NB. There’s no way of talking about this without spoilers, although the film largely based on a true story, so it’s up to you.
Holy Spider is a tough watch. It’s a fictionalised account of the serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 women in Iran, all or most of whom were sex workers, in 2000-2001. He was ultimately caught and executed, but along the way, Hanaei became a folk hero of the religious right because of his claim that his killing spree was a divinely inspired mission to cleanse the streets of ‘corrupt women’.
In light of today’s protests by women in Iran against the strictures of the ‘Morality Police’ the story feels important and prophetic, suggesting that Hanaei’s twisted mentality is now enshrined in a state sanctioned murderously misogynistic DNA.
I should start by saying that I think Holy Spider is a very good film in many ways. It’s brilliantly made, utterly gripping, with superb acting all round. The director, Ali Abbasi, is himself Iranian (although he lives in Denmark now) and some might remember him from the very bizarre Border which came out a few years ago about a Troll working as a customs officer.
On the one hand Holy Spider follows an incredibly determined brave woman journalist, Arezoo Rahimi, who finally entraps Hanaei by posing as a sex worker and pursuing justice on behalf of his victims, on the other it endeavours to explore Hanaei’s psyche (embittered war veteran, religious zealot etc), following him as he commits murder after murder, which he gets away with because, as with Peter Sutcliffe, there is little sympathy for his sex worker victims who are seen as largely responsible for their own fate.
Here lies the problem. To tell this part of the story, Abbasi decides we need to watch not one, not two, but three very brutal murders, dwelling in graphic detail on highly disturbing images of their strangulation. While there is some attempt, certainly with two of the victims, to give them a hinterland and depth beyond being simply cinematic murder-fodder, there is clearly justification for the accusation that Abbasi is being unnecessarily voyeuristic. Wendy Ide in The Observer was particularly scathing, suggesting that this aspect of the film perpetuated precisely what it was attempting to critique and it was therefore only worthy of two stars. She has a point.
I found myself very conflicted. In recent years, especially in the writing community, the consensus has been that we should aim to give far less narrative air time to perpetrators, and where possible make our stories about those who suffer at their hands. In 2021, in The Investigation,a brilliant Danish dramatisation around the murder of journalist Kim Wall in a wealthy entrepreneur’s private submarine, the perpetrator was neither named or featured at all. It was an incredibly affecting and powerful drama.
The thing is, while I was blown away by the power of that Danish series, I can’t in all honesty bring myself to believe that this is the only way of respectfully telling these stories, after all sometimes it is our duty as writers to dig down into why people transgress in the way they do. In the case of Iran, where Abbasi is making a broader political point about ingrained cultural, political and religious misogyny, not to explore who Hanaei believes himself to be would be to render the whole enterprise utterly pointless.
Indeed, although Hanaei was caught after a potential victim managed to escape, the journalist’s brave, empowering entrapment story, gripping though it is, appears to be little more than worthy wish fulfilment. The truth of the film – and truth is what we’re about as writers and directors – lies in the parts of the film about which well-meaning, politically astute critics are so righteously critical.
So, could the film have been made without forcing us to watch those murders? Would one or two murders have been enough? The answer to that is yes, but I seriously doubt it would have been anywhere as powerful a statement as it is. It could reasonably – if uncomfortably – be argued that to do so would be less respectful of those victims, not more so, because in narrative terms the crimes would be sanitised for the audience, and Abbasi is addressing an audience who, he believes, simply do not take the issue of violence against women seriously. If there are people – sometimes controlling entire nations – who see violence against women as an abstract justified by a higher force, as divine retribution, then showing it as cold, brute, murderous evil done, repeatedly, by men (not gods), is thematically and politically justified. After all, that is the truth of the world.
When we meet the parents of one of the murdered women, torn apart by grief and shame, it is a hair-raising moment, precisely because we have lived the young woman’s terrible death with her. When Hanaei’s son coolly, proudly re-enacts his father’s crimes with his toddler sister, as if playing a children’s game, we flinch precisely because we have borne witness to the full horror of the deed as it happened.
