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.

  • 26 thoughts on “Unwritten rules of TV thrillers

    1. Maxine – Oh, what a wonderful post! You are so right about those unwritten rules. I found myself alternatively nodding my head and laughing because you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head so well. Perhaps today’s TV produces think that since they’ve found a formula that brings in money, there is no need to adapt it, to add anything intriguing, etc..

      I’m glad you mentioned the actors, too. I agree that lots of times, the actors are better than the material and context they’re given. Reason #18 for which I read much, much more often than I watch TV.

    2. Awesome rant. ; )

      I rarely watch TV anymore, even though I love crime fiction/mysteries, and I am surprised when someone says a series is good. There *are* some good ones — Wallender, No. 1 Ladies’ — but they are few and far between, and rarely in the 60-minute format. I was enjoying The Killing until they took it off the Internet — missed a couple episodes and have no way to catch up. Oh well.

    3. Well, Karen, take my advice and don’t read the upcoming “novelizations” of The Killing but wait till the whole thing is cheap on DVD 😉

      Thanks Margot and Karen for the support – I rarely watch TV either and now I know why! Will stick to classic BBC dramas in future, they are much more bearable 😉 (eg Bleak House).

    4. Despite watching too much TV I’ve managed to miss all of these. My own favourite unwritten rule though applies to one off mysteries (Midsomer, Frost, Morse etc) is that the best know actor did it. If you can spot them from the opening creidts it saves needing to pay too much attention to the story. Never understood why TV companies haven’t wised up to this to keep the audience guessing.

      • that’s a very good point about the best-known actor, suzigun, I can’t write more because of spoilers in these cases described here 😉

    5. Ha, I read Suzigun´s comment which made me really happy that I recognize so few actors 🙂

      I agree that nine times out of ten the book is much better company. Nevertheless I bought a couple of DVDs recently, but some of them were old Wycliffes which I know I´ll enjoy, partly for the setting. The others were Vera Stanhope. Not perfect, but in the middle of so much exam work a TV series makes a nice change. There was quite a bit of running about in the first episode, though.

    6. Great rant, and so true too – though I haven’t seen the shows you’ve mentioned specifically but have seen others of a similar ilk.

      I’ve recently been watching the old Prime Suspect tv shows with Helen Mirren (bought myself the box set on DVD as it was cheap) and as I watched number 5 the other night I couldn’t help but think how bloody good it was and mostly because it has the opposite of the things you describe here – the people’s houses look like normal houses, the people themselves look normal too, there’s no continual repeating of basic plot points (indeed if one doesn’t pay attention one may need to rewind a bit – which is as it should be). And no gratuitous running 🙂 I have turned into my father but will say “they don’t make ’em like they used to”.

      At least the UK-made shows have decent acting though – a lot of the American-made ones don’t even have that.

    7. Ugh, Maxine, the novelizations don’t even tempt me. I’ll stick to crime fiction blogs!

      Bernadette, I tried a Prime Suspect not long ago and couldn’t get into it. Maybe I’ll try again, though.

    8. I have seen some excellent several-part thrillers in dvd format from the BBC over the past year or so. The casts were stellar, the stories riveting. Just saw “Five Days,” a BBC/HBO thriller in five one-hour episodes. And have seen two six-part series with one-hour episodes from the BBC, one about a murder and the nuclear power industry. The other was about a team of journalists who figured out how a young woman fell to her death under a train. This was fast-paced and fascinating, with a terrific cast.
      Yes. The BBC mysteries are usually better than the shows churned out in the U.S.
      I agree on Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren; great series. She is unsurpassable. She was the character.
      NBC in the U.S. is remaking this series with Mario Bello as the character based on Mirren’s role. I wonder how this will work out.
      I rarely watch U.S. weekly forensics, crime or other thriller shows. They are nowhere as good as BBC productions. HBO does some good shows sometimes.

    9. correction: Maria Bello is starring in the U.S./NBC series based on Prime Suspect and Helen Mirren’s role.

    10. Kathy – I only saw Maria Bello in one movie (that also had Viggo Mortensen in it, could be the reason 😉 ) but she was very good and I can imagine her in that Jane Tennison role.
      Bernadette, yes, I bought that same cheap dvd set of prime suspect too, a couple of years ago, but have not watched it yet. I agree that the first couple of series which I saw ages ago were good, but I haven’t seen the rest.

      I just think they make most TV programmes for people who aren’t actually fully engaged in watching them but have them on as background and/or while they are doing something else. Hence the constant “repeat motifs” just to keep everyone up to speed, and the slow pace. However, this does not work when you are viewing using “catch up” (i player etc) or DVD etc, it just makes everything seem so s–l—o—w.

      I remember Ruth Rendell and P D James recently talking about their series, and how they never watch the TV versions – one of them said “they always put in a car crash, whatever the plot” Exactly – as if a car crash would make something exciting that wasn’t previously — and such a novel idea, too 😉

    11. Spot on, Maxine 🙂 Will be watching Case Histories tonight with an extra critical eye. Oddly enough, even though I agree with everything you’ve said, I do still want to watch (and not just – ahem – due to Mr. Isaacs). Something about putting my feet up in front of the telly that is a necessary part of decompression from work, and nine times out of ten, it has to be crime. By the way, watched Wallander last night – The Thief – and thought it the best episode in series 2 so far.

