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40 minutes of happiness

I’ve spent this evening so far doing one of my favourite things; watching Buffy. I can’t believe I’ve never blogged about Buffy. It is so good. I used to be embarrassed about loving Buffy so much, but now I don’t care. I was just discussing with some friends the unique feeling of happiness you get from a great DVD box set. It’s the feeling, when you sit down in front of your chosen episode of whatever it is – West Wing, Mad Men, or in my case Buffy – that for the next 40 minutes you are going to be completely happy. How often can you say that?

The episode I just saw was entitled New Moon Rising (season 4). I won’t rehash the plot to avoid spoilers or sending non-Buffy fans to sleep. Suffice it to say that it opens with Buffy’s new boyfriend, clean-cut Riley, being shocked that one of Buffy’s friends was involved romantically with a werewolf (bear with me). Buffy is furious at him for being so bigoted. Fifteen minutes later, Buffy has a shock of her own when Willow reveals she’s having a romance with Tara (another girl).

That’s just one of the storylines in this episode: they raise questions about themes like when to quit an organisation you know is corrupt, the impossibility of ever erasing the past when it comes to relationships … it’s so good! And funny! And well acted! And the music – they scored each and every episode with about 20-30 minutes of original music, using real instruments and unsigned bands. Each episode is basically a 40-minute movie, except the one that’s a musical – as true fans know, there is an episode called ‘Once More With Feeling’ where they all sing instead of having dialogue.

This is an interesting article in Prospect magazine about the superiority of US drama over UK output. I think most people would acknowledge that there is nothing on BBC to rival Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Sex and the City, The Wire, The Sopranos … If Shakespeare were alive today, I have no doubt that they would be writing for TV drama, and in the US not the UK. There are occasionally good comedy shows, like Peep Show and The Office, but when it comes to drama there’s no comparison. There are lots of reasons for this, and the article explores them, but one reason that might seem too obvious for him to raise is what I’d call fear of quality.

I observed this while working for a publishing company (which shall remain nameless). The understanding was that you couldn’t sufficiently underestimate readers’ and book buyers’ intelligence, that quality was more or less irrelevant to success, and that in some cases it was a hindrance. That was a commercial company, but for BBC’s drama executives to think like this, as they seem to, is a disgrace. Companies like HBO succeed by making shows of very high quality, and trusting audiences to appreciate it. I wish the BBC would consider this when it plans its drama (and when it pockets my licence fee, but that’s a whole other rant).

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