And in a brilliant and shocking final act, the execution of Hanaei is seen to be equally brutal, the audience forced to watch in grim detail just as they have the murders of his female victims. We could equally ask do we really need to see that in all its horror? The answer for me is yes, because it exposes the suffocating pointlessness of any culture driven by retribution, divine or human.
It has become easy to eschew voyeurism, and often there is good reason to be wearily impatient with tropes where women feature primarily as corpses, but equally there are times when those stories need to be told, and when perhaps those images need to be seen.
Whether the balance is right here, and whether a woman director would have made this differently, or as effectively, or better, I genuinely have no idea. All I can say is that Holy Spider is an extremely powerful and disturbing film which I shall be thinking about for days if not weeks if not years, where a more discreet cinematic style might have been a good deal more forgettable.
It made me rightfully angry at the crime, not at the film maker, and I’ve never been one for blaming the messenger.
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December ’twas the season to be jolly… and for critics to compile their top ten lists for the year just gone. But what do those lists tell us? It’s great to honour the best that the art of TV drama can offer, but do they really reflect the experience of the dedicated, or even average television viewer?
I’m a screenwriter, and I do a bit of reviewing, so I have a professional interest which perhaps leads me to watch more TV than most, but while we aim to learn from the best in our craft, what can we learn from the rest of it – the ‘quite good’; the ‘enjoyably disposable’; the downright dreary; and the ‘for-God’s-sake-someone, please-put-me-out-of-my-misery’. So it was, at the end of 2022, I thought I’d keep a note of everything I’d seen over the last twelve months. What will that tell me about where the art form is at the moment? Or, perhaps, the list will reveal more about me. Obviously, nobody can watch everything, but I realised not without a little shock, that I’d sat through over seventy TV series, albeit not all of them to the bitter end. As samples go that’s not too bad. I should also add that I saw sixty movies in the cinema.
What follows is a list… quite a long list, actually a set of lists and stats – I mean people, do it for sports, so why not take a leaf out of their book? – so please, just skim through – but that’s the point of the exercise, to see where the nuggets of gold lie in the context of all the grit and fish droppings at the bottom of the sieve. As I started to put the list together, the various categories started to define themselves. If you start losing the will to live… that’s the point too, but it would be great to compare notes.
Here we go!
The Premier League (Series I BloodyLoved): This is the most conventional list: twelve shows that really floated my remote, the ones that became the cornerstones of our week when their episodes dropped. I watch most of my TV with my wife, Gail, who does a proper job – stressful and completely knackering – i.e. she’s not a media luvvie, and so her intolerance for tedium or indulgence sets the bar pretty high! In ordering this list, I’m not thinking solely about quality, but rather about how much the show has stayed with me, and the visceral pleasure it inspired, or the soul-shaking sadness it evoked, which ultimately is the most important quality of all for a piece of story-telling. Did it make me say to myself, for whatever reason: ‘Yes! This is what watching television is about!’?
