Often with TV, it’s all a matter of Marketing. And so is the entire world. Marketing. Yes, seated atop their utopian skyscrapers with their Gorden Gecko coffee mugs and their smarmy expression, smug Surrey accents and Patrick Bateman haircuts, the Marketing people control everything. Oh, what a well observed point there young one, for it was a mystery that lingered only in my dreams until you brought it forth into reality with unequalled clarity.
Well, it’s still true, and none more so than in the ratings obsessed media frenzy that is now television, a medium so fragmented and screaming for cash that even ITV has its iPlayer equivalent, which just goes to show that even the channel catering for the elderly has to broaden the way in which its content and advertising can reach the viewers.
This means more than ever that television must cater for ‘key demographics’ and leave the risk of producing oddball comedic mash ups like Man to Man With Dean Learner to the banal fairies who haunt the BBC archives at night. Those fairies don’t exist by the way; I made them up to illustrate just how rare a TV company willing to take a risk for niche programming is. Instead, British TV concentrates on homogenised gurn fests like Doctor Who or the BBC’s other Saturday night serials.
Of course, when you have something quite unusual you have to live and let live with the production firms and hop up to the marketing level and that’s really where the gulf widens. Take the example of Lost, a high concept scenario in which the survivors of a plane crash land on a deserted island and I won’t bother going on because if you don’t know the basic premise behind the show by now you’re either too busy with your life that haven’t had time to watch it – and good on you for that – or you’re a total moron.
Of course, the plane crash turns out to be the most pedestrian thing about the show as things get going. Bundles of uncanny and mysterious things occur over the shows seasons, including hippy spiritualism, the Zeitgeist and, I’m told, time travel. It’s a melting point of different paranoia’s. There’s only so many enigmas I can take personally, and I’m glad to say I bailed on Lost at the advent of its second season.
However, my point is this: these ideas are far removed from your average show and potentially too diverse and scattered to package in one normal sized box – and it probably is to the shows credit that it has managed to keep them all relative control (even if to the discerning viewer, its all completely contrived). Yet ABC’s Lost has reached its place in the cultural spectrum of the naughties not only with plenty of mysterious to tease the audience with, but with the help of a marathon advertising campaign that seems to rear its head only for air once every year like a bloody werewolf.
The same beast carries the burden of Flashforward, another high-concept ABC drama with weird ideas (what does the kangaroo mean? How zen!). Flashforward has modelled itself closely upon its forebears rise to prominence. Of course, one of Lost’s most powerful allies has been its irritant internet fan base, and Flashforward’s very premise seems to draw on the same kind of narrative mysteries that led idiot Lost fans to link together in the first place, forming a cult to ponder its meanings (if there is any that is). The premise is somewhat simple, but ultimately bizarre: the world’s population, from Swindon to Shanghai, mysteriously pass out for roughly two and a half minutes and then wake up again. Basically, if you’ve seen the first series of the perennially-disappointing-but-potentially-mind-blowing Heroes, think of Isaac’s premonitory paintings being the ENTIRE premise of the show.
Of course, when they wake up, bad things have happened. Aeroplanes lie submerged in the oceans, millions of cars have collided with each other, helicopters shudder and splat into skyscrapers like there’s no tomorrow – the list is endless. In fact, its a shame it doesn’t show more of the stranger, banal kind of death which would probably run like a tasteless Youtube playlist of stunts gone wrong. Most horrifyingly, the two minute black out affects surgeons on the operating table, leaving their patients good and dead by the time they wake. It’s no surprise that the show revels in this chaotic dismantling of our fragile world and that no CGI is spared when visualising the destruction, but because it seems to enjoy itself too much, we have trouble taking the devastation seriously. True horror this isn’t, and as our characters run through the streets littered with debris, we are left to look at the dead bodies simply as window dressing for the greater mystery of the show.
As soon as Joseph Fiennes turns up, crawling out from the overturned car he’s passed out in (a situation much like we were with Jack the Doctor in Lost’s pilot) we know we’ve found our compulsory straight laced hero with compulsory flaws and compulsory resources to get the job done. One would hope that Flashforward can offer the diversions from the straight laced type in the same manner as Lost did, because Fiennes character is quite a bore as it is, and all in all, Fiennes just looks a bit lost in a production like this. Turns out however, that Fiennes’s character (the name is quite forgetful) wasn’t simply dormant while unconscious, but that he was having a vision in which he was cowering in a nightmarish future, looking lost again – but this time with a gun – as tatooed men approach him with bigger guns.
It’s soon established that it wasn’t just Fiennes’ character who experienced a vision during the black out, but everyone in the entire world. And it soon turns out that these visions take place in the future at precisely the same time on the same day, even the same month! It’s kind of like being beaten over the head with a genetically modified marrow of Truth, and it’s quite unpleasant.
Soon, Fiennes is revealing to a room of empty suits in the FBI office – did I not mention that hero comes equipped with Federal Bureau badge? – that in his dream, he was working on a case piecing together the information about the black outs. Now, I can’t say I know much for the inner workings of the FBI, but I know they are not investigators of the paranormal, and I at least expected the old cliche of the hero being ridiculed by his seniors. But no, instead of the benevolent boss giving our hero twenty four hours to prove his cases worth despite protestations from colleagues, they just out right believe him. Of course, most of them had dreams too, but the FBI work with reason and logic, and I find that they adapt to the idea of a global mindfuck so fast just silly.
