On Heroes

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I recently attended the last in this year’s SPARKS workshops up in Yorkshire.  It’s been six months of intensive work with 3 bunches of writers.  My lot were developing TV series, and a damned good job they did too. And the other groups were working on feature projects, creating a wonderfully diverse range of projects.

I did a brief talk on one of my favourite shows, Heroes. Not everyone loves this show (Jeff Somers is agin it, and he’s someone whose opinions I very much respect) but I find it exhilarating and fresh and, damn it all, wonderful.  But, as is always the way, when you have to teach a movie or a TV series,  you look at it with fresh eyes.

And what I discovered about Heroes, on a second viewing with notepad in hand, is how much of it is not great; and how little that matters. 

The stuff that’s not great is, really, all the voiceover narration by the Mohinder character. On first hearing, it seems fine; but when you listen again, and focus in on the content – well, it’s so much tripe really. It’s all platitudes and generalisations, and doesn’t advance the story. (And of course, almost all the of the ‘science’ that Mohinder spouts in his actual dialogue scenes is, um, pretty dodgy.)

And yet, this doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter because Mohinder’s voiceover is there for a complex and subtle reason, and not because the narration is needed to move the story.  It was added, in fact, in post-production, always a sign of a panic last measure; and what it does is add style. 

There’s a scene in Ep 3, which I screened, in which the Nikki character is burying some bodies in the desert.  (If you want to know why, you need to watch it.) It’s classic thriller stuff, well shot admittedly, but very much the kind of scene you might get in any crime show.  So it could easily look, well, B movieish, or cheap tellyish.

But when the scene is played out with actor Sendhil Ramamurthy’s beautifully spoken voiceover on top of it, it becomes special, and evocative, and stylised.  It’s more than a woman burying bodies; it’s a scene of sublimity and pathos.

This is one of the great tricks of the show; everything is stylised,  enhanced, ‘more so.’  The colours are richer than life, with yellows and oranges and browns and fabulous set designs, and Indian streets stalls selling brightly coloured fruit, and shockingly bold shirts, and vividly rich lighting.  And the angles are cleverly chosen, bold and striking and disorienting, the shots develop swiftly and in a complex way, and every single shot has a three dimensional quality (something in the foreground, something in the background, something in the mid-ground, so the eye is constantly tantalised and entertained.) 

And the voiceover adds a whole level of stylisation on to this; it makes us aware that what we are watching is meant to be thought provoking and idea provoking and assumption provoking.  The voiceover teaches us how to ‘read’ what we are watching, in other words.

But Mohinder’s prose, as I say, is painted on with a very broad brush; I have a feeling, really, that it was written in a hurry.  But I’m not carping, just observing; and the narration is spoken so beautifully that it’s a pleasure to hear it, even if I often don’t bother listening to it.

And I came away once more confirmed in my belief that American TV series are better than their British counterparts because they really really care about style, as much as they care about content.  Every great American show has its own visual aesthetic, its own style rules – from the jerky camera movements of NYPD Blue to the staccato explorations of urban New Jersey in The Sopranos, to the lush malice implicit in the cinematography of Desperate Housewives. Whereas British shows tend to be shot in one of two ways; cinematically (if it’s high budget telly) and cheaply (if it’s factory telly.)  But there’s no real attempt to do what movie directors to – to create a unique visual look.  (Compare Spielberg’s Minority Report, with Spielberg’s ET, and compare them both to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List – they represent three totally different directorial ‘looks’.)

After my brief talk to the SPARKS group,  we did a question and answer session, and it quickly emerged that Heroes  is a show which has really captured the imagination of almost all the writers present.  It’s Marvel comics merged with prime-time US TV storytelling skills (Stan Lee even has a cameo as a coach driver.)  And it is, I would argue, one of the most visually beautiful TV shows ever made.

Later in the course of this residential weekend, we had a screening of the classic British film The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, one of Powell and Pressburger’s most outrageous, and funny, and satirical, and thought-provoking films. It features a very different type of hero – a moustachio’d Colonel Blimp who appears in the first scene as a figure of fun, and emerges after the film has told his story, as a man of romance, passion, and integrity, and heroism.  It’s a homage to an old fashioned kind of British hero.

There are plans for another SPARKS workshop next year; I hope very much to be involved in it.

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