August 26th, 2008

Tea-time Viewing

 Ailz is trying to explain the difference between analog and digital. "Look at it this way," she says. "Analog is like this." She traces a wave pattern in the air. "And digital just goes zero-one." she punches a couple of holes in the air with her forefinger. " Analog takes up this much space. " The wave pattern again. "And digital takes up this much." And she pinches her thumb and forefinger together.

No. I still don't get it. I think I'll just fall back on her earlier suggestion that it's all down to the magic box.

Thanks to the magic box we get a huge stockpile of old TV shows we can log into whenever we want- for free. It's great. Lately we've been using this facility at tea-time- when there's nothing going out live except news and cruddy game shows. So first we watched all three seasons of Father Ted- which I sometimes think is the funniest show ever- and then we watched two seasons of Waking the Dead- which is gloriously bonkers- and currently we're working our way through the first season of Cold Case- which is like Waking the Dead with American accents and the bonkers taken out.

Cold Case is growing on me. At first I thought it was a little bland and formulaic, but the precision in the writing, the excellence of the craftsmanship, have won me over. What the show does is explore the recent American past. The cold cases are like Proustian madeleines. They take us back ten, twenty, thirty years.  We see people as they were and as they are. We see what time has done to them: how some it has fucked up and some it has straightened out. The bit at the end where the spirit of the murdered person appears to Rush to smile at her for solving their murder is a touch sentimental- but it gets me every time.

Last night's show was a corker. We went right back to 1958. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen it so lets just say it involved a nameless boy, a couple of nuns and an experimental government facility. It was a story entirely of its time- which could hardly happen in the present because of the way attitudes have changed. People did wrong, but they did wrong because they thought they were doing right- or at least their best. As one of the characters said, shrugging off responsibility for unforseen disaster, "We can't help the times in which we live."

There's a debate going on in the British media about why so many of our TV shows are so much worse than their American equivalents- and the consensus comes down to this- that we don't care enough about the writing. British TV can be brilliant; at it's best it takes risks; it's not afraid of being bonkers. But American shows are crafted so much more carefully. Cold Case is a good example. It's not a top-end show; it's not trail-blazing; but it is put together with tremendous care and attention. The characters are believable, the stories are believable, the period detail is thoroughly researched. Nothing comes off the assembly line that hasn't been checked, over and over again, for flaws.  Maybe this happens because the American networks have more money or maybe it's down to a difference in the culture. We Brits value eccentricity, amateurism, improvisation- which means we pull off the occasional blinding masterpiece, but also that, too often, we settle for the half-baked. It's astonishing how a show like Cold Case  maintains its quality over a run of 18 episodes. If this had been a British production there would have been wild ups and downs- the odd episode that made you go "wow", some that were good in parts, and a whole lot that failed to satisfy because of some stupidity in the plotting or inconsistency in characterisation.

We're in the mid-teens with Cold Case- and there aren't any further seasons available. So, OK, magic box-  what else have you got to offer?