Wednesday, 8 January 2014


A trawl through festive television, namely Doctor Who, Still Open All Hours and Sherlock, plus Breaking Bad, highlights some interesting points about modern TV.

The rich cast of characters - in more ways than one -
Breaking Bad. (Image: AMC)

I didn’t watch much Christmas television. As far as I was concerned there was nothing on. Well, of course there was stuff on, as TV is a 24/7 affair these days, but there wasn't much I wanted to watch. The trouble with TV being a hungry 24-hour medium now is that the same stuff gets recycled again and again (and again and again…). It says a lot that the only thing that all of my family sat down to watch together were the Christmas repeats of Morecambe and Wise. They may be forty-odd years old, but the duo’s anarchic take on vaudeville, already out of date by the 1970s, has stood the test of time and is still laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The Edited Highlights of the Doctor
One of the dramas I made a point of watching was ‘The Time of the Doctor’, Matt Smith’s last bow in the title role of Doctor Who. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been a fan of the series all my life, so as we'd been told the Doctor was at the end of his life – for good, this time – in the best traditions of regeneration stories, I was looking forward to something truly apocalyptic. What we got looked like the edited highlights of an epic, series-length story with the emotive scenes again given most of the screen time (a common feature of Doctor Who’s 21st century reboot). If long-term Doctor fans out there can imagine the ten part ‘The War Games’ cut down to an hour and the Doctor’s concluding trial by the Time Lords given five minutes at the end, that was pretty much what we got in ‘The Time of the Doctor’.

Mr Smith's festive farewell. (Image: BBC)
The Doctor’s last stand over several hundred years as the guardian of Trenzalore, which concealed a crack in the universe hiding his lost planet Gallifrey, was hard to empathise with as you saw it on fast-forward. His ageing into a decrepit old man had no dramatic impact as it happened so fast and – to be blunt – Smith’s performance didn’t change once he had the make up on. Particularly annoying were the diversions of Clara (Jenna Coleman) back to her family’s Christmas dinner, which were only there to justify the story’s status as a Christmas Day special, and took the story’s emphasis away from where it should have been.

‘The Time of the Doctor’ did wrap up all the enigmatic storylines of the Smith era, but, again, there was a nagging feeling of disappointment as the various narrative threads were explained away in a few lines of dialogue that had no dramatic consequences. Couldn’t they have all led up to something truly climactic, particularly as some of the storylines had been ongoing since Smith’s first episode?

For me, the best moment was the touchingly written and performed regeneration scene. It made emotional and dramatic sense that the Doctor’s guilt over Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), the first person he met in this body, would be dispelled in his final moments by a spectral visitation from her. And the Doctor removing his signature bow tie, just before he changed, was a lovely piece of melancholy symbolism.   

The Adventures of the Indulgent Authors
I was looking forward to the return of Sherlocklike most of the nation, I suspect – but on the evidence of the two new stories screened so far, something seems to have gone awry: in short, the show is now in love with its own cult. The telling in-joke of a Sherlock fan club aside, ‘The Empty Hearse’ spent a lot of its time teasing the audience about how Sherlock Holmes survived the fall from Bart’s Hospital, and by the end you still weren’t entirely sure if you’d been given a genuine explanation. Add to that the protracted resumption of the friendship between Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) – a lot of which was very funny, admittedly – and the actual plot of foiling a terrorist attack on London felt tacked on and insubstantial, a feeling compounded by having Sherlock simply throw the off-switch on the bomb. After the tight, immaculately plotted stories of Series Two, ‘The Empty Hearse’ came across as slack and disjointed.

Watson and Holmes are distracted from their usual
business of crime solving. (Image: BBC)
The self-indulgence continued in last Sunday’s ‘The Sign of Three’, although as a whole the story was better constructed. Most of the screen time was given over to the wedding of Watson and Mary Marston (Amanda Abbington) and the hilarity that ensued from casting Holmes as the Best Man. By my reckoning it was half an hour in before anything resembling a detective plot emerged, but the clever thing about ‘The Sign of Three’ was that, after the first story, elements that didn’t look like they were going to connect – a serial dater of lonely hearts, death threats against Watson’s old commander and the wedding itself – this time all came together satisfyingly.

Frustratingly, though, the villain had little dialogue and hardly any personality. Watching it, I got the feeling that the writers – all of whom work on Doctor Who, funnily enough – and leading men Cumberbatch and Freeman were more interested in enjoying the comedy that resulted from the wedding and stag night than developing the mystery (which is a shame, as the original Conan Doyle story is one of his best). I can understand the production team wanting to show different aspects to the characters as the series progresses, but they shouldn’t lose sight of what made Sherlock popular in the first place: stylish, original and off-beat crime thrillers. And as much as I like Cumberbatch, he came dangerously close to a camp send-up of his Holmes character in ‘The Sign of Three’. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

Better call Saul
As I was underwhelmed with the festive schedules, once I was back in London I gave the box set of the first three series of Breaking Bad a go. Every so often a programme comes along that everyone I know, as well as the media, raves about, and over the last year that’s certainly been the case with this US import. Intrigued by the premise – a terminally ill chemistry teacher starts making the illegal drug crystal meth to raise funds for his family – I slid the first disc into the Fairclough Towers DVD player and curled up on the sofa.

