Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

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“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”

The Serpent, Episode 8

“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”

The Investigation, Episode 6

The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other.  Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.

On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.

Watching The Investigation¸ the difference is palpable. There’s no attention-grabbing stunt casting, no recognisable actor made to look eerily (or vaguely) similar to the murderer – who is, pointedly, only ever referred to here as “the accused” – it’s all decidedly, pointedly low-key. Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed all six episodes, said he wanted to tell “a different kind of story here, not just another tale of a “fascinating” man who killed a woman […] a story where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator. The story was simply not about him”. The Investigation is quiet and careful, as methodical in its writing as the process it depicts, and it’d be difficult to seriously argue that it’s particularly sensationalist or sleazy – compared to The Serpent, it’s aseptic. In lieu of focusing on the suspect, or depicting the crime itself in any detail, Lindholm centres the people affected (or tries to, at least).

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Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.

However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.

More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?

The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)

What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.

That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Mandip Gill on Five Dates, trying her hand at comedy, and life after Doctor Who

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Because Five Dates is a film, it’s standalone – unlike the television roles she’s most famous for, such as Hollyoaks and Doctor Who, where her characters “build up and bubble slowly” over the course of several years, with input from lots of different writers and directors. “I do like the change in working with different directors, because everyone has their own distinctive style. When you’re doing a long-running thing, it keeps you on your toes, keeps it exciting.”

“I do think, though, after I’ve finished Doctor Who, would I prefer to go on to standalone things? Or things that are three, four episodes long, really work on a character, really build that character arc in those four episodes and then leave?” she ponders. “I think it would be challenging and really exciting to do even just an episode on something, but have a beginning, and a middle and an end to work on.”

Here’s my interview with Mandip Gill – we spoke about her new film, an interactive rom-com called Five Dates (which is genuinely a huge amount of fun by the way, I’d really recommend searching it out), her upcoming television projects Suspicion and Count Abdulla, as well as her plans for life after Doctor Who. (Whenever that may be!) Mandip was, I think, probably the single nicest person I’ve ever interviewed – just a genuinely very nice, very warm person. Really, really liked speaking to her.

This is also, you’ll notice, my first piece published with the Radio Times, for their series of Big RT Interviews. Admittedly I’m not entirely sure what makes it big, but hey, it’s a big deal for me if nothing else. The Radio Times! Pretty cool, I reckon. I get to put a new button on the sidebar now.

You can find more of my interviews here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Christopher Eccleston on The A Word, his career highlights, and more

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There’s an element of ease, because I’ve played [Maurice] for a while, so I have a sense of what the writer wants me to do with the character. I don’t really think about challenges, I just think about the pleasures of working with Pete Bowker’s writing. Obviously, Maurice is a bit of a departure for me: a broader, more comedic role than I’m known for, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to learn and understand comedy, because it’s a huge element in playing Maurice. I don’t think I’m a naturally gifted comic, so I’ve had to work hard to understand how that works.

And I think one of the virtues of the piece, certainly for audience members who have people in their family with autism, is they’ve been grateful that it’s not been treated in a very poker-faced, sanctimonious way, that we’ve normalised it with humour and lightness. It’s just a pleasure. It’s just a pleasure to have a job again, and a character that I love playing and a character that I’ve played for so long. No challenges, just all positives.

New interview! A career highlight for me, this – it probably would not surprise long-term readers of this blog to know that I am quite fond of Christopher Eccleston as an actor, so it was very exciting to be able to talk to him about The A Word. (Quite nerve-wracking, too; I think this might be the single interview I’ve been most nervous about, across the past five years or so of doing this.)

Got another interview about The A Word coming tomorrow, this time with writer Peter Bowker (who Chris spoke about at length in our interview). That’s another great one, I’m looking forward to sharing that one with you all.

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Killing Eve is a show that’s easy to become obsessed with

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What stands out about Killing Eve – and it feels like a fairly superficial observation to make, though that doesn’t mean it’s any less true – is that it’s very, very good. There’s an almost effortless confidence to the show, a certain skill and swagger not unlike that of Jodie Comer’s assassin Villanelle; Killing Eve is a series that almost defies efforts to review it, because elaborating beyond “just watch it” feels as though you’re wasting time, time that could be better spent watching (and rewatching) Killing Eve. From its witty, charming script to the electric performances from its leads, Killing Eve is a programme where its quality leaps off the screen, the first thing you notice about the show – seemingly, there’s a certain simplicity to it.

