Last Night's TV: They led me on - and now I regret it
Mistresses, BBC1; The Boys From Baghdad High - This World, BBC2
Wednesday 09 January 2008
As these things go, the packaging for Mistresses is quite nicely done. Yes, the title sequence looks a little like a commercial for an upmarket escort agency, come-hither eyes isolated in a tasteful field of black-pink highlighting, but that may very well be what the punter is looking for after all: executive style, breezy conversation and dependable sex. For the opening episode, though, it was preceded by a pre-credit sequence in which the characters gathered for a girl's night in, with mojitos and a helpfully instructive birthday present (a framed photograph of the same women much younger, establishing that they've all been friends since girlhood) and from the start this looked like something else entirely. It looked like "Sex and the Suburbs", a privet-hedged version of the dish-and-spill drama. There's an over-sexed promiscuous one, there's one who's pining for a child and - this being the suburbs - there's a school-run singleton wondering whether she'll ever get pinned to a mattress again. To be fair, there's also doctor Katie, who had just administered a mercy killing to her married lover - not a relationship dilemma that Carrie Bradshaw ever covered in her column as far as I can recall, but that apart, the sense of imitation is almost slavish. You can even see it at work in the editing, in the collage of reaction shots - brave smiles, pensive looks, sideways glances - that occur whenever the women get together to talk (which is around 50 times more frequently than real professional women would be able to manage).
The real problem with Mistresses, though, is that all the characters have to behave with implausible stupidity to jerk the plot into forward motion. For the moment, Katie is top of the leaderboard in this regard. Not only has she had an affair with a patient who she then eased across the Great Divide with a morphine overdose, but when her dead lover's son confided in her that he thought his father was having an affair, she struck the entire family off her GP list. Part of the plausibility problem here may be Sarah Parish's performance - she's an actor who can look stricken and guilty even when she's buying potatoes - but I think the scriptwriters have to take some of the blame. And they're certainly responsible for Siobhan's decision to crumple into the arms of a lecherous colleague at her law firm, who - discretion being crucial in such workplace affairs - pressed her up against a frosted-glass wall overlooking a stairwell for a quick knee-trembler. Meanwhile, Trudi, who had just banked a $2m cheque from the 9/11 widows' compensation fund, was getting girlishly excited about Richard, the schoolgate dad who had started asking her out for coffees. We were supposed to be a bit worried about Richard's motives here, but I was a bit more anxious about Trudi's children, who seemed to be dropped at a moment's notice when one of the women called for a collective gossip dump. And Jessica - the party-girl Samantha clone - is getting things squared away for a bit of Sapphic experimentation with one of the lesbians whose civil partnership she is supposed to be arranging. Having ascended to a base camp of broad implausibility, it looks as if they're heading upwards towards the South Col with next week's episode, but I doubt I'll be around to find out for sure.
In the documentary The Boys from Baghdad High - This World, Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter had overcome what one imagines must have been fairly substantial obstacles to put together a collective video diary about life as a teenager in Iraq. Like Mistresses, it was built around the tribulations and hopes of four friends. Unlike Mistresses, its storyline was governed not by a tick-list of stock narrative dilemmas and secrets but the cruel uncertainties that occupation and insurgency have brought to Baghdad.
The boys filmed themselves, and like boys anywhere, they honed in on the inconsequential: learning the lyrics of an internet download, playing football, whether you can conceal the mouse in your bedroom from a mother determined to exterminate it. The mortal realities of Baghdad kept interrupting though - the lights suddenly going out or a burst of gunfire rattling in the night - and even the boys' banter was stained by recent history: "If Chemical Ali really wanted to destroy the north, all he had to do was fire a rocket with Mohamed's socks in them," said a boy teasing his friend.
This was a life in which "curfew" wasn't just a metaphor and where walking round the corner to visit a friend could be dangerous. But, surprisingly, universal teenage discontents sometimes trumped local terrors. Half-way through the film, Mohamed's friend Ali fled with his family to the northern town of Abril, a place of lush parks, steady electricity and busy streets. When you caught up with him, you expected to find him at ease for the first time, but he was actually wistful for Baghdad. "Here, it's different," he said. "No bombings, it's boring."
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