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TV (inc. a little Torchwood) • 7 February 2008 • The SnowBlog
TV (inc. a little Torchwood)
This time last year, my favourite new U.S. TV show was Standoff - which was cancelled mid-season. This year it's Journeyman - which was cancelled mid-season. It puts me in mind of a comment I once read about how The West Wing wasn't especially popular or successful - except among a vocal and influential minority. Since all sorts of people watch TV I suppose it stands to reason that pitching a show at the more demanding viewer risks alienating those who don't want their drama complicated or confusingly non-formulaic. But surely the trick, as in all business, is to cut your cloth accordingly. If, by making a relatively sophisticated show, you're going to alienate four-fifths of your potential audience then you have to create a business model that works for a smaller audience. You have to spend a smaller amount of money and aim for a much smaller success. Journeyman was a very intelligent take on the potentially silly idea of time travel - but it must have been relatively expensive to continually set scenes in different decades (thought I suspect they restricted themselves to the previous four decades or so, to limit the costs). Standoff was forever storming buildings and blocking off streets - also expensive. But Britain is full of excellent actors who work cheaply. And scripts are cheap too. And it has excellent crews, with tons of experience. I'd really like to see those three things pushed at the expense of everything else: great scripts, great casts, great crews. In exchange I'd reluctantly have to accept: no visual effects, limited locations, no big set pieces. It must be possible to shoot something really gripping on HD video on a couple of simple sets, and a couple of carefully chosen exteriors, for pennies. Then it could afford to be as alienatingly sophisticated, with frustratingly intelligent dialogue and maddeningly inventive plots, as it wanted to be. Cheap, in television, doesn't necessarily mean low quality. Just as expensive doesn't necessarily mean good.
And this is brought home even more to me as I play around with the latest generation of video software. There's almost nothing you can't do on a high-end Mac or PC these days. You can capture, edit and colour time. You can score and mix. You can animate and composite. You can model, ray-trace and render. You can master and author and burn to DVD if you want. And frequently the program I'm using on my PC is the same one as being used on $150m Hollywood movies. It's not about money; it's about skill. And, at least in Britain, that's always been underpriced. Surely, if there's any sense to these things, we are about to enter the era of affordable niche programming. What else is going to fill all those hundreds of Sky channels? So let the sophisticated drama commence!
[Contains spoilers for Torchwood episode: Meat]
Having said all that, I can't resist a word about last night's Torchwood. It's definitely getting better. It's still bad: lazy, sub-standard, melodramatic writing and patchy acting, but it's getting better.
Last night the team attempted to disable five armed factory workers and save an injured alien. They had the element of surprise, alien weapons, superior numbers and the resources of the government if needs be - oh, and one of them is indestructible. In a conventional drama the heroes would have faced impossible odds and won. In Torchwood, the team face trifling odds and lose. But last night they managed what, for them, was a great success. Yes, they ended up killing - on purpose - the alien they wished to rescue. And yes, one of them got shot. But in Season One, Torchwood wouldn't have been able to get out of the van without getting into a fight with each other and being captured. In Season Two, sneaking up on some meat packers who they outnumber was only just beyond the limit of their abilities. By Season Three, I fully expect them to be able to hold their own, one on one, with untrained humans of middling intellect.