Monday, April 3, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


 I know as well as you do that there is no such thing as an “innocent” text, and that any novel, play, poem, film or TV series carries a freight of ideas that, at their crudest level, could be called propaganda. This is true of pop fiction, genre fiction and pulp fiction as much as of works of High Art. But it is rare to see a genre TV show push its ideas as hard as a recent cop show I saw.

On Netflix, we watched the first two series (that is, eleven episodes) of the British-Irish co-production The Fall. Filmed in Belfast, the series has American actress Gillian Anderson as English Police Superintendent Stella Gibson, called in to find a serial killer who has a fetish about killing dark-haired professional women. This is not a whodunit, as we know from the start that the guilty party is one Paul Spector, a rather creepy, solemn-faced grief counsellor played by Jamie Dornan. While Gillian Anderson does a good, if tonally monotonous, English accent, her acting range is extremely limited and her face a blank. Jamie Dorman has one expression throughout – furrow-browed, fixed concentration, which we can take as meaning either evil genius or schizophrenia. Frankly, they are not the most nuanced of characters.

We watched the two series with considerable failure to suspend disbelief. So often, the serial killer was nearly caught, but got away once again; and even when he is at last identified by the police, it takes them an awfully long time to arrest him. Much of this looked like padding to spin out a four- or five-episode idea into eleven episodes. The series was aired in Britain in 2013 and 2014, and apparently viewers had to wait a whole year between series to find out how it turned out. Watching it on Netflix, we had no such wait. Even so, it was tiresome hoping it would at last get to the point.

But it is not the show’s aesthetic inadequacies that bring me to comment on The Fall. It is the fact that the series’ creator and writer Allan Cubitt pushed so hard at a sexual agenda, amounting at times to direct preaching to the audience.

Of course half the attraction of a show like this is its sheer kinkiness. If you are making a show about a serial killer who stalks women, murders them, and then poses their naked bodies so that he can photograph them as trophies, then obviously your lingering camera is inviting the audience to enjoy this sort of thing. It is not mere documentation. It is conditioned spectacle. To stir the pot further, The Fall has a subplot of a violent wife-beater, a walk-on part for an (imprisoned) paedophile priest, and a 15-year-old girl who becomes sexually excited by the exploits of the serial killer and teams up with him.

More kinkiness.

But (and here comes the agenda, folks), Allan Cubitt presents his serial killer as being – outside his night-time life of murder – a married man who, as far as the rest of the world knows, is a devoted husband and father.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Stella Gibson has her own sexual appetites. Early in the first series, her eyes fall on a younger police officer, she invites him up to her hotel room and spends the night bonking with him. The day after this one-night stand, the younger officer is shot dead in front of his family, leaving a grieving widow. When the younger officer’s movements are examined, Stella Gibson’s one-night stand becomes known to her police team. One of them takes her to task for her behaviour. She (i.e. the scriptwriter) proceeds to lecture him (i.e. us, the audience) that patriarchal men have one-night stands all the time, so her colleagues are berating her only because she is a woman exercising her sexual freedom. She shows no reaction to the fact that the man she slept with is now dead. It has nothing to do with her and her free choices. Later, in the second series, she brings another junior officer to her bed. She also has a lesbian cuddle with a female colleague, although in this case the other woman turns her down.

Often as I watched this emotionless woman work through various sexual partners for her entertainment, I wondered whether she, rather than the serial killer, was the real psychopath.

Ah yes, but then some sort of comparison was exactly what Allan Cubitt wanted. The serial killer is on the surface a domesticated married man…. but see what evil lies beneath!! You can’t trust these married-with-kids types can you?

Are you disgusted by the woman who bonks around dispassionately? Well aren’t you a judgmental conservative person. Why. you’re probably the type who would limit a grown woman’s sexual choices.

This, I think, is the type of propaganda the show is selling.

I can’t be too worried about it, however, as a little research shows that the show gradually lost its audience. Probably most were turned off by the slowness of the series’ narrative and its failure to go anywhere.

I note with amusement that a third series (which I have not seen) was made in 2015 and aired in Britain in 2016. The Guardian produced a scathing article about it. At the end of the second series, the stalking serial killer Paul Spector is absolutely and definitely shot dead. We see him lying motionless with blood splattered all over him. But apparently in the third series, he was brought back to life so that he could have another battle of wits with the woman cop. This (plus even more slow-moving episodes) was too much for most viewers and the negative reviews poured in.

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