A plea for original TV drama

With recycled characters and reboots dominating TV drama, Michael argues the case for more risk-taking and less brand recognition...

At Den of Geek we’re usually very careful to avoid spoilers when they are not necessary and to give fair warning when they are. In the interests of due diligence then, the next line of this article contains a Bates Motel spoiler.

At the end of the first season Norman Bates murders a woman. 

Don’t say you weren’t warned. Even so, was it really a spoiler? Of course he was going to get knife happy. What would be the point of making a drama about Norman Bates without making the poor, confused soul a cold-blooded killer? Then of course we have Hannibal. FBI headshrinker Will Graham recruits Dr Lecter to help him pursue a serial killer without realising that he is himself a compulsive murderer and cannibal who will manipulate the hapless profiler every step of the way. Can we avoid seeing Lecter chow down on bipedal offal? What do you reckon?

The use of existing characters and locations, however radically they are adapted, is a hindrance. Whatever happens along the way, it is difficult to escape the expectation that Norman will end up running the motel, alone but for the corpse of his mother. At some point, the FBI will get wise to the provenance of Dr Lecter’s locally sourced menu and place him in cuffs, cage and overalls. It may take several seasons of twisting and turning, but they are the scheduled destinations. As good as the shows are, they are robbed of their suspense. Contrast them with Broadchurch, which made the unknown identity of the killer a central part of its appeal and earned genuine watercooler status as a result.

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These programmes, Hannibal in particular, are entertaining and well made. They manage to navigate the lack of suspense around the central character by expanding the material. Bates Motel has expanded the storyline out of the narrow confines of the titular B&B and into the creepy town of White Pine Bay. Hannibal riffs nicely on the motif of gourmet food and benefits from spending more time with Lecter as a free man, rather than a prisoner. Still, wouldn’t it be better if they could be more solid mysteries? Without such well-trod templates they’d have more freedom to surprise us.

As TV viewers, we want to be surprised. We’ve come to expect it. The past fifteen or so years have been such a golden age of innovative TV drama that it’s become almost redundant to say so. The medium has gone from poor relation of the cinema to its firm competitor and companion and, at its best, it does things that the silver screen cannot do. It has a creative pedigree of its own and tells stories in ways that cinema simply can’t.

It has been said that the theatre is an actor’s medium and cinema is a director’s one. Well, TV is a writer’s medium. Actors and directors are important in TV, but it’s the writer who is the essential component in the work. The names speak for themselves; Dennis Potter, Lynda La Plante, Jimmy McGovern, Peter Flannery, Paul Abbott, Tom Fontana, Shawn Ryan and the three Davids – Chase, Simon and Milch. To that roster we can now add Abi Morgan, Søren Sveistrup, Vince Gilligan, Dominic Mitchell and Chris Chibnall.

It’s not hard to see why. Of all the visual arts it is the one that most rewards a writer’s vision and gives them the room to explore character, theme and plot to the extent that the work deserves. With extended running times, sometimes in excess of sixty hours, writers are  able to offer a depth of character development impossible in any other medium with the exception of the novel. The system, particularly in the US, of having a showrunner oversee a talented team of writers means that multiple plot strands can be stewarded by a single guiding intelligence while teamwork fosters intricacy. David Simon, rightly, gets the acclaim as the architect of The Wire, but it is difficult to imagine that even he would have created a drama of such depth, complexity and nuance without writers of the calibre of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos sitting around his table.

That is not to say that even the best shows aren’t derivative. The Sopranos is as much the product of Goodfellas as State of Play is the product of Edge of Darkness, but they are original pieces in their own right. Just as importantly, they all demonstrate risk-taking. You can take the very best of the new wave and imagine the difficult moment in the pitch meeting when the creator says ‘so yeah, this high school teacher is going to start manufacturing drugs and murdering people. And he’s going to get very good at it.’ or ‘we’re going to set it in the old west and use arcane, metaphorical language and 43 f-words per hour’. They were all gambles. Even shows with an identifiable lead source, such as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, were adaptations that brought their stories into an entirely different medium. Again, they represent risks that paid off.

I don’t blame producers for becoming risk-averse. Competition is brutal. One respected US TV critic has commented that there is already too much good television and asked that if he, a full-time professional, cannot keep up, how can the audience at home? In addition, the US networks will cut underperforming shows without ceremony or sentiment. Getting a TV show greenlit has become akin to pitching a movie. It’s so much easier if there is a clearly identifiable product or name attached.

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The prospect of increased completion from Netflix and Amazon may exacerbate this tendency. It can hardly be a coincidence that Netflix’s biggest hit in terms of ‘original’ programming, House of Cards, was a remake. That particular show was excellent, and it did represent a kind of risk, but it was a risk in terms of delivery, not creative content.

Creative risks are still being taken. The Americans, promises an interesting take on the Cold War and Banshee continues to thrill with its pulpy, visceral swagger, but the brace of serial killer reboots in Bates Motel and Hannibal, translated remakes of The Killing and The Bridge and the narrowly averted attempt to reanimate Zombieland on the small screen raise the concern that TV may slip into the Hollywood habit of recharging old ideas rather than supporting new ones. This would be a shame, because time and time again, TV viewers have shown themselves to be receptive to innovation.

However, we’re also too accepting of the familiar. Like many Breaking Bad fans, I’m excited by the prospect of a Saul Goodman spin-off. It makes perfect sense. Goodman already acts as though he’s just wandered into Breaking Bad from the set of his own show. What’s even more exciting, however, is the thought of Vince Gilligan starting again with a blank sheet of paper and coming up with something as original and fresh as Breaking Bad.

If it does go ahead, Better Call Saul will probably be great. Bates Motel is a thrilling show and Hannibal exudes class. I certainly don’t mean to diminish them or the people who produce them. The material currently being revisited is good enough to support new treatments. This won’t always be the case. The barrel will one day find itself being scraped. The best way to prevent ideas from going stale is to come up with new ones. Writers, instead of being asked merely to write, should be given the freedom to create. 

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