Friday, June 04, 2010

The Curse of Realism

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...


Frances Garrood said...

I haven't seen Luther, but I take your point, Tim. Reality would be far too dull to make good TV entertainment, hence, for example, nearly everyone in Coronation Street (my not very secret addiction) seems to have been to prison, there have been countless murders, all weddings go wrong etc. Where things do jar, is when writers get their facts wrong, which is quite different. Inaccuracy is far more annoying than coincidence or a superfluity of violent crime.

But I wonder whether the same can be said of nevels? Fantasy apart (aren't you lucky!) I do think they have to be more real, though I'm not quite sure why.

Unknown said...

I like Luther, but it is all the things you say. I just happen to like all the terrible dialogue and the hokey female psychopath and all that nonsense. At least it's honest. Be entertained! it shouts, and I've always taken that kind of instruction well.

Unknown said...

To add - reality, hmmm. You can get away with terrible dialogue and unbelievable characters on TV as long as your eyes are kept busy, I think. With a novel, the eyes are only ever going in one direction, so the other elements can't provide the smoke and mirrors so easily.

Tim Stretton said...

Frances, I'd never really thought it was different for novels, but when I tried to think of a counter-example I couldn't--so I think you're on to something. Aliya's explanation is convincing as to why it works that way.

(The nearest I can come to exception is someone like Evelyn Waugh: satires like "Scoop" or "The Loved One" are exaggerated and mannered takes on the societies they are describing).

Aliya, I don't think any other defence of Luther is possible. If the excesses of dialogue and characterisation were toned down, it would make the whole worse rather than better. And the hokey female psychopath is indeed fantastic!

David Isaak said...

Over the top on film has some virtues that aren't apparent when presented on the page.

One of the few enjoyable things (in my opinion, of course) about the movie TROY was Brian Cox as an absolutely massive Agamemnon--so far over the top you could no longer see the top from way up there. One critic said, "The Greeks didn't need to use that big horse to get inside Troy--they could have just let Brian Cox chew through the walls."

But if you wrote that same character in a book? No longer entertaining. Just silly.