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The Fades [updated] • 22 October 2011 • The SnowBlog

The Fades [updated]

My last post was a hasty recap of what screenwriters have to say about storytelling (albeit my interpretation based on my limited knowledge). I wanted to consider a particular example of storytelling in this post by looking at the very interesting and also slightly flawed drama The Fades, which has been showing on BBC Three for the last five weeks. There's one more episode to come, at the time I'm writing this, and I don't think there's any way for me to talk about the show without spoiler-ing it, so be aware there are heavy spoilers for eps 1-5 ahead. There's a lot to like about The Fades. It looks great and it sounds great. There are no weak links in the acting. There's very little cliché in the dialogue: people are forever saying things you haven't heard before. It's funny (occasionally it's also annoying, but only a little). And it's so weird and inventive that it's difficult to think of anything that's quite like it - at least in tone if not in structure. But. Did you sense a 'but' coming? Even though I like almost everything about it, I find my attention wandering or I find myself getting impatient with the pace of the story. And I think part of that is another tip that screenwriting manuals typically mention - usually in their troubleshooting section - that you have to make sure your protagonists aren't too passive or too reactive? And I think The Fades really suffers here. For eps 1-4, Paul, the main character, is unsure about everything. He's confused and passive and events happen to him as though he's merely a cork bobbing around in a storm. Moreover he suffers from the typical superhero/'chosen one' problem in that he rejects the idea that he's special - or if he is, he's not sure what to do about it. His approach to everything appears to be to pretend it's not happening. Mark the schoolteacher is also a confused victim of events. And DCI Armstrong, Mac's dad, is the same: powerless and confused. And when he does act, it's to make matters worse because he's totally in the dark too. Paul's mum also fails to understand what's happening and Jay and Anna are both oblivious as well (one in a kind way, the other as cuttingly as possible). Only the Angelics are a little bit pro-active - but they can't really get any grip on their destinies because they're quickly slaughtered, for the most part, so any 'agency' they may have amounts to nothing. They don't properly understand what's happening nor are they able to affect it. Which means there's no one to tell us what all the dream sequences and murders and pupating are all about until we've watched about three hours of this stuff. Even when Neil hints that he has a few answers, Paul pushes him for very few of them. He's too busy staring off into the distance to share our hunger for the knowledge needed to make sense of events. And if he isn't demanding that information then why should we care about it? Yet without it, much of what happens is opaque to us. Episode 4 marks a change: characters start to get a grip on their lives and by episode 5 even Paul is beginning to act rather than react. But it's been a long time in coming and only at the very end of ep 5 does Paul seem to have made a meaningful decision about his future (I don't count his earlier decision to live a double life because in practice that just meant totally ignoring everything except Jay). And there's been so little useful exposition that I keep discovering new facts in the 'Previously' montage at the beginning of a new episode. Now that's not on: you shouldn't be learning what the hell happened last time by watching a recap of it. (In fact renaming ghosts as 'fades' actually muddies the waters. Call them 'ghosts' and we're immediately halfway to understanding the significance when they start taking solid form. Was the writer shying away from the word 'ghosts' to avoid acknowledging that the Angelics could best be described as 'ghostbusters'? Update: it sounds like that's a pretty good theory. In this interview, the writer, Jack Thorne, says that Ghostbusters - crossed with a U.S. show called Freaks and Geeks - was the starting point for The Fades.) And I suppose the problem starts with the Angelics. If anyone sort of knows what's going on with the dead being reborn, it's them, even though they are wrongfooted at every turn by events. But after five episodes we still don't know what their function was. They have guns, they have special powers, but what on earth were they up to before dead people started coming back to life? The world used to be full of ghosts that most people couldn't see: why do you need firearms, clairvoyance and the power to heal in order to 'police' those ghosts? What does that even mean? In a sense, the story takes place not in our everyday reality but in the reality of the Angelics - and we've never learned the rules of that world. Stories must abide by their own internal logic if they're to make sense and we still haven't been made privy to that logic. What I'm saying is that without a bit more exposition up-front, I haven't been able to work out the significance of much of what's happened until a couple of hours of viewing later. And that's a tricky thing to ask of a viewer: that they store large chunks of the plot for later interpretation, or worse, so they can react to it emotionally later. The only things we do understand early on is that we want Jay and Paul to get together, and we want Anna to be nicer, for Paul's mum to understand him better, and we want people to treat Mac well and for Mac to support Paul in being... whatever he is. And those were the moments that made the most sense and felt the most interesting. But there have also been dozens of scenes by now that contained transformations or chases or encounters or sightings for which there was no explanation or context - which means it was difficult to feel very connected to them. And there were characters, like Mark the schoolteacher and Sarah his wife, who didn't appear to be relevant for a long while. Now of course the writer doesn't want to fix all these problems by inserting a cheesy voiceover at the start of episode 1 which intones, "Since the dawn of time, the Angelics have watched over The Fades, the souls of the dead who wander the Earth. But now a change has come..." No, the writer wants to leave all of that a mystery and have the viewer work it all out. Which is well and good, but instead of setting the characters to work, purposefully digging up the exposition they need in order to make sense of what's happening, he's had them stumble around bewildered for the first three hours of the story, leaving me wishing we could skip ahead to the point where they snap out of it and show some 'agency'. If I'm right, then having a few characters acting purposefully, according to decisions each has made, would have made them seem much more vibrant and interesting - which in turn would have held my attention a little better. They don't need to be on the right track from the start, but they do need to have some direction and be exerting themselves in ways we can identify with. Now you might say that it's very artificial to demand that the protagonists of a story are dynamic and decisive. In real life people often dither. But the problem with that argument is that if the hero of your story acts listless and bewildered for long enough, then they cease to be the story's hero and characters in the background with more 'agency' start stealing scenes. Bad superhero movies are often like that: the baddie is dynamic and interesting, the good guy simply wrestles with his doubts and responds to the baddie, which makes him seem like he's on autopilot. My recollection of the early Batman movies are like that: Batman is bland and plodding, but the Joker and the Penguin bring the story to life. I'm not suggesting we do away with self-doubt or that no one must ever panic. But there's a difference between watching a character struggling to orient themselves versus watching them flounder helplessly for hours. And until the hero's character begins to assert itself and affect the shape of the story, even the most fabulous gore and humour and occult mystery can seem like treading water. That all said, I'm definitely looking forward to the finale next week. I'm fairly sure they'll have saved some good stuff for last. Moreover, none of the above should be taken to mean that I a) don't want more dramas like The Fades or b) don't want more dramas from the people who made The Fades. 'Cos I do.


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