12. The Baby (HBO/Sky) – This horror comedy about a baby with murderous, supernatural powers disappeared under the radar, but it’s an intelligent show exploring the mucky emotional underbelly of modern parenthood (8 30 minute episodes). 11. 7 Lives of Lea (Netflix): A French YA supernatural drama in which a teenager discovers the remains of a dead body, and finds herself mysteriously living seven different lives, thirty years before, in a quest to unravel the truth of the boy’s murder. While some aspects are well trodden, it is ultimately a moving twist on familiar time-loop tropes (7 episodes – of course!). 10. Red Rose (BBC3): Witty and gripping, this YA tech chiller distinguished itself by being firmly rooted in the Bolton community where the action is set, and shows off a sparkling cast of new young talent (8 episodes). 9. The Dropout (Disney+): Perhaps over-shadowed by the flawless Dopesick in 2021, this 8 part dramatisation of the debacle that was Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos project, buckled under its own weight at times, but was gripping enough to stay in the memory and was held together by a striking central performance from Amanda Seyfried (8 episodes). 8. For All Mankind – Season 3 (Apple TV): The second season of the space-race counterfactual had embarrassingly jumped the shark, but moving on to Mars the show found its rocket boosters again, and was a compelling and convincing dramatic hypothetical (10 episodes). 7. This is Going to Hurt (BBC1): Adam Kay’s sour, but riveting take on the realities of being a junior doctor in today’s NHS, was brilliantly played by Ben Wishaw (prepared to make the character challengingly unsympathetic) along with a standout supporting turn from Ambika Mod as the ill-fated Shruti (7 episodes). 6. Better Call Saul– Season 6 (Netflix): This final season may not have been the strongest overall, but it was, nonetheless, a satisfying conclusion to the greatest love story TV drama has ever known, and worth the ride if only for the jaw dropping sight of Rhea Seahorn suffering a complete emotional breakdown on an airport bus (13 Episodes). 5. Chucky – Season 2 (Syfy): It’s all to easy to turn your nose up at the psycho killer doll, but this is a lovingly crafted, super smart show (8 episodes). 4. Firebite (AMC+): Not a fan of vampires normally, but this gritty Australian series, set among First Nation Australian vampire hunters in the opal fields north of Adelaide, is an original take on the genre, and layered with deeper meaning (8 episodes). 3. Four Lives (BBC1): Neil McKay’s sensitive account of the murder of four gay men in Barking, exploring how the case was badly mishandled by the Metropolitan Police (4 episodes). 2. Severance (Apple TV): By far the most original genre series for some years. Impossible to explain, you just have to see it, and immerse yourself in it, and enjoy Christopher Walken and John Turturro shining in supporting roles (9 episodes). 1. The White Lotus – Season 2 (HBO/Sky): We had no right to expect that Mike White’s follow-up to his 2021 comedy of manners in a luxury Hawaiian hotel could sustain another 7 hours, but relocated to Taormina in Sicily, and with Jennifer Coolidge and Tom Hollander at the centre of the action it surpassed all expectations (7 episodes).
So how does that stack up? It’s about 80 hours of top quality TV drama. Three of the shows are from the BBC, with nothing cutting through to me from itv at all, although at the time of writing I haven’t had a chance to watch Litvinenko due to the inaccessibility of the itvx platform on a pre 2016 Samsung TV (I mean, seriously???). 2 of the series were available on Sky; Disney+, Syfy and AMC+ had 1 a piece; while Apple+ TV punched above its weight with 2 standout shows. More than half of the shows were rooted in non-naturalistic genre (Sci-Fi or Horror); two were ‘based on real events’; one was an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical book; while just two were fully original ‘real-world’ dramas, with stories made-up specifically for the medium of television.
The Championship League (Seemed Better at the Time): The next category is perhaps the saddest of them all. These are shows that felt really enjoyable, well made, all trying to do something interesting, but at the end of the year, clearly weren’t as memorable as they wanted to be. I’ve had to struggle to recall more than the positive sensation of watching them.
4. Chivalry (Channel 4): Steve Coogan having a decent stab at MeToo and Cancel Culture in the movie industry, but I’m not sure it added anything very memorable to the debate (6 30 minute episodes). 3. Chloe (BBC1/Amazon): I seem to remember that this was a decent enough psychological thriller when I was watching it, but a few months later I can remember very little about it (6 episodes). 2. Spy Among Friends (itvx): I have a professional interest in the subject matter, and Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis are on top form – possibly Pearce’s best performance – but it’s a bit of a wordy slog, that blurs into a fog after a while, and feels as if it’s going round in circles (6 episodes). 1. Inside Number 9 – Season 7 (BBC2): Normally, Inside Number 9 is one of my annual TV highlights. There were definitely a couple of standout episodes, but perhaps because of the pandemic, less of this series has stayed with me than usual. Having seen the first episode of Season 8, I’m hopeful for a full return to form in 2023. I do absolutely love this show.
