Thursday, October 12, 2006


Prefect Slog
As imaginative a child as I was, one of the many things I never imagined was that I’d get more enjoyment out of mundane drama than Doctor Who. Of course some people might look on that as a sign of growing up, but through a combination of books, audios and, principally, more of that imagination of mine, Doctor Who grew up with me and I never saw myself growing out of it. I’m not sure that’s what’s happened in the wake of the New Series, but the fact is there are dramas that I enjoy a good deal more.
Of course, the likes of ER and Desperate Housewives are only ‘mundane’ in the sense of being free of sf frills. Each has its own brand of magic and, well, age before beauty they say, so we’ll take a look at ER first.
ER is one of those very rare shows that managed to work its way into my adulthood affections to a degree comparable to the way Doctor Who won me over in childhood. In terms of fondness, it’s my closest adult non-sf equivalent and, having recently started rewatching the series from the beginning on DVD, I’m reminded that it’s even old enough now for nostalgia to be a factor. (And on a personal note, it carries some special significance in that I only embarked on the series in the first place while keeping my Mum company while my Dad was away on business trips.) It represents something of a medical miracle, since I never cared for and don’t like medical dramas in general. It was like one of my rules.
A rule always supported by the fact that I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to blood and bones and, well, squishy internal things, but that just lent ER something else in common with Doctor Who, in that I’d watch some bits through faintly parted fingers. Not, it must be said, from behind the sofa – my parents always had their sofa up against the wall, leaving a space accessible to cats but not to small children.
These days, I suppose, ER may not stand out so much, but that’s because it played a major part in setting the drama standard, and back then it was really doing something different. As with DW, there’s not one specific quality I can put my finger on as the thing that drew me in and held my fascination for so long. It’s the mix, just one of those 'Master Chef' moments where all the ingredients come together.
It’s a cocktail of tragedy, warmth, humanity, humour; it can go from laugh to cry in the blink of an eye; it’s brisk and busy and it crams a dozen or more stories into the space of an episode, coming and going with the patients, and there’s a sense of urgency you just don’t get from the staff of Holby City. Throughout the connecting threads are the stories of the staff – the main cast and a small army of supporting regulars – and they, chief of all, were probably what won me over.
They’re not only attractive, they’re charismatic (and, in Season One, astonishingly young), and it’s one of those ensemble casts that really click from very early on. And yes, I fell in love with Susan Lewis, but it was one of those higher, Sarah Jane sorts of love. Nothing sordid.
Anyway, although she departed midway through Season 3 (sniff – see, I’m tearing up already, because I remember it at least as clearly as Sarah Jane being so cruelly dumped at the end of The Hand Of Fear), for the purposes of my DVD collection I’ve limited myself to the first six seasons. Not because I think it drops in quality at all after that but because, economically, I have to have some cut-off point and enough of my favourite cast members had departed by the end of that series to make a difference. That said, I have continued to watch since – and pretty avidly. As far as I can see, the only significant dip in quality came in Season 10, where I believe there was some inexcusable mishandling of Elisabeth Corday’s character, as though the writers really didn’t know what to do with her once Mark Greene was gone and she was ready to move on. But a dip in quality in ER, as I’m sure I must have said before, still leaves it in a respectable position above the competition. I miss Mark Greene, and I miss Elisabeth Corday, but – and I say this with unashamed bias – it came back strong in Season 11. And I fully expect to continue watching new ER until they finally draw the curtain. I’m an addict, what can I say, and plenty of them turn up at the ER every week looking to get their fix – why should I be any different.
Meanwhile, arriving the same year as New Who, Desperate Housewives offered the promise of a new addiction, and a very welcome one at that. Of course, all fresh and new, it doesn’t have nostalgia going for it, but it’s at least comparable to New Who in that it has thus far run for two seasons and has currently left us in a similar between-series break, where we can look forward to a third season with breathless anticipation, expectation and excitement.
Well, for one of them at least.
Actually, that’s not quite as true as it should be even for Desperate Housewives. Both shows dropped the ball somewhat in their second seasons, showing trends towards the ordinary. For me, New Who dipped below the line into just-another-TV-show, while Desperate Housewives was saved by virtue of starting out at such a higher level and slipped only a notch or two, trading in its glass slippers, as it were, for a less fanciful pair of three-inch heels.
