The Art of the Watchable

I like good political TV. If done well, I like politics both as a theme and as a setting; arguably, a series such as the original BBC House of Cards looks like it’s about politics, but it’s really Richard III in a pinstripe suit, set in and around Westminster. It’s very much concerned with power and corruption, but does it tell us anything meaningful about politics? You may very well say think that; I couldn’t possibly comment. Then there are series such as The West Wing, and while may be something of a US-centric liberal fantasia, it is intensely concerned, and not a little in love, with the democratic process, which makes it a very different beast from House of Cards. Even if you look beyond conventional drama to genre TV, you’ll find politics: for much of its running time, I’d absolutely say that Battlestar Galactica (the Olmos/McDonnell one, not the ’70s extravaganza) was a deeply political series in both senses.

Spin Continue reading

Just don’t mention Auntie’s MPD!

In its many years of service, the Beeb has done some terrific drama. The Singing Detective, Edge of Darkness, Pride and Prejudice, or, going back to the ’70s, I, Claudius. Its recent output has been all over the place, but I enjoyed last year’s Page Eight and The Hour (in spite of some flaws).

The second season of The Hour finished a couple of days ago. The series kept some of its problems, mainly the uneven quality of the writing, with some scenes very effective and others rushing headlong into hamfisted melodrama, clumsy exposition or silly cliché. Nevertheless, it was a definite improvement on the first series – exciting, engaging, and every scene with Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor a revelation. Come Awards season, if Auntie doesn’t pat itself on the shoulder for putting those two on a sound stage together and letting them show what they’re capable of, I hope that Malcolm Tucker unleashes hell on the people responsible.

One of these you don't want to be stuck in an elevator with...

So, that’s BBC at its… well, perhaps not best, but definitely good. If this is the standard of British television drama, I think Britain could do a whole lot worse.

Cue Hunted.

It’s easy to see what they were going for: an entertaining, fast-paced yet moody spy thriller set in a world of shifting allegiances and moral ambiguities. What they got was one of the most half-baked, clichéd TV shows I’ve seen in a long while. Laughably bad writing – the premise should have been a warning, with the main character, Sam Hunter, becoming (dun dun DUN!) the hunted! The aesthetics were all early 2000s gone HD, but the plot and characterisation were on par with your average ’80s series, except this didn’t even have the giddy sense of fun that some of those shows had.

And this may reveal me as sorely lacking in testosterone, but I’d rather watch Peter Capaldi go OCD on his desk for an hour (pun only semi-intended) than Melissa George trying to infuse her undercooked character with personality by bringing out her most potent duck-faced pout ever. I’ve seen George do much better work with stronger material, but her Sam Hunter is insipid, as are most of the characters, whether they’re played by veteran actors or not. Someone should have told the makers of Hunted that conflicted doesn’t equal dour, dour doesn’t equal glum, and glum doesn’t equal moodily bored.

In the end it’s a race: what does the series in? The one-dimensional characters? The charmless acting? The glossy yet drab visuals? The writing that’s either done by idiots, for idiots or both? The final episode that provides less resolution than an episode of Eastenders? Or the BBC, deciding that Frank Spotnitz would have a better chance taking his pet project somewhere else?

Just pucker up your lips, 'cause this blows...

Who are you “Oh aye, laddie”-ing, you ****ing ****?

If The West Wing occupies one end of the galaxy of TV shows on politics, The Thick of It is pretty much at the opposite end. The two shows share a couple of things, not least of which their complete insistence on being about words first and foremost – but if The West Wing maintains a fundamental idealism about politics, The Thick of It is the horrific Mr Hyde to its Dr Jekyll.

It is also one of the most witheringly foul-mouthed, funniest comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Watching an episode of each series side by side, it’s difficult not to come down with a case of TV whiplash: the BBC series practically squelches with cynicism towards British politics, the political establishment and the individuals who make it up. Whenever there is a moment where a character’s fundamental decency comes through for a moment, it’s soon covered with generous lashings of craven baseness, selfishness, cowardice and stupidity. I’ve rarely seen anything as misanthropic, and as sweary, as this series.

The strange thing is: usually I would avoid any such programme like the plague. I tend to find genuine cynicism facile and tedious, I’m way too much of a pinko liberal do-gooder wannabe, and swearing for the sake of it bores me. Yet The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, one of the most memorable television creations… well… ever – he elevates swearing to an art form. Watching him have a go at someone makes me dream of an operatic duet between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. It’d be fucking Verdi. People used to say that David Mamet (God bless his little converted-to-the Tea Party socks…) uses swearing as if it were a jazz riff – well, working from that, Malcolm Tucker is Charlie Parker. He knows when to improvise like a nightingale on speed and when to go for the kick-in-the-nuts simplicity of the oldest put-down in the book.

In fact, I was so dazzled by his verbal-vulgar dexteriarrhea that it took me several episodes to realise that he isn’t smarter than everyone else in the series – he’s simply a potty-mouth virtuoso with the instincts of a shark.

Even with Malcolm Tucker as its main asset, the series is not flawless. Any individual episode is basically identical to any other episode – the plot details change, but they don’t matter. It wouldn’t work in 40-minute instalments – the episodes are short enough for the audience not to register that everything’s caught in an eternal loop. (Ironically, In the Loop is the title of the series’ movie spin-off, and that one works pretty well at way over 40 minutes.) The series knows, though, why it works and it plays to its strengths, at least for the first season. (I’ve yet to watch, or even obtain, any season beyond that. I saw and enjoyed one episode from season 3 on a long cross-Atlantic flight and vastly enjoyed it, almost choking on the god-awful British Airways food trying not to laugh too loudly.)

It’s best, though, to end this with a few choice words from the Master himself.