionally, and hoping they get themselves out of the problems they face, you just wanted to get hold of them and slap them. There was also a distinct lack of story. Think back over the whole series for a moment. Think about the story beats each of the characters faced. Very little happened! This was rather evident as Trudi spent almost an entire episode overhearing other people's conversations, stifling a gasp and running out of the room. Why did Raza Jaffrey even sign up for series two as Hari was given nothing to do except look mopey. Weird. This culminated in Katie's excruciating voice over letter to Dan, which closed the series and seemed a desperate attempt to retrospectively inject some profound continuing theme into the proceeding (and resulted in Dan going back to Katie - after everything she had done. I mean come on!) Pity.

Is it coming back for another series? I have no idea. I bet Law and Order will though. In Alex Epstein's excellent book, Crafty TV Writing, he says that when planning a series in the US, you need to be as sure as you can be that your idea has the legs to go 100 episodes. That's what the networks want. That is a mammoth task! Of course you obviously don't write anything near that amount initially, but to even go about the process of creating a world that you feel confident enough will generate that amount of narrative is very, very difficult indeed. We work in a different goldfish bowl in the UK so I am not suggesting that this necessarily needs to be replicated over here. But creating a long running series is surely the holy grail of TV drama and an ambition for all TV writers. So when thinking about your big idea, it's worth considering just how big it actually is. Is it a returning series or maybe better served as a serial. Maybe it's really a one off? Maybe you are hedging your bets and writing a back door pilot or something that could run longer if successful. But if that's the case it will be far easier to have created a world and characters that will give you more and more conflict and drama. I've recently switched a TV series idea I had into a two-part serial. I'm pretty happy and confident with my choice. It's not a case of bottling it. It's a case of recognising what is the format to get the best out of your story.


Adaddinsane said...

You meant insight instead of incite, of course ... or did you? :-)

I was delighted when I heard they were doing Law & Order UK, because with the US version I ended up knowing far more about the US legal system than the UK's.

It's been pretty good, I thought the third episode lacked ooomph. But I have high hopes.

Pushing Daisies, though now cancelled, had been planned in fair detail up to the end of season 4.

Jez Freedman said...

haha ooops. yes I did mean insight.

I liked the first series of Pushing Daisies but found the 2nd a bit annoying. And having heard it had already been cancelled, lost the desire to invest the time in it. So planning definitely doesn't guarantee any success. I wonder how much of Lost was planned though?

Adaddinsane said...

Oh, I know people who know that one: It wasn't particularly. Then they changed writers and it completely lost its way. Then the original writers were brought back for a season. Then they were told exactly what they had left (2 seasons) so planned it out carefully.

Then the writers' strike killed half a season. But basically it is now completely planned.

As far as I can remember that's how it went. I gave up on Lost after the first season.

Jez Freedman said...

ha right. I lasted a couple of seasons but then realised they were taking the piss!

Anonymous said...

If we're being pedantic, you meant 'pity,' not 'pitty?' right?

Good reviews, and I pretty much agree with all of it except your astonishingly, glib dismissal of Lost. They didn't know where they were going with it until Carlton Cuse was bought in at the end of the first season and told them to - quite literally - sort their act out. The trouble is, the show was always going to coast until they could convince the network to tie down an end point to it. Once that happened, the show became as tight as a drum.


Jez Freedman said...

oh bloody hell - never proof or spell check when sleepy! Thank you I have now corrected both.

Lost really annoyed me. I absolutely loved it when it started and stuck around for awhile. I remember when they found that other station that had a video and all it did was watched their own. And I was not the only one to suspect this was a metaphor for the show - basically a bunch of people playing a trick on the audience, hooking them with more and more active questions whilst solving none. Well, anyone can do that. If you're not bound by the contract you have with the audience of actually paying off your set ups, you can just do any old crazy nonsense. I understand they have now committed fully to the sci-fi time travel element which again, is not exactly the genre they established and just smacks of chasing ones tail.