But that seeming simplicity, that apparent effortlessness, obscures the clever tricks at the heart of Killing Eve. It is a very talented, very competent execution of all the tropes of a spy thriller, with globetrotting agents uncovering an international conspiracy, entirely recognisable in terms of the conventions of its genre – but there’s an obvious self-awareness to Killing Eve too, and a clear drive on the part of showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge to tell a much more idiosyncratic, much more new and interesting story within the skeleton of the spy thriller.

On one level, there’s the fact that we’re watching Killing Eve rather than Killing Evan – any other piece you might care to name as an example of the same genre would be a male-led story. That Killing Eve isn’t, that it pivots instead around Sandra Oh’s Eve and Jodie Comer’s Villanelle, immediately marks the series out as something different. You wouldn’t be able comb through the script and make a few quick changes to turn it into Killing Evan, though; Waller-Bridge’s self-proclaimed interest in “transgressive women” is evident throughout, the whole series fascinated by its leads and their inner lives, both vast and intimate at once.

So I wrote this piece on Killing Eve, and I was fairly pleased with it – arguably not as in-depth as I might have liked, perhaps, and I don’t know how well the article really captured the actual rush of watching the show. But, on the whole, pleased with it, and also fairly entertained by the slightly naff “Killing Evan” programme I invented for comparison’s sake. (It did occur to me at the time that a more interesting comparison might be the new Jack Ryan series on Amazon, but I’d not watched that, so Killing Evan had to suffice.)

Some weeks later, I happened to read some complaint about the series – you know the type, that nonsense internet comment about women on TV. What annoyed me – no, enraged me – no, embarrassed me – was that that fool writing nonsense on the internet had stumbled across a much more obvious name for a male-led Killing Eve than this fool writing nonsense on the internet.

Killing Steve.

I’m still mad I missed that.

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The politics, passions, and people of A Very English Scandal

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One of the more interesting comments Russell T Davies made in the weeks before A Very English Scandal first aired was that he thought “both [Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe] were victims”, in a way.

It’s perhaps not immediately apparent why Davies considered Jeremy Thorpe a victim, given after all that A Very English Scandal dramatises Thorpe’s efforts to have Norman Scott killed. It’s a story of power, politics, and passion, of conspiratorial whispers in the hallowed halls of power, and Thorpe is at the very heart of that. Casting Hugh Grant was, in many way, a stroke of genius; his Thorpe isn’t just suffused with predatory menace, but, as many have noted, feels informed by his past as a charismatic romantic lead. In turn, Grant’s Thorpe is a vision of that charm, curdled into something darker – there’s an undefinable, irresistibly engaging quality about him, even knowing there’s something rotten lurking within. Declaring Norman Scott must die with as much conviction as he opposes racism in the House of Commons, or planning how to dispose of his body with the same light, casual ease as mimicking the Prime Minister, doesn’t exactly seem to support the understanding that Thorpe is anything short of a Machiavellian villain.

But, if it’s difficult to see Thorpe as a victim from the first two episodes, it’s a scene in A Very English Scandal’s closing episode that renders Davies’ point crystal clear.

I am so, so proud of this piece, I’ve got to say. Genuinely, when I’d finished it, I was absolutely beaming – I was convinced, and still am, that it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d done in quite some time.

The only thing that, admittedly, is less than stellar about it is the title. I don’t think it really conveys what it’s about, does it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure it conveys much of anything, it’s a bit… empty. Better, though, than other variations, such as “the politics, power and prejudice”.

Anyway, I’d really appreciate any shares that this one gets, because like I said, I’m extremely proud of it.

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How Come Home asks audiences to understand characters that are difficult to like

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It’d be easy, really, to dislike Marie. Certainly, the premise will predispose most of the audience against her; Come Home follows the story of Greg, a single father, and Marie, the wife who walked out on him eleven months prior. Immediately, Come Home subverts typical expectations about mothers and fathers, and poses the audience questions that could prove difficult. Can they understand Marie, despite their assumptions?

The first episode focuses primarily on Greg, establishing the status quo of his and his children’s lives following Marie’s departure; there’s something significant about the fact that audiences are given Greg’s perspective first, immediately inviting them to sympathise with him ahead of Marie. As the question of why she left hangs over the piece, what Come Home presents is a family clearly struggling. Christopher Eccleston gives a quiet, almost defeated performance; it’s dripping with melancholy, wearing his heartbreak on his sleeve. He’s easy to empathise with, a lonely man who seems full of empathy himself, taking in Brenna and her son to protect them from her abusive husband. When he sees Marie, all he wants is to know why – and so do we.

