TV UK, 8 May
Channel 4's 100 Greatest Movie Stars leaves nobody satisfied.
Last Saturday Channel 5 showed the famous spillover story double bill of Law and Order and Homicide from 1996. It’s an interesting historical footnote, effectively the cop shows’ joint resolution against Kenneth Starr’s campaign to bring down Clinton.
The story is about a thinly disguised Special Counsel who impedes the investigation and prosecution of a murder in his politically motivated investigation of the White House.
Whether or not you agree with the story’s political bias, this is an interesting example of politically engaged drama, which captures the frustration felt by many Americans about what was happening. The West Wing (Channel 4) clearly plays a similar role, with its somewhat bizarre premise of a liberal philosopher-king president facing the realities of American politics. British TV has been less successful in its treatment of politics, at least in the narrow sense.
The Project (1), the BBC’s drama about the rise of New Labour, was as shallow as its subject. State of Play, a new drama starring David Morrissey and John Simm, is due in a couple of weeks. Naturally, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt (watch this space), but the plot, involving sex, sleaze and an heroic campaigning journalist, does not sound promising. The Law and Order/Homicide story avoided pomposity by holding on to a sense of humour. Perhaps the trouble with Brits is that we have no sense of irony.
When the other detectives teased Homicide’s John Munch about his conspiracy theories, asking who would play him in the movie, he answered without hesitation: James Woods. Absolutely. James Woods is my favourite actor too. So it was no surprise to see the star of Once Upon a Time in America, Salvador, Cop, Bestseller, Videodrome and Indictment: The McMartin Trial omitted completely from Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Movie Stars last weekend. After all, they were voted for by ‘you the viewer’, and you know how I feel about that sort of thing.
100 Greatest Movie Stars was another example of Connect TV (2), in which broadcasters reach out and try to give us all a stake in their programmes. It doesn’t work, because it treats us all as isolated individuals and asks us to make choices with no real meaning or consequences. Rather than engaging with the real world we all live in, politically or otherwise (and however one-sidedly), it trades in banality, leaving nobody satisfied. Least of all James Woods fans.
Another equally unreal new genre we have discovered (well, sort of) is the made-up social malaise documentary. Remember Fat Girls and Feeders (3)? Channel 5 joined the fray after its far more commendable cop show spree on Tuesday night with The Vampire Killers. This unfortunately had nothing to do with ass-kicking teenage girls, but instead gave unwarranted airtime to nerds in make-up and cloaks who cross the line and kill their friends.
‘Are they mad or bad?’ asked the commentary. Keep going, I thought.
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)).
(1) TV UK, 8 November
(2) TV UK, 1 May
(3) TV UK, 3 April
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