Many people would agree that subtlety and minimalist presentation can often be superior to a gilded extravaganza. Succeeding with such an approach, however, is very difficult to get right. The Bridge and Louis Theroux: Extreme Love are examples of beauty in sparseness, expertly done.
The Bridge (Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer until Sat 26 May 2012)
Scandinavia is a region that polarises opinion. It seems to be viewed either with noticeable disinterest or significant fascination and curious awe. The former view is perhaps due to a subconscious preference for sunny weather, whilst the latter is inspired by an appreciation of the exact opposite. Existentialism, that harbinger of thinking man’s depression, is inextricably tied to the icy winds and tempestuous skies of the region, and it is this affinity with intellectual darkness that makes Scandinavia so interesting. With sombre relish, then, did I take in the intro to The Bridge. Grey shots of imperious buildings in the snow, coupled with subtle, mysterious music set the scene perfectly. The storyline, in and of itself, is not the most original (a dead body is found straddling the Sweden-Denmark border), but the expertly toned-down style of the show makes for gripping viewing from the beginning.
The characterisation is appropriate for the setting too. There is little extravagance or bombastity, with the stark dialogue often playing second fiddle to the facial expressions of Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin. Of course, I cannot speak too knowledgably about the dialogue, as the show is subtitled. It is de rigueur to laud subtitling for its superiority to dubbing, but this often causes one to ignore the other benefits it affords. Acting, for example, can be easier to objectively assess in an unknown language. The Bridge again scores highly in this department, as the performances are believable, but without being so real that they become dull. Every element of the first three quarters of the episode is basically a feast for the senses, at least for lovers of the mysterious and the slightly strange. It is a pity, then, that the plot (cursed destroyer of the sensory orgy) returns to the fore for the episode’s conclusion. I won’t reveal any details, suffice to say that the whole process is reminiscent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That film had a similar air of Nordic mystique and dark beauty which was ruined by a crappy plot no better than that of Saw. The Bridge may yet prove strong enough to recover from the sudden dive into silliness that you have to see to believe the disappointing effect of, but one still can’t help feeling slightly betrayed after the first episode. In a sense, this is testament to how strong every other element is, but it is a strong storyline that makes a show worth returning to every week. Overall, The Bridge is definitely worth watching, but be warned that there is a risk of descent into a catch-the-killer bore fest.
Louis Theroux: Extreme Love (Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer until Thu 3 May 2012)
Television rarely affords the opportunity to watch a master at work. Louis Theroux’s return to the small screen is, for this reason alone, extremely welcome. Extreme Love is not the documentary king’s most probing or fascinating work subject-wise, but this somehow heightens the appreciation of the craft itself. This episode is about autism, following several families with severely autistic kids and a school that is designed to help the kids develop social and work skills. Such a subject is ripe for both the BBC Three childish sympathy treatment and the ITV/Channel 4 freak exposée. In trademark style, however, Louis ignores the obvious and picks the most difficult path. Thus, unaided by sad music, on-demand weeping and hand-picked success stories, the real and actual lives of the kids, their families and their teachers are presented.
One of the main reasons this approach succeeds is Theroux’s manner. He has perfected a tone of voice that blends earnestness, inquisitiveness, politeness and charm in such a way that it is almost impossible for him to cause offence. This allows him to ask probing questions that others wouldn’t, or at least would get called aggressive for asking. “Does his condition make it harder to love him?” he asks, deadpan, of an emotionally-drained mother. “Why can’t you create a safe environment at home?” he enquires of the parents who have sent their child into full-time care. Were Jeremy Paxman to ask these questions, he would be accused of bullying. Were Piers Morgan to ask them, the parents would break down in floods of tears without giving a response. When Louis Theroux asks them, he gets honest, frank answers, which reveal far more about the true emotional and mental difficulties of caring for autistic children. Not only does he know how to talk to people though, he also knows when to stay silent and observe. At several points during Extreme Love some very hard to watch, personal and sometimes dangerous scenes unfold. Rather than cut the recording or intervene, the camera team and the presenter subtly back away, so that you get the feeling that even the interviewees forget that they’re in the room, so natural and real are their actions. It bears repeating as well that such scenes are never accompanied by tender piano strains or emotive voiceovers. Only the cold thuds of reality punctuate the scenes, making for ridiculously gripping and involving viewing. Most people don’t need any encouragement to watch a Louis Theroux documentary, but take this as one anyway – Extreme Love is nothing short of factual TV at its finest, and it should not be missed.