Unwritten rules of TV thrillers

Owing to some unusual circumstances, I have recently watched a couple of crime thrillers on TV. One was a two-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; the other was a five part original series by Anthony Horowitz called Injustice.

I rarely watch contemporary TV, preferring to be highly selective and wait a few years after a programme has aired to give it a chance to mature into something that many people think is good (eg The Wire), or see it consigned to oblivion so I don’t need to bother watching it. These two recent series, and another one I watched a few weeks ago called Exile, all had several features in common which makes me wonder whether all TV series have to obey a set of laws?

  • Even when someone has written a script, certain scenes are repeated several times (especially if they concern a scantily clad woman and/or someone being killed, ideally both). We see endless shots of Jackson Brodie running; Brodie as a boy running through woods calling his sister; woman being shot in head against wall; Injustice lawyer staring at same images of cctv footage; woman in black underwear on bed; man shooting other man at least 3 times per episode; Dad beating up son (Exile) and so on – over, over and over again. Does someone think viewers are automatically stupid? In the case of Case Histories this was particularly annoying as far too many storylines were being crammed into a kind of superficial roundabout inbetween the repeated rehashes.
  • Perfect production values. Houses interior and exterior are perfect, as if in an upmarket magazine: Jackson Brodie; his client whose daughter has been killed; Mr Perfect Ipswich lawyer and wife; even the slightly more downmarket properties in Exile looked more like design museums than places in which real people exist: the impoverished animal activist in Injustice lived in a shack, true, but with stylish posters on his walls and in the middle of a very tastefully photographed field. Costumes, similarly, are beautified and over-perfect: even when people wear jeans, they are careful jeans.
  • Use of music to signify plot elements, or even not to signify anything but to obscure the dialogue. Case Histories in particular had lots of noisy music that seemed to jar with the plot and atmosphere.
  • Excellent acting, over and above the call of duty for these choppy, unevenly directed dramas. The actors are so much better than their material! This effect is exacerbated in cases where some talented, famous person is wheeled out for one scene, eg Imogen Stubbs in Injustice and Timothy West, reduced to a spluttering, dialogue-less blimp in his one main scene in Exile. The acting, like the production values, overwhelms the mediocrity of the plotting.
  • Boredom at the end. Throughout these series there are threads and story elements that seem to be building up to something – but by the final episode most of these are jettisoned mid-air in favour of some cod-action finale as if everyone concerned has just run out of steam or interest.

    Well, that’s about it for my rant. These three series were all “OK” but Case Histories should have either been longer or dropped at least one of the “histories” because what one ended up with was a confused mish-mash, if you hadn’t read the book, or an unsatisfactorily superficial precis of some really rather moving stories if you had. Injustice and Exile were both far too drawn-out for their slender material (Exile was almost entirely dependent for its impact on good acting) – they should have been half the length, each.
    All of these series could have been a lot more: Exile had a powerful theme about a man with Alzheimer’s disease and his relationship with his two adult children, all three played by superb actors. But it degenerated into a risibly and lazily “plotted” thriller. Injustice picked at some interesting themes about the prison system and the book publishing industry (with one or two nice little allusions for readers), and had some inventively repellant characters (including one who would easily win Worst Mother of the Year award) – but ended up with a plot twist that was so clunky and predictable as to be embarrassing, and a “punchline” that was not so much signalled but endlessly shown to the viewer beforehand to be sure there was absolutely no suspense whatsoever. Case Histories went for a mish-mash of styles and clichés over the individuality and substance provided in the source material that could have been imaginatively reworked into something a bit different for the visual medium.

    Oh well, I don’t suppose I shall be watching more contemporary TV for a while, but will stick to old series that have stood the test of a few or more years; or films that have similarly been well-received. Most of the time, of course, I shall be reading a book instead.

    [Images are, from the top, from Case Histories, Injustice and Exile]

    More about Exile, Case Histories and Injustice, including video trailers and excerpts, episode summaries and so on.