Do we really need another decadent western drama about the invasion of Iraq?
Another desert mirage exploited for its queasy cinematographic beauty, another milk-fed graduate of one of the better drama schools shaving his head, practising press-ups for a week and using his finest voice-projection technique to scream military obscenities? With the final point being, you know, something about the brutalising effects of war? After Jarhead and Black Watch and The Mark of Cain and Three Kings, it seemed unlikely even the masterly creators of The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns, could introduce something new. Just because you adored Vanity Fair, it doesn't mean you have to give all your loving to Pendennis too, right?
Wrong, because on the strength of the first episode Generation Kill is going to be superlative, less grandiloquent than Jarhead (there are no mystical horses capering beside burning oil wells), as acute as Black Watch but more sustained; more resigned and realistic in its military analysis than the hysterical, finger-pointing The Mark Of Cain. The great strengths of the Simon-Burns collaboration are all here: demotic speech is given dramatic, almost theatrical depth, without ever feeling stagey; it's intensely realistic in tone yet never becomes banal; and a dozen characters – more – are deftly kept simmering without boiling over.
Director Susanna White is better used to Dickens and Brontë which perhaps accounts for the fact that there's more jaw jaw than war war, an emphasis on character rather the mindless glory of explosions. Another reason it's not too Boys' Own is the character of the embedded reporter, our key into the story, our fellow civilian inside the tight-knit squad of marines. Appropriately enough, he's the image of erstwhile embed, hard man Ross Kemp – scared and baffled and trying hard as hell to hide it. As with The Wire, it has (according to Simon) been expressly written not for the average uninformed schmuck but for the people it portrays – every scene mentally tested on a jeering audience of marines. And as with The Wire, there's a "plant": one of the actors actually is the thing he seems to play. Can you guess which? I sure ain't telling.
Now to A Short Stay In Switzerland, a dramatisation of the true story of Dr Anne Turner who ended her life with brave and urgent action before she became incapacitated by degenerative brain disease. Screenwriter Frank McGuinness played it straight, letting the story's natural drama speak for itself. Alas, the drama stayed silent. Only Julie Walters' god-given gifts saved it from mawkish tedium, and even she could not bring to life the epic farewell scene in which she stroked goodbye to her cat.
When she arrived in Switzerland for her final appointment I thought both the drama and character might be reaching their natural conclusion (we were promised brevity in the title, after all). But then Walters looked at her moping children and delivered with huge chutzpah the line "Right, let's see Zurich!", a phrase guaranteed to cause dismay at the best of times, let alone during the final throes of a noble but misguided euthanasia drama. It was also unfortunate that, at the very moment she assured the Swiss clinician that she knew what the poison would do to her, Julie Walters flashed a look – sideways, dubious – that was pure Mrs Overall.
A pandemic of glossy teen dramas presently afflicts us, emanating from the United States in a sulphurous cloud. Gossip Girl depicts what cynical, cheap-rate scriptwriters imagine are the lives of privileged Manhattan teenagers. It is essentially a clothes catalogue come to life and given a voiceover of such relentless, childish inanity ("Would she see her again? Who knows. Sometimes our best friends are actually our worst enemies ...") that it makes Carrie's SATC musings sound like Confucius. The characters' balsa-wood emotional lives are so boring you start to look at it as you would a page in Vogue, with a sort of detached self-interest: could I wear those thigh-high socks? The vapid content seems designed to throw into focus the material items, from the set dressing to the actors' limbs. Inanimate things star in this deathly parable of consumerism. Needless to say, it is a huge success.
Beverly Hills 90210, the latest copycat, is a franchise resuscitated after 10 years off-screen. Like Gossip Girl, it will also make you green round the gills and bilious. There's a slightly higher kitsch value here, though, and Jessica Walter (Arrested Development) brings some fun, but it's still basically glassy-eyed social pornography, obsessed with looks, things, and money. Skins (E4) has a touch of the pestilence but generally, thank goodness, it's so scatty, bombastic, witty and hyperactive that you're too busy worrying about where the script is going to notice the clothes.