Inspired by the end of ‘Top of the Lake’ and still missing ‘The Returned’, I steel myself to watch the misty nightmare that is Southcliffe. The slow-burn drama series is enjoying a (long) moment – but what’s the appeal of these cult shows and what can they teach us about great storytelling?
My favourite show for many years was the fast-moving, action-packed and slickly edited ‘CSI’ series in the US. These days I’m watching the hypnotic yet relatively slow moving ‘Hannibal’. Scandi-Noir series ‘The Killing ‘and ‘Borgen’ have no doubt had a big influence on this new movement with Danish drama, ‘The Bridge’, the latest show to be remade for Sky Atlantic.
So is slow the new fast? These cult series demand your attention but in different ways. How?
Less is more. Less plot means more time for atmosphere and emotion. The characters take centre stage, and the primacy of relationships is reiterated, allowing us to connect more strongly with their journeys.
You have to concentrate. It’s much harder to second screen when watching as the plot is not as formulaic. You can’t predict the sudden revelation or shock event as you are not set up for it with heavy music cues and other tension building devices. So you give it your undivided attention, like watching a movie. The fact you can pause the show or watch it On Demand means you can sit down and watch it when you’re ready, with no ad breaks. So less time doing recaps and flashy end of act breaks and more time telling the story.
The Show Runner as Auteur. From ‘Buffy’ to ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’, to ‘Breaking Bad’, the Americans have led the way with the rise of the creative writer/producer who has a vision for a new kind of TV show. But with the migration of cinema stars and directors to the small screen in search of funding for mid-budget drama, Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh are now directing for television and Video on Demand. Which means…
Television is the new Cinema. These series are high on visual style. The dialogue is minimal. There is nothing ‘domestic’ about these dramas. The landscape is a big attraction. The beauty of New Zealand, of the French mountains, creates a form of visual-tourism, we can escape to these worlds and feel our world expanded by them. And yet…
They are Other-Worldly. Supposedly real settings feel decidedly unreal. Artful cinematography mediates nature creating a feeling of isolation from the real world.
The Village is Key. Most of these series are about a community in peril, the multi-protagonist storylines perfectly suited to TV’s broader canvas. We have time to get to know whole families and learn about their world as it implodes around them. This is not a new idea but the village has been reinvented – as unstable, damaged, at risk of flooding, occupied by squatters, or terrorised by a gunman who lives there. And we are all shown as culpable because each character is connected to the main event in a very real way.
Complex and Real Characters. With less plot, the characters have time to breathe and have all the quirks and desires of real people. Even if they behave in extreme ways we understand the psychology behind what they do, and so can relate it to our own experience. The genius of ‘The Returned’ was to ask what real life questions and emotional damage the return of a dead loved one would create…
The most exciting revelation of these slow-burn series is this –
We are focused on the inner not the outer life. Rather just the depiction of reality – the illusion of progress with a logical plot and cause and effect reactions, we are faced with the unpredictable and illogical world of a dream. Isn’t that closer to the reality we face every day?
The writer with something to say and directors with new ways of saying it are at the heart of this new wave of dramas. No more pretty pictures tied up in a bow for us to sleepwalk through. Jane Campion and Co are plumbing the depths of the lake, drenching us with images and ideas that wake us up, pushing us into new ways of seeing.
We are active viewers again. And it feels good.
How have you been inspired by recent TV drama? Leave a comment here or find me on Twitter @emlin32. Happy viewing…