Nathaniel Blume on Prodigal Son, composing music with a bone saw, and more

Nathaniel Blume Prodigal Son michael sheen fox

One of the central characters is a serial killer named The Surgeon; I got on eBay and found a surgical tool kit, a pair of bone cutters, things like that. We have a nice live room here at the studio, and I just set up shop in there, laying out all the various tools on a table, as well as a plastic tarp to approximate a body bag sound. We just turned on the recorder, and I went to town with all the various things that I had.

There was a little bit of a process afterwards of going through and finding the best sounds, and chopping them up, and making musical instruments out of them on the computer – essentially attaching all of those sounds to the keys on the keyboard, so that it became a playable instrument, almost like a drum pad of sorts, for the percussive elements. When I wrote the initial suite after reading the script, it came in handy to use those sounds as a starting point for the show.

Interviewing composers is always quite a lot of fun, actually – I know very little about music (I went to ukulele lessons for a few years and I still couldn’t tell you what a chord is), but every composer I’ve ever spoken to has always been really enthusiastic about their craft, which always makes for a really interesting discussion.

And Nathaniel was no exception! I thought his almost sort of ‘method composing’, using bone saws to score for a serial killer character, was fascinating to hear about. So, you know, click through and read about it.

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How Elementary managed to avoid the Moriarty problem with its latest villain

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Introduced in the season 6 premier, Michael (Desmond Harrington) is a recovering addict much like Holmes. Michael credits Holmes with the success of his recovery, telling him “you said [at a meeting] you were made for one thing, and being away from it made staying sober almost impossible, but when […] you went back to it, that made all the difference. So, I actually decided to do the same thing, you know, focus on my work, use it to get better […] I worked hard, but, uh it started with you.”

In marked contrast to Holmes, though, the work that helps keep Michael sober is murder; where Holmes uses his detective work as a coping mechanism, Michael is a serial killer with similar struggles and compulsions. It’s a clever conceit, drawing obvious parallels between the two, positioning Michael as a mirror of Holmes in broadly the same way Moriarty has been in the past; indeed, it wouldn’t actually be that surprising to learn that this character is drawn from ideas at one stage considered for Elementary’s version of Moriarty. Notably, though, where the parallels between Holmes and Moriarty are typically drawn from their occupations – the consulting detective and the consulting criminal – the ones between Holmes and Michael are much more personal in nature. It’s an approach that offers potential for some compelling character drama, again an opportunity for Elementary to further explore Holmes’ sobriety.

So! Moriarty. This article kinda relies a lot on a thing I basically just sorta made up while I was trying to work out how to talk about the thing I wanted to talk about (Desmond Harrington‘s Michael, a new character introduced in Elementary season 6), so I should probably unpack that a little bit.

Basically, the “Moriarty Problem”, such that I’ve defined it, talks about the struggle that adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories face when, after having offered their take on Moriarty (arguably the most famous literary villain ever), they have to move on to a new villain – the problem being the struggle to put forward a character that’s equally as impactful or memorable as their take on Moriarty.

Certainly, if we limit our pool to Elementary and Sherlock, both shows struggled; I liked Magnussen, though admittedly was less sure about Eurus, though I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that Andrew Scott‘s Moriarty overshadowed them both. The same is true with Elementary, where none of the subsequent villains have had the same impact as Natalie Dormer‘s Moriarty (though you can make the reasonable argument that they didn’t try to have villains in the same way, I suppose).

So, what this article talks about is the way in which Elementary found a way to avoid that problem with its latest villain character, Michael. Admittedly you could probably argue that what they do, and the point I talk around making, is essentially just to do an alternate take on the basic idea of Moriarty within the confines of their show.

