I was sent two documents today, both of them were treatments for TV series (a treatment is the initial pitch document, presented to commissioners and film companies) and they were professional, glossy and clever and really well written. They were sent to me in the hopes that I’d consider script editing one of the series as it went to the next stage of production. One was an unashamed rip-off of an American series that finished its run a couple of years ago, and one was a futuristic fantasy. The fantasy, with all its colour photos and clever imagery, its snappy ’30 second elevator pitch’ page…. well, I skimmed through that. Dr Who on speed. Not my sort of thing at all. Brash unbelievable characters, garish world, ludicrous fantasy. I cannot abide fantasy. That one was easy to delete from my screen. The second one grabbed my attention, and had more going for it.
But it didn’t hold me for long – it’s all about illegal drugs and every single character in it (and there’s a huge cast list) is involved in this trade, benefits from it and so goes on to murder, steal or scheme their way through every episode. I sat at my desk, with a sense of growing glumness (I was going to say ‘despair’ but that’s over-egging it) as I read plot twist after plot twist. It’s a clever, clever document, showing skill and imagination, presenting fully rounded characters, offering terrific moments of drama and surprise, and it has substance. It shouts ‘We’ve been to University and we’ve learned our lessons well’. It lacks only one thing – any degree or hint or consideration of morality.
A few years ago there was a very successful series called ‘Shameless’ in the UK. It made a huge impact, shining a light on the culture and lives of a deprived and neglected strata of our society. The premise was that out of their desperation and deprivation, defiance took the place of shame. The main character was feckless, idle, swearing, amoral, drunken and dirty. Crime was petty but constant, theft was commonplace, sexual appetites were gratified regardless of relationships or family… you get the drift. But somehow, the writer showed us the heart of the characters, we understood that the shamelessness was plugging the hole left by something precious, and that each of them deserved better, each life was unfulfilled. It was reflection of our uncaring society. It made a huge impact because it was the first time we had taken such a long and considered look at that seamy side of life. It was well conceived by a good writer, it asked a thousand questions, and it deserved to do so well.
But what was so shocking on our screens then, would be tame and unnoticed now. Then even the title ‘Shameless’ was startling, shocking. Now we don’t have any understanding of the word. We don’t even know what shame is any more. When you can turn on the TV in the late evening and see a parade of naked men being physically assessed by a naked woman…. there is no shame left.
Back to the treatment I read this morning – two clever youngish men had dreamed up a series glorifying and celebrating the illegal drug trade in rural Britain but there was no counterpoint to the drama. Victims were created and abandoned as the next plot twist came thundering towards the screen; there was no time for reflection, no understanding, no consequence, no central theme. Just amoral creatures stumbling through a broken landscape.
Maybe they thought they were writing another Sopranos, but Tony Soprano was a tortured conflicted man, a clash of ideals and beliefs. Watching him, we became aware of our own conflicts, watching him I found myself surprised that I could care about this psychopath and I had to question my reactions all the time, at every turn. Maybe they thought they were writing another Fargo, but Fargo has a strong central theme in every series, as a small and shabby little sin (just an unspoken wish in the first series) spirals into mayhem and murder and evil. Fargo explores morality, takes a long cold look at the amoral, shows the cost of evil. Maybe they thought they were writing Ozark, but Ozark is all about a man who takes a wrong turn in fear for his family and then plunges ever deeper, helplessly and hopelessly, into the chaos of evil. The treatment I read this morning had no central theme, just a lot of clever words. And clever is not enough when it comes to drama.
We are a society that demands to be entertained at all times. If I sit down in front of my TV I have a sense of entitlement , I scan the channels expecting to be fed something that will amuse or intrigue or terrify me. Streaming means that I can demand this entertainment 24 hours a day, and our commercial world responds by hurrying to gain my attention, my money, my loyalty. I know people of my age who put the telly on as soon as they get up, and there it sits all day, the terrestrial channels churning out garish sofa-shows, old sitcoms, rubbishy films that have never made it to peak-time, repeats, idiot quizzes, and cheap soaps until the evening. And then, on come the reality shows. Oh, those reality shows. Botox faces, fake tans, sexual innuendo, naked bodies… and a couple of years ago we crossed the line of live sex on terrestrial TV. Anything goes. Everything goes. If terrestrial channels bore us, we have all the streaming services, more of the same but usually more competently made, better – as they say – ‘production values’. It’s a real treat when there’s something worth watching.
I love TV drama. I’ve worked in that world for most of my adult life. But maybe we’ve reached saturation point. Maybe its time to say that we don’t need round-the-clock entertainment, that less truly could be more… more worthwhile, more thought provoking, more truthful. Maybe it’s time to take the production of drama out of the hands of the financiers and put it back into the hands of people who love drama. Drama is just one more commodity now, and like all commodities we debase it in the market place, we cut corners and hurry the production along, we replace good ingredients with cheaper ones, we pile ’em high, from dawn to dawn, never pausing.
And here’s a terrible thought….. while the money men decide what dramas will be made, and what programming will fill our hours, their morality will inform everything we watch. Their morality, these unseen men and women. Their morality will influence our youngsters. A few years ago I heard a TV exec say ‘We’ve gone past the good versus bad stories.’ But every story that’s worth telling is all about good versus bad. Of course good shouldn’t always win (in real life it doesn’t) and nor should there be spotless heroes and dyed-in-the-wool villains, but we need an ongoing exploration of what is good, what is bad, what is constructive, and what destroys us. It’s about the good in us warring with the bad, the pure struggling against the impure in every life, in every heart. It’s about us. Not them. Us. And because it’s about you and me, and because it helps us to understand our world and each other, we need good drama, not cheap dross. We need honesty, not sensation.
My old pal Isaiah knew what was what…. Isaiah 5:20
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Am I going to take the script editing job? What do you think? I wouldn’t touch it with a