::Acquired Taste is enjoying some downtime. For various reasons my creative energies are somewhat depleted, and rather than flogging a comatose horse, I'm allowing myself the indulgence of following football's ("soccer", for US readers*) World Cup.
A football tournament a month long has something in common with the great baggy novels of the 19th century: epic duration, dozens of individual stories woven into a wider narrative, unlikely heroes and predictable villains, triumph but also hubris and despair. Like all extended narratives, it also has its longeurs (as anyone who watched Slovenia vs Algeria on Sunday will attest).
A novel cannot fully be understood until it's read: in Bleak House the reader will be following with interest the stories of Esther Summerson and Lady Dedlock, but not realising how their destinies are linked until the end. The World Cup is similarly opaque until it's over, and we look back and reinterpret the preceding events in hindsight: in 2006, the ageing Zidane drags a woeful French team all the way to the final; with ten minutes of his stellar career remaining, he erupts into rage and charges into the gadfly Materazzi with his head, and France crumble to defeat. For an extended period the best footballer on the planet, Zidane is remembered instead for his inexplicable transgression. A complex man, he'd make a great character in fiction.
Where the World Cup differs from, say, Bleak House, is that whatever pattern we subsequently impose is not the result of conscious design: a football tournament does not have an "author". That's part of its appeal: in a novel, we expect major events to have been foreshadowed, and to be able to admire the pattern once we perceive it; in sport, we never know whether there will a pattern. In the 1994 World Cup, the veteran Baresi recovered from a knee operation to be fit for final, but the spectator doesn't know whether he will be the hero or the villain. There is to be no happy ending: in the penalty shoot-out with Brazil he is the first to miss; and Baggio, Italy's star player, misses the last one. We don't know until the end whether we have been watching a tragedy or a comedy.
The 2010 World Cup has failed to ignite yet, but we can be sure that, because of the structure of the tournament, drama will follow. While a World Cup scripted by Dickens would undoubtedly be entertaining (if only for Mick McCarthy trying to get his lips around "Pumblechook"), the spontaneity is what keeps us watching.
*Those following the competition will know that I'm in no position to patronise American fans after England's unutterably feeble draw with the US on Saturday.
Why TV cop shows aren't meant to tell it like it is
UK viewers may in recent weeks have caught the new BBC police drama Luther, starring Idris Elba (the magnetic Stringer Bell in The Wire). It's fair to say Luther has garnered mixed reviews. Its critics say it's formulaic, overacted, overheated, cliche-ridden, with dialogue verging on the self-parodic. Its fans, by contrast, say it's formulaic, overacted, overheated, cliche-ridden, with dialogue verging on the self-parodic. That's the odd thing about Luther: everyone sees the same qualities in the programme, but what enrages some viewers enraptures others.
I confess to liking Luther a lot: it's one of the few programmes that I make a point of watching. I thought the first episode was dire, and it wasn't until the second that I understood what it was trying to achieve. The overripeness is at the core of the delight. Elba may not actually chew the scenery, but on more than one occasion he demolishes it; he rants his lines, swaggers across the sets as he plays the stereotypical cop with issues for all it's worth. Elba's performance isn't because he can't act: if you've seen The Wire, you'll remember how extraordinarily understated his Baltimore drug-lord is. The glory of Luther is that it doesn't pretend for a minute to be realistic; instead, it's half opera, half graphic novel, but with high production values and a classy cast.
Criticism seems to come largely from those who view 'realism' as a merit in itself, rather than artistic choice. All cop shows--all TV shows--are by their nature artificial. They are a representation of life, not life itself. On TV, cases are solved, justice (whether actual or poetic) is dispensed, and no-one ever has any paperwork. The criminal justice system does not deliver such unequivocal outcomes.
Luther has recognised and embraced this. It manages at once to parody the formula cop show and itself. And while you're enjoying it being hip and self-referential, it sneakily makes you care about the characters: the wholly unexpected death of one of the major players in this week's penultimate episode was as shocking a TV moment as I can remember.
Luther reminds us of two things: true realism is neither achievable nor desirable in art; and you should only judge an artistic endeavour in terms of what the artist is trying to achieve, not what the recipient thinks it should be.
If anyone else has been watching Luther, tell me what you think - particularly if you hated it...