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Innocent didn’t live up to its potential, but mostly worked – until it fumbled the final reveal

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Increasingly, in certain crime dramas, there’s an emphasis on shock and surprise first and foremost when it comes to eventually revealing the murderer. It’s debatable how effective this is; certainly, there’s a strong argument to be made that revealing the murderer shouldn’t be surprising at all, but rather the moment when everything becomes suddenly very obvious, satisfying because it makes sense in hindsight. Innocent is very much in the former camp – with little set up or efforts to establish the possibility in prior episodes, the final part of the series hinges on the revelation that David’s brother Phil actually murdered his wife, mainly out of jealousy. To say it doesn’t quite jive with what we’ve seen so far is an understatement; Innocent had established, up to this point, that Phil had spent the last seven years campaigning to have David released from prison, at the expense of his marriage and home. It’s not that the two facts are mutually exclusive, exactly, but Innocent makes very little effort to join the ideas together.

It’s the sort of thing that rarely wins audience support; there’s little doubt, certainly, that the majority of the Innocent twitter hashtag once the episode ends will be complaints to that effect. Prioritizing the surprise over fidelity to and consistency with steps taken to reach the reveal dull the emotional impact of the moment; if the emotional impact doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter how shocking it’s meant to be. Shock is cheap – genuine engagement requires something more.

I find myself writing stuff like this about crime dramas a lot. The last time, I think, was that Cormoran Strike thing (or CB Strike, as it’s inexplicably called in America – where does the B come from?) but it comes up often enough; Broadchurch was quite the offender back when it was on, actually.

Admittedly, this might be a personal thing, where I’m just not a fan of twist endings exactly; more likely, though, it’s that a lot of these twist endings are bad at being twist endings. Frustratingly I don’t think I ever quite get these articles right, in terms of expressing what I’m getting at; I think I need to go and look up, like, Aristolean unities so I know how to articulate what I mean, assuming those are what I think they are at least.

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Safe’s story of paranoia and secrecy does an impressive job of standing out in a crowded genre

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What’s also notable, though, is the way Safe treats its characters. It’s a given in a crime drama like this that, at some point or another, each member of the supporting cast will become a prime suspect; Safe, for its part, moves the lens of suspicion from character to character in subtle, understated ways. It’s not dictated simply – or, maybe more accurately, it’s not dictated only – by the momentum of the plot, but often lead just as much by the camera itself, even when not addressed by the dialogue. Note how the camera focuses on Pete Mayfield’s car, after it’s revealed that not only has DC Emma Castle been investigating Pete, but that her former partner was killed in a hit-and run; the implication being, then, that Pete was the reckless driver in question.

Doubt is part of the text of the programme, and no one is free from it; Safe even positions Jenny herself as a figure of suspicion in at one point. It’s a clever solution to a problem that’s been endemic to the genre; while such dramas focus on a missing child, the child themselves is always defined by their absence, more an idea than a character in their own right. Safe uses the audience’s detachment from Jenny, and how little they know about her, to evoke a genuine uncertainty – one that neatly feeds into the drama’s wider concerns.

Man, this one was a difficult one to write. Genuinely, I can’t think of a single piece I’ve ever written that was harder to physically carve out of me, not for as long as I’ve been writing. I don’t think that – not effort, exactly, but it sounds less pretentious than “struggle” – is obvious on the page, because I don’t actually think that, in the end, it was a particularly good article. It was, you know, fin.

But! The difficulty came from, well, I’m not even entirely sure where. We’ll describe it as my mood, I suppose. All the “you can’t write” insecurities that we all have (or at least everyone says they have) just collapsed in on me at once right in the middle of this one. Literally, actually, the hardest part was the second half of the article. Eventually, I managed to get it done, though not after… well, a lot of thought and stress.

The moral of the story, of course, is that all these doubts are unfounded and I’m actually wonderful. No, I jest. When I actually did manage to fix it it was only because I just sat and ploughed through it (after several days of thought and space to calm down) – the real moral, I suppose, is that the only way to write is to write. Or something less twee, I dunno, there isn’t really a moral.

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How The City and the City renders the noir genre within liminal spaces

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The central conceit of the series, in a way, is about unfamiliarity. The City and the City presents us with two overlapping city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma; they inhabit the same physical space, but are perceived as two distinct places, separated by a skin stretched across the world. There’s something impressive about how effortlessly The City and the City presents this mythology, a mythology with its own idiosyncratic language and vocabulary – immediately, and without reservation, giving the sense of a world that’s lived in and already intuitively understood by the characters we see.

