Television: Welcome to the world's beastliest freak show

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The Independent Online

Nothing in history had prepared us for 11 September: the first act of mass murder ever to be broadcast live on television. As much as the scale of havoc, what made the day so terrible was the fact that we could all watch it happening, before our very eyes. I don't want to talk about what we saw, how we felt – presumably most people remember very clearly. But this was an awesome demonstration of television's power to strike at our deepest emotions, to rub our noses in the here and now – a point made more deliberately by the Brass Eye paedophile special (Channel 4): not one of Chris Morris's best, but it got under all the right skins.

Mostly, though, television in 2001 has been busy proving that power corrupts. There is a new and disturbing willingness to cater to our voyeuristic tendencies – I'm thinking not just about Big Brother (Channel 4) and that whole genre of lab-rat TV, but about a trend towards television as freak show.

At the lower end, we have had old-style, carny-sideshow stuff, like Real Life: The Fattest Men in Britain (ITV 1). More often, the freakishness has been on the inside. Several documentaries kept me gripped, but also left me feeling I was colluding in something a little shabby: Victoria Mapplebeck's Meet the Kilshaws (Channel 4), about the pair from north Wales who became Britain's most hated couple after they paid £8,000 to adopt twins over the web; Stephen Walker's Hardcore (Channel 4), about a nice girl from Essex trying to break into the porn-film business in California, and succeeding all too well; Crime Scene Cleaner (Channel 4 again), about a man who makes a living getting rid of bloodstains and brain-spatter.

More engaging, though probably no more pardonable, were Jon Ronson's excursions into conspiracy theory, Secret Rulers of the World (Channel 4); and, in much the same vein, a pair of odd-couple documentaries by Louis Theroux: When Louis Met Paul and Debbie (BBC 2) and, just the other day, When Louis Met the Hamiltons – a queasy but brilliantly conceived exploitation of two people's inability to grasp how it will look on TV.

Documentaries that managed to reveal without peeking were thin on the ground – too many programmes rely on gimmicky pseudo-science and "reconstruction", either digital or dramatic. This isn't always bad (I love the digitally animated gallery of parodic creatures on BBC 1's Walking with Beasts); but often it is. One of the low points of the year came in Jeremy Bowen's daft series on the "historical" Jesus, Son of God (BBC 1), in which a man strapped to a cross was hooked up to an ECG machine to find out what crucifixion does to the heart-rate. What works is plain talking – as in the jaw-droppingly candid revelations about the Northern Irish peace process in Endgame in Ireland (BBC 2), and the entrancing Timewatch film about debutantes (BBC 2) – and plain looking: turn down the awful music and the soupy commentary, and The Blue Planet (BBC 1) and Wild Africa (BBC 2) were terrific.

The best documentary of the year was actually a piece of drama: Band of Brothers (BBC 2), the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg-produced serial about the soldiers of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the US Army. By sticking closely to verifiable facts, the scripts managed to shake off many of the bad narrative habits that constrain so much TV drama, so that it was unpredictable, minute to minute, in a way that hardly anything else was. Not easy viewing, but essential.

Otherwise, big, prestigious drama has been something of a wash-out. What is most striking is the number of serials (Love in a Cold Climate and the IRA drama Rebel Heart on BBC 1, Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers on BBC 2) that started well, then sputtered into ineffectuality: the art of pacing a narrative seems to be nearly extinct. The most enjoyable dramas have been soapish, more about character and dialogue than stuff happening, themes being explored – the second series of Paul Abbott's factory drama Clocking Off (BBC 1), Russell T Davies's gay/straight romance/comedy Bob and Rose (ITV 1), and Tim Loane's slick and likeable Teachers (Channel 4). One event did shine out, though: C4's ambitious Beckett season, back in July – not every film worked, but the concentration of image and text in, for instance, Play and Rockaby has haunted me since.

Comedy has not had a vintage year, with disappointments including Simon Nye's family farce The Savages (BBC 1) – essentially an updated Terry and June – and Paul Whitehouse's Happiness (BBC 2). Ricky Gervais's The Office (BBC 2) didn't maintain its documentary style terribly well, but really caught the rancour and self- delusion of middle-management; and The Armando Iannucci Shows (Channel 4) had flashes of disillusioned, aphoristic brilliance, punctuating long stretches of "So what?"

There isn't room to mention everything that deserve it – though given the sheer mass of television, it's frightening how few I feel bothered about leaving out. One other programme that didn't fit into any category at all demands a mention: Jonathan Meades's bilious, funny, contrived polemic on architecture and morality, Victoria Died in 1901 and Is Still Alive and Well (BBC 2). If all programmes were half as intelligent, reviewing television would be a joy. But they never are.

Beckett Season (C4)
'Band of Brothers' (BBC2)
'Victoria Died in 1901 and is Still Alive and Well' (BBC2)
'When Louis Met the Hamiltons' (BBC2)
'Walking with Beasts' (BBC1)