Not Review 2007: Television

TV I was pleased as gluvine to able to contribute to Off The Telly's 2007 in review round-up. As usual I wrote far more text than could possibly be used, so here are the deleted scenes/unexpurgated notions:

Party Animals
and the two new episodes of The Thick of It offered somewhat differing interpretations of Westminster politics, the impression being that the reality was somewhere in between. The pre-publicity for the former suggested nothing less than a bonkfest between the Houses but instead delivered a West Wing-style romantic yet intelligent drama with real heart that potentially failed to find an audience because it tried to convince the viewer that someone in the opposing party is a real human being. The latter lacked that problem by portraying everyone as equally cretinous, blissfully funny, with a career best performance from Peter Capaldi, providing some of the most quotable lines of the year – “You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra.”. It might well have been the best comedy and it would be a tragedy if writer Armando Ianucci decides to call it a day after the conviction of first series stalwart Chris Langan.

The Peter Serafinovich Show was the little sketch comedy that could. Not quite as polished as Look Around You, Serafinovich still managed to include enough spot-on parodies of everything from Television Shopping to E! News to suggest that a magnum opus is still in the offering. Predictably, given that he was the voice of Darth Maul, the sketch of the series featured Darth Vader falling in love; but it pleasingly expected its audience to remember an Acting Masterclass with Michael Caine from the late nineties and to be a aware of the moustached shouter from daytime insurance commercials. About the only niggle was that with the repeat uncanny impressions of the unpredictable likes of Alan Alda and the nailing into the ground of jokes about various types of chatlines (‘Would you like a one-to-one with a caveman?’) you weren’t entirely sure if the whole thing was a gentle evisceration of the sketch show format as a whole, viciously pointing out its weaknesses.

was the best new genre series of the year despite the often meandering narrative and the constant drift into thudding portentousness, typified by the poetic voiceover that topped and tailed many episodes which I don’t think I ever paid attention to. If nothing was ever quite as exciting as the opening episode, with time-travelling Hiro’s exuberant scream in Time Square before discovering an upcoming apocalypse, by episode nine and the introduction of Zachary Quinto’s charismatic Sylar you were hooked by the twists, turns and surprises. Crucially unlike the increasingly stodgy Lost, creator Tim Kring was careful to provide the audience with enough answers to keep them interested and a definite impression that a masterplan is in place. Only now and then were the characters seemingly struck dumb by the needs of the plot – why wouldn’t invincible cheerleader Claire, having discovered that her biological mother is in contact with her biological father, ask what his name is !?!

Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip in contrast could never quite decide what it wanted to be, at times as political as The West Wing at others a full blooded romantic comedy which its rumoured was down to studio interference. This lack of clear tone potentially led to its downfall as did the fact that this was a sometimes drama about the making of a comedy show that wasn’t at all funny except when someone was doing an impression of Nicholas Cage or Holly Hunter because it featured topic jokes about news in a fictional universe. It was never less than thoroughly entertaining though with Matthew Perry proving that there was more to him than Chandler Bing and Sarah Poulson who’s impressed in a range of co-starring roles for years and really deserves to be in a hit one of these days. One of the best drama scenes of the year was between these two as their character’s eight year on-off romance was rolled out in mere minutes, linked by a perpetual discussion over the validity of the Bible, demonstrating that religion really shouldn’t come between two people who are in love.

The Secret Life of the Motorway was another example of what BBC Four do so well – taking a potentially uninteresting subject and rendering it fascinating. In this case it was by highlighting the human element to these otherwise grey necessities. In the first episode it was revealed that there were so many Irish immigrants working on the M1 that four priests were employed to minister to them and their families. The second offered one of the great documentary interviews of the year as two pensioners sat eating breakfast in a service station. He waxed lyrical about how much he loved going there because the staff were so friendly and all the interesting people he’d met (listing most of them) and then when she was asked what she liked about the place, his wife said sharply ‘I hate coming here’. The third introduced the political dimension, outline the bizarre plan of running motorways directly through Central London and the protest pressure which led to their cancellation.

I also have as soft spot for the latest National Lottery gameshow, Who Dares Wins. These things tend to be far too talky and a bit pants but on this occasion they’ve struck upon a brilliant premise. Carried genially by unlikely host Nick Knowles, this reverse engineers Name That Tune in a general knowledge environment with two sets of total strangers (matched at the beginning) betting on how many examples of a particular subject they or their opposition can guess. Early in the series a couple of women who looked like shopping channel survivors flummoxed a pair of cocky bespeckled students by being able to name fifteen Carry One films and to add insult to injury, mostly the obscure ones. Much of the time its impossible not to be shouting answers at the screen as you attempt to name thirteen George Clooney movies or in the case of the champions board (with fifty grand at stake) twenty-five daily newspapers, kicking yourself when they reveal the full list and you’d forgotten about Intolerable Cruelty or The Scotsman. If this was the 1980s, Addictive Games would already have brought out a version for the ZX Spectrum.

Worth it for the infuriated letters to the Radio Times, Joe’s Palace was another triumph from tv’s current best auteur Stephen Poliakoff. Always surprising – the Antique’s Roadshow interlude a particular treat – the writer/director has never been interested in giving the audience the complete story and this time it was the turn of simple Joe (a winning performance from newcomer Danny Lee Wynter) to be our eyes and ears, simplifying quite complex relationships and happenings. Some criticised for the apparent sudden injection of Holocaust fear in what was otherwise a gentle mystery, but that misunderstands the real point of the piece which like the earlier Perfect Strangers revealed that every family has its darker secrets which can inform or infuriate later generations. If Michael Gambon was predictably good, Kelly Reilly was perhaps most memorable, the sad figure in Rupert Penry-Jones’s cabinet minister’s thrall unable to find any satisfaction with life.

This was a vintage year too for Doctor Who, over the vague jitters of its second series with only the Dalek story betraying a lack of confidence. If the finale disappointed some because Tennant’s timelord was reduced to a CG character leaving little time for sparring with the newly resurrected Master (deliciously delivered by John Simm) it was the two part story Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Doctor-lite double banker Blink which both deserved instant classic status and ironically both stories were about a lack of the timelord. In the first the lonely God became a human in order to hide from the aliens of the week – not because he was scared of them, but frightened of what he himself was capable of in dealing with their threat. In the second, it was up to a contemporary girl to follow the convoluted plan of a trapped in the 60s Doctor.

Both works illustrated just how multifarious the franchise has become, with shocking enough monsters for the kids and weighty themes for adults and in the midst of that some shattering performances from the likes of Jessica Hynes and Carey Mulligan, whose Sally Sparrow is surely the best companion we might never had. Blink in particular featured some amazing dialogue (‘I have until the rain stops’ ‘I'm clever, and I'm listening. Now don't patronise me, 'cause people have died and I'm not happy. Tell me.’ ‘Gotta dash, things happening. Well, four things. Well, four things and a lizard.’ Etc.) which along with his Children In Need special confirmed that writer Steven Moffat would be a perfect show-runner should Russell T Davies decide to leave after the show’s gap year.

The second and final series of Life on Mars disappointed after embracing a formula, much of the time treading water until the fate of Sam Tyler was revealed. All of the performers did their best with the material, but all too often it would find itself in a quagmire of issues of the week (this is the one about institutional racism, about immigration, about drugs) and Tyler related tomfoolery that confused more than intrigued. The downbeat ending was still exhilarating though, riskily providing closure whilst suggesting the death of its lead character. It’ll be interesting to see how the sequel, Ashes-To-Ashes, deals with that.

What frustrated most about the Blue Peter scandals was the lack of imagination at their heart. As Mark Curry explained during a particularly heated discussion on the BBC Breakfast couch the morning after the phone-in subterfuge broke, in days gone by instead of simply wheeling in a child to pretend to be a competition winner, they would have spun it into an item, explaining how and why the phones went down. That said there have been a range of other mishaps in the show’s history including having to replace Petra and the odd tortoise, but the difference is that those didn’t come to light until years later whereas lately its been impossible to obscure anything from anyone.

1 comment:

  1. I can't agree with your assessment of Heroes, particularly with regard to Lost. I share writer Devin Faraci's thoughts on this, though I don't really share his vitriol.

    Also, Lost... stodgy? As in "heavy, dull, or uninteresting; tediously commonplace; boring"? While I'd agree that the second season meandered at times, the third was anything but stodgy! Lost keeps its cards close to its chest but it does answer its questions, albeit piece by piece while raising new questions at the same time.

    Given that there are expected to be only another 48 episodes of Lost, I think the show's creators have a 'masterplan' and a definite endgame in mind. More so than Tim Kring's plot hole riddled, logic averse, two dimensional tale. Heroes is frustrating in that it's quite entertaining (I enjoyed it in spite of its flaws) despite being a a massive missed opportunity. It could have been much, much, better.