On Other Worlds

So, Series Two of Line of Duty is four episodes down and two to go. This programme has been a recent discovery for me, largely because I now live in another country and don’t watch BBC television any more. This is a bigger factor than advocates of “waheeey, on-demand!” might assume, simply because once you take away the stumbling-upon-stuff and the adverts and the trailers that cause you to go “oh, that looks all right,” the only way of finding good TV is through reviews and internet-buzz… and they keep trying to convince me to watch House Of Sodding Cards. I keep calling it House Of Cards: The Spacey Version, but that just reminds me that it isn’t set in space, rather it’s set in a strange alternative universe where four perfectly decent hours of entertainment can be lengthened to thirteen and everyone calls it “stylish” instead of “flabby.”

So in the week I have to wait until the next episode I’ll almost certainly be hoovering up Series One of this beauty, as it’s fantastic. It’s a tight, taut police-drama-slash-conspiracy-thriller, anchored by excellent leads and an extraordinary performance by Keeley Hawes. It’s the work of Jed Mercurio, who’s best known for taking the tired staples of hospital drama and turning them into an absurdly good drama, Bodies. Line of Duty does pretty much the same thing. Like Bodies, it’s great because it makes all the right choices: it understands what drives the inherent drama in its setting, and is interested in the structure and space of its worlds. Most hospital shows were essentially soap-operas punctuated by people crashing through swinging doors on trolleys, but Bodies was a drama about the NHS. Similarly, this is about the police. The conflict is partly driven by pure institutional stupidity, like the competition between different departments leading to investigations going down blind alleys: the result is real, stinking injustices. Mercurio understands the appalling consequences of high-powered cock-blocking better than any writer except David Simon, and also understands exactly how to wring tense interplay from overpowering pettiness.

It’s more than that, though. The people in this programme have relationships that are truly dynamic, in the sense that our allegiances (and point-of-view) shift from character to character throughout the episode. The result is a story that always manages to surprise, where you don’t ever know how it’s going to end up – not in the sense that “there’s a twist coming,” but in the sense that the whole narrative can just change gears and go confidently off in directions you weren’t expecting. In the best possible way, it’s not that you don’t know where it’s going, it’s that you don’t know exactly what you’re watching. In episode one, Lindsay Denton has her head thrust down the toilet by staff members while her superior looks on. You’d expect this to be the focus of the whole season, but in fact she’s just transferred elsewhere: the assault is just something that happens in this sort of environment, especially when the dodgy decisions of an unpopular woman have just got two fellow officers killed.

In other words, the world has a real texture. So do the people. When a main character covertly orders and knocks back a double vodka in a pub, everyone’s telly-saturated brain immediately says “ah, we’re going to have a series of her alcoholism.” It turns out not even to be an issue, and we never really find out whether she’s an alcoholic or not. Again, it’s texture: she grabs a double vodka on a night out because, hey, that’s what some people do sometimes, for all sorts of reasons. These people and this environment are unpredictable. Therefore, they’re dangerous. When presented with a world this rich, some of the more annoying stylistic tics (the camera zooms are often irritating) don’t even matter, and the occasional improbabilities barely register. This is what drama should do.

What makes this doubly ironic is that I watched the first four episodes all in a row, midway through my foray into Season Two of Game Of Thrones (both these programmes are made in Norn Iron, oddly. Seems to be a good place to make TV hits). Both shows are niche, in their way, but spectacularly successful (in terms of viewers) within their niche. Thematically, they’re doing almost exactly the same thing: creating complex, expansive environments explored by multiple point-of-view characters and no purely heroic characters. So why, by comparison, do I find watching Game Of Thrones… well, a bit of a chore?

Hmm. A lot of this can be put down to basic things, like the pace (you could cut any episode of Game Of Thrones down to forty-five minutes without losing a thing) and the willfully loose structure. Since The Sopranos and The Wire did it properly, this sort of slowness is increasingly fetishised by U.S. television for its own sake. The relatively static cameras, the gratuitous number of characters, the moody glowering; these are now part of the unthinking grammar of “quality television,” something that good shows are just supposed to do, a stylised choice that’s no more inherently intelligent than CSI Miami’s insistence on hyper-saturating all the colours.

In part, it’s a mechanistic exercise in filling out time – U.S. shows are flops unless they get five series of thirteen episodes each, and in the more commercial dramas it’s closer to twenty episodes. So what we’re looking at is just padding with A-Levels, and Game Of Thrones chucks in new characters just like Lost threw in new plotlines. Sorry. but I still see Mad Men as the zero-point for slowness as a style in its own right and the trend for emphasising art direction where the plot should be, which ultimately led to relatively staid dramas being played out with a veneer of oh-so-stylish ponderousness. Game Of Thrones is a far better piece of work, it must be said – if it weren’t half-decent, I wouldn’t be watching it. I’m sometimes tempted to dismiss it as a knock-off of Lord Of The Rings, made by someone who thinks the word “mature” is always preceded by the word “for” and followed by “audiences,” but the fact is that it’s a clearly superior production on every single level. Still, it’s impossible not to watch it and feel there’s a brilliant, lean, six-part story buried in each needlessly extended season.

