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.

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones