Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Without a trace

They are now showing the third series of Without a Trace on UK TV, which some have criticised for having too much personal stuff, but is still way ahead of most programmes. Last night's episode, 'American Goddess', featured Elizabeth Berkley as the post-surgery dumb blonde. I'm not sure why her agent suggested she make a career comeback in a show called 'without a trace', but then you're talking about someone whose career went downhill after Saved by the Bell (into Showgirls and then... that's about it). The producers didn't have the courage of their convictions, employing someone else to do the pre-op stuff and covering her face in bandages for the last scene. It's hard to pin down what is so good about the programme. Partly I think it benefited from the focus on the story rather than the team: the rot set in in ER when the patients became incidental events to break up the child custody wrangles, sex changes, partner swapping, dying etc of the staff. Of course Anthony LaPaglia does a lot, by doing almost nothing- he has saint's eyes, understanding all, forgiving all, suffering, but still caring. You would not recognise him from 'Frasier', where he played Daphne's Cockney brother, any more than you'd recognise his Cockney accent (closest I can get is drunk Australian). (and how did Daphne have a Cockney brother?).

George Orwell wrote in praise of the English murder (actually real murders as reported in the sensational press of the 1930s), reflecting as they did the code of morals that said that to get divorced would incur social disgrace so murder becomes the better option. These days, of course, fictional murder has become the main form of TV programme and a major form of fiction. Death is usually necessary: attempts to write crime fiction based on other crimes lack the apepal, mainly, I think, because there's no point pondering over a mystery when the victim can turn up at the end to explin what happened.

The cleverness of Without a Trace is to take the strong narrative line of the murder story (with a death acting as an opening into a particular social milieu) and then , by using the 24-style countdown (enough on its own to start adrenaline pumping) allow itself the option of different endings, so that there is, for once, real uncertainty about where a plot is heading. Catharsis, I don't know about - heart attack, sure.

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