It’s more than that, though. Take Sherlock, for example – another show set in its own world, in this case a self-sustaining fictionalised London (at least, that’s what made the first series work). It’s the polar opposite of Game Of Thrones in terms of its style – everything accompanied by a whirling camera, no subtext allowed to be unspoken without captions appearing on-screen, every thought-process narrated or acted out in full high-octane visuals – but as market forces, the two programmes are identical. They are brands, made to appeal to fanbases rather than viewers… and one of the functions of branding is that they can never be too unpredictable, as the familiarity is what makes branding work. Branding is about removing unpredictability, outside carefully-defined areas. It’s partly the look, but also the form of the narrative: both programmes can be watched with half an eye elsewhere. In the case of Sherlock it’s because everything is so unsubtle that it barely needs your attention anyway (this is a programme that puts character-points on-screen as a caption, for crying out loud), and with Game Of Thrones the longeurs are built in to the plot. These shows are a place, a club, as much as they are a drama. You can have them on in the background when you’re lying on your couch hungover, or you can have them on when you’re doing the washing-up, or – and with Sherlock this is especially blatant – while you’re live-tweeting it (“Why not watch Sherlock while textin’ your mates?” is exactly how a brand operates). And in the execrable, appalling, cynical mush of Series 3, the direct references to the fanbase and endlessly gratuitous pissing about with the jumping off the building were no more a televised drama than “why not send Booking.com your holiday story?” is a novel.

I’m not saying that a programme being a place, or having a fanbase, is bad. I’m a Doctor Who obsessive, for Pete’s sake: a big part of that heritage is dressing up and going to conventions (which I never did) and/or writing original stories set in the sandbox universe (which I did, and that’s why I became the person who’s… um… writing this). Having fans writing slash-fic or dressing up as Cersei Schemingbitch is a good thing. What I am saying is that one man’s fanbase is another man’s demographic, and things that are demographically targetted are never truly surprising. We know by now, right down to the fourth decimal place, exactly how Sherlock or John will react to any given situation and they seldom meet anyone very interesting (this was true from the first episode, where the one-off villain had his motivations drawn in by etch-o-sketch so the story’s finale could turn into The Princess Bride). It’s also true of Game Of Thrones, which is an extended serial, but only Tywin and Tyrion Lannister really keep us guessing after the first few episodes – and even then it’s more because of the performances than the scripting. When Tyrion tells Cersei “your love for your children is your one redeeming quality,” that’s literally the character’s entire brief; Robb Stark has just given a woman a look while she amputates a limb, and I already know they’re going to wind up romancing. Even the sex scenes are part of the furniture. Again, that’s how brands work, something George Lucas understood back in 1977 – if you’re making a sandbox universe you don’t want unpredictable people, you want two-dimensional icons where viewers can pick a favourite and project themselves onto the character.

All of which fine, if you decide to buy into the brand. The problem is that it leaves out everyone else – those of us who aren’t looking for a lifestyle choice, who only want compelling entertainment that can transport us elsewhere for an hour every week. I was one of many viewers who didn’t really care how Sherlock had survived jumping off the hospital, and just wanted the explanation out of the way so I could get detective stories as good as Series One. Similarly, I don’t need to spend five minutes in the company of Danaerys Funnyhair every week, whether she’s doing anything interesting or not, because hey lots of fans have her as their favourite.

And to revert to Line of Duty: in the first episode we’re presented with Lindsay Denton as an innocent, an incompetent, a coward, a brave whistleblower, a born victim, and a possible scheming criminal. At exactly the point when you think she’s going to fold into a nervous wreck, she smashes someone’s head against concrete. Often “out of character” is used as a criticism, but real people under stress do behave out of character. In the hands of a poor actor this could be a disaster, a mish-mash of incoherent mannerisms – but Line Of Duty trusts its cast and as a result we get Keeley Hawes, who is so astounding in the way she pulls these different reactions into one cohesive, compelling human being that she might as well be given all the acting awards now. I’m four episodes in and I still have no idea where this is going. Four episodes into Game Of Thrones I knew exactly where I was, and was just impatient for more ice-zombies, and for the Starks and Lannisters to start kicking lumps out of each other (oh, and wondering why the girl with Stockholm Syndrome was being presented as a model of female emancipation).

There’s more than one kind of drama, and everything doesn’t have to look like Bodies. However, with the self-inflicted decline of broadcast viewing, generating a demographic fanbase who will buy the merchandise and watch the boxsets is increasingly going to be the template for what drama will do. You can get action figures for The Big Bang Theory now, which says all you need to know. Only the core fanbase really matters: much play was made this year that Mrs Brown’s Boys topped the Christmas Day ratings, but what wasn’t commented upon that Steven Moffat’s demographically-targetted, branded version of Doctor Who picked up only 8.3 million viewers compared to the 13.3 million that tuned in six years earlier, and the 11.6 million who saw Tennant bow out. It  doesn’t matter, because a drama finding a mass audience is no longer seen as important, and the multicoloured Dalek toys are the real measure of success.

All of which means that the brilliance of Line Of Duty, where the broadcast and the initial impact is all that really matters, is under threat – as television atomises this sort of drama will be harder and harder to find. There may only be a few years of being able to see this sort of thing. For god’s sake, watch it now.

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