    12. Maxine we seem to have a lot of new crime dramas recently, some good, some decent and some that should have been left on the cutting room floor. I think you’re right, there are unwritten rules. They also apply to other contemporary series too, it seems to me, especially the one where everyone has to have a palatial home, unless they’re in the dock in court. (Applies to any legal series e.g.)
      I am enjoying Case Histories but I am not familiar with the novels – I gave up on the first one when it came out – so it’s purely TV drama for me. And like Mrs P, I find that Isaacs is a bonus. But it will be one for iplayer next weekend yet again, due to my current activities. Oh well, back to the domestic chores for now…

    13. When I watch U.S. crime dramas in the main, I often read the NYT, do the puzzle or pay bills. Most of them are NOT interesting enough for full attention.
      I do not do this while watching BBC mysteries — not with the several-part crime series stories like “Five Days,” nor with the various inspector shows — Lewis, Foyle, etc.

      • I too have no objection to Mr Isaacs, Mrs P and CFR 😉 . Very little objection indeed, especially as he does not have his blond Malfoy mane on.
        I am sure that my rules probably do apply to TV in general, but I never watch it and have not for about 25 years – I only watch the odd crime drama or classic serial (ideally via DVD). I love those Dickens, Austen etc adaptations.
        (of course, I do half-watch the odd football match and have had my share of catching glimpses of “kids’ ” programmes while dashing in and out of the room, over the years).

    14. I started and stopped watching my recording of episode 3 of Case Histories [based on another book] and when/ if ever I get back to it and they show the scene where Brodie’s sister is dragged out of the water once more I will erase the recording. This sort of production is just so insulting to the viewer, no we haven’t forgotten, we get the message. If the story has to be padded to this extent it is not worth adapting for TV.
      I note ITV are putting on a version of “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” with Miss Marple inserted into the plot. Sad really that someone gets paid big bucks for producing this stuff.

    15. Totally agree Norman. They’ve completely changed the whole ethos of the book anyway, with Julia angsting over Brodie whereas of course it was the other way round in the books, and adding in all that plot about the daughter going to NZ when that happened in the very long gap between the first books – hence no room for the great Gloria plot (the car crash was so silly in the TV movie compared with the juxtaposition with theatre queue in the book) and lots more shots of that girl/river as you say ..ghastly. As usual, acting was good – Keith Allen enjoyed his part!

    16. I am amazed that you two remember the Case Histories plot so well, maybe because you just saw it on TV. I don’t remember the book, although I do know what was in Atkinson’s recent book.
      The 13th episode of the U.S. The Killing was quite good, better than prior episodes. The actress is stellar, actually the whole cast is superb.

      • Thanks, Kathy. (The second two-parter was a complete travesty of One Good Turn, I am afraid, as it turned out, eg completely reversing the Jackson-Julia dynamics and glossing over all the plot elements in favour of an added-on pointless subplot “daughter goes missing cue more Jackson memories of running through woods as a boy/sister in river”….scream.)

    17. How wonderfully clever you are ! And how wise to let it “mature into something that many people think is good”. What a lovely way to assess the quality of something – to base it on other people’s opinions – never thought of that. So sorry I don’t have the sophisticated analytical ability to do the same. And how sad that I simply enjoyed ‘Cas Histories’ for it’s entertainment value ?

      • Joe – not clever, just that I prefer a filter rather than to watch lots of dross and waste my time, in order to see something good. Glad you enjoyed Case Histories – sorry that you write this makes you “sad” ;-), I know several people who did enjoy it and several who did not – just a matter of taste.

    18. Maxine, your “filter” went awry when you replied to Joe. His sarcasm was quite apparent to me, maybe because I agreed with him. He was more polite than me and did not point out that you are a snob about “taste”.
      I do occasionally think that TV adaptations of favourite books are not quite as I envisioned them, but can still enjoy the results of the hard work put in by the actors and team who produce these programmes for us to view.
      I am a keen reader and have made a list of the books the recent series’ were based on. I do not have time to trawl through the shelves in the books shops to find authors who are new to me, so these TV adaptions are a useful way to find them. I discovered the Cadfael stories through TV and have reread them quite a few times!
      I look forward to reading about Vera, Jackson etc.

    19. Amy, I was aware that Joe was being sarcastic!
      My post was about tedious cliches in TV shows, not about whether or not they are like the book they are adapted from, if they are adapted from a book (which two out of the three discussed in my post were not). Hence most of what you write does not follow on from the post it comments on.

    20. I lost int I lost interest in this week’s episode of CH, partly because I couldn’t hear the dialogue – a combination of poor diction and the background music. Do others have this problem? Zen was the same. The lead character spoke with a boiled sweet in his mouth.

      • I certainly found the music intrusive and inappropriate in Case Histories, Jonathan. Andrew Davies recently wrote about how he finds “music signposting” annoying in the dramas whose scripts he writes – he cited the scene in South Riding when they do the interviews for the headmistress’s job.

    21. Agree with reservations about repetitive scenes in Case Histoires, but otherwise I won’t hear a word said against it. Riveting, believable and even heart-warming.; much more polished and believable than the strange Wallander, full of oddities and inconsistencies. As for Spiral, which we’ve been watching on dvd, it simply doesn’t compare with any aspect of Case Histories, despite being French – it’s almost as poor as Zen, but not quite.

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