Escapist fantasy vs ‘serious’ TV

Something my father said to me a few days ago has made me think. He’s not too impressed with the new version of Survivors. I’ve got it saved and haven’t had time to watch it yet, but his reaction was that it takes a very grim, pessimistic view of humanity and what people can be like. All the things that he thoroughly enjoyed about the original have been removed so that although it has the same basic story, it’s not the same and it isn’t enjoyable to watch.

I’m planning to make time to watch it at the weekend so I’ll see how I feel about it.
His major disappointment is this idea that humans, under pressure, are selfish, cruel individuals and it’s something that I’ve noticed in a lot of modern dramas. They can be unpleasant to watch just because of the characterisation and this insistence on seeing the worst that people can be and presenting that as the way everyone must be.

At the end of the email, he commented that Spooks continues to be excellent and completely watchable, that SJA is still superb and that he’s thoroughly enjoying Merlin as well. Unfortunately Heroes hasn’t been impressing him much and, er, I’ve been forgetting to record it because I’m in the same place.

It sparked the thought in me: why are certain shows (Spooks, Merlin, SJA, DW) so totally watchable and compelling yet so much other stuff is unwatchable? What makes the difference – Survivors is from the same fantastical genre as Spooks and SJA, yet it’s been a disappointment.
One of the things that strikes me about these lists is that things like Survivors are being written and presented to be ‘serious’ TV despite the speculative fiction genre. Heroes is written the same way.

Nobody could accuse Merlin of being serious TV 😉

Spooks, SJA, DW…they are all written as escapist fantasy (even though Spooks is firmly set in the here and now with no hint of dragons or aliens) that the audience can enjoy but not setting out to make big points. Yup, they all tackle the odd dilemma that has resonances with our lives, but that’s not their core intention. Spooks changes the focus of their villains to reflect current concerns (with remarkable accuracy) which is why it’s Russians that are the current threat and Islamic terrorists have taken more of a back seat this year, but it doesn’t have an agenda or a moral imperative.

All of these incredibly successful, popular shows are written as entertainment. Nothing else, their core purpose is entertainment.

The writing on all of them is great, you engage with the characters and you are drawn into the central plot week after week. Could it be that this kind of escapist fantasy letting writers do their best work and actually show some hope for humanity where ‘serious’ stuff doesn’t?

And why is that? What is it about ‘serious’ TV that insists that it must be grim, pessimistic and unpleasant? Why can there never be a likable, good intentioned character in ‘serious’ TV?
I’m not sure that I’ll ever find an answer to that one.

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