Give or take the odd food and bathroom break and fitful sleep, I was still there three days later and had continued into Series Four. Much to my delight, Breaking Bad is one of the best drama series I’ve ever seen. It was commissioned for the AMC, the production company behind Mad Men, which gives you some idea of its quality. Although I admire the 1960s-set saga, for me Breaking Bad has the edge: it’s a parable for these hard economic times, as a dedicated family man, Walter White (the extraordinary Bryan Cranston) is driven to extreme measures out of the best of motives. One of the mesmerising things about the show is watching a decent character drawn further and further into a corrupt world, who in turn becomes more and more corrupted by it. Cranston’s performance is so subtly drawn that the change in White is fascinatingly gradual. 

Who ya gonna call? (Image: AMC)
It’s not pretentious to say that Breaking Bad bears comparison with Shakespeare or Dickens. Like the great works by these literary giants, all the characters, from Walt’s family on down, are either three dimensional or at the very least distinctive, and have an essential part to play in the narrative. Among the many stand-outs are Skylar White (Anna Gunn), a joy to watch as a witty, moral woman slowly becomes complicit in her husband's murky new world; Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s macho brother-in-law in the Drug Enforcement Agency, who has to come to terms with both his mental insecurities and horrific shooting injuries; his trophy wife Marie (Betsy Brandt), with a weakness for shoplifting, and the quiet, mild mannered Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the fast-food chain owning pillar of the community who’s secretly a ruthless drug baron. Arguably my favourite character is Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the opportunistic lawyer with trashy TV adverts, gaudy dress sense and an arsenal of smart one-liners. Despite presenting an immaculate picture of someone who shouldn’t be taken at all seriously, his brash front conceals a sharp mind as he runs rings around the American judicial system. Even minor characters like the meth heads ‘Badger’ (Matt L. Jones) and ‘Skinny Pete’ (Charles Baker) are a joy to watch, comic relief in the same mould as the gravediggers who lightened Hamlet’s darkness.

Holding the whole series together is the love-hate relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a junkie drop-out White enlists to help him sell the meth. It’s fascinating watching their relationship change over the series, as the initially amoral Jesse becomes more humane just as White becomes more ruthless and manipulative.

The comparisons with Grand Tragedy and Charles D also hold in the way Breaking Bad works. Its narrative is driven by the vintage trio of power, corruption and lies, together with one’s own kin – “Family is all” a character says at one point – a common thread from Richard III to Coriolanus, from David Copperfield to Little Dorrit. You could say the same of The Sopranos but that went on far too long, while Breaking Bad runs to a finely judged five seasons, ensuring its reputation as seminal TV. Being set on the American/Mexican gives the series a distinctive, exotic tone which is never overplayed. There’s also a touch of the Coen Brothers’ idiosyncratic take on crime, evidenced in a trouser-less Walt standing in the road pointing a gun in the opening episode, via an 11 year-old assassin to the wheelchair-bound gangster Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), who can only communicate by using a bell.

First principles

Still Open All Hours. The way forward? (Image: BBC)
After watching something as well constructed as Breaking Bad, which flows so well and is dramatic, horrific, startling and funny – sometimes all at the same time – I couldn’t help wondering why the writers of Doctor Who and Sherlock can’t be just as disciplined. With such a fascinating gallery of characters, you can easily see how the Breaking Bad writers could have given in to indulgence by doing, say, an outright comedy episode or one that fast-forwarded through the misadventures of Saul. To their credit they didn’t and the series was never allowed to become a victim of its own success or in-jokey. The other striking thing about Breaking Bad is how many long, talky scenes there are. The audience in trusted to enjoy the quality of the dialogue and the performances in a manner that’s reminiscent of old-style videotaped television, which was more like theatre than film. Remarkably, the resurrection of Open All Hours, the predictably titled Still Open All Hours, worked in exactly the same way, albeit with jokes. Apart from the promotion of Granville (David Jason) to the main role of the tight-fisted shopkeeper and the introduction of a substitute Granville, Leroy (James Baxter), the pilot shown on Boxing Day looked like it could have been made in the 1980s. As Still Open All Hours brought in an audience of ten million, there’s still clearly a liking among the British viewing public for a series with a slower pace that offers well-crafted characters driven by witty, clever and thoughtful dialogue.

Which was pretty much what Doctor Who was like in its 1960s and 1970s heyday. Writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss might argue that they need to keep things moving because of the children watching, but the Harry Potter films – a good comparison with Matt Smith’s era – don’t suffer from the Attention Deficit Disorder-editing and it’s-fantasy-so-we-can-do-what we-like-with-the-plot approach of some recent Doctor Who episodes. As for the Cult of Sherlock, it’s highly unlikely that in any other contemporary crime drama you’d have a whole episode devoted to the comedy potential of one of the main characters getting married. That sort of thing can test the audience’s patience.

Moffat and co have more than delivered the goods on Doctor Who and Sherlock in the past, so here’s hoping the recent self-indulgence and abbreviated storytelling is a blip. Doctor Who and Sherlock are still two of my favourite series, but I reckon they could learn a thing or two from Breaking Bad, the new kid on the block whose storytelling is based on the oldest, most proven traditions in literature.

“We got nowhere to go but up.”

No comments:

Post a Comment