Similarly impressive, then, is the way the series realises this concept. Crossing over the border is an act that renders the familiar unfamiliar, and it’s an effect achieved through no small part because of Tom Shankland’s evocative direction. Where Besźel is rendered in soft beige tones and yellow light, Ul Qoma is cast in vivid scarlet and cyan; even as the two cities share their geography, they each feel distinct, with their own sharply defined identities. Peering across the breach, a transgressive act, is to confront the unfamiliar – something you know rendered differently, just out of reach.

I’ve not read the book, which I suspect puts me at a little bit of a disadvantage with this piece; certainly, while I was writing it, I began to get the sense that there was a certain degree more depth to the story that I wasn’t quite touching on, and that the article probably would’ve benefitted a little from, at the very least, having been informed by a slightly deeper knowledge of the source material.

Still! That said, I really enjoyed this show, and it very much made me want to read the book – I’ve been meaning to get into China Miéville books for a while, largely at Robbie’s recommendation, so the show was an extra little bit of impetus. Or it will be anyway, I’m still yet to make a start with it.

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The Assassination of Gianni Versace is an intimate portrait of a killer, granting him the fame he always sought

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It’s not about the assassination of Gianni Versace, as many have already noted. Or, at least, it’s not just about the eponymous assassination, casting it as inciting event rather than the climax of the series. Instead, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is about the assassin, Andrew Cunanan, and the events that led him to murder the internationally renowned designer.

The series moves backwards through Cunanan’s life, tracing his story in reverse; it’s a confident piece, expertly structured in approach. Rearranging the drama to watch the story unfold chronologically wouldn’t have the same effect – it’s layered in such a way that each backwards step complements what’s gone before, honing and accentuating The Assassination of Gianni Versace as a whole. Moments described in hindsight in one episode play out in present tense in the next; expectations are subverted and tension is heightened, a sense of not just dramatic irony but deep melancholy evoked as we move through the tapestry of Cunanan’s life. Note especially a scene from the sixth episode, Descent, a conversation between Cunanan and David Madson, a former lover and eventual victim. Madson is trying to connect with him, asking about his childhood; you can see his face fall as Cunanan, seemingly, starts to lie once again, and it’s this apparent lie that drives a wedge between them. Yet as the series continues, it’s revealed that Cunanan wasn’t lying. It’s not, obviously, that this excuses or justifies anything he did – but there’s a certain sadness to it all the same, and an insight into the neuroses that drove him.

Quite proud of this article on what is, as far as I’m concerned anyway, one of the best shows of the year. Intense and compelling and deeply moving, The Assassination of Giannia Versace is very, very much worth checking out.

I was, actually, so pleased with this article I put it in my portfolio, which you can check out here. I didn’t get the title quite right, admittedly, but I’m still pretty pleased with the actual content of the piece.

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Save Me was a visceral character drama about people driven to extremes

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Immediately, comparisons to a particular tradition of crime drama spring to mind; on paper, it feels as though Save Me shares similarities with programmes like Broadchurch or Kiri, centred as they all are around a child that’s missing or dead. However, Save Me neatly elucidates and overcomes a problem that thus far has seemed endemic to the genre: structured, as these programmes are, around a child that’s always defined by their absence, at times it feels like the characters are responding to the idea of the child moreso than anything else. There’s a distance there, inherently positioning the child at a remove – how much do you ever know Danny Latimer?

Save Me cleverly takes what can be a failing of the genre and builds it into the premise, presenting the series from the perspective of a character who was only ever dimly aware of his daughter anyway. Not only does it remove this potential flaw, it elevates it; the father-daughter relationship at the heart of Save Me genuinely feels like a new addition to the genre, a clear demonstration that there’s still new stories to tell.

I really, really enjoyed Save Me – it was a massively compelling programme. It was certainly much better than I expected; that’s not to say I wasn’t expecting it to be good, but rather that it was of a much higher level than the trailers and such suggested. I was genuinely quite taken with it in the end.

Admittedly, however, I wasn’t particularly pleased with this article I wrote about the show. That’s always frustrating, the feeling that a piece of writing I’ve done didn’t quite serve the show well – something like Save Me deserves a better article than this. My wasn’t quite right; it’s not, I don’t think, a brilliant piece of writing, or even exactly a particularly good one.