Here we had 18 hours of above average material, that, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite hit its target, all of it coming from terrestrial channels. It’s primarily naturalistic, with only Inside Number 9 straying into the paranormal/horror realm.
League One (Filled the Time Nicely): and that’s about it, insofar as, mostly, I don’t think they were striving to achieve much more, so, in some ways, more successful than the previous category.
6. Parallels (Disney+): More French YA timeloop/parallel universe malarkey (6 episodes). 5. Around the World in 80 days (BBC1): Decent, if overly woke, updating of the Jules Verne classic, which was made for easy Christmas viewing (8 episodes). 4. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+) – I’m sick to the back teeth of the whole Star Wars universe but this rolled along nicely, while I wait for the return of Baby Yoda in 2023, MacGregor seemed a bit more committed than usual, and it was a good de-stress, especially for my better half (6 episodes). 3. Upright – Season 2 (Sky): Nowhere near as original and vibrant as the first series but very entertaining nonetheless. Tim Minchin and Milly Alcock are people you are happy to spend your evenings with. You laugh, you cry, you care (8 30 minute episodes). 2. Bad Sisters (Apple+): Not as substantial as some of Sharon Horgan’s other series, and definitely unnecessarily elongated, but easily digestible, and hugely entertaining nonetheless (10 episodes). 1. The Newsreader (BBC2): A bit of a toss up as to which category to put this one. I think it did have pretensions to be a tad more profound than it was, but ultimately was another fun de-stress, and we were rooting for ‘Gay Camera’ all the way (6 episodes).
34 hours of harmless fluff (the episodes tend to be shorter) with BBC and Disney+ sharing the honours. Three have a fantastical element with three naturalistic dramas in the field. A 50:50 split between entirely original material and series based on pre-existing properties.
League Two (Hmmmm…): Which sums up my response to the next category, four shows that absolutely held my attention, and all strove for excellence and originality, but were ultimately a bit all over the place
4. The Tourist (BBC1): An amnesiac survives a car accident and discovers the dodgy reality behind his true identity. A decent thriller that had a good pop at telling a familiar story in an original way, but ultimately didn’t quite crack it, but was a good watch nonetheless (6 episodes). 3. The Silent Sea (Netflix): Genuinely exciting Korean riff on the whole ‘alien-amok-in-a-research-station’ schtick, with a hugely disappointing ending that had me shouting at my telly in frustration. (8 episodes) 2. Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix): Patchy horror anthology, but with GDT in the mix, everything has the smack of quality about it (8 episodes – that would have made more of an impression kept to 6 or even just 4). 1. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Paramount+): By far my most frustrating series of the year. This had some wonderful set pieces, especially when Bill Nighy picked up the baton from David Bowie’s original alien from the 1976 movie, but veered from the excellent to the lamentable in terms of quality overall. It was a bold show though, and I was sad to see that it did not get renewed (10 episodes).
Another 30 hours spent in front of the telly box mainly grunting with frustration at shows I desperately wanted to be better, but admired for having a go, even if they didn’t quite get there. Just one from the Beeb; two from Netflix; while my favourite was hidden away on Paramount+. Again, there’s a 3:1 ratio of genre to naturalism. With a 50:50 split between original material and adaptation.
National League (Grrrrrr…): I was engaged enough to sit through the whole of these series but left frustrated or downright annoyed as they fell apart after I’d already committed hours of my life to them.
