Sequelitis: a dramatic affliction

All depends on plot quality - a tall order. Even the redoubtable French policier, “Spiral”, has to keep raising the stakes, personally, politically and criminally, to justify successive outings.

David Elstein
15 October 2015

Inter title of British tv series. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved. No sooner had the latest Channel 4 Sunday night drama serial, “Humans”, captured one of the largest audience shares for drama the broadcaster has enjoyed for many years than the rumours of a sequel started to spread. Sure enough, before number seven of the eight episodes had aired, a re-order was confirmed. Perhaps equally predictably, the quality of episode eight plummeted, as enough loose ends were left unresolved to pull in the potential returning viewers (but also enough to drive away those who felt this artificial process had gutted much of the dramatic tension so carefully developed over the run of the show).

This is a shame. Thanks to some nifty casting and contact lenses (allowing the “synthetics” to look human, whilst for the most part behaving robotically), and a handful of promising story-lines, “Humans” (adapted from what sounds like a more complex Swedish original of which two seasons have already been broadcast) tapped fortuitously into a current anxiety, voiced (if that is the right word) by Stephen Hawking, about the dangers of allowing IT to create robots who will want to take control (think HAL in Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece,  “2001: A Space Odyssey)”. The synthetics are another version of the replicants in “Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott’s 1982 film version of a Philip K. Dick story). Sensibly, David Ely, in his brilliant 1992 novella “A Journal of the Flood Year” had the sense to make his futuristic robots non-humanoid, even if that means no beautiful temptresses like Alicia (“Ex Machina”) Vikander.

If I had a frisson of anxiety about the fact that the Swedish evil genius robot designer David Eischer had been converted into David Elster (!) by the British producers, I suppressed it, and enjoyed watching the different characters and various intrigues develop. All the more disappointing, then, when the writing, directing and plot finally ran flat in the final episode: we even had a virtual “tree of life” (perhaps a nod to 1985’s “Edge of Darkness” by Troy Kennedy Martin) round which the synthetics gathered in their search for consciousness. (A far more intelligent nod had been in the opening titles, which might have been lifted whole from an Adam Curtis documentary series).

“Humans” also suffered from co-production-itis, requiring a US “name” star to justify the input from US cable operator AMC (they of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”). Enter William Hurt, as a character who, in the Swedish original, was the father of the lead female in the family at the core of the story. His accent (I assume) rendered that impossible in the re-make, so a crucial narrative link was lost. As Hurt’s character did not survive series 1, another network-acceptable star will presumably be recruited for series 2. I was mildly intrigued by most of the first season. I won’t be there for the second.

The Sky Atlantic drama “Fortitude” had its entire £25 million budget under-written by Sky itself (reportedly after co-production talks broke down), but still cast an excellent American actor, Stanley Tucci, as a Scotland Yard detective (!). This ambitious 10-part series has been sold to many countries, and attracted a decent audience, by Sky standards. But its Arctic Circle setting and its splendid snow-bound vistas soon palled, too many characters were interchangeable, the plot dragged, and the title aptly described what the audience needed to stay with the show. The ostensible star of the production, Christopher Eccleston, was dead by the end of episode one (good career move) and Tucci was bumped off before the end, but Sofie Grabol from “The Killing” survived for series 2. I felt sorry for her. I won’t be watching. 


Titlecard. Wikicommons. Some right reserved.Sequelitis is a disease peculiar to that drama genre known as mini-series: a production typically running four to eight hours, distinguishable from drama series that are designed to return, season after season, for as long as the writers can keep up standards (or audiences keep up interest). There is sometimes a blurring of the lines: each series of “Prime Suspect” was a “standalone” single story, but the character of Jane Tennison returned repeatedly (though not annually): Lynda LaPlante’s brilliant creation (superbly brought to life by Helen Mirren) was simply too good for ITV to let it go, just like that. The BBC’s “Line of Duty” may follow a similar path: series 2 was a big step up from series 1, and two further seasons have been commissioned. Fingers crossed: the lead investigators into police corruption in “Line of Duty” are nowhere near as compelling as Jane Tennison.

Oddly, when “Downton Abbey” won an Emmy in the US, it was not for best drama series, but for best limited series (the US broadcaster had re-packaged the ITV show to meet the definition of what used to be called a mini-series, even though subsequent seasons, following chronologically, were already in the pipeline). For the most part, though, it is easy to tell the difference between an open-ended format (like “The Good Wife” or “The Sopranos”) and a closed story-line. Even “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, with their definable time-spans across multiple seasons, were clearly drama series proper, not “limited” series. “True Detective” tries a different trick – none of the characters from season 1 returned for season 2: just the creator/writer, Nic Pizzolatto. Talk about hubris.

