04 January 2010

2009 in Television

I don't have a television. When we moved into our house a number of years ago we took the decision not to bring the television; we had been using an old Dell monitor that had a TV tuner which subsequently sat in a box unloved and untouched in a corner of our office for many months until we finally gave it away to some friends. We thought that it would be nice when arranging our furniture in the blank canvas of our front room not to have a television as the focal point, and it is.

We do, however, have a projector, and about six feet of blank white wall to serve as a screen. This works well, as unless it is switched on you never notice it. Unfortunately once you do switch it on the air of smug superiority that has been conferred upon you by house-guests marveling at your ability to function in this modern word without a television evaporates in the warm white glow that bathes the room reflected, as it is, off of six feet of blank white wall.

Still, the point of all this is that although technically we do have the ability to watch television programs, this ability is strongly curtailed by the level of ambient light in the room, for it is not a very powerful projector. Any amount of daylight creeping round the curtains reduces the viewing experience to one akin to watching a zebra race on a snowy day on a black and white TV with glaucoma, while wearing sun glasses. Thus in summer months the maximum viewing time available is normally no more than an hour or two on any given day, and despite a significant increase in the hours of darkness during winter we still seem to be able to tolerate no more than an hour or so of viewing on any given day.

Given these restricted hours and the fact that we tend to record programs for later viewing rather than watching anything live, you would imagine that my viewing choices would be a veritable cavalcade of documentaries, political exposés, hard-hitting journalistic investigations and other such worthy items. Sadly though, my television viewing tends to be pure escapism, for in truth I get enough righteous angst, wrath and ire from my reading, writing, breathing, talking, walking, fist-shaking, out-the-window-at-the-kids-in-the-street-shouting and other daily mundane actives ending in -ing. I like my sci-fi and I am happy to, as the Very Understanding Girlfriend says, reclaim the shame.

All of this is a rather roundabout way of prepping the scene to mention two rather good series that I watched this year, 'Being Human' on BBC3 and 'Misfits' on E4.

'Being Human' was a six-part series charting the relationships between a vampire, werewolf and ghost that all share a flat in Bristol. The vampire and werewolf just want to try and live normal lives and face a constant battle to overcome their inner natures, and the ghost tries to come to terms with her death and separation from her fiancee, who to add to her torment owns the flat they all live in and frequently pops round with his new girlfriend. Its not glamorous, its all a bit dingy and grotty, and does a far more believable job of portraying supernatural characters trying to preserve their humanity in the face of an existential and physical crises than comparable US dramas (True Blood being the most obvious comparison). It is also genuinely funny, but without the campy playing-to-the-fourth-wall of Buffy.

If 'Being Human' is the anti-'True Blood', then 'Misfits' is the anti-'Heroes'. Another six-parter, the series follows five juvenile delinquents coming to terms with having super-powers while working through court-ordered community service. The power each gains is a manifestation of their own base personality, the shy guy that nobody likes can turn invisible, the insecure girl can hear other people's thoughts etc, and the show is more about the development of their relationships with each other, and finding a new level of respect for themselves (oh, and hiding the bodies of a couple folks they murder). Shot in a style reminiscent of Charlie Brooker's excellent zombie/Big Brother mashup "Dead Set" its dark, graphic and very, very funny.

Apart from the strong writing, gritty realism and deft execution of intriguing ideas, what these two shows have in common are great performances from a number of talented Irish actors. Dublin-born Aidan Turner plays the vampire 'Mitchell' in 'Being Human', in which fellow Dubliner Sinead Keenan (most recently seen in the last two David Tennant episodes of 'Doctor Who') also has a recurring part, and arguably the central character in 'Misfits', the distinctly annoying Nathan, is brilliantly played by Portlaoise-born Robert Sheehan, the bastard offspring of Cillian Murphy and Tommy Tiernan.

In recent years much has been made of the British invasion of US TV shows, with British actors taking lead roles in everything from 'House' to "The Wire', but in almost all these cases they are forced to sublimate their national identity and adopt at times ridiculous Mid-Atlantic and other faux-American accents. In contrast Turner and Sheehan manage to revel in their Irishness, without it ever being used as a plot hook on which to hang a coat of Oirishness. This is a testament to both the strength of the writers and their own ability as actors.

The new series of 'Being Human' starts on January 10th on BBC Three, series one is available on DVD. Misfits is also available on DVD, a second series has been greenlit, but as of yet no air date has been released.

Ah, to think of how grumpy I would be without such escapist fantasy to sooth my troubled soul. I think the survivors would envy the dead.

As an aside if you are interested in television and other "cultural" imports from across the water, you really should check out Mr Tim's rather excellent pop culture blog, Inessentials. There may be a little too much 'Glee' for the average person's taste (as in, any 'Glee' is a little too much), but the writing is really spot on.

'Being Human' official website
'Misfits' official website

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