Life in Wisteria Lane was always going to be difficult after the exceptional first series. At the end of that, they had resolved their central mystery, laid the groundwork for a new one and left us on a cliffhanger – hitting all the right buttons. And all they did wrong, really, in following up, was fail to integrate their second big mystery into the community, so we were left following separate multiple threads as per a soap opera. The thing is, the mystery surrounding the Applewhites was not one tailored for integration and it was perfectly in character for Betty (the brilliant Alfre Woodard) to maintain her distance from the other Housewives, but it falls down in comparison to the fate of Mary Alice who committed suicide leaving so many questions at the heart of the community, while staying around to narrate. And of course, with the mystery of her life solved, we do have to wonder why she’s still lingering on to offer further commentary, other than being one of the signatures of the show.
So, as with ER at one point, a measurable dip in quality, but that disappointment has to be measured on the Desperate Housewives scale and against anything else, it still retains its essential sparkle and is as vibrant and entertaining as ever and, crucially, more engaging than many another show. It may have become more like a soap, but it was still Daz, with all the brightness that implies.
And not just brightness either. Despite aforementioned (comparative) deficiencies in story, the writing still sparkles well enough and the tone is always delightfully evoked by Danny Elfman’s score, but the whole is laced with some pretty dark material, more than enough to qualify it as drama, and of course it’s that which holds the attention far more than all its polish. If the writing is good, then the performances are superb: the hapless Susan (Teri Hatcher) who, for all the comedic value in her life, had me crying with her when she was standing in the middle of the road in her wedding dress; Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), who manages to combine selfish and manipulative with likeable and commanded similar sympathies when she had her hard-won adopted (well, all right, stolen) child taken from her; obsessive compulsive Bree (Marcia Cross), whose storyline was probably the most tragic of all and commanded at least as much sympathy again, despite her being a bigot and a paid-up member of the NRA; and Lynette (Felicity Huffman), whose storyline was (until the question of her hubby's fidelity was raised) perhaps the weakest – somewhat ironically given that she became empowered and liberated etc as the principal breadwinner of the household, but who, by virtue of her virtuoso performance remains my favourite Desperate Housewife.
So, all in all, Desperate Housewives remains a must-see for me and I’m very much looking forward to the third season – not least because I understand the writers have promised to address the faults cited in the second series. Would that the New Who people were as accommodating and attentive to their own product.
Even if Desperate Housewives doesn’t manage to pick up that dropped ball and match (dear oh dear, far too many football references for my liking) the quality and appeal of its opening season – a fairly tall order, after all - there are always, of course, other ‘mundane’ dramas that despite not being covered in any detail here, would lodge very comfortably under the same Better Than Doctor Who banner.
The West Wing is one obvious and, for me, current example, given that More 4 have been nice enough to start showing them all from the beginning – purely for my benefit, I might imagine. It was just one of those shows that slipped past me simply because of that age old problem of not having enough time to watch everything as well as having a life. I confess I’ve not found it as immediately engaging as ER was, but it’s all very slick and smart and witty and so clearly outclasses New Who that it scarcely matters that it’s taken me a handful of episodes to develop anything like an attachment to more than a couple of the characters. It bears the stamp of quality all over it, like a great big eagle-centric emblem on the floor of the Oval Office and so I’ve felt it deserves my continued attention, so here I am, sticking with it and letting the characters grow on me in their own good time.
Then there’s Homicide: Life On The Street – which kind of goes without saying – but I haven’t watched any of that very recently and my DVD collection is still in its relative infancy as far as that series goes. Still, that is a situation that may well have changed after my next trip to the US – since distributors haven’t seen fit to make it very available in this country. That was a show that C4 always used to shunt around the schedules something rotten – and I gather they accorded The West Wing similar treatment, although probably not to the same extent.
One show C4 are generally kinder to is Lost, and I would be tempted to include that one here, but for the fact that, having stayed with it for two whole seasons now, I am highly cynical about it. Rather too much of its measure of success will depend on its ultimate resolution and a) whether it delivers and b) whether I’m still hanging around to see it deliver. However, in terms of its ability to hook and tease continued interest out of even deeply cynical viewers – always just one episode away from giving up on it – like me, still puts it above New Who which really begins to look very ordinary the more I reflect on it and all these other shows.
And I haven’t even mentioned Deadwood. Until then. But the list is, if not endless, really quite long and I suspect there would be more dramas on it if I had the time to accommodate them in my viewing schedules.
It’s perhaps understandable that anyone might prefer to spend time with Teri Hatcher or Felicity Huffman rather than David Tennant, but when you feel you’d rather be in hospital – even if it is County General - than in the TARDIS, you know something’s not right. And I’ve checked my vital signs, and it’s definitely not me. Maybe I should get a second opinion. From Susan Lewis.


