Early last year, I realised my TV watching was sadly years behind. I’d been rubbish. I’d never seen BREAKING BAD or THE WIRE or THE SOPRANOS. I’d been far too busy writing, reading and working in all that time. So I decided to fix it. My New Year’s Resolution this year was to get myself up to date with TV watching and I’m going to write a few blog posts about what I’ve watched. Hope this isn’t too boring for you (I’ve got to fill this blog up with something).
Let’s start with BREAKING BAD (watched on DVD, available on Netflix). What hasn’t been said about this? There seems to be a bit of a schism in the world about this show — those who don’t quite get it and those who foam at the mouth. Count me as among the rabid sector. What’s so good about it? The writing, pure and simple. The acting is first-rate, especially Bryan Cranston as Walter White, with a rich supporting cast, especially Bob Odenkirk as amoral lawyer Saul Goodman (more on him soon). The cinematography is excellent, getting better as the series goes on, with the arty, angular shots adding to the claustrophobic feel. But, really, it’s the writing. One of the great flaws in Hollywood just now is the poor quality of writing, especially in blockbusters, with action scene set-pieces thrown together with no regard to narrative logic. The strength of BB is the characterisation and the logic — every action has a reaction consistent with the character’s behaviour. The pace is fast, getting through plot points at speed but never getting bogged down. It’s also slow and intense — everything’s focused on with precision, drama is allowed to unfold. And over the course of the series, we see the descent of Walter White from meek Chemistry teacher who’ll do anything for his family, to criminal drug lord, prizing his money over everything. One of the big learnings for me as a writer last year was avoiding melodrama, which commonly means character change happening too quickly — BB showed that unfold naturally. It’s just perfect.
One of the best domestic TV dramas of 2014 was LINE OF DUTY (BBC) series two. Up to a point. Crisply written with powerful twists and cliffhangers, this was a real acting powerhouse, particularly the performance of Keeley Hawes, who I’d always considered lightweight. She’s maturing into a strong actor, showing the psychosis of her character, at least as good as Lennie James in the first series. All that aside, the writing let it down in the last episode. A powerful drama essentially led nowhere and broke one of the fundamental rules of writing — don’t cheat the audience. A flashback showed the events shown in the first episode were incomplete and had misled us. Really poor writing. Or was it editing? One of the strengths of TRUE DETECTIVE and S3 of RIPPER STREET (see below) was the running time was flexible, varying between 50 and 65 minutes depending on the episode. The last episode of this could’ve done with another 15-20 minutes to show what happened, not have some vague flashback. Hopefully the third series will learn from this… It reminded me of the ending of BROADCHURCH (ITV), which left too much open at the end.
A perfect ending was Danish/Swedish co-production THE BRIDGE II (BBC), pretty much the only Scandi-crime I’ve watched that doesn’t bore me to tears. Building on the events of the first series, the odd couple pairing of Saga Norén and Martin Rohde are a perfect inversion of the Hollywood buddy cop formula. And what an ending — that’s how to do a cliffhanger. Only shame is how long it takes for them to produce a series, but maybe a lot of people could learn about letting things percolate, me included.
We watched a lot of stuff on Sky last year, including bingeing on the 24 miniseries (Sky), which I can’t remember anything about. Drones or something. It was fairly entertaining, but the whole thing just feels played out. Other favourites were geeking out on ARROW and THE FLASH (Sky), though they started to feel increasingly hollow. Arrow started out a mishmash of an intense, driven superhero and some tedious teenage soap opera, saved by a mostly brilliant supporting cast — Felicity, Diggle and Detective Lance were all top notch, Laurel and Thea a lot less so. Usually suffers a deep midseason lull before remembering the point and gearing up to a frenetic finale, Arrow lost it for me this year with a death too many. Barry Allen started out as a guest star in ARROW and soon became The Flash. As a guest, he was witty and energetic, a strong contender for a perfect Peter Parker (that’s Spider-Man, in case you’re not that geek). As a lead, he’s let down by boring writing and a really bad supporting cast — Harrison, Cisco, Caitlin, Iris, Eddie. Meh. Gave up on both of these early this year and haven’t missed them.