7. Sherwood (BBC1): James Graham’s critically acclaimed polemic about the aftermath of the 84-85 miners’ strike was at odds with my own experience of those communities, and drove me nuts by not respecting the police procedural superstructure Graham was using to frame his story (6 episodes). 6. Mammals (Amazon): Started engagingly enough but went absolutely nowhere. Ultimately felt like a vanity project by all involved (6 30 minute episodes). 5. Life After Life (BBC2): Kate Atkinson’s much loved novel strove for profundity in its TV iteration but ended up a strangely hollow affair with shades of Baby Herman about it (4 episodes). 4. Trigger Point (itv1): A very very silly thriller with a couple of decent and annoyingly compelling set pieces that left me wondering why I was wasting my life like this, somehow persuaded to stick it out all the way to the insubstantial ending (6 episodes). 3. The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (itv1): As Stonehouse is currently proving on itv1 in 2023, you’d think that people who fake their own deaths might be interesting, but they’re just loathsome and there’s nothing that can be done to redeem them or the people who go along with them (4 episodes). 2. Station Eleven (HBO): This drew me in with a timely and believable pandemic story but degenerated into a load of hippie dippy nonsense about travelling players and Hamlet, making me wish that humanity had been wiped out altogether (10 long long long long episodes). 1. The Peripheral (Amazon): This show hit the ground running with amazing production values and hooking me in with an intriguing premise, before fizzling out to an entirely forgettable anti-climax, and some inexplicably dreadful acting from the British end of the international cast. File under ‘Wasted Opportunity of the Year’ (8 episodes).
All in all, 40 hours of my life I will never get back. I’m intrigued by shows like this. You can see how they got made, but with all of them, at some point, for whatever reason, those involved lost the ability to interrogate their own work to really make them fly. They are mainly naturalistic and the majority come from terrestrial broadcasters. Three are original for TV; three are adaptations; with one based on real events.
National League North (We Get the General Idea): On a good few occasions, I am broadly enjoying a series, but my wife (she with the proper job and a no nonsense approach to TV drama) will sigh after a an episode or two and say: ‘We’ve got the general idea. Do we really need to watch any more?’ All of the following were pretty good, quite possibly superior to the preceding category – and were certainly critically well received for good reason – but fell pray to Gail’s devastating judgement.
9. Slow Horses (Apple+): Everyone loves this series, and I tried, I really did… I watched half of it for god’s sake, but in the end I found it all too mannered and affected and I really didn’t care what happened. I can see how good it is, but once I’d got the general idea, I could take it or leave it (3 out of 6 episodes). 8. Wreck (BBC3): After being gripped by Red Rose, the bubblegum palette of BBC3’s next YA horror, might have contributed to the sense, after just one perfectly entertaining episode, that there was no pressing need to go any further. I’d got the general idea (1 out of 6 episodes). 7. Ipcress File (itv1): Stylish, well crafted, but after two episodes… we’d got the general idea (2 out of 6 episodes). 6. The Old Man (Disney+): After an excellent start with Bridges and Lithgow at the top of their game, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, and despite the quality on offer… we’d got the general idea (3 out of 7 episodes). 5. This England (Sky): Pointless and premature reconstruction of the Johnson premiership. Undoubtedly well crafted, but because we’d only just lived it, we’d had more than enough of the general idea (2 out of 6 episodes). 4. Andor (Disney+): Supposedly the Star Wars series for people who don’t like Star Wars, and executed with a refreshing verité panache – it was still Star Wars, an imagined universe surely duller than any other in artistic history. Hats off to them for trying to give it some kind of grounding in emotional reality, but as my wife put it, ‘They’re just talking bollocks, aren’t they? – albeit that Anton Lesser was talking his bollocks with Shakespearian authority (3 out of 12 episodes). 3. Rogue Heroes (BBC1): ‘From the makers of Peaky Blinders’ screamed the publicity (endlessly)… and this rock ‘n’ roll account of the early days of the SAS was classily done, but with so much emphasis on style, we’d soon got the idea, and bailed after two perfectly enjoyable episodes (2 out of 6 episodes). 2. House of the Dragon (HBO/Sky); My wife and I were glued to all eight seasons of Game of Thrones and were looking forward to this but once it started we had that grinding sense of having seen it all before and having more than a general idea of the world we were in. We again bailed after two perfectly enjoyable episodes (2 out of 10 episodes). 1. Sandman (Netflix): Love Neil Gaiman. Love the Sandman books. Great cast. Great production values. After two excellently executed episodes… we’d got the general idea, and I wasn’t exactly bored, but I really couldn’t be arsed to watch any more (2 out of 11 episodes).
