TV UK, 29 May

TV dramas can make the most unattractive lifestyles look alluring.

Dolan Cummings

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Channel 5’s latest US import Boomtown finished this week, sadly without featuring Assistant DA David McNorris, who had his own emotional-crisis-climax episode last week.

McNorris is possibly the coolest character on TV. Cool in the proper sense of the word, that is. Alcoholism, self-loathing and the inability to form relationships haven’t seemed so appealing since James Woods perfected the archetype in Cop in 1988.

Woods climaxed his crisis by blowing away a villain in cold blood, but things have moved on since then. While McNorris struggles to salvage his career ahead of the promised second season, his estranged mistress is going to meetings of Al-Anon, the recovery group for people close to, but not themselves, alcoholics. By some mysterious TV alchemy, even this is made to seem appealing.

Some TV programmes just do that. Who can watch The West Wing without wanting to be called out of bed at 4am to redraft a speech on the agricultural budget? The troll who lives on the sofa is still trying, with laughable results, to imitate the staffers’ wise-cracking repartee, and their odd habit of saying ‘yeah’ at the beginning of every other sentence.

The latest drama to sell a lifestyle is BBC1’s political thriller State of Play (Sundays at 9pm). I haven’t been so excited by journalism since Press Gang, the 1980s kids’ drama on ITV. The plot is gripping enough so far, but as with The West Wing, it is the general ambience of stress and excitement, rather than any specific political cause, that is appealing. And did you see that girl’s flat?

I’m not sure that Six Feet Under (Channel 4) really sells undertaking as a lifestyle, but it certainly captures something about contemporary attitudes to life, and death. The amusing deaths that lightened the first season have given way to the deeper family drama afforded by well-established characters, and accordingly the programme’s oppressive morbidity has shifted from the dead to the living, and their weird inner lives.

It is the billboard posters, rather than the programme itself, however, that have been described as ‘offensive, shocking and unsuitable for children’ (1). Nine people complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about the posters, which feature models posing as corpses in spoof cosmetics adverts. Nine is not a lot of people, of course, and I’d hazard that it is they who are out of touch with public feeling. In art and culture, at least, death is the new black.

Channel 4 has suggested that the complainers are objecting to death itself rather than the posters, and the same point could be made about objections to the BBC’s plans to show Al-Jazeera footage of dead British soldiers on Correspondent this Sunday. That complaint is understandable on the part of the families of the dead, but Tony Blair’s call for the BBC to cut the images reeks of political defensiveness (2).

Whether Blair fears that TV’s mysterious power to persuade will turn viewers against the government that launched the war, or whether he has simply decided that siding with bereaved families is good politics, the prime minister’s sudden interest in film-editing indicates we are living in a morbid political culture.

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)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Channel 4 billboards banned

(2) Blair urges BBC to cut Iraq film

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