There is just too much on TV to keep up with it all, especially when it comes to long-form drama, so how and when do you decide to stop watching something you thought was going to be a regular viewing fixture for yourself? In my first blog on this site, I mentioned that I had given up on The Handmaid’s Tale after 5 episodes, despite the positive reactions I had read from critics I greatly respect. Since then, it has won multiple Emmys, so did I get it wrong? I ask that question now because I am facing the same dilemma with another highly regarded piece – David Simon’s The Deuce (HBO), which reaches its 5th episode on Sky Atlantic tonight. It’s make or break time for me.
Like Handmaid, The Deuce started really impressively and had me hooked. In both cases, a very specific world was conjured onto the screen in magnificent detail. The Deuce was actually the more impressive in this regard, as the world it was creating was a real place at a real historical time (New York in the early 1970s). And, unlike Handmaid, The Deuce quickly established strong and recognisable characters to populate this world. But then it stalled, as though it had already done enough. One of the great attractions of modern TV drama to talented writers and directors, it is often said, is the scope for creating characters with great depth and developing them over a long period of time. This is certainly true. Establishing complex characters quickly was always a rare gift in both film and TV (Jimmy McGovern can do it – so can Sally Wainwright), but the long form also gives the opportunity to withhold information about characters and surprise the audience with it at a later stage. But it does seem that, in many series, this has now become the main purpose, at the expense of plot dynamic and development – and it’s not enough to keep me watching, especially when there is so much other wonderful stuff, both past and present, clamouring for attention.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have happily followed many series primarily because of engagement with the characters. I never missed an episode of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue. These, though, could be relied upon to provide constantly engaging and occasionally startling narratives and, as dramas with contemporary settings, had scope for re-invention. And, although they had their high points, those series never failed to deliver, even when past their best – unlike, say, Homeland, another series I have watched throughout, despite several very rocky seasons until its more recent revival (I thought the last season, dealing with the Presidential transition, was the best since the brilliant first season – maybe even better than it).
One crucial aspect seems to me to be whether a series has an end in sight or whether it simply intends to continue until either its creators feel it can go no further or its audience wearies of it. If the latter, then it needs to be constantly refreshing itself – if the former, then it needs to maintain a high-level of engagement, as, for instance, Breaking Bad did. I would imagine The Handmaid’s Tale has an end in sight, as it is based on a novel which has already been made into a film for the cinema, so extending it beyond this series was one of the reasons I gave up, but maybe I will need to go back to it if it completes a satisfactory journey over a number of seasons and continues in high critical regard. The Deuce, on the other hand, looks set for a long haul without necessarily knowing where it is going. This approach strikes me as similar to the way Dickens created his novels (and I’m not – I have to confess – a massive Dickens fan). A series which has its origins in a novel (or a series of novels) does not necessarily have to keep the end of the novel in sight, though. Game of Thrones has adapted new novels in the series as George R.R.Martin has written them. Much the same is happening on a smaller scale with Wolf Hall (and we already KNOW how that will end!). Most interestingly, The Leftovers adapted Tom Perrotta’s complete novel in its first season, with the novelist as co-screenwriter, and continued and completed the story this way in seasons 2 and 3, but without any further novels appearing.
So, how can you tell what will be worth following and what to give up on? Well, you can’t for certain, and that’s the point and part of the fun – not knowing if it will be good or bad, as well as not knowing if the ending, if there is to be one, will be happy or sad or something in-between. The question you ask yourself is: “Is this a place I want to stay in?”. In the days before the introduction of the story arc, this was easier, though the engagement factor with individual episodes was an important consideration. I have made plenty of errors, particularly with The Sopranos, though the scope which now exists for revisiting and redeeming those mistakes makes them easier to make, and I’m really looking forward to redeeming that particular error. On the other hand, I think I got it right when I gave up on Boardwalk Empire, though that took me into the second season before I realised how essentially hollow it was.
So far, I have been talking mostly about American series, but is this a mainly American thing? It certainly used to be, but the model has been creeping into British TV for some considerable time now. The British drama model used to rely more on what are now called mini-series (i.e. single series dramas with a contained plot) rather than returning ones. But you always knew which were intended to be which. Nowadays, the influence of the American model means that what would previously have been a single series drama may well return, if either the writer hopes to extend it or the broadcaster wants more of something that has been a big hit. The use of the singular “writer” is key here, because the British TV tradition of the writer working alone on a series is still the usual pattern (though there are exceptions), but it is not best suited to the American model. As a result, I think there have been more failures than successes.
Exhibit A is Broadchurch, which I would remember as one of ITV’s great recent dramas if it had ended where it should have, after what became the first season. But a series which is both a major commercial and critical success is something TV cannot resist trying to replicate, and I was so disappointed by the way the second season stretched credibility in order to perpetuate itself, that I gave up on it. I made it all the way through the second season of The Fall (BBC2), which I thought was excellent until the final seconds of the final episode but the lack of a conclusive ending and the subsequent attempt to stretch it further so alienated me that I resolved to avoid the third season. Did anybody watch it? Was it any good? There have been some successes, though: Happy Valley came back just as strong for its second season and Peaky Blinders found the missing ingredient that Boardwalk Empire lacked.
So, it’s back to David Simon. The Wire achieved greatness by making each season distinctive – like each one was a mini-series of its own. Treme was good (and had terrific music performances) but ultimately became somewhat aimless. Show Me a Hero was a wonderful mini-series, which managed to make housing policy in Yonkers in the eighties gripping over 6 episodes. Which way will The Deuce go?