Thursday 2 December 2010

High Concept, Low Expectation

It has been a long time since a British TV drama stayed with me long after the credits have played out. It feels like an age since I watched something that pounced on me in the middle of the day and made me laugh or cry. I had almost forgotten how I that felt; what it was to have that almost teenage longing to be part of the emotional highs and lows of a character.

But that’s how Mick Ford’s Single Father made me feel.

Now, I can hear the lips curling and the eyebrows arching all the way from here. Single Father? That schmaltzy piece of girly nonsense starring Doctor Boo-Hoo David Tennant? Yeah, yeah. I read the reviews and saw the slightly negative reactions from the Twitteratti.

Some have called it ‘soapy’ whilst others have accused it of being ‘emotionally manipulative’. The most surprising reaction was from those that found it “too upsetting” to watch. It made them cry, it made them upset it made them actually FEEL something.

Well, guess what? That is what good drama is supposed to do.

When I worked for Kay Mellor she had a motto on her writing room wall – The writer’s job is to elicit emotion from the audience. It wasn’t a framed motto in beautiful calligraphy. It was scribbled on a sheet of scrap paper in blue highlighter pen and stuck to the wall with a drawing pin. I can still see it in my mind’s eye because it was so damn true.

However, I would suggest that in recent times we forgot about emotion. Or maybe the powers that be forgot. We got so excited about high concepts and CGI that we put other things on the back-burner. Little things like character development.

The natural consequence of this has been a slew of high-concept but emotionally-bankrupt dramas that have frustrated and confounded me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pulling a Jimmy McGod here. I love high concept especially when it is brilliantly-written (as much of it is). If it’s got a spaceship, wizard, vampire or time travelling killer robot in it – I’m there. But if you want me to stay then you have to give me characters I care about.

Give me a Buffy, a Doctor or a Starbuck and I’ll give you my undying loyalty and all my hard-earned cash for whatever box-set, action figure or sonic screwdriver you care to sell. However, give me an idiotic collection of mix ‘n’ match marine biologists on a submarine or a medieval boy wizard who does the same thing EVERY WEEK and you get nothing but my contempt and frustration.

At its worst (and we have seen the worst in the last few years), high concept drama gives us characters who are nothing but puppets. So, heroes become nothing but receptacles for super powers whilst the baddies are uncomplicated, unmotivated and inhuman. At its very worst we get a sense that writers sold the concept before they had worked on the stories and now they making this shit up as the go along. I’m looking at you Lost and The Event.

I want characters with battle scars and baggage. I don’t want a reset button that means they start every episode in the same untouched state. I hate “goldfish” characters who don’t seem to remember that last week they nearly died or that they saved the world. Characters like that are a sign of laziness in the writers and producers, in my opinion. Because incorporating experience and baggage into a character is harder work. You have to service the character arc, keep the mythology in your head as you write.

Of course, there is one dramatic form that does all that hard work day in, day out. It’s a form that can demand you produce up to 300 episodes a year and service a story arc that spans up to fifty years.

Soap writers in this country are amongst the most maligned and hardest working writers in television. You think sci-fi geeks are pedantic and hard to please? Try a stint on Emmerdale or Coronation Street and meet the people who have watched your show ALL their lives. Try not to feel the hand of history on your shoulder as you write for characters who have been on screen not for a few episodes, but for decades. And if you get it wrong, be prepared to hear about it. At length.

As I said earlier, one of the criticisms levelled at Single Father was that it was ‘soapy’. But perhaps that it isn’t quite the insult that some think it is. Perhaps when something is descriItalicbed as soapy we should expect the characters to be complicated and multi-faceted? Perhaps we should expect well-constructed stories with emotional impact?

But perhaps we should be expecting that from ALL drama?

And here it is, my actual point – I knew it was in here somewhere. As much as I love high-concept drama, I am concerned that bad, under-developed, lazy high-concept drama is damaging television drama as a whole. I’m worried that we don’t give characters and stories a chance to take root and grow in our hearts and minds. I think that now when audiences ask “what’s it about?” when you talk about a show, what they are unwittingly asking is “what’s the gimmick?”

It is far harder to pitch a low-concept drama to audiences (and indeed, commissioners) than a high concept one. It’s difficult to reduce a drama that is about love, grief, anger and all that messy stuff than to say “it’s about vampires”.

Firstly, if you pitch high-concept to an audience or commissioner that can instantly imagine what form the stories will take week on week. For example, boy wizard lives in castle. Each week castle is threatened by some sort of magical villain. Wizard defeats villain. Simples.

With character-driven drama, it’s much harder to impose a formula to the weekly episodes. It’s harder to guarantee an audience a satisfying end to each episode when stories are open-ended and emotionally complicated.

It’s also a lot harder to repeat those open-ended episodes for the casual viewer on Dave or UK Gold. But that would be a cynical way to look at it, wouldn’t it? Still, one of the most popular dramas of the last decade was Cold Feet. How many times has that been repeated in comparison to shows like Primeval or Doctor Who? Also, where are the repeat runs of This Life, Party Animals, Fat Friends, Making Out, Playing The Field, Cutting It, The Lakes and all the other great character-driven shows of the last few years? Oh well, never mind, let’s watch another episode of Waking The Dead. Italic

Also, high-concept characters are an easier sell too. Because you are, initially, selling what the characters are and not who they are. Character pitches become short and sharp: “immortal time-traveller” or “vampire with a soul”. Or even just the character’s name; Merlin, Robin Hood or Sherlock.

Low concept characters need history, context and lengthy explanations. How would you pitch Anna from This Life, for example? Yeah, she’s a solicitor. But she’s actually a self-destructive, promiscuous, soft-hearted, borderline alcoholic solicitor with a daddy complex. And that is a reductive view of her because you also have to factor in her relationships with her friends and lovers to really get to the heart of her.

It takes time and trust on the part of the audience to fall in love with relationship dramas. Time and trust that I believe has been whittled away by the instant gratification that high-concept drama offers. And when I say instant gratification, I don’t just mean on the audience’s part. I think that the commissioners have been seduced by the instant high that they can get from an easily marketable high concept dramas. After all, if it’s got vampires/spaceships/killer robots from the future in it, you know that at the very least your first episode is going to get good figures, press interest and plenty of reviews.

But what about episode 2 or 3 or 33? Look at most high concept dramas and the audience will drop away along with the initial “how the hell are they going to do this” curiosity. Then take a look at more traditional dramas. Dramas that aren’t cutting edge or new and trendy. Both Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman put viewers ON after their first episodes. It was word of mouth that turned viewers on to the entertaining characters and watchable stories. It’s been the same with the various series of New Tricks.

Bottom line? Audiences want to engage with compelling characters and human stories. Let’s try to never forget that.