TV UK, 7 January
The BBC's Drugland is off its head.
Drugland (BBC2) has been a three-part investigation of the drug business in London and Manchester and (tonight) Ibiza. While the tenor has been that of a sensationalist exposé, the implied politics are more liberal, so that the programme has quite a confrontational feel: drugs are here, and you’d better get used to it.
While I have no objection to the earringed academic from Liverpool explaining quite reasonably that the ‘drug problem’ has little to do with drugs themselves, and that many people use them without any problems, I was much more irritated by the London dinner party guests holding forth on their drug use, and insisting that everyone’s at it. Viewers were clearly meant to feel like naive suburbanites being shown the way of the world by the streetwise BBC.
Most galling of all was the way the programme indulged self-important dealers, allowing them to strut and preen about how cool they were, sometimes by feigning mundaneness (‘modelling’s not glamorous, you know’) and sometimes shamelessly bragging about their success with women. It would be a good thing if debates about the risks and the legal status of drugs were complemented by some consideration of the deeper cultural context.
I made a similar suggestion a few weeks ago, with regard to If… Drugs Were Legal, which screens on Wednesday, and considering The Smoking Room as a case study in a certain contemporary mindset. The return of Channel 4’s Shameless offers another opportunity to examine modern mores. The opening episode on Tuesday showed that the writers have not lost their touch. The casual violence was particularly effective, a case study in the comic potential of repetition. The programme’s central weakness, however, was also exposed. Creator Paul Abbot is asking us to sympathise with characters of a type described everywhere else as antisocial, without ever making a case against that characterisation.
The Gallaghers would be ‘neighbours from hell’ if they had neighbours respectable enough to object. This in itself is not a problem. In fact, it would probably be more interesting if they actually did clash with neighbours. Instead, as Guardian critic Sam Wollaston notes, ‘although they’re all so shambolic and dysfunctional, somewhere in there, bizarrely, is a lot of love’. But Abbott is positing a community based on love alone. The programme’s weakness is that, while it ridicules conventional values, it offers no alternative foundation for solidarity beyond sympathy itself.
That might sound like a silly complaint to make of a comedy drama, but it leads to other weaknesses. In Tuesday’s episode, Frank’s father showed up and terrorised his son with his demands for decency and respectability. He was a sort of Frank Field character (until recently I would have said David Blunkett), embodying the moralism of the British Labour tradition, and looking with contempt on the indecent and antisocial behaviour of his son.
There is plenty to object to in that mean-spirited tradition, but Shameless is not up to the task. In order to ‘win the argument’, the writers resorted to portraying Frank’s father not only as a stuffy moralist, but also as a creep. At one point, taking Sheila’s hand to kiss, he licked it instead. Later he was shown watching mud wrestling on TV and licking his lips. Then Frank’s dead mother was enlisted: apparently she had hated his father too, pulling the rug out from under the old man’s feminist credentials.
Ultimately, you couldn’t help but sympathise with Frank against his father, but the means used to achieve this sympathy were cheap, and really the appeal of the programme as a whole rests on a similar foundation. Shameless is a comedy of manners in a period when there is little consideration of what lies beneath manners.
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