At the time I wanted to do a sort of Writer’s Notes type thing, breaking down how I wrote it and what went wrong, though I never quite managed it. There’s a couple of things, I think – part of it is that there was a lot of stuff I wanted to discuss but couldn’t quite work in, like just how good the dialogue was. (There’s a line where Lennie James’ character Nelly is talking about his daughter’s injuries, and describes “claret down her top”, and I’d never heard “claret” used like that in that context. It felt so distinct and idiosyncratic, it just really stayed with me.) Also, though, I think the article is almost in two halves that are sort of fighting one another; it’s a victim, I think, of the fact I didn’t quite have the title in mind when I started, which meant it wasn’t all written around one central point the way it should have been. The first half is about the clever reframing of the missing child format, while the second half is about how Save Me pushes characters to extremes, and the two halves together add up to less than the sum of their parts. (Or whatever the phrase should be.) It ends up scattered and a little unfocused, though there are some good ideas in there – one of the things I tried to do with this article was engage a bit more with the actual camera, and I think I did a decent job of that.

Still! Live and learn. I might try and revisit the first series of Save Me and write a new article on it if and when the second eventually comes out.

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Collateral is an intimate drama fascinated by individuals and sceptical of institutions

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What’s interesting about Collateral, of course, is that it’s very pointedly not a whodunnit. It spends very little time dwelling on questions of the murder’s identity, revealing this roughly halfway through the second episode; instead, Collateral unfolds from both directions, focused on questions of how and why rather than who. At each turn, the show avoids leaning into any simplistic formulae – it’s consistently something more interesting.

I went back and forth a lot over whether or not that title needed a comma after “drama”. Still not sure. Also, come to think of it, the inclusion of “intimate” full stop. I suspect I’ve come to overuse that word.

Anyway, here’s a piece on a show I really really enjoyed, but no one has really seemed to be talking about much. It also, entertainingly, fairly neatly highlights the problems with how I’ve broken down the television genres on the blog, given that this is tagged as a “crime drama” and I open the piece by talking about all the ways it’s not exactly that.

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The problem with poor pacing, and increasingly overlong television

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Having a more flexible runtime makes sense – generally speaking, the traditional forty-five-ish minute slot for a drama or the twenty-five-ish minute slot for comedy are fairly arbitrary ideas imposed by the demands of advertisers rather than anything else. There’s nothing inherent to the stories that dictate they hold this structure, so the opportunity to be a little bit more malleable and adaptable can be worth pursuing.

Yet it’s debatable whether this approach is really effective, and whether the freedom that’s been allowed has ultimately been a good thing. There’s an argument to be made that, over the past few years, it’s led to a slew of poorly paced television series; slow and plodding, not using their runtime effectively. It’s not so much that a serial has to be filled with incident, but that there’s a sense that not every minute has to be earned in the way that perhaps it used to be – in turn leading to more meandering, more superfluous storytelling.

This article brought to you by the hour I spent watching the first episode of Seven Seconds, though could just have easily been brought to you by the interminable thirteen hours spent on Jessica Jones series 2.

A while ago, I changed up my approach with how I write about television; I decided, basically, that I was only going to write about a show when I’d seen the entire thing. Just a different way of looking at it, taking the series more holistically basically, and a way to stop myself getting too complacent – after a while, I figure I’ll probably switch it up again.

But anyway, this led to a lot of Netflix binge-watching, which was always frustrating – with the above Seven Seconds, ten episodes totalled around eleven hours entirely (there was one episode which was seventy-five minutes long, which is pretty much never necessary) and it worked out that if I watched all ten episodes, then spent another three hours or so writing an article on the show, my final pay would work out as less than minimum wage. Which I was not wholly impressed by. So I wrote this article about why TV episodes are too long instead. Though admittedly I’d probably mind less if I was paid more. So, you know.

(Some months later, a more well established TV critic, the name of whom escapes me, wrote something similar titled something to the effect of “overly long episodes are the TV equivalent of manspreading”, which is a much better title than mine. Made me laugh, anyway.)

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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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