Monday, 8 June 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 28 (spoilers)

With everything else going on, I haven't yet mentioned series 3 of either Robin Hood or Primeval in this column. So this seems a bit overdue. But with Robin Hood having only 3 episodes to go, and Primeval now finished, it actually gives me a chance to look back over a substantial body of work. I'm gonna say from the outset that I enjoy both shows. I know many people don't, and that they think either one or both are rubbish. Fair enough. But as pure Saturday evening slot entertainment, I think both are rather enjoyable. However the idea of this column has never been to give a traditional review that you can find from the TV critics in newspapers etc. What I've always tried to do, for myself as much as anyone, is analyse what I think works and doesn't work so I can apply that to my own writing.

And I think it's really interesting that these series 3's have perhaps shown the value of a US style showrunner (or put simply, a lead writer - and usually creator.) Because I think the lack of involvement of Dominic Minghella (and probably reduced involvement of Foz Allan) from Robin Hood, and Adrian Hodges (and possibly Tim Haines too) from Primeval, has really been noticeable.

Let's take Primeval first, as that has concluded. Be honest, as concepts go it's brilliant. Simple but brilliant. That's why it's being made into a Hollywood movie. And the first two season's rocketed along. So when series 3 kicked off, I had no idea Douglas Henshall was leaving. So Cutter's death came as a complete shock, which I thought was fantastic, because as regular readers will know, I'm very big on killing off key characters in a show that asks us to buy into life and death drama. Because if no one ever dies, well, the belief will evaporate and it will just become boring. (I'll come back to this with Robin Hood.) Then two weeks after that, Lucy Brown left the show, albeit escaping death by the skin of her teeth and leaving of her own accord. This set up the precedent now that no one was safe. For two main characters to leave during a series (as opposed to at the end of one and then not return) is very rare. Suddenly there was the real possibility that anyone could get killed off. But I do feel that the series lacked focus and a sense of unity. By that I mean although Jason Flemyng was brought in and led very well as Danny Quinn, Laila Rouass's Sarah was given hardly anything to do. (And she's an excellent actress, as anyone who saw the brilliant Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee a few years ago will know.) And Captain Becker was even worse. I actually feel a bit sorry for the actor because his part seemed so bland and underwritten.

Then there was the series arc (again something regulars will know I bang on about a lot) This was where the problems really lay and something a strong showrunner would've helped avoid. What series arc there was centred around an artifact from the future, the eventual end of the world, and Helen Cutter running around in the thick of it. Oh and throw in Christine Johnson to that too. Her character actually typified this lack of focus. Because as well as still not having a clue as to who she worked for or what she was trying to do, one week she was getting a dressing down and seemingly beaten after being trapped by Danny and Lester, and the next she was carrying on, throwing her weight around like nothing had happened. It turned out that the artifact showed where anomalies were (although I think we knew that before the finale) and actually didn't seem to make a difference to anyone. It ended with Abby and Connor trapped in one time period, and Danny stranded in another. So I hope, despite strong rumours that the shows future is in jeopardy, this is not the end. It's kind of a slave to the special effects, which in turn eat up the budget, but it doesn't need to be with good writing. One of the best episodes of the series was James Moran's, which in the main featured one little creature and a spooky house. In three seasons, only once, a medieval knight, has anything other than a creature come through an anomaly. More creative thinking and less big digital dinosaurs can reduce the budget and improve the story telling. And of course a stronger series arc!

Robin Hood has had similar problems. Season 2 ended with the humdinger of Marion being killed by Gisborne. Many fans were outraged, but I thought this was spot on. Not because of Lucy Griffiths, who I thought was rather good. But because once again, if characters lives are in danger each week, and people are running around with swords and shooting arrows, and yet still no one gets killed, we begin to lose interest. And unlike Primeval, who could easily replace its lead, Robin Hood of course cannot. It's the classic James Bond problem. No matter how many times Robin is on the verge of death, you know he'll be okay. So it gets ever more ludicrous. The pinnacle this season was when Gisborne had him completely surrounded, and a volley of arrows or a rush of blades would've seen him off. But no, he thought, a hungry lion would be the way to go instead! It just becomes silly and although there can be comedy in a show like this, the drama has to be played straight otherwise why should we care. It's a delicate balance of tone. But if Robin can't die, the threat has to come to the others. To that end, I think Robin should've killed Gisborne in the Series 3 opener. The fact that Richard Armitage obviously had breaks from filming and has largely played a peripheral role in the series, only adds weight to this. (Although having said that the twist in last week's episode means that the shift in his and Robin's relationship could drive the series to the finish line.) Same with the Sheriff, who has disappeared but those wiggling fingers when he was supposed to be dead, suggests a return is likely. His absence and the appearance of Gisborne's sister and Prince John has been fun though.

