Television: Why it's best if you haven't been framed

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I almost never watched Cheers, and only ever caught Roseanne a few times. I was late with Friends and slow on Frasier. Garry Shandling nearly passed me by, though I did better with Larry Sanders and Seinfeld. I have yet to make it through an entire Northern Exposure.

It was not always thus. I was in on the first wave of Hill Street Blues and a thirtysomething regular. I was keen and young and looking for things to do between bouts of working and sleeping. And then, somewhere around the arrival of our first child, I completely lost the plot. It was impossible to figure out which bit of which series we were in at any given time. So characters appeared, disappeared and reappeared with that disconcerting lack of regard for the finality of death which was once the sole province of Neighbours (at which point let us welcome back drowned Harold Bishop, looking none the worse for two years among the sharks and starfish).

But even as a non-watcher I was aware of how these American shows achieved cult status in Britain. We talked and wrote about them, populated our bistro conversation with references to them.

Why? Perhaps it is something to do with their self-confidence - their sense of themselves. This week saw the last ever Roseanne (C4, Wed), a comedy that - riskily - situated itself among the fat, unglamorous, blue- collar and lesbian. Its constant theme of the need for tolerance, and its exploration of the complex morality of everyday life made it (or what I saw of it) profoundly modern, if a bit mawkish.

Eventually it disappeared up its own backside, of course. This last edition was a weird collection of homely wisdoms like "No one can stop me, but me", and "God is inside us, beneath the pain and sorrow", designed to make us think of Roseanne as part-human, part-divine therapist. It concluded with a windy TE Lawrence quote, of no discernible relevance to anything.

So Roseanne is no more. Where then did these homespun lines come from? "Happy children grow up in an atmosphere of trust - which includes believing in the future, even though there are no guarantees." It was detective Andy Sipowicz's son's pediatrician giving the psychotic cop a few wise truths in the first of a new series of NYPD Blue (C4, Mon). This show is - naturally - a cult, starring Dennis Franz as the Neanderthal-tho'- sensitive Sipowicz.

Like most Bochco cop-shows we get gun fights, small personal problems (this week was the weight issue: "Andy, we both require peer reinforcement. We discussed this!"), big personal problems, and romance. The latter two are often related, as when the good-looking guy cop is having trouble persuading the luscious girl cop to marry him. It ain't his acromelagic looks that's holding her back, but the fact that, as she tells him, "Bobby, my mom shot my dad seven months ago." Expect Sipowicz to give her the benefit of his newly acquired wisdom later in the series.

What people most notice about NYPD Blue, however, is the camerawork. Whip-pans take the eye diagonally up and across a building, as though trying to locate the source of a sound; an apparently random zoom seems to discover nothing, and then somebody important moves into frame. Long, unedited tracking shots - involving many characters - alternate with fast shots of single movements, and shot sizes suddenly change.

A body is found, and here's how: the camera pans up to Brooklyn Bridge, then suddenly down to a crate in a roadway. We go closer and there's a body. Pan across to a group of figures, zoom in and discover that they are policemen, including Andy and Bobby.

So we do not know what to expect from one shot to the next; you cannot infer one from the other. The cuts are speeded up as action intensifies, the camera becoming more frenetic. And finally we have slo-mo when the danger is greatest and the world (and our hearts) stop still.

We can now accept this type of filming partly because of the way in which TV advertising has transformed storytelling. The need to deliver a message very quickly and distinctively led to new film idioms. At first this "foreshortening of the action" was simply about how long - or how many shots - it took to get a character from one place to another without disorienting the viewer. Must you see her getting up, dressing, leaving her house, opening the car door, driving, stopping, getting out again, greeting her lover, etc? Or can you see a naked foot, a zooming car, a man's lips and still know what's going on? You can. One recent ad allows an entire life to flash past in 40 seconds.

So we now expect to do a little more work ourselves. The current British cult series is This Life. The characters and situation come first, of course, but the decision to film and stage it differently is immensely important too. One favoured This Life technique is for the camera to go in tight, allowing the subjects to break out of the frame momentarily as they toss their heads, or stand up suddenly. The effect is to give Miles and Anna et al a genuine autonomy - real life. We feel that we are following them with our own eyes; that we are in the room with them.

So despite the fact that NYPD Blue's main plot was itself entirely routine (crackhead killer is nabbed in rat-infested tenement by self-doubting cop), the moment we tuned in we knew what it was, and entered into some kind of special compact with it.

Now contrast this with a perfectly reasonable British cop series, Backup (BBC1, Wed). This may have a decent plotline (this week involving a criminal family on an estate), an offbeat collection of characters (though who has on-beat characters these days?), and some good writing - but it looks and sounds exactly like everything else.

For a start, the shots are all the same. They are either static or else slow pans; the edits happen with metronomic and predictable regularity. The actor's faces, caught well-framed mid-shot or close-up, seem to tell us exactly what to think about this character and his/her motivations. Guided from one person to another, one item to another, we are not permitted to think for ourselves, or to be in any doubt about what we are seeing. It is as though the camera were an omnipotent narrator.

Yet uncertainty is exactly what happens in real life. An incident takes place on the street, and we see a little of it, our perspective changes constantly the closer we get, or as we notice things that - at first - escaped our attention. Life jerks.

And it is not enough, as Backup does, to try to compensate for the lack of visual excitement by the use of ever more intrusive cellos and plunky piano soundtracks. There seems to be a growing belief among programme- makers that music alone can convey mood. It can't. And it is also remarkable that so little of it is ever memorable, unlike (say) the incidental music for Murder One.

It is possible that such conservatism is necessary for very large prime- time British audiences. After all, NYPD Blue gets half the viewers that Backup does. But if cult status is what you're after ...

My views on this are not consistent. I tuned into the documentary Nazi Gold (BBC1, Wed) - dealing with Swiss complicity in the Holocaust - with some trepidation. It had been made by Chris Olgiati, an enfant terrible of BBC documentary-making. Olgiati, an auteur, once made a programme about the murder in Washington of a Chilean dissident, Orlando Letelier, that was so stylised and clever-clever that the story itself became almost unintelligible. Would I get endless moody lighting, puddles, and shadows on walls?

Not at all. This show was at the opposite end of the scale. Sparse and terrible, it made the case against the Swiss with shattering clarity, and it was put together with a wonderful regard for the story and the rules of evidence.

Simple virtues too, ruled Hotel (ITV, Tues), a fly-on-the-wall set in a Bristol luxury establishment. The general manager was right out of The Peter Principle. "In this job it takes all types to make a world: the good, the bad and the ugly," was his insight into the world of the top- class hotelier, and the camera bore him out.

My favourite moment was when they opened the lost property hamper containing all the things left behind in guests' rooms. Items included blow-up dolls and vibrators (including one secreted inside a plastic cucumber). "We keep them for a year, and then give them to the Salvation Army," said the chamber maid, improbably. And couldn't you just imagine that happening in Larry Sanders?

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