20 January 2007

What is on TV?

Obviously I don't mean right now, and I'm not going to start talking about all the sundry shows I think are just plain awful. No: this is a post about television shows that are currently, were recently, or will shortly be available to watch on free-to-air TV in the UK and that have a level of value or interest for me. I will, however, first mention in passing how woefully bad I consider most TV to be: soaps, docu-soaps, reality shows and game (rather than quiz) shows all have no merits in my mind, and make up an ever larger quantity of the programming available to watch. Good films are few and far between and, on the evidence of recent weeks, are being further marginalised by pushing them largely into graveyard schedules (starting 11pm or later).

True, there are also quality programmes being made and, in many ways, the quality level of modern programmes is way above that of older shows: higher budgets and production values leading to better produced end product. However it is evident that any individual viewer will rate the aired programmes differently in terms of enjoyment and content, and whilst I can recognise the high production values of something like the BBC's recent Doctor Who spin off Torchwood, for instance, the actual content of the programme left me bored.

So what have I found interesting lately? Not a lot. I must admit part of this is that as a general rule I vastly prefer my entertainment interactive to passive, so games and other people over film or TV. I do, however, enjoy the visual media when done well (such as Memento, for example), and the medium of television has some strong points too. In fact (ironically?) the TV show format quite strongly influences my favoured approach to roleplaying, thanks in no small part to Matt Wilson's excellent Primetime Adventures. Whilst most shows just lack that spark of interest there are, however, the odd exceptions: shows that capture my interest when I come across them by accident and do enough not just to keep me watching there and then, but to seek out future episodes.

Currently there is only one show airing on free-to-air TV in the UK that falls into this category; I am enthralled by Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Robert Goren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent. I have no real love for the genre as a whole, and feel no pull to watch any other of the Law and Order iterations, but there is something about the way this one character is written and acted that demands my attention. The actor's mannerisms and detail combined with intelligent writing - the mind games the character uses to get into his suspects' heads or to the bottom of the crime must come from the writing - are just magnetism for my eyes. Certainly without that character I wouldn't watch the show; I suspect I wouldn't watch it with another actor, either.

The last show that I ended up sitting down to watch was when ITV picked up series one of Supernatural. I stumbled across it on a few occasions before I actually decided I would make an effort to watch it if it was on when I was free (and awake). First impressions were bad, but after I got over the whole American Teen vibe given off by the leads I warmed to the show - which has a very strong feel of gaming about it, and actually the relationships between the characters were well written. I'm pleased to hear that the second series is arriving on ITV2 next week, and I'll be looking to watch it.

I'm also periodically catching re-runs of Due South on ITV3 (and Quantum Leap which follows it) but these are both cases of take-it or leave-it nostalgia more than anything else: I enjoyed both when I was much younger and seeing them now is equal parts bemusement and amusement.

But really that's it, at least as far as drama is concerned. There are other things I will watch if they happen to be on and I flick by, though largely as background noise whilst doing other things. I will not sit down and invest wholly in something that doesn't really grab me in some way. There are other things I sit down and watch but they're not dramas: I love University Challenge and get mileage out of shows like QI or Have I Got News For You; watching Football Focus is a Saturday ritual, and Channel 4 News is a staple of most weekdays and as and when I catch episodes of Scrubs that I've not seen before I will sit and giggle.

TV shows make up a good 50% or more of my DVD collection, too, but it is mostly comedy (The Fast Show, Father Ted, etc.). The only dramas I have on DVD are 10 or more years old, and of exceptional quality or quirkiness: Twin Peaks (season 1), Channel 4's Ultraviolet and This Life.

In essence I'm hard to please when it comes to passive forms of visual entertainment and there's very little around that comes close to meeting my exacting standards for seeking return viewings.

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