Demons • 30 January 2009 • The SnowBlog
That logo should say 'Shine'. Not sure why it's so difficult to make out that fourth letter. Perhaps it's my cruel satire on the quality of their work. Anyway, Shine is the TV production company who made 'Hex' and now they're making 'Demons' which is currently showing on ITV. And sadly Demons is complete Shine. It's interesting to look at these squanderings of money and talent and try to work out what went wrong. Demons has several good actors in it (exact estimates vary) but surely Philip Glenister's grumpy magnificence is enough to make the fluffiest of confections seem like they have a satisfyingly nourishing centre to them.
Or so I would have thought. But he's forced to speak in an American accent which seems to take all the bite out of his usual snarky mumble. And he's given only complete twaddle to say. As are all the characters. I remember Harry Hill once doing a skit about constructing whole conversations from empty cliches; this is like that. Mix hackneyed transantlanticisms with lazy attempts at Brit teenspeak and you've got Demons dialogue: 'Get over it, alright', 'You wish', 'No way', 'Shut up', 'This isn't happening', 'Later', 'Whatever'. Shuffle and repeat.
I imagine there must have been some debate about the choice of Christian Cooke as the teen hero.
And I imagine the conversation went like this:
A: "He's not ready to carry a show."
B: "But look at his jawline."
A: "He seems wooden: he can only do confused or angry (much like Freema Agyeman)."
B: "But he looks great and will probably be a good actor one day (much like Freema Agyeman)."
A: We can't wait that long.
B: Yeah, but unlike Freema, he can wander around without his shirt on the whole time.
A: Oh, alright. Here's four hundred quid. Make me six episodes.
So the definite weaknesses I can spot are the recycled dialogue, some questionable casting, and (oh yes) the plots. They have some of the elements of fun genre thrillers, but they have none of the discipline that's also needed. And while all plots everywhere are in some sense derivative, these seem more like cut-and-paste than most. The basic premise is so close to a copy of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that coincidence couldn't possibly account for it, and yet it's copied all the wrong things: there's no dash, none of the humour is funny and the character moments come across as speeches rather than tugs on your heart strings.
In terms of plot recycling, the series has barely started and there's already a sequence involving defusing a bomb which comes down to which colour wire to cut (go here for a fun discussion of movie bomb disposal down the ages. All screenwriters should be forced to read that post and repent. Also note in the 'Live Action TV' examples, a reference to the fabulous twist on bomb disposal from Life On Mars, featuring Philip Glenister's most famous alter ego).
In Demons, the girl who's faced with the classic red LEDs counting down has enough time to start reading books on electronics and bomb disposal - one of which (I swear) has instructions on which colour wire to cut (as though bomb-making requires you to use standard colour codes). She has forty minutes to get the one person in danger out of the way or to call the bomb squad. And since she's half-disassembled the bomb without it going off, she has plenty of time pop it in a shopping bag and drop it off Blackfriars bridge into the Thames. But no: she stays with the bomb and dithers and emotes for half an hour. As various wise men, such as Neal Stephenson and Roger Ebert have observed, a plot that requires its characters to behave like morons is not a good plot.
And I suppose it goes without saying that the action scenes intended to form the climax of each show are dull, unconvincing and over in seconds. I mean if I never see another person strapped into a harness and hoisted up on a wire - on the theory it will make it look like they're highly acrobatic - then it'll be too soon. Even Woo-ping Yuen (the guy who supervised the wire work for The Matrix) screws up occasionally. It does not surprise me that ITV fell a little short of his standard. No British TV show should ever attempt wire work because the results will be rubbish. (For an insight into one of the few Western films to make wire work look realistic, go here and scroll down to 'flying'.)
As a writer, the thing that worries me about all this, though, is not that yet another British TV attempt at cool has fallen flat but that maybe this stuff looked tolerably entertaining when it was still in script form. Did the jokes seem funny back then? Did the fight scenes play out well in the writer's head? On the page, were these real characters whose emotions you could empathise with and whose highs and lows might move you?
I hate the thought that sharp writing becomes muddled TV once it's worked its way through the sausage-making production pipeline with all the tone meetings and 'notes' and actor's 'choices' and budget considerations and director's interpretations and final editing decisions. I think there's no doubt that Demons suffers from low production values and uninspiring direction. But is it possible that the writers turned in a good product that other people ruined.
I'm relieved to say 'no'. I'm pretty sure that scripts of this quality would never make it onto a network TV show in the States. You'd be told to go away and work on your 'craft' for another few years perhaps as a junior writer on a successful show. My conclusion is that the bar is just set a lot lower in the UK. It's a shame for all the viewers and licence-payers out there. But of course for writers it's a golden opportunity. If ITV will make someone else's shabby and underwritten genre show, then why shouldn't they make mine? I'm not being rhetorical there either. Really, why shouldn't they?