When a good thing goes bad
It looked like The Wire all over again, evenings spent glued to the television, riding the thrills and spills of a modern day Greek tragedy, following the characters as they hurtled towards their terrible destinies.
I eulogised the writers of Homeland, Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, and pronounced all the great talent was now in television, quoting Robert McKee to my partner. And then I sat down to watch.
It was beautiful television. The genius of the narrative tension which had us knowing more than the characters themselves, that the war hero Brody was a Muslim and terrorist.
The well sketched characters of Carrie Mathieson, desperately ambitious and hiding her bipolar condition to keep her job; the battered Saul Berenson, coming to realise he had sacrificed too much for his ambitions; and the faintly duplicitous Bureau Chief, David Estes.
I was even prepared to overlook the fact that the first real characterisation of a truly ambitious woman on mainstream television was bipolar (because every ambitious woman needs a moral flaw).
When Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson counter threatened her freelance investigator Virgil when he looked to be threatening to expose her mental state, saying that he was “up to his fucking neck in it”, I was hooked.
And then something happened. The story line started to waver. The characterisation of Brody softened. Was it really possible for a loved and stable American marine to become a terrorist extremist after seeing his captor’s son killed, even if he had spent eight years in captivity?
Before I even had time to question my thoughts, they threw a love story at me in Brody and Carrie, killed six CIA agents in a shootout in Gettysburg and had Brody kill off two of his co-conspirator terrorists. His daughter was involved in a hit and run.
Suddenly the story line became fantastical. It took flight from reality, lurching from one random storyline to the next. The script itself became the bipolar character, throwing increasingly absurd story lines at me in anticipation that my attention was already waning.
Ragged and desperate, it abandoned its true self.
Only the Vice President, William Walden, seemed to share our bemusement when he asked ‘How the hell did Abu Nazeer get into America?’ An excellent question, Mr Vice President, but one which lay unanswered. He might well have asked, what the hell is wrong with this script?
It’s called paying the piper.
And this is how a good thing goes bad.
Before the time of Fifty Shades and Dan Brown, novels were constructed with such precision that there would have be no way to extend so endlessly.
The story had a start and an end point, the psychology of the characters was paramount, but moreover it had to make sense. Not so in television, where in the last year we have seen the likes of Mad Men peter out from one of the most outstanding stories of our time to a dribbling, senseless mess in Season Five. As Daniel Mendelhson wrote in the New York Review of Books last year about Mad Men:
“Most of the show’s flaws can, in fact, be attributed to the way it waves certain flags in your face and leaves things at that, without serious thought about dramatic appropriateness or textured characterization…The writers like to trigger “issue”-related subplots by parachuting some new character or event into the action, often an element that has no relation to anything that’s come before.”
The Wire has been one of the few series to hold itself together – although even it had the terrible third season blues.
Television is the mirror to ourselves – our demanding, short attention spanned selves – so we can’t very complain when it starts to look like things haven’t been thought through.
But what does it mean for our wider understanding of the world when our writers are responding to our whims rather than telling the stories that need to be told?
As Alex Gansa said in an interview with the BBC’s Channel 4 “The first conversation we had with Damian and Claire was, how long can we keep the “is he or isn’t he” of it alive without feeling like we’re annoying the audience?”
Is this really the sum of contemporary writing? How can we tell a story without annoying our viewers?
But perhaps, more poignantly, is this really the sum of us as viewers? That we can’t watch anything unless it packs in meaningless twists and turns, designed to attract our attention like some sort of flashing billboard.
Before television is to claim its place as the cultural vehicle of our times, surely we need to aspire to more.
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