As the BBC’s highly publicised (by themselves anyway) crime drama ‘The Shadow Line’ has its third episode this Thursday, I thought now might be a good point to make some provisional comments.
Overall, it has been a pretty interesting watch. Obviously, comparisons will be made to ‘The Wire’ – and not just because everyone concerned with television seems to have extolled the American show as the greatest thing television has ever produced, enshrining it eternally as the paradigm for all police dramas henceforth; namely gradually solving a single (albeit multifaceted) case over a number of weeks, as opposed to the solving of (distinctly similar) cases each week (see any of the CSI franchises). The Shadow Line alludes to its American forbear in a number of key aspects; the ‘life-like’ language, not just swearing, but a wilful use of colloquialisms. In the Wire, this had the tendency to baffle, but the pay off of learning the lexicon giving a deeper connection with the characters was a rewarding one. With the Shadow Line, there’s a bit of this, but not much. When, in the opening scene of episode one, the policeman described something as “a load of tut” I thought that here might be a British crime drama that doesn’t use hackneyed Cockney rhyming slang (a la Guy Ritchie), but attempts to give a contemporary London dialect to both police and thieves. Maybe it does, maybe I’m just more used to the language that that of the Wire?
What The Shadow Line also attempts is the presentation of an obviously flawed hero character, to which they slow-drip an enriching back-story to produce a gradual empathy and understanding. With McNulty in The Wire, this was done expertly (as it was with almost all the characters), and an otherwise two-dimensional ‘drunk cop’ was given the nuance and subtlety of a ‘real person’ through a prolonged and protracted ‘getting to know you’ session. However, once again, the British counterpart (and actually it may be unfair to call the Shadow Line this – but it will inevitably invite such comparisons) falls foul of having to rush through this drip-feed back-story with Jonah Gabriel (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). So within a few minutes of meeting this buttoned-down, suspiciously silent character, we hear the forensics woman saying “it’s just when I see someone with a bullet in their head, they’re usually dead” (or words to that effect). Throughout the rest of the opening episode, there was just a hint of this clunky dialogue which rather clumsily intimated parts of this back story and in fact the whole premise of the back story (Gabriel had been shot, he has amnesia, his partner died, he is hiding something) was revealed; all we need now are the names to be put in. Then by midway through episode two, we already have him ‘breaking character’ and shouting at a suspect. That’s not to criticise the character – which is good – nor the concept. But it is too rushed again. I said this before with the review of ‘Outcasts’ (see below), and this show, I fear, will follow the same path (though it seems to be a much higher calibre) of not allowing (or not being allowed to let) characters evolve more gradually. Were this show to be given, let’s say, fourteen hour-long episodes, each character in the really impressive ensemble cast could be given a really worthy amount of screen time to develop and show their subtleties. With just seven shows, the danger is that the characters – in a drama in which characters are so integral – can come across as stereotypes; the unhinged gangster, the buttoned-down cop, the bent cop, the good-man-caught-in-a-bad-world, the sinister, well-spoken mysterious man in a hat, etc.
The saving grace for The Shadow Line is the cast, which is very good indeed. It contains an old (and for my money the best) Doctor Who (Christopher Eccelston) and the actor who should have been the current Doctor Who (Ejiofor) had the BBC not totally bottled it! Special mention had to go to Stephen Rea, who I think is a vastly underrated actor, as the sinister Gatehouse (i.e. ‘suspicious man in a hat’). And there isn’t quite the same level of “oh what was he in?” as in many BBC dramas. Possibly because many of the cast come from the world of films, rather than TV dramas: Ejiofor, Rea, Rafe Spall.
So overall, this looks like an interesting drama that won’t be given enough time to evolve and develop the characters and storylines necessary to make it as great as The Wire.
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Actually, as a post script to this conclusion, maybe something needs to be said in this argument about episodes in a series. British programmes have tended to get six episodes in a series, where American shows can appear to go on indefinitely (or until cancelled). There are good sides to our shorter runs, of course – particularly in comedy programmes. They stay fresh, ideas contained and characters/storylines are not allowed to stray (as much) into the realms of ridiculousness. This means the tense situations can either be resolved in reasonable time, or don’t force the audience to beg questions such as “why doesn’t he just say no?” or “why doesn’t she just leave?” Take for examples British comedies such as Spaced, The Office, Fawlty Towers. All, I think, benefit from having quite a small number of episodes. They all age well, and are afforded the title of ‘classic’ by virtue of having not outstayed their welcome.
Many American comedies, because they continue for so long, tend to keep trotting out the same incongruous scenarios, with ever-excessive farce (and absolutely no character development). British comedies also tend to the work of either the same person, or small group, giving them a singular vision and a well rounded, thoroughly thought out world in which to operate. American comedies tend, because of sheer numbers of episodes, to become committee-led productions with teams of writers. Inevitably, the jokes become generic and don’t necessarily pertain to the characters as specifically. The notable exceptions in America would be South Park, which has continued for fifteen series with just two main writers, or the Simpsons, which has such a strongly defined and recognisable world that teams of writers know the limits of, and thus can write successfully for.
However, when it comes to complex dramas, the extra episodes afforded to American shows, when utilised correctly, can provide a real depth of character, and ample space to explore nuances which really enrich the overall story arc. It would be a really interesting experiment for a British show to try the same thing, and something like The Shadow Line would be a perfect candidate for the experiement.