Stuart Douglas said...

As I've probably mentioned ER lost me following the absolutely heart-rending death of Mark Green and the absolutely vomit inducing Luca as Christ in Africa section.

Currently, season 5 of West Wing is exhibiting a drop in quality on a par with season 3 of Survivors, Season 4 of Goodnight Sweetheart and season 17 of Doctor Who, to the extent that we've stopped watching it altogether.

Lost - as I've *definitely* mentioned before - struck me as being made up as it went along from the middle of season 1 and thus prevented my making any emotional or intellectual investment in it.

Must watch Deadwood at some point though (and Carnivale, Scrubs, Firefly again, and many, many others)...

SAF said...

Coincidentally (well, kind of) I've just started to really connect with The West Wing now (I think), so I'll definitely be sticking with it - at least up until S5 anyway ;)
Lost, meanwhile, is on a very short tether...
Deadwood, I need to see S2 at some point, but it really was a strong opening season.
Firefly I should be touching on in my last blog in this series, which should be culminating in my New Who S2 overview. That's the plan anyhew.
And the first 5 eps of Bleak House were fab, by the way.
Meanwhile you're way ahead of me on Survivors, Z Cars and Crown Court, so it's all swings and roundabouts ;)

SAF said...

And of course I totally agree, Mark Green's death was heart-rending (sniff) (although not to be confused with my sniffles at Susan Lewis' original departure ;) )

Anonymous said...

I knew 'Lost' was going to be made up as it went along because its from the same pair who brought us 'Alias' - I'm four *series* in to that programme and I (and the cast) have absolutely no idea where its going.

As for 'The West Wing' - the first two series are stunning drama; stand out episodes including CJ learning geography, Toby and the dead veteran (which even reduced me to snivelling) and the brilliant episode in which - ahhh that would be telling. It is also noticeable for the number of excellent female characters; as well as Mrs Bartlett who would eat Hillary Clinton for lunch, the wonderful CJ, Joey Lucas (at last the gorgeous Marlee Matlin gets another role) and the incomparable Ainsley Hayes (played by Emily Procter) been along yet as the cutest little neocon you could imagine.

'The West Wing' sort of loses it by series 4 when several members of the cast moved on, but it had some great new characters introduced; the terrifying Glen Walkin (played completely against casting by John Goodman) and an amazing part by Alan Alda who almost manages to make you forget M*A*S*H.

Sadly Aaron Sorkin's new show 'Studio 60' isn't performing quite so well in the American ratings. So whether we'll get it for Channel 4 to bugger around with is something of an unknown.