I must admit, I found this show quite frustrating, particularly the third episode. I watched them all in one evening, one after the other; I’d been under the understanding that it was going to be something a little more Rashomon-esque, with each episode retelling the same event from different perspectives. It wasn’t that, in the end – though admittedly I do still wonder if perhaps that would’ve been better.

What we got was, I suspect, almost intentionally frustrating. Certainly, it was thought-provoking, and they managed to avoid making it too black and white in terms of either Greg or Marie being straightforwardly ‘correct’. I do wish, though, a little more time had been dedicated to fleshing out Marie’s motivations in the third episode; without spoiling it particularly, in case anyone does want to seek it out and watch it, certain choices that she makes there feel borne more out of a desire on the part of the screenwriter to prompt conflict rather than anything else. (Especially given the ending.)

Still, though. I really enjoyed Christopher Eccleston in this, even the slightly uncanny valley Irish brogue rather than his usual Northern accent; Come Home, if nothing else, did affirm my belief that I’ll watch Christopher Eccleston in basically anything.

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Hard Sun never quite moved beyond a police procedural, and suffered as a result

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It’s not difficult to argue that, in any drama about the apocalypse, the reaction to this knowledge and its effect on society is one of the most interesting things that could be explored. However, Hard Sun largely opts not to explore this part of its premise. Indeed, for the most part, the apocalypse is something of an afterthought as the drama instead retreats to the well-worn hallmarks of a police procedural. With episodes focused on serial killers and kidnappings, the end of the world isn’t so much a focal point but a background detail to add texture; it’s a concept that’s broadly gestured at, rather than a theme that’s interrogated particularly.

For the most part, Hard Sun was frustrating, and ultimately quite dull. It’s a shame, really, because I was really rooting for this show; the concept seemed fascinating, and Aisling Bea was in it, and I think she’s great. Unfortunately, though, Hard Sun wasn’t much of anything in the end. The above review is, to be honest, only really one line of criticism that could be applied to the show – it’s a very particular sort of grim detective show, with all the tropes and pitfalls that tends to entail.

I think it’s going to be on Hulu soon – US viewers, I say don’t bother. UK viewers who haven’t seen it yet, also don’t bother.

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It’s a good thing we won’t get any new Sherlock for a while

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Indeed, you can easily see the show continuing with the occasional Christmas special at five year intervals. It’s the sort of thing that could quickly become a beloved tradition, a special something extra. 

In that format, the show would be free to be a little more experimental. Perhaps it could be akin to The Abominable Bride, which saw Sherlock in Victorian times – Moffat and Gatiss are both big fans of the Basil Rathbone movies that place Sherlock Holmes in World War II, so that’s definitely something they might consider doing for an episode.

Here’s a thing about Sherlock – I reckon a break is a good thing! I’m pretty fond of the show, and I’d like to see it back eventually; equally, though, I do also reckon taking some time away might be to the benefit of all involved.

I mean, admittedly, that’s no huge insight – the long breaks were baked into the format by series 2, as big a part of the high concept as the modern era setting – but still, I think, true, and worth saying in amongst the clamoring for a speedy return. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all.

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Why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best episode of Doctor Who

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It’s an emphatic statement about the chief thematic concern of Capaldi’s era – what does it mean to be the Doctor? Leaving Clara as a Doctor analogue in her own right was, of course, the only way it could end. In the wake of Peter Capaldi’s regeneration, this story takes on a further significance; with the Twelfth Doctor’s final words, advice to his future self, mirroring the advice he gave to Clara, it’s another clear affirmation of Clara’s status as a Doctor herself.

700ish words, and really I only barely scratched of why this episode is just so darn good. I really love this one – I always find it difficult to answer questions of favourites when it comes to Doctor Who, but honestly, this one is up there.

I’d like to write more about it really. I suspect I probably will, actually. We’ll see.

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Gunpowder was a powerful explanation of the real reason why we remember the 5th of November

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Here, in fact, is where Gunpowder displays a penchant for subtle, intelligent choices. When in Catholic Spain seeking help with his plot, Catesby sees the Spanish authorities burning a Jewish man at the stake – a mirror of the Catholic priest hanged as the drama began. In creating that parallel, Gunpowder makes it obvious that this isn’t a case of good against evil, rather the powerless against those with authority. Director J Blakesonemphasises that again as the drama ends, juxtaposing a gold necklace presented to spymaster Lord Cecil with the noose placed around the necks of the plotters – it’s about power rather than morality. If Gunpowder can be said to be on the side of the Catholic plotters, it’s not because they are Catholic.

I was mostly pleased with this article. Not super sure about the title in hindsight though.

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