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News and reviews for the big and small screens…where potatoes fear to tread.

The kids are alright ~ three recent British ‘dramedies’

Peter Jukes makes some insightful points about the state of British drama here, noting the frustrating increase in hand holding the viewer through simple plotlines and an overemphasis on the primetime ratings behemoths (soaps and the euphemistically named  ‘continuing dramas’ like Casualty, which are basically soaps except they don’t run all year round).

However, I believe that there is good British content out there, and three recent series suggest to me that British TV talent is alive and well. These short run comedy/dramas (or ‘dramedies’) with a genre twist – BBC3’s Being Human, E4’s new offering Misfits and ITV2’s Trinity – are all original, fun and excellently scripted, and whilst they do not always hit the mark (I would rate Trinity below the other two, for various reasons which I will elucidate later), prove that our drama output is far from dead. Of course, they’re nothing like a glossy American series…

and I believe that is not necessarily a bad thing. These three shows have several traits in common that I believe hold the key to their success:

SHORT RUNNING LENGTH: While American juggernaut shows like Heroes can sprawl over 20 or more episodes per season, these three shows adhere to the more usual British length of 6-8 episodes per series. This may seem cruelly short to those across the pond, and indeed I wouldn’t turn down a few extra helpings of Being Human, but a shorter running length in general allows for a far tighter focus. I’ll use my favourite Battlestar Galactica as evidence: the first season, running for only 12 episodes, uses each one to great effect; the second season, granted 20, resorts to clumsy fillers like the derided ‘Black Market’.

COMBINATION OF EPISODIC AND SERIES LONG ARCS: This is something Jukes praises in US shows like Mad Men – where ‘each fragment contains the fractal beauty of the whole’. However, this is clearly at work in my three shows as well, which all use an ‘A’ plotline that is usually concluded by the end of the episode, in conjunction with a ‘B’ (and maybe ‘C’) plotline that runs across many. This may be a mystery (the project in Trinity), a character arc (Annie’s growth in Being Human) or an ongoing dilemma (the probation worker in Misfits). His example Life on Mars perhaps struggled with this in the long run, as the procedural elements often eclipsed the ‘supernatural’ mystery at the heart of the show. In Misfits so far, however, I feel the arc and individual character stories have been artfully combined, making it compelling viewing.

BALANCE OF DRAMA AND COMEDY: This is something that truly sets these series apart from their US counterparts. Mad Men has the occasional wry joke; True Blood’s appeal is largely down to its surreal, often camp humour. However, the key weapon of my three British dramedies is their razor sharp scripts, which to my mind outstrip even Jason Stackhouse’s one liners. Of the three, I would have to rate Misfits’ the highest – its characters, expecially Nathan, spew hilarious lines at every opportunity. All three series, however, are eminently quotable. Britain is famous for its comedy, so isn’t this something to be cherished even in our dramatic output?

DRAMA WITH A GENRE TWIST: All three shows take an every day situtation (attending university, doing community service, sharing a house) that in itself would make a fascinating drama. However, a twist is added that both enhances and fuels the character drama. In Misfits and Being Human, the supernatural is used to comment on the characters’ flaws – for example, Simon in Misfits becomes invisible when he feels unnoticed by the group. Toby Whithouse, creator of Being Human, has stated that the series began life as a realistic piece about three troubled housemates: one with an addiction (Mitchell the Vampire), one with low self esteem (Annie the ghost) and one with anger issues (George the Werewolf). This is something attempted by Heroes’ early episodes, for example linking Peter’s empathetic power with his caring personality – but something that soon fell by the wayside in the search for ever more sensational plots to pad the seasons.

Trinity goes in a different direction by introducing a conspiracy, something that’s also popular in American shows, where evil corporations loom in the shadows (see Dollhouse‘s Rossum and Lost‘s Hanso/Dharma to name but two). That the conspiracy in Trinity appears to be experimenting with making super powered rowers (which will never cease to be amusing to me, very brief but reluctant boatie that I was) gives it a quirkiness above its cliched origins.

Finally, Jukes bemoans the lack of a writers’ room system in British tv. I agree that sharing the job of writing and encouraging collaboration can be extremely fruitful. However, hardcore Battlestar fans will remind you that every writers’ room will probably contain a Michael Angeli or a Jane Espenson (and no offence if you loved their episodes…I didn’t).

These three ‘dramedies’ have extremely small writing teams. Being Human has Toby Whithouse as its main writer, penning the majority of series 1; Trinity has Robin French and Kieron Quirke; Misfits is entirely penned by creator Howard Overman. Yes, this means the number of plotlines per episodes is reduced, and constrains the series to a short running length. As I have suggested above, however, this is no bad thing. In a short run drama consistency is key, and a small team certainly helps maintain a clear vision and tone for the project. It is interesting that some American shows are shifting their production models in a similar direction – noted perfectionist Matt Weiner of Mad Men is now co-writer of every episode.

My main complaint, actually, would be the lack of female voices. Being Human s1 has one episode (episode 3, a fan favourite as it features Gilbert the 80s loving ghost) written by a woman, Rachel Anthony. This is a problem in American tv as well – only a few female show runners spring to mind, and those that do are mainly limited to ‘female interest’ shows, like Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls and Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy.

These short dramedies are, when you think about it, completely different from American shows. Maybe Britain will never produce something like The Wire, as Jukes wishes. However, if funny, original, absorbing series like these three keep being supported, despite their low budgets and narrow scopes, I believe they can make a really valuable contribution to television drama on behalf of the UK.

BONUS THOUGHTS ON MISFITS AND TRINITY:

– I love Misfits. Looooove it! I have so much love for its script, and I adore cheeky Nathan. I’m also head over heels for its cinematography – desaturated backgrounds contrasting with the bright orange jumpsuits of our protagonists. I may well write a whole post on it later in its run.

– Trinity – what is there to say except LOLS. The whole is rather devalued by some strange production choices (fully clothed, awkward sex, over emphasis on weak comedy characters), but I enjoyed it overall once I stopped worrying about the quality of each scene and just let it wash over me. I loved the character of Charlotte, and several moments made me laugh out loud (e.g. boatie funeral with lycra). I suspect its general appeal may have been diminished by the fact that its definitely funnier if you went to Oxbridge, but its most surreal and camp moments actually reminded me of True Blood’s cracktasticness (that’s a word, right?). Plus total bonus points for making the outrageously homoerotic toffs’ society actually contain gay characters. I also liked Claire Skinner’s put upon Warden and Charles Dance’s brilliant (almost moustache twirling) villain Maltravers. Not of the same calibre as the other two series, which are more consistently amazing – but an original, inventive series nonetheless which in my view is far more deserving of screen time than Paris Hilton. (Plus I totally had an idea for a show about an archaic university opening its doors to the hoi polloi months before I heard about Trinity…but of course other people actually write their good ideas down, and this is why they are successful writers and I am not!). Worth another look if you were turned off by the first episode.

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3 Responses to “The kids are alright ~ three recent British ‘dramedies’”

  1. As you said 3 great British shows. My pick of the bunch though is Misfits. I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down to watch the first episode but by the end of it. I was counting down the days for the next episode. Though I do think it could of been a couple of episodes longer or maybe I’m just being greedy.

  2. […] written a little bit in the past about how much I liked Misfits when it first aired last year. Thankfully the Series 2 opener is […]


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