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Friday, 25 July 2014

Why All this sport isn't such a bad thing


I've been watching TV for so many years that to actually work out quite how long might prove embarrassing. If I were to quantify the amount of hours I spend in the company of the talking box you might start to wonder if I ever get time to wash, shop or socialise with the 'general public'. However, with the influx of sports, be it football or some games in Scotland, I've realised my viewing habits can still surprise.

I've always been someone who knows what he likes or doesn't when it comes to a TV drama or comedy. In a drama I like my characters to speak like humans do, I like characters I can relate to, who behave like humans do.  I don't like an overdose of dramatic music or dialogue so clunky it feels like it's ripped from a cheap comic. So far, this year has delivered two fantastic dramas in the form of Sally Wainwright's virtually perfect 'Happy Valley' and the second series of Line of Duty. Outside of these masterpieces there has been very little for this TV obsessive to, well obsess over. So, in a bid to fill the void I decided to set myself a bit of a challenge. If I'm brutally honest with you (I can be, it's my blog) I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud.

I've never seen a lot of the shows others rave about. I've never been on the edge of my seat during an episode of Homeland, never sung along with Glee or yelled at by Hugh Laurie in his convincing American accent.  I often grapple with whether the fact I've not seen a long-running US drama makes me less of a TV critic.

So as others gathered to watch England quickly exit that football tournament, or John Barrowman becoming this year's Emile Sande, I decided to binge on some US dramas . I got hold of the big US shows that others have raved about but I have yet to fall under the spell of.  I got my hands on the first episodes of Lost, Prison Break, The Good Wife and Homeland.  I promise you I went in with an open mind. For a long time I've embarrassingly lied when people have asked me my thoughts, almost too embarrassed to admit, "actually I've never seen them". For reasons I can't put my finger on, I've never been able to enjoy a US drama series. They tend to make a lot of escapist dramas full of over the top action and difficult to relate to characters. Here in the UK I believe we make the best drama in the world. We have such talented writers that bring realistic characters to the screen that you feel you've known them for years. We produce shorter runs of things which allows for more variety and difference in the schedules. If I'm honest with you I find the US run of 24 episodes a 'season' quite exhausting and off-putting. I suppose in a way I should admire the fact they can achieve such long runs and sustain both plots and viewers interests for that long.

So, there I was. A small plate of biscuits, a dreary day outside, a bottle of squash (I know how to live)  and an open mind. First go, episode 1 of 'season' 1 of Lost. Admittedly I'd demolished the plate of biscuits before the plane crash but I was determined that that  wasn't going to dampen my enjoyment.  I appreciated the impressive budget but quickly found myself disengaged. I'm aware how hypocritical I'm sounding, I'm always keen to drum in the importance of not judging a series by its first episode, but the experiment here is to see whether a US drama can draw me in. By the time it started talking about 'mysterious monsters' I lost interest. I just found it silly, full of characters I didn't feel any connection to and the dialogue clunky and messy. Sadly Lost featured all the elements I say I don't like about American series.

I decided for my next go I'd try something more contemporary. I remember the buzz that surrounded Showtime's Homeland when it launched a few years ago but as my family didn't pay for the channel that one passed me by too. Without my comfort biscuits I got comfy for the first helping of Homeland.  Whilst I hadn't seen a whole episode of Homeland, I was aware that although the first two seasons had been showered with praise, the third received a much cooler reception.   Anyway in a went with Homeland.  In one way, typing the following the next sentence is good but in another It does make me feel like I'm stepping over the points I've made over the last few years but here goes.. I really enjoyed it! I was suckered in by the intrigue, I found the plot engrossing and though Claire Danes frustrated me a lot I soon learned that was the point. I enjoyed the first episode so much I went out the following day and bought Series 1 & 2 on DVD. As I type, I've one episode of the second series to watch and I'm wee bit obsessed by it! I had achieved my goal of not only finally persevering with an American drama, but thoroughly enjoying it. Homeland grabbed me and didn't let me go. My only annoyance now is that I'm so late to the party and I know it's already past its best.

Buoyed by love of Homeland I was eager to find something else to get excited by.  Next up 24. Believe it or not I have never seen an entire episode of this loved action series. When I lived in America the continuing ads for this which portrayed Jack Bauer as the all American hero were the initial turn off and I struggled to imagine how a series where every episode covers one hour could last for 9 seasons! Learning from my previous mistakes I went in actually looking forward to 24. If it was anything like Homeland I was in for a treat. I wasn't instantly hooked in by the first episode. It's not it's fault that it was shot in 2001 and that it thinks Palm Pilot's are revolutionary. It's not its fault that Kiefer Sutherland thought it was acceptable to spend the entire first series with bleached blonde hair, but even pushing it's age and hair aside I didn't feel as engaged and engrossed as I had with Homeland. I persisted, becoming somewhat more intrigued as the story developed. However, 24 nearly lost me forever when Jack's wife (the incredibly annoying Teri Bauer) developed a preposterous case of amnesia that left her not even knowing her own ruddy name! I suppose the problem here is that, unlike Homeland with it's near perfect pacing spread over 12 exciting episodes, 24 has so much more time to fill. 24 hours as it happens, and even the best writers would struggle to maintain an engrossing story for that long. Whilst I'm not completely dismissive of the series I think I might have to jump straight into the second series to give it a proper go. This first one just feels too dated and silly for me to enjoy.


Feeling a little action hero'd out I decided to dip my feet (face, hands and arms) into a different sort of American TV. I've always known The Wire and The Sopranos aren't for me but I wanted to find an HBO show that I could say I enjoyed. Step forward 'Six Feet Under.'  In a way I surprised myself by enjoying this funeral parlour drama which gives the viewer a bizarre mix of drama and comedy. Like 24, its age meant it looked a little dated but actually I found myself engaged and interested by the characters and the somewhat surreal world they inhabit. On paper I shouldn't like this. It's often zany, the characters behave oddly and every once in a while the ghost of a dead parent pops up. Whilst this might not be one I'll be rushing to catch up on I did surprise myself by being sucked into the first three episodes.


Finally I decided to try something more contemporary. I'd had several people badger me about watching ABC's legal drama The Good Wife. I'll admit the idea of a US legal drama usually makes me shudder. I've seen a few and unlike our counterparts like Silk and The Jury which feel classy and researched, US legal dramas are known for their melodramatic scenes where the lawyer prances around the courtroom whilst verbally abusing the judge who bangs his gavel every other minute to remind you who he is. Pushing my preconceptions to one side I hoped this series could turn my feelings around. I wasn't wowed initially, but after 3 episodes I started to enjoy it. It doesn't have the gravitas of my favourite homegrown legal dramas, but I grew to like story outside of all the court drama.

I've learnt a lot over this summer of sport. I've learn that I prejudged some programmes before giving them a fair shot, and I learnt a bit more about what I enjoy of a TV drama. I'll never be a complete convert to US TV. They make a lot of escapist drama like 'Once Upon a Time, The Walking Dead and the aforementioned Lost. I'll always prefer the gritty realism we are able to produce with top writing and great actors. I will admit though that I've enjoyed widening my horizons and discovering previously undiscovered gems. Perhaps all this sport hasn't been such a bad thing after all.

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