In this category I watched 20 out of a potential 70 episodes – ! – saving myself about 50 hours of telly watching. As I say, most of this was critically well received but by the end of the year I didn’t feel as if I’ve missed anything. Interestingly, while just under half of these are fantasy/horror/sci-fi, three of the remaining five series are highly stylised in their own way, with only The Old Man and Slow Horses playing out as a naturalistic thrillers where the content is allowed to speak for itself. This may say more about me than the programmes themselves, insofar as I struggle to engage when the authorial and/or creative affectations get in the way, but I suspect there is a significant demographic who respond similarly.
National League South (Gave up after two eps): I had high hopes for all of these – either glowingly reviewed or recommended highly by friends – and gave them the benefit of the doubt for two whole episodes… before giving up in boredom or annoyance. Here they are in order of guilt: 5. Moon Knight (Disney+): I’m profoundly uninterested in the Marvel universe, so I can’t quite remember why I gave this a go. I think I read a few encouraging reviews, but… but… I just don’t get the whole Superhero/Superhuman powers thing. The genre means so much to so many people I really want to be able to make that connection, but try as I might it’s the fallibility of being human that makes me interested in stories. Once you move beyond that – it’s nothing but narrative cheating – the characters cease to be interesting. I can just about hack Spiderman but I keep trying to find another one that might engage me. (2 of 6 eps). 4. Crossfire (BBC1): While it didn’t get great reviews, a lot of people were drawn into this protracted and unlikely tale of Keeley Hawes toughing it out against a hotel spree shooter. I soldiered on but even two thirds of the way through I gave zero shits about the outcome (2 of 3 eps). 3. The English (BBC2): Lots of great reviews, and my friends going nuts for it, but after two eps I was done. I just don’t ‘get’ Hugo Blick. Mannered and affected, I find it impossible to care (2 of 6 eps). 2. Somewhere Boy (Channel 4): Another show that everyone seemed to love, but I didn’t believe a word of it. I tried, I really tried (2 of 8 eps). 1. 22. Juli (Sky): I feel awful about this. In October I was at the International Screenwriters Conference in Copenhagen where one session contained a moving interview with Sara Johnson the writer of the Norwegian TV drama recounting the Oslo and Utøya attacks of 2011. It sounded amazing, and no one could fail to be impressed by the integrity of a process which sought to depict events without exploiting or exaggerating them for dramatic purposes. But… but… I gave up after two episodes finding it oddly indigestible, and frankly a bit of a slog. While undoubtedly more admirable than This England it suffered from the same sense that, stripped of artistic endeavour, it left me wondering what it was for, and thinking I’d rather see a documentary. A horrible, guilt inducing reminder that drama has to do more than simply report events (2 of 6 eps).
I managed 9 hours of the potential 25 hours of fun here. To be fair, my lack of enthusiasm probably says more about me than the shows themselves.