More on Joseph Fiennes, I guess, who’s followed the likes of Dominic West and Idris Elba (of The Wire, the former an Eaton toff, the latter an ex-employee of Dagenham Motors), Hugh Laurie, Jamie Bamber (Apollo, Battlestar Galactica) to Hollywood and probably landed in a show that is most likely to succeed due to its advertising on every screen on the North American continent. He’s the aforementioned FBI man, also a family man, with a wife (doctor), kid (small girl) and a house straight out of the Truman Show. All is well, all is white and middle class and America is alive and well. But with America in peril, Middle America must once again save the world and Fiennes – a perfectly good actor who has nailed the accent – is the man for the job.
Sadly, from the pilot, the character is a bore as mentioned. So is his wife, a doctor, and his daughter, who just smacks of the Dakota Fanning vibe that means Daddy will have to come and save her at some point. And Daddy spends most of us his time on the show looking pensive and glum, and you almost think that Fiennes was picked because he fits in the bill for cheap, potentially bankable star rather than the character. It’s probably too much to hope ABC would present to us a progressive casting choice in the form of a black or asian family, but frankly we’ve seen all of this before.
Perhaps though, the lack of characterisation, the lack of a realistic reaction to spectacular events and the glee its takes showing us all the bodies of the dead, Flashforward just wants to power ahead and get the real story going, and it does try hard. We’re given a few threads to follow, from the revelations of peoples own visions, from Doctor-Wifes dream that in six months she’ll be with another man to a friend* of Fiennes revealing that he saw his daughter alive in his vision despite recently burying her. We get John Cho (more famously Harold from Harold and Kumar (and Sulu!)) as a fellow FBI agent confiding to Fiennes that he never had a vision at all, to the end that he believes he will be dead in six months. Harold is in fact, one of the good things evident in the pilot, but mainly because he seems like quite a nice bloke rather than showing any massive talent for the small screen.
*Actually, this is supposedly Fiennes’ sponsor from the rehab clinic, and vice versa. How we were ever supposed to believe Joseph Fiennes was an alcoholic, I don’t know. But I suppose there’s nothing more heroic than Jack Bauer in rehab.
Flashforward isn’t bad per se, it’s probably perfectly watchable to most, but the pilots got none of the thrills of the extraordinary pilot for Lost or the determination to really get into the hearts and heads of its viewers like the Battlestar Galactica pilot had. Of course, this is precisely my point: we’re so inebriated with average shows marketed and advertised as if they are the second coming, that we miss the truly great television that’s out there.
One of these is Breaking Bad, a dark comedy-drama that has a lot more to offer than its name suggests – and yes, it sounds like Saved By The Bell, Part II. Covering both familiar territory in the form of a disillusionment with suburban life and new, stranger turf, its a show that really won’t pull enough interest to be shown anywhere but a backlot digital channel in the UK. It stars Bryan Cranston, who might be vaguely familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Malcolm in the Middle. Now, Malcolm in the Middle may have passed some by, it may also have turned off viewers with Malcolm’s frequent confessionals of teenage angst to the camera, but the show had some great moments and some even greater performances from both the young cast and the adult cast (Bryan Cranston was Hall, their Dad). This is completely different territory, even if Cranston plays the father in a matriarchal suburban family again.
Cranston is Walter White, a Chemistry teacher who seems to moonlight as an employee of a local garage at night to keep up the family funds while his wife is on maternity leave. They have an older child, Walter Jr, who has cerebral palsy, and who has a remarkably quick tongue and charismatic presence when compared to portrayals of other sufferers of cerebral palsy on TV. Skyler, Walter’s wife, has a bigoted sister who’s marriage to a DEA narcotics officer means that although Walter Jr may have a solid role model in his father already, he also has a successful, righteous yet ultimately alpha-male role model also vying for his attention – and by extension threatening Walter’s masculinity. The monotony of his suburban life however, is placed into perspective, or perhaps even dwarfed by the revelation that he has inoperable lung cancer.
Unlike, say, Kevin Spacey in the familiar set up of American Beauty, Walter takes an altogether extreme path to reasserting his position as family breadwinner, accompanying his ass of a brother-in-law on a drug bust at a Meth Lab – Walter previously witnessing the amount of money to be earned from selling Crystal Meth on a news report in the presence of his gloating brother in law, who was the officer interviewed by the channel. After discovering one of the dealers of the Crystal Meth is an ex-student, he sets about preparing a mobile Meth Lab with the help of the dealer, Jesse, in order to produce and sell Meth, stocking up enough cash to provide for his family after he has past.
It’s a series that manages to keep both the drama and comedy on an even keel, so you aren’t just yawning through melodramatic ramblings until something outrageous happens. It’s smart, but not to the extent of alienating its audience, and incredibly well acted by Cranston, who compliments and tones down the more exaggerated gestures and postures of Hall with unexpected layers of depth, self disgust, warmth and determination. As a show, it explores the psyche of the reluctant criminal, the good, family man turning to the dodgy side of the tracks to provide for his family and yet the characterisation is completely different from previous incarnations of the type, where the good man will turn to crime to help his family and come out of it with his principles intact, or the good man who turns to the dark side and falls prey to its indigenous natives. It instead shows easily it is for a normal man like Walter to turn to the other side of the tracks, and keep going. Walter looks like those men you see on the news, tried for crimes that seem beyond their means.
I’ll soldier on with Flashforward. It’s at least provoked enough empathy from me in its poor execution that I want to see it flourish, but while I’m sure it will be plastered across the screens of the UK soon, keep in mind Breaking Bad, and watch it. That is if you haven’t already.
You can catch Flashforward on Five I think, but Breaking Bad remains confined to the FX digital channel.