Question of the week: what are the merits of sadness in drama?

As Sally Sparrow once said, “Sad is happy for deep people.” And indeed, there have been a whole load of miserable plays, TV programmes, films et al designed for smart people: I love Se7en (as a quote in the introduction to the BFI book on the movie says – or was it one of the special edition DVD commentaries? – “Of course I love Se7en – I’m an intellectual”), for example, and Callan and The Sandbaggers are so brilliant because they’re so bleak. Think of Turn Left and Midnight in the latest series of Doctor Who, as well as the fate of Donna in Journey’s End: better for bleak, no?

Over the last year, though, there’s been an increase in sad TV programmes on the Beeb: Wallander, The Day of the Triffids, Survivors, Paradox, Criminal Justice et al have all been deeply miserable. As Paradox shows, being miserable doesn’t mean being good, but does it help – the bleaker moments of Paradox were its best bits.

So today’s question (in parts) is:

Does being depressed, sad or miserable increase the chances of a show being good? Is sad happy for deep people? Are TV shows getting more depressing of late (thanks to the recession maybe?) And do you like watching sad shows?

As always, leave a comment with your answer or a link to your answer on your own blog.


Review: The Fixer 2×1-2×2

The Fixer

In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, ITV1 (except Scotland)

Good drama – good anything – is hard to find on ITV1 these days (even harder in Scotland, where STV is failing to carry almost any of ITV1’s programmes). Yet there are a few standouts, usually in the crime genre. The Fixer is one such standout. It features Andrew Buchan as a former SAS soldier, recruited by a shadowy branch of the police to do its very, very dirty work, usually involving murder but also resorting to other unpleasantries that are in no way legal. With a chav idiot sidekick and a hard as nails, unmovable boss, The Fixer is basically Callan for the 21st century.

Series one of The Fixer was properly classed as very good, rather than excellent. It came perilously close to excellent at times, but despite being an action show, it had very little action, it exhibited quite phenomenal amounts of misogyny at times, it veered towards the cliché and the occasionally silly, and Tamzin Outhwaite was pretty much there as a name to draw in an audience, rather than because she had anything to do.

Series two, which opened with a two-part story, seems to have spotted these problems and done its level best to fix them, because despite a slightly flat and occasionally bizarre opening episode, the second episode managed to pile on the suspense and action in bucketloads.

At last!

Here’s a promo – and yes, that is Mr Darcy from Lost in Austen as an evil member of the security services – followed by the first 10 minutes of the first episode of series one, just so you have an idea of what’s going on if you missed it: you can watch the rest on YouTube or DVD if you want.

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Classic TV

Weird old title sequences: Callan

In the discussions that some people have about which is the best ever spy TV series – and sometimes even best ever TV series – the competition among the cognoscenti and connoisseurs usually takes in two shows: The Sandbaggers and Callan.

The two have much in common and it’s often just a question of taste as to which comes out top. Both deal with the world of British intelligence. Both are very gritty, featuring some of the unpleasant harshness faced by spies on the front line of the cold war. Both feature ruthless bosses and more compassionate agents.

While The Sandbaggers was more interested in the politics and the intrigues surrounding spy work, however, Callan was more interested in its effects on people and the the kind of people who become involved in spy work. It featured future Equalizer Edward Woodward as ‘David Callan’ (not his real name), an ex-soldier and quiet, ordinary working class man who would have been quite happy to have been a clerk and play war games with toy soldiers at the weekend.

However, he – and British intelligence’s dirty tricks department ‘The Section’ – finds himself to be singularly qualified for one thing: being a killer for the state. Although he has to indulge in other unpleasantness, such as blackmail, breaking and entering, torture, theft and more, Callan’s true skills lie in inflicting pain and shooting people, something he’s reluctant to do but knows that if he ever quit his job, he’d find himself in one of The Section’s ‘red files’, just like all his victims.

Although the plots are usually nail-biting, most of the intrigue is in the character relationships and what they tell us about spies and intelligence work in general. We see the difference between Callan and his two colleagues – posh psychopath Meres (Anthony Valentine) and dandy-esque hard man Cross (Patrick Mower), who are both far happier to do as they’re told, no matter what it involves. We also see how he deals with his ever-changing series of bosses, all of whom are given the soubriquet ‘Hunter’. The relationship, however, is always of the upper class boss, remote from the effects of the decisions that the defiant working class Callan has to implement. There’s also Callan’s best friend, Lonely, a petty thief, whom Callan uses and abuses in his work.