Isthmian League (Gave up after – or during! – the first episode): I watched five of these to review them for Sci-Fi Bulletin and probably wouldn’t have bothered otherwise, but I approached the rest with genuine hope for some kind of entertainment. So, in no particular order… 17. DMZ (HBO): Something to do with a second American civil war. Instantly forgettable (1 of 4 eps). 16. Moonhaven (AMC+): Nonsensical drivel about something or other on the moon, looking like rural Ireland (1 of 6 eps) 15. Yakamoz S-245 (Netflix): Submarine version of Into the Night. Why? (1 of 7 eps) 14. The Fear Index (Sky Atlantic): Sterile adaptation of one of Robert Harris’s less interesting books (1 of 4 eps) 13. Rings of Power (Amazon): I am less interested in Middle Earth than I am in the Star Wars universe and that’s saying something, but obviously the Tolkien estate will do just fine without my attentions (I lasted 30 minutes of the 8 episodes). 12. The Watcher (Netflix): Straight to DVD tediosity (1 of 7 eps) 11. The Undeclared War (Channel 4): Peter Kosminsky proving that he should steer clear of anything vaguely tech or sci-fi. Overblown enactable nonsense. Computer definitely says ‘no’ (1 of 6 Eps). 10. Lazarus Project (Sky Max): Tired timeloop drivel on a par with the BBC series Paradox – the benchmark for bad sci-fi. Astonishingly this has been renewed for a second season (1 of 8 eps). 9. The Capture (BBC1): After about ten minutes I realised I’d sat through the first season of this earnest deep fake nonsense. One of those series where there’s an idea and some characters and you find yourself not believing in or caring about either (1 of 6 eps). 8. The Control Room (BBC1): 999 call centre nonsense reliant on clichés, coincidences and over-acting (1 of 3 eps). 7. No Return (itv1): Lacklustre itv thing, not quite based on a true story, reeking of straight to video (1 of 4 eps). 6. The Midwich Cuckoos (Sky): Laughably, excruciatingly, cheap and dated dramatisation of the John Wyndham classic. A real wasted opportunity. I was a bit sad about quite how bad this was (1 of 7 eps). 5. Wednesday (Netflix): Popular well-received show, but enough with the kids at supernatural schools already. Not for me (1 of 8 eps). 4. The Devil’s Hour (Amazon): Something about a social worker and Peter Capaldi and other lives or memories or premonitions… after 40 minutes of over-acting I didn’t care either way (1 of 6 eps) 3. Inside Man (BBC1): Lukewarm Hannibal Lector rehash. Why? (1 of 4 eps) 2. The Responder (BBC1): This got rave reviews and everyone I know loved it. I’m clinically allergic to Martin Freeman. I’m sure he’s very good and a lovely human being but something about actors with tics that has me scrabbling for the remote. Sorry (1 of 6 eps). 1. Let The Right One In (Showtime): This one made me angry. I love the source material having read the book twice, seen both the films on multiple occasions, and directed the stage play. Here they turned the brilliant premise of the story on its head and committed a crime against fiction. Horrible (1 of 10 eps).
There was one other show which has only tempted me to a single instalment so far, and that’s Ralph and Katie. It’s still on my Sky box, waiting for me to watch it, and I have a professional interest in drama featuring characters and actors with Learning Difficulty/Disability so I hope to get round to it at some point – one ep definitely isn’t enough – but… but… it keeps getting pushed to the back of the queue. Whether that’s about me or the show, I’m not sure.
So, Ralph and Katie aside, I soldiered through 17 of over 100 hours of unbearable drivel. Okay, three or four of these were well-received and/or popular with their target audience, but honestly the rest of them… urghhh. Eleven of the series are sci-fi or supernatural in some way, which is perhaps an indicator of how hard it is to create fantasy with real heart. Stress test that concept, peeps! While there are four BBC shows on this list, one of them was a big hit despite my allergic reaction, so the terrestrial channel isn’t as over-represented in the turkey factory as some BBC-bashers would have us believe. Again we have a 50:50 split between original material and adaptations or spin-offs from pre-existing properties.
Central and South Norfolk League Division Four (That difficult second album…): Sometimes you really enjoy a show but find yourself wishing they hadn’t bothered trying to reprise it. 3. Raised by Wolves – Season 2 (HBO/Sky): Season 1 was a good watch, even if it went a bit mental in the series finale. I was looking forward to a continuation of the story, but they seemed to have cherry picked all the worst mis-steps from the first outing and gaily set off from there in Season 2 (1 of 8 Eps). 2. The Great – Season 2 (Hulu/Starzplay): This pungent account of of Catherine the Great’s stormy relationship with Peter III of Russia was one of the things that got me through the darkest days of lockdown, but returning to it felt oddly unnecessary. Perhaps it was too closely associated with that scary time in our lives (1 of 10 eps). 1. Resident Alien – Season 2 (Syfy/Sky): The 2021 introduction to Alan Tudyk’s brilliant characterisation of the Alien Harry Vanderspeigle balanced comedy science fiction with a heartfelt story of a stranger in a strange land. I couldn’t wait for its return only to discover that it had been thrown out of balance and become a gags-per-minute sitcom. Horrible. (1 of 15 eps).
