TV UK, 30 May

After midnight, satellite TV comes into its own.

Dolan Cummings

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I have now had Sky Digital for a couple of weeks, with the introductory package of all available channels.

The downside of this is that the troll who lives on the sofa is usually settled into a third-rate movie by the time I get home. This is one of the many disadvantages of sharing a flat, especially with an ungodly creature. After midnight, though, the troll goes to his cave and I have the TV to myself. That’s when satellite TV really comes into its own.

I am quite partial to watching TV alone late at night. (Don’t look so sorry for me: I’m really a deeply happy person.) Under the old ITV Digital regime I grew fond of the Seinfeld/Cheers double bill late on the Paramount Comedy Channel, but I have recently been able to expand my repertoire dramatically. In between MTV and Discovery Wings I’ve been sampling the notorious Al-Jazeera, along with a host of Urdu and Punjabi channels. I can’t find any foreign languages that I understand, but D Classics has lots of concerts from Germany – some nights that’s just what you need.

My great discovery is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit at 1am on Hallmark. This is a spin-off from Law and Order (currently showing on Channel 5 on Saturday nights) focusing as the title suggests on rape and abuse cases. Actually, Special Victims Unit was shown on Sky One a couple of years ago, but was mysteriously dropped after a few episodes. Well, it isn’t light entertainment.

The programme is not just an expression of ‘victim culture’ (it sometimes seems to celebrate victimhood), but it is also an examination of it, which often asks difficult questions. In Law and Order, Detective Curtis recently quipped that he had transferred to the homicide squad so he could be sure the victims wouldn’t talk back. Special Victims Unit’s detectives are forced to deal intimately with the victims, and to build cases around them. It is a world away from the sterile lab work of Crime Scene Investigation (Channel 5).

The best thing about Special Victims Unit is that it features Detective Munch, (not just the actor Richard Belzer, but the character himself) who used to be in Homicide: Life on the Street, until it was murdered by TV executives. There are other crossovers between the shows, involving stories as well as characters, and Special Victims Unit also stars rapper Ice T, who says things like ‘Street justice is always bloody’, which is great. I have no idea which series I’m watching or how the chronology fits with Law and Order, but at 1.30am, who cares?

Rather creepily, Special Victims Unit also shares much of the cast of Oz, the stylishly bleak prison drama that has just started a new series on Channel 4 (Tuesdays at the annoyingly early 11.10pm). In this case, the actual characters are very different. For example, Special Victims Unit’s edgy but heroic Detective Stabler becomes the sinister psychopath Christopher Keller in Oz. Like Special Victims Unit, Oz is on top of contemporary concerns, and deals with issues like bullying and the crisis of masculinity. It can be wearing, but there is usually enough dramatic tension to make it watchable.

This is more than can be said for Big Brother Live (all night on E4). If I wanted to see people sitting about pointlessly wasting their lives I’d come home early and watch the troll.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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