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

serpent investigation review tahar rahim charles sobrahj jenna coleman tobias lindholm kim wall borgen netflix

“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.

Quiz turns event television back into event television

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Originally, Quiz began life in the theatre, performed first in Chichester before moving to the West End; met with widespread critical acclaim, and nominated for two Olivier awards, writer James Graham’s 2017 play was itself inspired by a book. Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major, published two years prior, suggested that Charles and Diana Ingram might have been innocent of the charges levelled against them. This ambiguity was central to Graham’s play: a production deeply invested in its live performance, it invited audience participation (not unlike Millionaire?’s famous lifeline), asking those watching to vote one way or the other on the Ingrams’ innocence.

Before this theatrical run and the book that inspired it, however, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was almost subject of a film written by Russell T Davies. That, obviously, never came to fruition – in 2003, when his involvement in the Millionaire? film was announced, Davies was on the cusp of another project, one that would become his main focus for the next six years. Still, it’s an interesting counterfactual to consider; Davies seems the perfect writer for a comedy-of-errors about a crime committed on an iconic television show, but a one-off film almost seems to miss the point, both of telling this story and hiring Davies to do it.

Even earlier, of course, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was subject of a documentary. ITV never actually aired Charles Ingram’s episode of the quiz show; instead, Millionaire: A Major Fraud (a pun), a documentary presented by Martin Bashir, is where the footage of Ingram’s contested victory was first broadcast. Major Fraud attracted 17 million viewers, and a 56% audience share, setting a new record for the channel: it was event television. The last time Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? proper had received similar ratings was three years prior.

In that sense, then, James Graham’s television adaptation of Quiz isn’t, in fact, a stageplay being promoted to the small screen – rather, it’s a story that was told and retold through different mediums returning to where it began. It’s interesting that Graham wasn’t, at first, entirely convinced that Quiz should be adapted for television, believing the strength of the stageplay came from the structural opportunities afforded it by a live performance. Nonetheless, Quiz doesn’t just mark the return of this story to television – it demonstrates that television is this story’s natural home.

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Quiz is best when it’s a process story – less a whodunnit, more a howdunnit, building its drama out of the smaller details. The “how” isn’t just about the heist, though; rather, Quiz is about how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? came to be such a successful game show in the first place. Its opening episode, which essentially amounts to an hour of contextualising exposition, should by all rights be flat and dull; instead, its account of “Cash Mountain” awkwardly developing into an internationally syndicated television juggernaut proved dynamic and engaging. (In that sense, it recalls James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, a film which was at its best when depicting individual notes in a wider process. Scenes of Millionaire? slotting together piece by piece and Dominic Cummings gradually refining his campaign strategy are recognisably by the same writer, the two works4 sharing certain structural quirks beyond the more superficial observation that both hinge on a polarising yes or no question.) The drama as a whole is buoyed by stylish direction from Stephen Frears, however, and canny casting even in smaller roles (Mark Bonnar and Aisling Bea especially) helps Quiz feel like a confident piece of television: a necessity, really, given it invokes what’s arguably one of the most successful television shows ever.

What’s most striking about Quiz, though, is quite how tense it often is. Certainly, it’s far more tense than you’d expect of a game show where you already know the answers – of course Ingram gets the questions right, that’s essentially the whole premise. That anxiety and apprehension is preserved in no small part because of how faithfully Quiz recreates Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, from the iconic set to the moody lighting to the familiar music to the sheer drama of it all – and to the host. Much has been said about Michael Sheen’s frankly uncanny performance as Chris Tarrant; it’s perhaps a cliché to compare an actor’s impression to archive footage, but Sheen’s performance almost invites such comparison – not because Quiz uses any archive footage, of course, but for the moments where it genuinely seems as though they have. Taken together, it’s no wonder Quiz is so tense.

It’s an almost uniquely televised form of tension, crucially – the suspense of “let’s find out, after the break”, a cliffhanger never replicated on stage or in film. (Quiz shows a remarkable level of restraint in not copying this conceit itself – cutting straight to adverts after Michael Sheen delivered the infamous catchphrase must’ve been hard to resist, but it’s a smart choice not to, in keeping with Quiz’s dedication to looking beyond that original broadcast.) Thus Quiz benefits from being restored to television, not just recreating the nightly drama of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, but also serving as reminder of why the cheating scandal proved so captivating in the first place. It’s not just because of the Ingrams’ eccentricities, or the charming, intuitive simplicity of cheating in a quiz, or even the million pounds at stake. It’s because television made it close, made it nearby. Quiz opens referencing the adage that the Vietnam war was the first televised war, tacitly framing this infamous heist in the same terms: when the Ingrams tried to steal a million pounds, they might as well have done it in the corner of your front room.

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Quiz exonerates the Ingrams, in the end. Of course it does; casting Sian Clifford, always quietly the best part of Fleabag, and Matthew Macfadyen, who as Tom Wambsgams is the most sympathetic character on Succession even as he’s arguably the worst of them, wasn’t ever going to do anything but endear the Ingrams to the audience. Their performances go a long way towards anchoring the drama, in fact; the show keeps both characters at something of a remove for most its runtime, not quite rendering them ciphers but certainly distant. It’s necessary, of course – the first two episodes of Quiz in effect take up the prosecution, and that demands a certain ambiguity be sustained. Still, though, it ran the risk of leaving things inert; Clifford and Macfadyen’s restrained charm does a lot to round out the characters before the third episode recontextualises events.

For all that James Graham has quite studiously avoided coming down on one side or the other, Quiz undeniably stacks the deck in favour of the accused; the series finishes, after all, with their defence, in effect leaving them the final word. (It’s perhaps not a surprise that many of the audience took to Twitter afterwards, now Ingram truthers themselves; during its interactive West End run, most theatregoers voted the Ingrams innocent by the end too.) Their defence was one predicated on the material nature of television – the same phenomenon that saw the case of the Coughing Major become so famous in the first place. The Ingrams insisted that it was a matter of television editing that made them look (and only look) so guilty – victims, in effect, of a storytelling technique.

The first episode of Quiz quotes Picasso, asserting that “we all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”. It’s more than a touch grandiose, but it speaks to Graham’s intentions; Quiz is a drama about a truth, not necessarily one about the truth. (There’s a sleight of hand going on there too, given the quote stops short; in full, it reads “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth – at least the truth that is given us to understand,” pointing again to the layers of artifice and construct in each retelling of the tale.) In some respects, it’s a more entertaining truth – and the real-life Ingrams would probably call it a better truth. That’s why Quiz breaks, ever so briefly, from its otherwise realist bent with a musical sequence – and why, when it does, it does so through the television. Much as it once convicted the Ingrams, it’s now (almost) letting them free. Television offers a more heightened reality: as a quiz show, as a trial, as a drama. Quiz was never about the heist, or about the Ingrams. Not really.

And it’s why the final note is Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant again, showbiz rictus grin leering out of the screen, posing one last question – this time without a lifeline. “So, go on then,” he demands, “tell us. What’s the answer?”

The answer – as ever, as always, and what Quiz was really about – is television.

Related:

Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

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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

save me lennie james suranne jones stephen graham sky atlantic jason flemyng

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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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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