The X-Files and more...
John Thaw, Dennis Waterman
(ITV; US: 1975)
In the ‘70s, cop shows ruled—both in the United States and abroad. No matter the location, however, the police were viewed in a singular, stereotypical light. They were social safeguards, the thin blue line between the community and the criminal. They were not fallible. They were never depressed or driven by demons. Instead, they were metaphysical knights, serving a kingdom incapable of appreciating their inherent resolve and nobility. But in 1975, British television tried to change all that. Using a bit of cockney slang that described the UK elite crime fighting unit the Flying Squad, The Sweeney (for “Sweeney Todd”) was born, and it was unlike any show on the air. Instead of portraying its main characters as stoic, steadfast icons, unprecedented dimensions were brought to these clearly imperfect and flawed individuals. Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Sergeant George Carter were the main narrative focus, each one hampered by their own personal problems. Regan, divorced with a child, was a heavy smoker and non-social drinker, angry at the bureaucracy he feels holds the police back. Carter, on the other hand, is a womanizing widower who lost his wife in a violent crime. Younger than his partner, he’s a cheeky lad who tends to act first and think later.
As with any genre bending offering, audiences were baffled at first. Law enforcement was usually viewed as by the book blokes who felt the system secured their ability to do the job. But the men of The Sweeney were prone to ignoring the rules and making up regulations as long as it solved the case. They were dissatisfied and depressed, and this kind of heretofore unheard of humanity struck a chord. The show lasted three years, four series, and 53 episodes. The premise even made the leap to the silver screen in 1977 (Sweeney! ) and 1978 (Sweeney 2). As for a DVD release, Region 2 was, up until recently, the only place to find this stellar show, with complete sets of all installments now available. This past June, Region 1 saw the arrival of the first series only. Like all benchmark productions, some of the components can feel a bit dated. But when viewed alongside American gung-ho goofiness like SWAT and Adam-12, the differences are dynamic.
Robbie Coltrane, Christopher Eccleston, Geraldine Somerville, Lorcan Cranitch
(ITV; US: 1993)
Cracker is a classic, the kind of show you find yourself instantly getting lost in with characters you want to meet and spend time with. Lots of time. Indeed, like a good novel or a fine bottle of wine, Cracker is something to be savored, not rushed through so as to move on to the next bit of mindless fun. It’s complex and controlled, telling its story in carefully measured couplets of amusement and expertly honed steps. It breaks convention as it lifts the formula cop show into the region of high art. It’s the kind of entertainment experience that will have you thinking about it days later, wanting to go back and revisit the characters, picking up on little nuances, and reliving riveting moments of beautifully executed storyline all over again. Make no mistake about it: this is material that could go horribly askew in the wrong hands. The characters are all flawed and in denial. The crimes depicted are brutal and unrelenting and the entire tone of the show is one of defeated realism. But like a magnificent statue that comes crashing out of a bit of beat-up granite, Cracker smashes everything you think you know about television drama, police stories, and human vulnerability and reinvents the language for each, right before your delighted eyes. This is not crime noir or pastel flash and video game cops and robbers. This is pure human theater superbly produced.
Like all British television, Cracker is presented in series form, not actual seasons. This means that creator and head writer Jimmy McGovern could indulge his desire to expand story arcs over several episodes, underlying single installment storylines with that necessary twinge of thematic importance. Even better, it gave actors like Robbie Coltrane (who offers the single best performance by anyone in a television series, period) parts they could really sink their teeth into. Of course, with every ray of sunshine comes the possibility of rain, and in the case of Cracker, the dark clouds on the horizon are the later in life mini-series version of the show (more jingoism than jaded in dealing with the War on Terror) and the lackluster DVD releases from HBO. Sloppy in their conversion from European PAL transfers to NTSC, and missing anything significant in the way of added content, this is a clear case of a show standing without a selection of supplements to support it. Cracker is just that good. Case closed.
Degrassi Junior High
Cathy Keenan, Dayo Ade, Amanda Stepto, Pat Mastroianni, Stacie Mistysyn, Stefan Brogren, Siluck Saysanasy, Duncan Waugh
(CBC; US: 18 Jan 1987)
A teen drama show that “goes there,” Degrassi: The Next Generation invests the naïveté of youth with the constant, sinister lurking of violence and sexual disaster. Computers and the Internet are a focal point of the show’s plotlines and it seems appropriate. Degrassi perfectly depicts the loss of innocence that comes in the age of technology that makes anything knowable. Darcy posts racy pictures of herself online to make money while Emma, in the very first episode of the series, is stalked by an internet predator who traps her in a hotel room (check out the “Issues addressed in Degrassi” entry on Wikipedia for a more detailed list of grievances). There is a sense of a connection to the dangerous, the dark and adult, as inherent in every innocent action, and the internet is frequently the bridge between the two.
Every episode reads like a public service announcement but never feels preachy or insincere. Poor acting and awkward dialogue miraculously make the show seem more genuine and truthful, as if it were written by the characters it depicts. What makes Degrassi special is that it runs through the list of typical teen grievances not as subjects that must be dealt with but as gleeful new enterprises to be explored. In a single episode, Craig stalks his half-sister while at home being beaten by his dad; later in the same episode, he nearly kidnaps his sister, stands in front of a train, and jumps out of the window of his room while his dad beats down the door with a golf club. Degrassi doesn’t dance around issues because it’s too busy dancing with them.
David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish
(Fox; US: 10 Sep 1993)
My favorite show this summer was Californication, in which David Duchovny gets drunk, high and naked almost every episode. Ironically, only a decade ago, both Duchovny and I were far more innocent. He was searching for his missing (abducted) sister, and I was a 13-year-old watching him every Sunday night on The X-Files. Now that we’ve been subsumed by television decadence, those episodes seem so far away. Luckily, now that the complete season is on DVD, that pre- sin period can be evoked once more.
Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were Mulder and Scully, the FBI X-Files duo who researched the paranormal every week. X-Files was a bit of Twin Peaks (the glimpses behind the veneer of life) and a bit of Outer Limits (the what-the-hell crazy paranoia). It was a horror show (that opening theme songs chilled me for years) and a science-fiction boutique. Week to week it could either be a oneshot or a part of an ongoing drama involving Scully’s pregnancy and abduction, Duchovny’s missing sister, and the Cigarette Smoking Man.
In retrospect, despite its flirtations with cults and murders, The X- Files was really a show about innocence. The two leads, despite begging from the audience, were chaste. The mysteries didn’t seem to reflect an undertow of American paranoia. They were more about discovering what lay at the edge of our reality. In other words, they were more Woodstock than Watergate. If The X-Files was an attempt to look beyond, than David Duchovny’s Mulder was a proxy for the audience—excited, fervent, eyes-wide-open. One of the greatest lines of The X-Files run was when Scully asks Mulder: “Whatever happened to trust no one?” “Oh, I changed it to ‘Trust Everyone’.”
Mulder replied sardonically. “Didn’t I tell you?”