Another Sky series we watched was the piss-poor FOREVER. There’s a mantra that you learn as much from bad writing as good. This is bad writing and I learnt a lot. It’s essentially a NYC police procedural told from the perspective of the ME. Fairly interesting premised. The thing is, he’s immortal. Cue lots of getting killed and waking up in one of the rivers around Manhattan. Flirting with the detective who’s investigating him. It’s sub-CASTLE, if that’s a thing. Looks like it’s been cancelled. Thank God.
We started getting into streaming TV late last year, watching Amazon Prime Instant Video on my Playstation 3 (subsequently burnt and replaced with an Amazon Fire TV). One of the highlights was binge-watching RIPPER STREET (Amazon Prime) from the start, including the Amazon-produced third season. The first two are cracking, fast-paced and intense. Freed from the constraints of TV schedules, the variable episode length in the third allowed the drama to unfold naturally, except in a tedious mid-season episode set entirely in the police station — an archetypal “ship-in-a-bottle episode”. The whole season ended at a natural point, so I was surprised it got another two series. Very pleased, though.
Although it tailed off in the second season, LIE TO ME (Amazon Prime/Netflix) started off with an interesting premise — Tim Roth stars as a body language expert who can spot lies. Gets into the old case of the week formula, one week working a private divorce case, the next for the FBI, that sort of malarkey. I found it useful for the body language analysis early on, but soon got annoyed by the lead character’s increasingly annoying behaviour (I’ve *never* been guilty of that, ahem). Key learning of it for me was destroying the “smartest man in the room” myth — the reason I can’t watch HOUSE is it’s all sleight-of-hand magic, what’s in his head is being kept back from the audience, who don’t have the medical training to understand what’s going on. Similarly, the third season of SHERLOCK (BBC) disappeared up its own arse when it forgot it was there to feature crimes being solved in an entertaining way and instead focused on how amazing a character Sherlock Holmes is. And featuring no plot. Or entertainment, except for a hilarious stag do. Don’t get me wrong, I love character as much as the next guy, but story = character + plot. Too much character and it’s self-indulgent, too much plot and it’s ridiculous. On that note, ELEMENTARY (Sky) was fairly watchable, allegedly coming from the same initial idea as SHERLOCK. Sick Boy from TRAINSPOTTING was entertaining playing off a CHARLIE’S ANGEL, though it felt a bit lacking in emotion and the third series descended into classic “how interesting are we?” tropes.
Another case-of-the-week procedural I actually got into was FRINGE (DVD, Netflix or Amazon, I think). Centred around the FBI’s Fringe division, investigating paranormal crimes, it was more than an update to the X-FILES. The rich cast made up for the initially wooden lead in Agent Dunham with the brilliant Walter Bishop, a proper crackpot mad scientist. The first few series got the blend of case of the week and season story arc to a tee, exploring the implications of Walter’s youthful arrogance. A trial of a serial storyline in season three, featuring some of the best parallel universe storytelling I’ve ever seen or read, soon descended into tedium in the fifth season, where we didn’t get past the second episode. Shame.
The other real highlight of the year was TRUE DETECTIVE (Sky). The first season brought a quality cinema mindset to TV, with high production values and big stars in small roles. Like BB, it had a brooding intensity, which I loved. Matthew McConaughey — Matthew McConaughey — was excellent as Rust Cohl, shown both as a driven cop and as a broken-down wreck. The interplay with Woody from Cheers was insightful and drove the story on, rather than sticking in expositional dialogue. It’s not perfect. There are accusations of misogyny, which I can see but the likely truth is every character in it is horrible, even down to the kids. And the ending was the weakest part, descending into mumbo jumbo. But that was just ten minutes of a pretty-much perfect series.
Okay, that’s the things I can remember about last year. I’ll follow this up with the first half of 2015 soon. Hope that was at least vaguely entertaining.