Greed, gangsters and the Gulag

There are times when criticism has to admit its limitations. Any objective analysis of
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - the most sensationally successful TV programme of 1999 - would surely conclude that its transparent efforts to manipulate audience emotions are crass at best, and arguably immoral. But what's the point of saying so? Its appeal to our tackiest instincts is so direct, so acutely judged, and its ratings so huge, that rational analysis must shrug its shoulders and trudge off to look for other work.

There are times when criticism has to admit its limitations. Any objective analysis of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - the most sensationally successful TV programme of 1999 - would surely conclude that its transparent efforts to manipulate audience emotions are crass at best, and arguably immoral. But what's the point of saying so? Its appeal to our tackiest instincts is so direct, so acutely judged, and its ratings so huge, that rational analysis must shrug its shoulders and trudge off to look for other work.

Yet sometimes an admission of inadequacy is the best tribute from criticism. There were programmes this year which left me feeling there was more to be said about them than could fitin a daily column. The Sopranos (C4) was one such, a gangster drama that used crudity of language and action as the raw material for a more complex, realistic portrait of a family than any other drama has achieved in recent years. I can't think of any other programme this year that created in viewers a more disturbing, contradictory set of sympathies - embodied by James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, the flawed capo: the single best piece of acting on our screens this year.

In The Royle Family (BBC1) the set-up was just as cruelly truthful about families, but in the guise of comedy. Again, I felt unable and unwilling to pick out the factors that made this seriescompelling. However, Sue Johnstone, as Barbara Royle, ran Gandolfini close; her tentative looks and smiles expressed depths of sadness and barely defiant hope terrible to watch.

Tony Grounds' Births, Marriages and Deaths (BBC2) was pleasingly strange, our best home-grown drama. The other contenders - Eureka Street and Shooting the Past (BBC2) - offset brilliance with clunking metaphor. New hope for the sitcom was suggested with Spaced (C4), which mingledacute observation with fantasy.

The one thing that left criticism feeling really flat-footed, though, was the depiction of real life. The Valley (C4), about a massacre in Kosovo, Angus McQueen's Gulag (BBC2), Paul Watson's picture of a marriage devastated by Alzheimer's disease, Malcolm and Barbara (ITV) - faced by such cold facts is it useful to do anything more than stand and point? Such programmes restore faith in television. A year with six programmes like that hasn't been such a bad one.

 

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