In the last of my posts looking at the trends in television over the first decade of the 21st Century, this post looks at programmes that took their inspiration away from the hum drum of normal life.
The United States were the first to turn to escapist fiction, with the far fetched “24”. 24 also followed the trend set by “The West Wing” by being released in series box sets which were big sellers. The US networks followed 24 with other “high concept”/far fetched series (which were also big DVD sellers) like “Lost”, “Heroes”, and “Flash Forward”.
Rather bizarrely ITV had a key role in shaping the next 5 years in programming. Before entering a blue funk period where everything they made stank, they broadcast “The Second Coming”, written by Russell T Davies, famous at that point for creating Queer As Folk. It was the imagining of what would happen if the second coming arrived in 21st Century Britain. Cast as the son of God was Christopher Eccleston. Looking back “The Second Coming” was perhaps a dry run for Davies next project. In early 2004 the BBC announced that they were going to bring back Doctor Who, with Davies as the main writer. They then cast Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor. Before the show aired I was a bit ambivalent, glad it was coming back but what if it wasn’t as good…
Yes it became a ratings success, and yes it became a hit with critics, even more so when Eccleston gave way to David Tennant. The mark of how successful Doctor Who became is the dash by television companies to tap into that style of escapist drama. The BBC then went on to make 3 series of “Robin Hood” and has also made (to date) 2 series of “Merlin”. ITV made its own time travelling Saturday drama “Primeval” featuring time travelling scientists and dinosaurs. Then the BBC made a grown up time travelling cop show like no other.
“Life On Mars” saw a Manchester police detective Sam Tyler (played with wide eyed bemusement by John Simm) involved in a hit and run, just as the song “Life on Mars” comes on to his I-Pod. He then wakes up in waste ground wearing different clothes. Gradually he finds out that he has woken up in 1973, which is the closest thing to another planet that he gets. He has to get to grips with the primitive (or lack of) technology, and the unreconstructed attitudes of his colleagues, in particular those of his boss Gene Hunt. Life On Mars ran for two series and ended as Tyler, having recovered from his hit and run, jumped off the top of the Police building to get back to 1973. There has also been 2 series (with one currently in production) of a follow up series – “Ashes to Ashes”. This series followed a criminal profiler Alex Drake as she is shot, and wakes up in 1981 (the second series is set in 1982), and also features Hunt and his colleagues seen in "Life on Mars".
It was at this point that the decade of the reality genre began to run out of steam, as reality TV became more and more unreal. “Big Brother’s own jump the shark moment arrived when during the Celebrity version at the start of 2008, some of the house-mates started to round on the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, with the queen of reality TV Jade Goody being the apparent ringleader. The bickering and the spite descended into racist comments aimed at Shetty. The media were outraged, talking head after talking head lined up to condemn this, and Channel 4, while the PM Brown was in, of all places, India on a trade visit.
As the decade comes to a close, we are probably in the death throes of the era of “reality TV”. Channel Four announced in July that the next full series of Big Brother would be the last, while ratings for I’m A Celebrity… and Strictly Come Dancing have both been less than previous years. The BBC’s Strictly… has had a troubled 12 months as well with allegations of vote rigging, the controversy surrounding the replacement of judge Arleen Phillips with previous winner Aleshia Dixon and the race row surrounding Wallace lookalike Anton Du Beke. There have even been the stirrings of a backlash against “The X Factor” with the internet campaign to install Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” as Christmas number one.
In a decade where television companies have been at their most profitable, and yet have been increasingly reticent on investing in what coke headed executives call “content”, the future looks bleak considering the effects of the current recession have not hit the television industry with its full force yet. Already ITV and STV are locked in a legal dispute over fees and STV not showing ITV produced programming. It’s no coincidence that ITV stopped making consistently good programmes at the time of the last recession, at the time of the last licence renewals (when LWT and Thames lost their London franchises to Meridian and, Thatcher’s favourite television company, Carlton).
The BBC this week felt the pinch when it lost its favourite cheeky scamp Jonathan Ross, supposedly to a disparity in wage offers, though there may be a political angle to this considering the Conservatives pledge to be stricter on the activities of the BBC, as well as to scrap OFCOM. Any wonder the owner of BSkyB has thrown his weight behind the Tories for this election. Ignore the off the cuff crude comments and you will find that Ross is actually a talented presenter and producer, some of his interviews have been as good as anything made by Parkinson in his prime and his programmes on Japanese culture and cinema have been consistently excellent.
The next decade may well be marked already as a decade dominated by a lack of money and a decade where broadcasting standards were allowed to go through the bottom of the barrel. As the song say’s, there may be trouble ahead which is not good for quality programming.