Whodunnits have become so unsatisfactory. The answers never live up to the questions

The climactic moments of Broadchurch and Mad Men are among the least enjoyable

Howard Jacobson
Friday 10 May 2013 16:23
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Olivia Colman and David Tennant in 'Broadchurch'
Olivia Colman and David Tennant in 'Broadchurch'

Out of the country for 10 days, looking at desert, showering in the open air and not watching television. Bliss. Not watching television has much to recommend it anywhere, but when warm winds are winnowing the hairs on your chest and making little floral pinwheels of those between your thighs – let’s not be prudish, that’s what happens when you walk out of an open-air shower into desert – not watching television feels like a reason to be alive.

It’s falling out of the collective passivity that’s so good. The not knowing what people are talking about when they use words like “Apprentice”. But in no time at all, the collective reclaims you on your return, and before you know it, you are eager to know how something or other ended. Bloody Broadchurch. Or how something or other began. Bloody Mad Men.

My point is general and only happens to be called Broadchurch. Prior to going away, I’d watched all but the last episode, mainly for the pleasure of Olivia Colman – with whom I suspect it would be fun to take an outdoor shower – occasionally thinking it was good, occasionally thinking it was poor, but mainly thinking it was above averagely just about all right. It was clear, of course, by episode three who’d done it.

It’s always the person who’s sufficiently present in the plot for you to know vaguely who he is but is never filmed staring longer than is natural into the middle distance just before a commercial break. And other characters were starting to ask how it is possible not to know what the person you’re married to is really like, and it was becomingly glaringly obvious that Olivia Colman didn’t know what the person she was married to was really like. Too busy being a detective. Aren’t they always? Too busy detecting to detect what’s happening in their own lives. Come up with a domestically attentive detective and you’ve killed the genre. Besides, you don’t employ Olivia Colman in the first place unless there’s going to be a reason for her to stand sobbing on the sand when all’s revealed. There’s no point paying for the best tears in the business and then not getting her to shed them. So Olivia Colman’s half-anonymous husband it had to be. This is going to be a problem from now on for any whodunnit starring Olivia Colman. The villain is always going to turn out to be her husband.

So let’s have no more whodunnits. The reason they are never satisfactory is that the resolution doesn’t justify the waiting; the answer doesn’t live up to the question; the actual reason he dunnit is no match for the millions of reasons someone else might have. Even if you haven’t guessed right, it’s entirely without human significance that you guessed wrong. There is more drama in not being able to finish The Independent cryptic crossword.

The other problem with contemporary whodunnits is that the villains, however would-be complex, are all guilty of versions of the same crime. Taking an unhealthy interest in children. Perhaps these things are cyclical, or maybe they reflect something that is happening in the real world, or at least what we fear is happening in the real world, but denouements have suddenly been taken over by paedophiles. The suspicious look like paedophiles but aren’t, whereas the guilty don’t look like paedophiles but are.

Well, it would seem we do have reason to be anxious, with half the Catholic Church, any number of well-loved TV personalities – when I say well-loved, I don’t mean by you or me, reader – and an inexplicable number of classical music teachers, under suspicion of paedophiliac offence. Who’d have thought there was so much of it about?

Why child abuse is so prevalent, or was so prevalent a generation ago, since a lot of this is justice playing catch-up; what part authority and celebrity play not only in making children available and susceptible, but in making adults lose their reason; just what the pleasure can be in sex with people below the age of consent and discernment, sex without true reciprocity, sex without adult conversation – now here are questions to build a drama around. But it wouldn’t be a whodunnit. It would be a whydunnit or a howdunnit and those are a different kettle of fish. Not a revelation of a secret, or the unmasking of a single sick individual, after which society gets back to normal – ie to fornicating with people who are not their spouses but are at least their own age – but a revelation of our natures after which there is no normal.

Enough with the detection. It’s not the uncovering of any predilection that’s interesting. It’s the predilection itself. Look at Mad Men which threatens to lose itself again in the labyrinth of tracking down Don Draper’s secret past. The early episodes of this sometimes superb series were marred by existential hokum, flashbacks to an earlier self, if that was himself – for who’s to say where self resides? – name changes, identity crises, lonely half-forgotten infidelities – for who was there to be faithful to? – all filmed in that slightly odd, old-fashioned, halting way that tells you psychology is afoot.

And with the new season we are back on the trail of Don’s hunger to make love to women to whom he isn’t married – as though that’s a weakness that needs explaining – through faded shots of prostitutes in lingerie of another age, and a boy with a weird haircut peering through peepholes in a brothel – the biggest psycho-cliché of them all.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a Freudian explanation – but only when Freud’s doing the explaining. Otherwise I want character revealed in action not exposition, the feel and taste of us – all deranged in some way or another – the here and quite sufficiently mysterious now.

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