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The Shadow Line – Episode 1


I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.

Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?

Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.

I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.

Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.

In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.

The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.

The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.

At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.

It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.

These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.

The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.

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Zodiac


Today I rejoiced in the death of summer. Like a smug old miser I strutted contentedly amongst the pug faced, mourning proles, at once detached from and amused by their sodden gripes and moans. The streets were pelted a gloomy grey and everyone lamented the arrival of the dreary and the damp. I on the other hand basked in the murk and inhaled the invigorating moisture of decay. I smiled at the amber dying leaves on the trees through wet windows clustered with restless droplets. I watched the drones as they collided with other droids in the street and promised to meet up, both equally delighted at any sort of forthcoming event to disrupt the bleak routine, and felt satisfied with my own ongoing, indefinite ok-ness, which was somehow above the desperate need for meaning so evident here in their drizzle beaten faces. I would enjoy the death throes of autumn as they confined the summer to the past and await the renewal.

I suspect that this sort of contented and acceptable lonely misery is but a few misplaced steps from disaster. It’s not natural or healthy to find comfort in a puddle, joy in soaked litter or amusement in swaying, torturous supermarket queues. But such are the pitfalls of isolation and having too much time on your hands. Before you know it you’ll be getting such weird fulfilling highs and exciting kicks out of misery that you’ll be actively seeking out other people’s or worse dabbling in a little sadness creation.

So perhaps serial killers simply have too much time on their hands and so do the hacks that get fascinated by their exploits, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s 2007 “lightly fictionalised” film Zodiac, of the Californian murders. Fincher’s latest project will star rising Brit Andrew Garfield and is a largely factual account about the creation of social networking site Facebook and the odd personalities behind it. Similarly Zodiac treads the ground of a true story and follows a number of insular, eccentric and withdrawn individuals who become consumed by the case and the need to break the code left repeatedly by the killer as the key to his identity. Indeed at times the film feels like a fly on the wall documentary following the investigation, flipping between various angles such as the police department and the journalists captivated by letters sent to their papers. The period detail is vividly executed and both Fincher’s direction and James Vanderbilt’s script must be praised for a striking realism. However the sizeable chunk of the movie that deals with the years in which the murders themselves takes place flashes by without focus, jumping rapidly through weeks, months and then years at a time, never quite deciding whether or not to follow the progress of the detective, the reporters or Gyllenhaal’s awkward, gifted cartoonist.

The disjointed nature of the first half of the film may not be Fincher or the script’s fault, as it may simply reflect events. The fact remains though that once Graysmith the cartoonist becomes properly fixated on the case the story is anchored and becomes far more engaging. During the first half of the movie Gyllenhaal’s character is introduced but then quickly becomes a periphery figure, only for him to become the much needed focus later on, with better opportunities for character development. Graysmith’s obsession drives a wedge between himself and his family, as he dredges up the past during a time when the Zodiac killer is not even active. He begins to piece together bits of the puzzle, bits the audience has already seen in the frenetic fast moving first segment of the movie. The film’s actors such as Mark Ruffalo, who plays his detective in a brilliant Columbo style, finally get the chance to act rather than simply move through events as Graysmith confronts them and tries to get them to confront their failures in the past investigation and to convince them of the importance of resolving the case. Robert Downey Jr also shines in this section after regressing to a failed drunkard from high flying crime reporter. If Fincher’s new Facebook biopic is as good as early reviews say then it is likely it follows the more focused approach of the latter part of Zodiac, as opposed to its wide ranging opening.

That is not to say there are not a number of good points about the first half of Zodiac, simply that it could have been better with clearer structure and better pacing. As I’ve said the film is always lovingly shot and the period sensually evoked, right down to the ear splitting rings of the telephones during high points of the crisis. There is also a piece of dialogue between police offers from different States over the phone that is at once humorous and sickeningly frustrating, as bureaucratic barriers and petty rivalry block an easy coordinated approach to handling the evidence. Mark Ruffalo’s Columbo lookalike Detective also forms a partnership with fellow investigator Anthony Edwards that is genuine and funny at times and makes the audience care, but sadly the film neither dwells on this relationship long enough for it become truly significant, whilst also lingering too long to damage the rest of the narrative.

The murder scenes themselves are perhaps not surprisingly some of the most gripping in the film and you sense Fincher had more creative freedom whilst shooting them, obviously due to the fact that these sequences had to be more “fictionalised” than others. The first murder is tense and creepy, with sexual undertones hinting at the killer’s motivation. The scene in which the killer kidnaps a mother and baby is distressing and chilling, with suspense hanging thick in the air. Not because you don’t know it’s the killer, the discrete camera angles and suspicious behaviour make this obvious, but because his reaction to the presence of the baby is surprising and what he does will prove just what a monster he is or not. Perhaps the most brazen murder and the one that truly kick-starts the investigation, the shooting of the cab driver in San Francisco, is filmed with a visual flourish reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto the computer game. Fincher has the camera follow the cab from a bird’s eye view as it passes through the bustle of the city, as the player views their vehicle in the early GTA games, with radio music blaring out and then interrupted abruptly by gunshots, and the slow motion splash of blood, followed by children’s screams and a 911 call.

All in all there is no doubt that Zodiac is a well made film full of decent performances and given the sensitive subject matter it was perhaps more important that it presents an accurate factual record than an entertaining story. However those looking forward to Fincher’s new fact based film will hope it pulls of the feat of both documenting history and making it exciting throughout.