Posted March 31, 2013 by D. K. Holm
If the cliché is that television is now better than movies, then British television is still better than American television, with Danish TV a close hot second. Though often visually undistinguished, British television has better writers and better actors. By contrast, a tour conducted the other night through some recent programs on US TV revealed terrible acting and atrocious dialogue, talking that felt more like filler then the advancement of character or plot. And the plots themselves were filled with filler and water treading, delaying tactics meant to hook the viewer through the commercials. Programs such as Revolution, returning after a four-month hiatus, and The Walking Dead seemed to be made by people who either don’t know what they’re doing or have a cunning plan to make the commercials look better. The tricks are so hidebound as to defy why these people should be paid at all, tricks such as someone saying, “When is so-and-so going to get here,” only to have so-and-so then walk in the door, and in the most recent Walking Dead, the main character spent one fourth of the show making one plan and telling everybody about it, only to change his mind, and spend another fourth of the show telling everybody that the plan was off.
There are a few exceptions to this indictment of American episodic television. Justified has proven to be a show that gets better with each season. Its second season with Margo Martindale as the central villain, was an incredibly tight collection of 13 episodes. After a slight downturn in season three, season four has turned to be even better, with its 11th episode one of the best hours of fictional television I’ve seen in a long time.* Clearly, the creators of Justified plan ahead better than other show runners. In addition they write amusing dialogue keyed to the individual personalities of the characters, chat that makes Tarantino look increasingly like a rank amateur, a mere copier of the Elmore Leonard style of dialogue that birthed the show and which inspired the director back in his salad days.
Fans of fine television will be pleased to learn that an eighth season of Foyle’s War is on the way, in which the main character moves from the seaside resort town of Hastings to London, where he is enlisted by government intelligence. But not every British show scores a six. The recent BBC short series Mayday proved to be unusually dull and with an ambiguous and unpleasant ending, to go along with the unpleasant characters one couldn’t relate to. It begins when a blonde girl on a bike disappears during a spring harvest festival, and grows more complicated as it explores the Red Riding style secrets of the local elites. It was ambitious in having the lead character, an Anglo African cop turned a dulled housewife, protect the identity of the killer at the end, but that didn’t make up for wheels spinning and red herrings who merely distracted rather than added to the suspense or the portrait of social strata.
By contrast, Broadchurch, a new ITV eight-part series, is what the American adaptation of The Killing should and could have been. The plot concerns the disappearance of a young boy investigated by outsider cop Alec Hardy (played by Doctor Who‘s David Tennant) and Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker), a local cop enmeshed in the city’s soap operas. As with The Killing and it’s Danish parent, there are numerous red herrings, and a view of the city landscape in all of its multi layers. But here, the dialogue is a joy to listen to after the empty sophistries of most American prime time shows, where characters tell each other what they already know for the benefit of the dense listener. In British television, dialogue is about evasion, exclusion, self-justification. The film is also visually attractive, with the occasional odd but exhilarating camera placement, cutaway, or framing.
Equally interesting visually is the new six part series Top of the Lake, which comes from filmmaker Jane Campion and New Zealand via the Sundance Channel. Like The Killing and Twin Peaks, it is another tale of an outsider investigating a young girl’s disappearance in a deeply tight and enclosed community. In this case however the police officer (Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss) is from the location originally, where she was the victim of a crime, and knows the players. Complicating the action is a commune of damaged women led by an acerbic guru (Holly Hunter). Like these other programs, Top of the Lake – through its first three episodes anyway – is relatively slow-paced and takes its time. But unlike most primetime mysteries, there are rewards at the end.
* The season concludes on Tuesday night, April 2, 2013.