Television Review: Psychos

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BREAKING TABOOS - on death, madness, bodily functions - seems to be generally regarded as a good thing to do. I'm not sure that this is at all obvious: most taboos are there for quite sensible reasons. For every person who feels trapped because they can't speak about these subjects, there is somebody who finds the silence necessary or comforting. Still, if you are going to break a taboo, there are good ways and bad ways of going about it.

Psychos (C4) is one of the bad ways - an attempt to turn psychiatric medicine into gritty, exciting drama. It is set in the psychiatric ward of a Glasgow hospital where, you may not be surprised to learn, the doctors are not much saner than the patients. The hero is Dr Danny Nash, a maverick who refuses to be bound by textbook convention, gets roaring drunk, gulps flat Irn-Bru and pills for breakfast, says "Bastard" an awful lot and, unlike some of his snooty, time-serving colleagues, cares passionately for his patients. Last night's opener revolved around the case of Billy McLeod, a former patient now sectioned after barricading himself into his Easterhouse flat. New girl Dr Kate Millar diagnosed him as a classic paranoid schizophrenic, and thought he should be given medication and sent home. Danny reckoned that somebody really was out to get him, and argued furiously that the best thing would be to keep him in hospital where he felt safe. Eventually, Danny accompanied Billy home, only to be trapped when somebody fire-bombed the flat.

Implicit in the storyline, and the supposed vindication of Danny's views, were at least two stupid assumptions. First, that if they really are out to get you, it means that you can't be paranoid; second, that a doctor who gets emotionally involved with a patient's plight is somehow superior to the heartless bastards who treat each patient as just another case. Here, Danny fought to keep his patient in hospital even though he believed he was sane and even though he was taking up emergency bed-space, which doesn't strike me as a responsible clinical attitude.

Even if the plot had made more sense, Psychos would still have been irritating because it strained so hard to be cool, with restless camerawork, in-yer- face Scottishness and Underworld on the soundtrack - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the Trainspotting generation. But it could only maintain its cool by sticking to a simplistic, unreal version of mental illness; the truth would be far too confused and tranquillised to be any fun. If this is how we have to speak of madness, best shut up.

A more sensible approach to breaking taboos was demonstrated in The Long Goodbye (BBC2), a new series on bereavement. The first programme offered a succession of people talking about the funerals of those they had loved - children on their mothers, a gay man on his lover, a mother on her baby son. It was marred by too much music, dismayingly reminiscent of the Yellow Pages ads, and visual clutter (shots of empty beds, boxes of tissues, hospitals, funeral parlour paraphernalia). But it made up for that with the restraint of the testimonies presented, and its reluctance to underwrite the cliches of bereavement.