By only watching three out of a potential 33 episodes, I saved myself a good thirty hours in front of the TV. To be fair, For All Mankind went completely pear-shaped in its second season but returned to form this year, so all is not necessarily lost.
Wednesday Night Kick About on the Rec When It’s Pissing Down With Rain (Why would you do that?): Or, that moment when you see that a show is back for another season and you grimace and say, ‘Seriously?’ 4. The Pact – Season 2 (BBC1): Seriously? I didn’t meet anyone who rated this show (6 eps) 3. Bloodlands – Season 2 (BBC1): Nor this one. And it got a longer run second time round. Mystifying (6 eps). 2. Outlaws – Season 2 (BBC1): Okay so at least this was reasonably popular, I’m told, but I still don’t know anyone who actually watched it (6 eps) 1. The Split – Season 3! (BBC1): Rich people getting divorced, again and again and again. I must be missing something (6 eps).
While I’m always keen to defend the BBC… these are all BBC shows. Go figure. Netflix commissions an awful lot of dross but it does seem to be a bit more careful about its recommissions, but on the plus side, 24 hours of telly I had no desire to watch at all.
So is that it? Not quite. There were a few teams in search of a league, namely the television single drama, the loneliest dramatic form on broadcast media. I watched three this year – four if you include the Detectorists Christmas special – I don’t think there were many more – and I enjoyed them all. Christmas Carole on Sky retold Dickens with a surprisingly fresh modern spin; Then Barbara Met Alan was an engaging account of disability rights activists in the 1980 and 90s; Floodlights was a disturbing and upsetting dramatisation of the child abuse scandal surrounding the football scout Barry Bennell; and Detectoristsoffered awelcome top-up of one of the BBC’s best comedy dramas. The reason I mention these is that our schedules and streaming platforms are so dominated by series, it feels as if we are losing the art of well told stand-alone story, perhaps not big enough to sustain a feature film, but worth 75 to 90 minutes of our time, without being contorted to run and run and run until the life has been drained out of it.
So. Is there anything to conclude from all this, apart from the fact that the Marmoset watched far far far too much telly?
I watched about 255 hours of TV drama, out of a potential 453 hours of material I might have endured had I completed every single series, which means I lost interest in just under half the material for whatever reason. Without another year to compare it to I have no idea whether that’s good or bad. Personal taste is obviously a factor, but there was a good deal of average, below average or completely misconceived product in there.
What I know for sure is that when people talk about the 1960s or 70s or 80s being ‘golden’ eras for TV drama, I doubt I could have come up with 80-100 hours that could reasonably be labeled excellent in some way as I have here. I lived through those decades and most of what was served up to us, from a much more limited range, was pretty dreadful really, with just a few standout shows. We enjoyed it because it was all there was and it defined the times in which we lived.
Back to 2022, I’ve given up on continuing drama (soaps) almost entirely, partly because I’ve spent a quarter of a century writing it, but also because it feels like a very tired dramatic format when the stories are so repetitive and melodramatic, when television is capable of so much more. Perhaps I’ll return to it one day. It’s certainly true that too many series are over extended, and that there is surely space for more single drama, but the idea that the BBC is any worse at producing memorable drama than any other platform doesn’t appear to be born out at all, and neither is the popular notion that Netflix is somehow offering the Gold Standard for TV storytelling.
My resolution for 2023?
Get out more.
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