Bad television drama is more revealing of a society than good TV drama. Good TV has talent, which plays by its own rules. Bad TV tries to plug itself into some perception of the social zeitgeist, shoring up flimsiness by sucking meaning out of existing narratives.
Bonekickers (BBC1, Tuesday), a new series, has the following storyline. A group of archaeologists – whose leader is a gutsy Glaswegian woman; oldest member a lovable, politically incorrect professor; moral centre a youngish black man; and youngest member a young black woman post-doc who demanded to be an intern and who seems permanently outraged at being treated like one – uncovers evidence of a battle, apparently between the Knights Templar and the Saracens, in Cornwall. A parallel plot strand shows a slimy, rich, rightwing, fundamentalist Christian with his own God channel, who incites his followers against non-Christians, mainly Muslims. The archaeologists find what might be a piece of the true cross, complete with a nail. News gets out, and the slimy, rich rightwinger pursues them to get the true cross, which will be a rallying point for the faithful; in the course of this pursuit, one of his more enthusiastic followers beheads a nice Muslim student with his crusader-type sword. The episode’s denouement takes place at the bottom of a medieval-type well, in a huge cavern on whose floor is planted a small forest of crosses. The gutsy Glaswegian and the post-doc escape from the cavern while the slimy rightwinger and his enthusiastic follower are burned to death: back on the surface, the politically incorrect professor says, well, let’s go down to the pub – an hour too late, for me.
There is wanton desperation in such bad TV, as it ransacks contemporary clichés and prejudices and storylines – Bonekickers ends as a kind of Indiana Jones and the Well of Idiocy – to present itself as relevant. Less desperate and wanton is a new comedy series, Lab Rats (BBC2, Thursday), set in a research lab in which a group of suitably disparate characters attempt to correct clones produced by a Russian scientist and end up with a giant snail. The humour is of the kind produced by characters who paddle their own absurd canoes, with interactions of mutual and would-be comic incomprehension. Some of these are not bad. The university dean, a Dutch woman with a chocolate obsession, pronounces at one point: “I could hide a pig from a clown.” “What does that mean?” asks one of the researchers. “It’s Dutch.” “Perhaps it’s lost something in translation.” “It’s gained something in translation: the Dutch version has neither pigs nor clowns.”
You don’t care a thing about Bonekickers ‘ characters and never want to see them again: a shame, for Hugh Bonneville (pictured with Julie Graham, above) and Adrian Lester are fine actors, hamming it with all the bruised dignity they can muster. The trailer for next week’s episode foreshadows a deep plunge into that rich seam, anti-Americanism, with what looks like a maniacal neo-con seeking to do something dreadful with their artefacts. Lab Rats , on the other hand, might pick up.
The bizarre is not the medium, but the message of The Conspiracy Files (BBC2, Sunday), an absorbing film about a group of conspiracy theorists who have produced a film called Loose Change which attracted 100m viewers on the internet and is now in US cinemas. It weaves a conspiracy theory around the collapse of the third tower on 9/11 – a smaller office building than the mighty twins, to which it was very close: it fell a little later. It housed the federal Office of Emergency Management, and a CIA field office, and was evacuated in time to save the occupants. The makers of Loose Change believe that the US government, aided by other governments, the CIA, police, fire service, CNN and the BBC, collaborated to keep a truth from the American people – that being that the third tower was blown up in order to disguise the fact that it was the control centre for the government plot that destroyed the twin towers.
The BBC2 film rehearsed these views at length. If it came down on the side of seeing those who held them as deluded, it did so politely, giving space to the “evidence” that this was a plot – the explosions said to be heard before the tower fell, the rarity of a skyscraper built with toughened steel collapsing, the fact that CNN and the BBC put out a story that it had collapsed before it actually did. The conspiracy theorists were urgently persuasive in the way such people are: the mask slipped only when it was put to the director, Dylan Avery, that the main witness didn’t believe – as the film claims – that he exited the tower over a pile of dead bodies (which later disappeared). “I don’t care what f***ing experience he had, man!” shouted the theorist. “Do you think they will admit to this?”
He has a future, directing future episodes of Bonekickers.
By John Lloyd; ft.com