Recently, though, the temptation to re-commission series that started out as “limited” has proved irresistible for broadcasters searching for those elusive “hits”. Arguably, BBC2’s “The Fall” always had a second series implicit in its first 5-hour run: but that second series dragged perceptibly, not because writer Allan Cubitt had replaced the original director (he actually did rather well), but because the material was stretched too thin. Annoyingly, the final scene was left open-ended, allowing a third series to be announced. Despite the quality of the show, I will not be there to find out what happens to Gillian Anderson and the (not dead yet) Jamie Dornan. Enough already.

“Broadchurch” – a closed story, rather well, if slowly, told – attracted too large an audience for ITV to let it go. After all, why waste characters so carefully drawn, or such hard-won viewer loyalty? Yet “Broadchurch 2” was an almost complete bust, dramatically: the original “solved” crime fell apart in court, whilst the detectives tried to solve a previously unsolved murder, aided by the fortuitous (or absurd) arrival in Broadchurch of key suspects. That said, the audience hung in there, and “Broadchurch 3” will duly arrive: perhaps now “solving” the series 1 crime, and “unsolving” the series 2 crime. I won’t be there.

Harder to understand is the BBC’s re-commissioning of “The Missing”: one of the most wilfully mis-titled dramas it has shown in recent years. Over an interminable eight episodes, the plot meandered on, before resolving as a shaggy-dog story: the “missing” child had not been stolen (unlike the other children in the French crime poster, none of whose details we ever learned) – he had been hit by a drunk driver (the husband of the woman in whose French hotel our miserable couple, James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor, had been staying), and then disposed of (or perhaps not) by the criminal connections of the drunk’s brother, who just happened to be the town mayor, and so part of the thwarted investigation of the “kidnapping”. In the final episode, so many timescales were jumbled together that even the most attentive of viewers would have been bewildered by all the changes of hairstyle, clothing and facial expressions of the principals. At the end, we see the obsessed father struggling through snow in remote Russian villages, knocking on the doors of bewildered residents, searching for his (now grown-up) long-lost child. I felt sorry for the Russians. “Missing 2” is in the works: I will be missing it (or not, if you see what I mean).

“Happy Valley” – a promising BBC drama starring Sarah Lancaster as a policewoman – will be back. I may try it. So – no doubt – will be ITV’s much less successful “Black Work”, starring the watchable Sheridan Smith as, yes, a policewoman. The latter show was typical summer fare, a plot with too many holes and a predictable villain (not the shouty and aggressive police colleague – too obvious – but the calm and controlled one), requiring a series of implausible leaps to deliver its pay-off scene of the three children of the cop who was murdered before the story starts, playing together as their three different mothers watch. I felt sorry for the excellent director, Michael Samuels, trying to make sense of this. I won’t be back for series 2 (neither, I suspect, will he).

Series 1 Danish poster. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Series 1 Danish poster. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Even the Scandinavians are not immune to sequelitis. After the acclaim for “The Killing”, along came “The Killing 2” and “The Killing 3”, each a little less impressive than the original; likewise, “The Bridge 2” was even more far-fetched than “The Bridge 1”. The first “Borgen” was better than its successors. Even the unusual family drama “Legacy” has not been allowed to rest on its laurels. Part of the problem is that the audience learns about the characters, piece by piece, as the first series unfolds – and thereafter, we know all that (and left-field surprises will be counter-productive), so all depends upon the quality of the plot. That is a tall order. Even the redoubtable French policier, “Spiral”, has to keep raising the stakes, personally, politically and criminally, to justify successive outings. So far it has managed, even if the last series saw the male lead accidentally murdered (perhaps the actor, Gregory Fitoussi, felt the need to join other series, such as the tedious ITV drama, “Mr Selfridge”, and the US production “American Odyssey” – which failed to make it to season 2).

Best of all the dramas this year has been “The Affair”, brilliantly scripted by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, the creators of “In Treatment”, starring Gabriel Byrne. The new show has two Brits playing the leads – Dominic West, of “The Wire” fame, and Ruth Wilson, who gives a Golden Globe-winning performance. The design of the show – alternating the story between the two principals, sometimes having their “versions” clashing jarringly, against a background of a mysterious death being investigated “True Detective”-style by a stony-faced policeman – is surprisingly effective. The titles music – “Container”, written and sung by Fiona Apple – must be the bleakest ever devised.

Much too late, I learned that series 2 had been commissioned. The promised resolution of the mystery was postponed as a series of plot jumps grabbed the attention. I can just about persuade myself that, like “The Fall 2”, this is not a sequel; rather, that the story has been split into two parts, so justifying returning for season 2. But if they announce season 3, I’ll be out of here. These are meant to be limited series, telling a self-contained story. Please!

Television release poster. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Television release poster. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

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