One thing that Stateside we are learning slowly is that when it comes to television, quality really does many times trump quantity. Cable has been applying this concept for a while, focusing on shorter seasons in which (usually) the storyline takes precedence and the focus is heightened in order to provide the best story arc possible. This is not to say that the more standard network 24 episode seasons are all terrible (The Good Wife is a shining example of great storytelling done in traditional formats), but more and more television shows are changing and adapting their lengths to best tell the story and not just fill up time. In the UK this is neither novel nor is it rare. Most shows, if not all, take place over the course of 6 to 8 episodes and maybe a Christmas special thrown in for good measure. These condensed seasons avoid the fatigue that a viewer may have when having to tune in week after week and sometimes be met with a repetitive storyline that retreads on topics that have been beaten to death. Specifically, the television format that suffers the most creativity-wise is the procedural. In the US these types of shows never lack for viewership. They are easy to follow, missing episodes doesn’t really affect being able to follow the plot, each episode is neatly tied up by the end, and they are fairly cheap to produce because their success in not contingent on the caliber and fame of its stars. Compelling television, though, they are not. Nobody sits on the train or around coffee talking about them, nor should they.
Over the pond, though, some great takes on this medium are being produced which highlight their cast while offering compelling and unmissable experiences in a genre that needs some refreshing changes. Three shows in particular are phenomenal examples of this, and are all available to American audiences with a Netflix account. In The Fall, whose second season recently was added to the streaming service, the story is told by two different points of view. Unlike shows like Criminal Minds and Murder, She Wrote long before it, The Fall doesn’t hide the culprit, instead it makes him one of the two leads. Jamie Dornan has just become a name people are recognizing thanks to his starring in that movie about bondage, but in this show he plays a serial killer whose victims are young brunette women. This is not a spoiler, for the viewer knows this immediately, and the fact that he is the killer is not what compels you to watch. He is also a husband and father to a girl who suffers night terrors possibly due to latent awareness of her father’s evil doings. The detective on his trails is played by the amazing Gillian Anderson. A woman who is strong, unapologetic about her power or her sexuality, and knows how to do her job. The supporting cast is very good as well, and even includes the great Archie Panjabi who renders any role more exciting by her sheer presence. The story is great because of the two leads, though, equally matched and driven in their agendas and need to succeed, and that is what makes this unmissable television.
Broadchurch is different, and although tackles equally heavy subject matter, the tone could be described as slightly lighter and not as bleak. The first season (all that is available right now, as the second season just started airing in the UK) is a mystery, as the murder of a young boy is unresolved and it is up to two detectives, played by Olivia Colman and David Tennant, to solve it. Colman plays Ellie Miller a local officer while Tennant is Alec Hardy, an outsider looking for redemption. The trope of Hardy being ill is a bit tired and unnecessary, especially given the caliber of the acting and the storyline. The focus is on a small tightly knit community which unravels at the knowledge that someone amongst them has committed an unspeakable crime. The length of the first season is of only 8 episodes, at the end of which the culprit is revealed. Knowing that there will be an outcome and that the central mystery will be wrapped up is comforting, especially after the agony of sitting through a show like The Killing which stretched one murder out into two seasons, eventually revealing the killer when nobody cared anymore.
Happy Valley focuses on another detective, Catherine Cawood played by Sarah Lancashire. Perhaps some of the coincidences that appear in the first season are way too convenient, but the strength of the acting, the brisk pace of the show, and the gripping storytelling allow the viewer to forgive them, or at least not to care as much. Drugs, kidnapping, and murder – this show is the most lugubrious of the three (ironic given the title). The 6 episodes are appropriate, for any more and the show would become difficult to watch, but as it stands it is just an appropriate amount of time to inhabit such a miserable echelon of human experience and behavior.
A great thing all three shows have in common is that they include amazing and strong performances by female actors who subvert the roles allowed for them, usually, in these types of storylines and shows. In charge of their sexuality, strong but not stoic to the point of being inhuman, vulnerable, sometimes very funny – they allow the actresses to showcase a wide range of emotions and skills not usually possible. None of them are easy to summarize, they are complex characters, and the male characters are equally compelling – which proves that just because a protagonist is a complete human, it doesn’t mean that those around them must become archetypes as human foils. These strong female roles seem to be the beginning of a fantastic trend: Elisabeth Moss shined in Top of the Lake and Mireille Enos did her best in the inferior The Killing. Hopefully these types of roles will begin to take over in all genres of television and film from now on.
The US has tried to replicate some of these successful stories, albeit unsuccessfully. With the aforementioned The Killing, and the Broadchurch remake Gracepoint, the show The Bridge (which I haven’t watched), and the soon to premiere Secrets and Lies. What do all of these shows have in common? Not one of them is an original idea. They are all remakes of shows that have aired already in other countries to much acclaim. Instead of drawing inspiration from the format and attempting to find a new hook or point of view, the networks are hoping to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time hoping that no one notices that these stories have already been told, and that is the problem. These shows work because of their ingenuity, without which they simply would be just another drop in an ocean we are already drowning in.