Television: The old trails are the best

Television drama has three eternal verities, four if you add Verity Lambert, the producer who is still going strong, aeons after bringing us Dr Who and Rock Follies. But I was thinking of cops, docs and frocks. To stand a reasonable chance of being commissioned, a drama should contain one of these components. By cleverly combining two, like the cop doc, Dangerfield, or the frocked cop, Cadfael, or the doc in a frock, Bramwell, it will almost certainly get a smashing prime-time slot and the cover of Radio Times.

The really smart people in drama, however, also keep an eye on other TV genres. Once you've done fat, thin, good, bad, grumpy, perky, young, old, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, historical, futuristic, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Channel Island cops, it is time to look elsewhere for inspiration. Hence Pie in the Sky, which spotted that cookery programmes were becoming even more prolific than cop dramas and ingeniously fused them in the enormous person of Richard Griffiths.

And now we have Badger (BBC1), starring the chap from Soldier, Soldier who isn't Robson Green as an amiable Geordie detective specialising in crimes against wildlife. This could prove to be a masterstroke. After all, the British like animal programmes more than they like sex, money, alcohol and Des Lynam combined. So a cops-and-wildlife double-whammy - Animal Hospital meets Heartbeat, starring thingy from Soldier, Soldier, and written by Kieran Prendiville, creator of Ballykissangel - is a guaranteed, thoroughbred hit.

But is it any good? And before I address that question, why is it called Badger? There was a badger in it, but only fleetingly. Unless I missed something, nobody was nicknamed Badger, unlike Adam Faith, whose nickname in Budgie was, of course, Budgie. Perhaps the reason will emerge in forthcoming episodes. In the meantime, coincidentally, I had to be badgered into watching episode one. I didn't want to, but my wife has gone soft on wildlife ever since we bought a rabbit and a guinea-pig for our children four weeks ago. In fact, I happen to know that the BBC was not the first to mix cops with animals. Last week, my wife had to take the guinea-pig to a veterinary clinic, and overheard the receptionist, her hand over the telephone mouthpiece, saying to the vet: "It's Mrs Robertson. You had Bodie in last week and now Doyle is poorly."

Anyway, is Badger any good? It is, in fact, no better or worse than one would expect it to be. In other words, it is absolutely predictable. Prendiville is a clever writer with a gift for dialogue but his scripts follow a rigid formula. They are two parts frivolity to one part poignancy, a potent mix he may well have picked up sitting alongside Esther Rantzen on That's Life. Badger, like Ballykissangel, also has a tiresomely jaunty soundtrack, performed by what sounds suspiciously like a Lindisfarne tribute band. We are not allowed to forget that the series is set in the North-east. The characters don't go to the lavatory without crossing the Tyne Bridge, and Alan Shearer has almost certainly been signed up for a cameo. Nobody has hummed "Bladon Races" yet, but they will. Badger is a marketing exercise masquerading as drama. In fact, Badger's Northumberland, a coffee-table companion to James Heriot's Yorkshire, is probably rolling off the presses as I write. And believe me, it will be a bestseller.

The coffee-table book I really covet, though, is Tony Soprano's New Jersey. Not that it is likely to be produced, for no respectable publisher would want to caption glossy photographs with "These are the dockyards where we sliced up the motherf----- who refused to pay us protection money." The Sopranos (C4), like the blessed Larry Sanders Show, was made in the US for the cable channel HBO and is immune to the strict, nay puritanical, regulation that governs the US networks. In NYPD Blue, Detective Sipowicz can beat up as many villains as he likes, but must never call them anything more abusive than "douche-bag". In The Sopranos, by contrast, effing is endemic.

This may be why the BBC and ITV did not buy the series. But whatever the reason, Channel 4, whose executives, in a single, triumphant afternoon at the annual Los Angeles sales of the US's new shows, once snapped up both Friends and ER from under the cheque books of the BBC, again appears to have spent wisely. There are those who snipe at Channel 4 for importing from the US. Bugger that, say the rest of us. Television needs as much decent comedy and drama as it can get.

The Sopranos, on the evidence of the opening episode, is certain to win friends and influence people. It stars the splendid James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, a Prozac-munching mobster with the hots for his psychiatrist (Lorraine Bracco), and is darkly, subtly comic. Our very own Operation Good Guys (BBC2), for all its acclaim, looks clumsy by comparison. Both are spoofs, but one uses a sledgehammer to rearrange our preconceptions, the other a paint brush. And the dialogue is wonderful. "When's the last time you had a prostate exam," asked Bracco's psychiatrist, when Tony complained of impotence. "Hey," he said. "I don't even let anyone wag a finger in my face."

Meanwhile, just along the New Jersey Turnpike in Philadelphia, Reba and Lori are perfectly used to undignified medical examinations. Reba and Lori are 37-year-old twins joined at the head, and as if this were not handicap enough, Reba also has spina bifida. I have seen them in at least one previous documentary, and they were always bound to pop up in The Secret Life of Twins (BBC1), Professor Robert Winston's latest study of what makes us tick (on which subject, the week's best aphorism came from Tony Soprano, who observed that "even a broken clock is right twice a day".)

The first programme in Winston's series was disappointing, if only because it visited so much familiar territory. If the Festival of Twins in Twinsburg, Ohio, has featured once on the telly, it has featured a thousand times. So much so that there seems to be stock footage for any old documentary- maker to plunder. And who has not yet heard the story of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, repeated here for the umpteenth time? Apparently, they loathed each other, so it has to go down as monumental bad luck that they shared a stomach.

There was, almost literally, just one slice of originality in The Secret Life of Twins, for we saw, in considerable detail, what I assume to be prime-time's first Caesarian section. I have to say it was slightly more graphic than I would have wished, and I am probably more interested in childbirth than most male viewers. Besides, before my wife's third pregnancy was scanned about 18 months ago, I felt certain we were having twins, for there were twin baby boys next door, and twin baby girls next door- but-one. However, I have since discovered that these things tend not to happen on a postcode basis.

Could it be that childbirth is the new cookery? Whenever you turn on the telly these days, there seems to be another woman in labour. Maternity (BBC2) followed two single mothers-to-be. One was 17, black and impoverished. The other was 27, white and upper-middle-class. Maternity cut repeatedly between them, unable, like so many documentaries purportedly about something else, to resist focusing on differences of race and class. We then saw the 17-year-old suffering from severe pre-eclampsia, a condition I know all about having once watched it get the better of ER's Dr Greene, nicest of all the TV docs, that relentlessly proliferating breed.