The show is also well known for its famous, iconic title sequence (hence today’s blog entry), with its sad, down-at-heel theme tune. Queue the swinging light bulb:

I’ve also included this little gem of a scene from the first episode of the third series, Where Else Could I Go? (the first one in colour), in which Callan, just returning to duty after having been shot by Meres at the end of the second series for shooting the previous ‘Hunter’, finds the new Hunter unsure whether Callan is up to the job any more or whether he’s lost his killer instinct and become a ‘gutless wonder’. The entire episode revolves around Hunter’s manipulation of Callan and the people around him to see if he can be pushed into regaining his aggressive tendencies. Notably, it’s only when best pal Lonely starts pushing Callan around as well that Callan finally snaps and becomes his old self:

You can still get the third and fourth series on DVD (the third has just been released in the US), but the superb first two black and white series are incomplete and unavailable (unless you know where to look). Double O Section has a review of the third series DVD that should give you an even fuller analysis of the wonders of Callan


The TV writer’s voice: should it be different or the same?

David Mamet

Today’s TV musing is about writers. Now it can’t have escaped your notice but fiction doesn’t emerge fully formed from the sea onto our TV screens – there are these people called writers who create all the words and deeds depicted in dramas, comedies and even some ‘reality’ TV shows.

No two writers are the same, of course, each usually having their own ‘voice’ – a way of writing dialogue, a way of developing and introducing characters, a way of plotting that is unique to them. But on a TV show, that isn’t always a good thing.

On a serial or long-running show, sometimes you don’t want individual writers’ scripts to stand out from the others; you want them all more or less the same because you have ongoing character arcs, back story, established forms of behaviour for the protagonists and so on. If a writer’s script stands out, it’s probably because it’s inconsistent with the other episodes, which you don’t usually want.

On many TV shows, there is a special role specifically for making sure scripts all mesh together nicely. In the UK, that’s the script editor; in the US, it’s usually the ‘show runners’ or exec producers – who unlike their film counterparts are typically writers who have ascended the career ladder.

Of course, there can be problems when the script editor/exec producer also writes scripts, because there’s no one there to check their work for consistency and because they typically give themselves more latitude than they do to other writers. It’s not always the case: you’d be hard-pressed to work out which Lost scripts are by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, which Mad Men scripts are by Matthew Weiner.

But take The Unit, for example. One of the exec producers on that is David Mamet. Yes, the David Mamet – the award-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-plow, The Verdict and Wag The Dog, to name but a few classics. Who’s going to edit his stuff, let alone himself?

So whenever Mamet writes a script for The Unit, it’s always massively at odds with all the other scripts and contains an overload of his usual obsessions (martial arts, con tricks, overly manly behaviour). Surprisingly, they’re never as good as the scripts by the other producers, sister Lynn Mamet and Eric L Haney, on whose book the show was based.

Callan is another show that comes to mind. Creator James Mitchell resolutely refused to acknowledge there had been any character development in between his contributions to the four series, so whenever he wrote a script, every character immediately reverted back to the behaviours and relationships they’d exhibited in the original pilot play.

Yet there are some shows where different voices are tolerated and allowed. Take Doctor Who. Although show runner/exec producer Russell T Davies can rewrite up to 60% of a script created by one of the other writers, you can still usually tell when Gareth Roberts or Steven Moffat is writing the week’s episode – or when it’s one of his own. And that’s actually a great delight.

So today’s question: how much should individual writers’ voices be heard on TV shows – does it depend on the type of show and is the reason it’s tolerated on some shows because there are only a few decent writers on the show and we just notice when there are some good episodes for a change?


Season finale: The Fixer

ITV has something of a problem. It’s had such rubbish programmes on for so long that even when it gets some decent shows, no one will watch them. And since no one watches them, it can’t get the advertising to fund them properly so they’re not as well made. Have a look at the Hornblower adaptations with Ioan Gruffudd for examples of what happens when you get a good cast and good scripts but bog-all cash.

Or, indeed, take a look at The Fixer. On the one hand, we’ve seen it all before: convicted criminal bust out of jail by the government to assassinate criminals who are above the law. It’s La Femme Nikita, isn’t it? Then make him a taciturn, thoughtful guy who has qualms about his job; give him an irritating sidekick and a stern boss who’ll have him dumped in a river if he starts misbehaving and you’ve essentially got Callan for the 21st century: nu-Callan if you will.

But the show really transcended that unoriginal formula to give us a show worth watching. It’s been an action show that’s far less concerned with action than it has been about character, plot and dialogue. Sure, it was afflicted by Tamzin Outhwaite as an implausible femme fatale. But with Peter Mullan on hand to make even George Cowley of The Professionals seem like a soft Sassenach jessie, fine performances by Andrew Buchan and Jody Latham as the Fixer and his sidekick Callum (hmm…) respectively, and some interesting plotting pyrotechnics, it’s been an interesting, gritty show that just needed a bit of a polish. And some budget.

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