But again, the overall series arc has been missing. Season 2 was a while ago now so forgive me if I am off, but I think there was a long running plan, involving black knights and lords and stuff, to eventually kill the King in the Holy Land. Anything, even remotely like that, has been absent. And that is probably why, with 3 episodes to go, we get Robin's long lost thought to be dead father turning up with the news that Robin and Guy share a half brother who they must save from imminent death. Like I said before, a strong showrunner would probably have held greater creative control and unity of vision to balance the series a little better.

I'm trying to give up reading screenwriting books (seriously it's better to save your money and read scripts) but one I keep going back to at the moment is Alex Epstein's Crafty TV Writing. It's completely from a US perspective but it gives a fantastic insight into how shows work over there. And you are left in no doubt that the showrunner comes up with what's called the template, basically how the show functions tonally, story wise, etc, and that s/he is responsible for making sure every script meets that criteria. In the last few years this has become more common in this country. People like Jimmy McGovern and Tony Jordan have taken control of their shows. But there probably isn't a better example than Russell Davies and Doctor Who. By all accounts he ran the show in every sense, rewriting mercilessly scripts that would never ultimately have his name on. But would the relaunch have worked as successfully had it not had this unity of vision? I personally preferred early Shameless to that latter ones, I imagine it's because of the dwindling involvement of Paul Abbott.

Now most of the people reading this, including myself, are a long way off the chance to create our own shows. Correction. We're a long way off getting them made. The creation is up to us. Over a thousand people entered the Red Planet Prize this year with TV pilots. So plenty of people are doing it. So I hope that when these people do get their chance, it is indeed truly their chance, and the shows they create remain their own unique vision. And if indeed it's time to move on to pastors new, like Minghella, Hodges and now Davies, a suitable replacement is brought in. Over to you Mr. Moffat.

6 comments:

Lisa said...

I really like Primeval but gave up on Robin Hood at the end of the last series, although I confess to watching Saturday night's episode on catch up. I think with Primeval it's a great romp, some of the characters are a bit ropey but generally it's good family viewing. My only beef this week, apart from the fact that Juliet Aubrey needs to lay off ... Read morethe Botox, was the fact that she was crowing how much smarter she was than Danny and yet, somehow failed to notice she was heading for a Grandmother Paradox....Sheesh!!! lol.

Great thoughts as usual on our viewing options, Jez

(PS - I've copied this from my comment on Facebook)

Lisa said...

Snigger I'd also like to add that I'd love to be the archaeologist on THAT dig when they find thirteen hominins (the correct term now for early humans, not hominids - research please, writers!), an anatomically modern human and a flipping raptor!!!

Jez Freedman said...

haha would certainly throw up some interesting evolution theories!

Anonymous said...

Interesting to get these thoughts, especially in relation to the idea of a strong series arc directly linked to a hands-on showrunner. However, as an insider on Primeval I can assure you that Adrian and Tim were as involved with these scripts as any in series 1 and 2. In fact, Adrian does a polish on every episode. The series arc is put together by a team of people with Adrian and Tim absolutely at the centre of the process. Other writers were brought in to add an element of their own voice and to contribute in no small part, but each episode starts and ends with the creators and showrunners. That was as much the case on series 3 as it was with the first 2. A deliberate decision was taken to move the show on this series, in part due to Douglas Henshall's (rather late in the day!) decision to leave. Should a 4th series be ordered, then plans are already in place (again with Adrian and Tim absolutely central to the process) to move things on further again. As a final note I can tell you that the emphasis given to series arc, to the development of stories other than the creature of the week have to be viewed in the context of who ultimately calls the (hugely expensive) tune here - ITV. And creatures of the week, playing to a wide, mainstream Saturday tea time audience are what they want.

Jez Freedman said...

hi anon

thanks for that - fantastic to get an inside view. I have to hold my hands up then as the credits seemed to imply that Adrian and Tim held the created by line, but nothing else - leading to my assumption. Very pleased to hear Adrian especially is still highly involved.

What's also interesting to note is how TV writing often has to react to things it can't control, like key cast members leaving, but taht in talented hands it can be used as a positive not negative. Cutter's death was excellent dramatically, not as a reflection of Henshall or preference to Flemyng, but because now no one was safe!

It's funny cos although I understand your point about ITV, and the need to have big monsters etc (who doesn't like to see a rampaging T-Rex!?) I would've thought they'd be as keen as anyone to have more low profile, and therefore cost effective, monsters whilst maintaining story levels. But another lesson I guess - demographics rule - here, in the US, and pretty much anywhere I imagine.

Anyway thanks again. Whatever your involvement in the show is I hope you get a 4th series and keep up the good work. Come back again and tell us more Primeval secrets if you can!

Jez Freedman said...

shame that it appears it's not made it http://danowen.blogspot.com/2009/06/itv-cause-primevals-extinction.html

could ITV not move it to 9pm and make it darker, like Torchwood maybe?