TV On Trial: Homeland & Upstairs Downstairs

Posted in TV, TV on Trial
By Temoor Iqbal on 7 Mar 2012

In TV, being released to fanfare is always a worrying sign. In the visual arts world TV shows are the twitchy nerdlingers. They are capable of great things, but not robust enough to stand up to massive expectations and overly-effusive praise in the way that strong, muscular films are able to.

Homeland (Episode 3, available on 4oD until Tue 3 April 2012)

Homeland is, in many ways, no exception to this. That is not to say it is a bad show, but rather that the surrounding hype promised quality surpassing anything ever seen before – a formula guaranteed to yield disappointment. That Homeland is a product of the 24 stable is clear to see. The story and characters are largely archetypal, with Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, the mandatory hard-boiled, work-before-life, perfectionist CIA agent. One could perhaps reason that any American show about terrorism must follow a blueprint, and that it is the quality of the subtle deviations from the blueprint on which it should be judged. In this regard Danes’ character is not a success, with her uniqueness stemming from a psychological problem that the writers obviously often forget about, causing them to make her suddenly do a crazy face and try to kiss her boss just to remind viewers that she has so very many dimensions and nuances. Much more admirable is the character of Sgt Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis. Again, the blueprint shows through, with frequent flashbacks of a prison cell in Afghanistan that might as well be in Hanoi or Colditz Castle. However, the situation is rescued by a genuinely interesting twist which sees his allegiances called into question.

One interesting plot line/character is not enough, though. Irritating paint-by-numbers presumptions still abound in Homeland. A particularly infuriating one is the conflation of the bad guys’ negative traits with their benign, neutral character aspects. This results in Brody’s revelation as a Muslim being presented, albeit subtly, as an equal revelation that he has a dark side and is not a straight-up good guy. It may seem like nit-picking, but there is an underlying assumption here that crops up in too many US films and TV shows, and smacks of laziness (at best). One thing that does set this show far and above its predecessor is the soundtrack. Where 24’s was relentlessly thumping and seemed designed to cause nothing but anxiety and high blood-pressure, Homeland’s is suggestive, subtle and appropriate. Gone is the lick of snake charmer pipes every time an Arab is shown, replaced instead by music that sets a mood rather treating the audience like imbeciles who need constant reminders of how to feel about each character. Make no mistake – this is not the artistic masterpiece some would have you believe, and it is not high-brow viewing either. However, it is, for all its flaws, interesting enough to warrant the required attention span for fans of the genre.

Upstairs Downstairs (Episode 3, available on BBC iPlayer until Sun 1 April 2012)

Sometimes a mere human being can be struck by a blast of otherworldly psychic ability, allowing him to glimpse the unknown and see into the void of the future. When I turned on Upstairs Downstairs, I was blessed with such a moment. I could see the toilet of the next few hours before my eyes and I knew in my heart the agony to which I was about to be self-subjected.

Each episode of Upstairs Downstairs could best be described as an hour of flouncy masturbation in a four-poster bed. Present as the overriding theme is the BBC standard of silly, infantile serving staff juxtaposed with high-minded, serious society folk. The servants also tick the box of having a complete melting pot of randomly-chosen regional accents (presumably they let the actors do whichever one they are best at) and the most sickeningly absurd plotlines possible. Whilst the lords and ladies, or whatever they are, debate the likelihood of war with Germany and the potential dangers, the frivolous and idiotic Untermenschen panic wildly over the demise of a monkey. What goes through the minds of the programme makers is beyond me. Here is a show whose premise is that it presents both sides of manor house life, and yet the coverage is as far from even-handed as it is possible to get. Most offensive of all is the occasional ‘moment of wisdom’ from the staff, when their superiors nod sagely and acknowledge, in their benevolence, that truth can spring from the most uneducated of sources. It is fortunate for the BBC that the vast majority of people now do not have servants, as there would be a full-scale backlash taking place against this Bagger Vance level of insulting assumptions.

The question now arises, does the other half of the show have anything to offer? The answer is, as you might expect, no. Some men are shown to disagree with their wives, and a very dull ‘we already know he’s right’ storyline lamely follows a young man who shockingly thinks that Chamberlain is wrong to try and appease Hitler. Watch Upstairs Downstairs at your peril – it is a sad reminder of just how easy it is to slop out a TV show these days.

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