Six-packs of twentysomethings
Metropolis (ITV, Monday & Tuesday)
Hearts and Bones (BBC 1, Sunday)
Doohoma (RTE 1, Tuesday) Dallas Night
Dallas Night (Channel 4, Monday)
Supplanting cops, docs and frocks, twentysomethings have practically taken over TV drama. The success of Friends and This Life and their various derivatives (Big Bad World, Cold Feet, Wonderful You, Ally McBeal, Sex and the City and others) has turned a fad into an epidemic. Any more and we'll be talking about a plague. The two latest strains debuted this week: Metropolis on ITV and Hearts and Bones on the Beeb. Both feature six-packs of friends who have left English provincial cities for London.
We are introduced to the six-pack of Metropolis as they leave Leeds University. Cut to five years later. The three women, Charlotte, Sophie and Tanya are respectively, a junior financial hackette on a magazine, a researcher for the Tories and an agony aunt. Only one of the men, Frank, works and he feels compelled to turn the tables on his insurance company employers. As an implausibly idealistic loss adjustor, he is disgusted by the company's scams to avoid pay-outs. He fiddles the claims in favour of the claimants. The other two blokes, Matthew and Alastair, have remained dope-smoking slackers.
Ambitious Charlotte lives with indolent Matthew. Played by Louise Lombard, Charlotte acts like a junior Sue Ellen Ewing - lots of lip gymnastics and soulful stares. Mind you, unlike the Richter-scale efforts of Texan Sue Ellen, Charlotte's lip tremors are tiny English quivers. Anyway, she cheats on Matthew and takes up with 62-year-old billionaire lecher Milton Friedkin. He feeds her career-enhancing stories and she feeds him her 27-year-old nubility. Primed by her sugar daddy, she gets her "first official byline" (what's an unofficial byline?). Appropriately it's on page three.
Meanwhile, Tanya is in a car crash. When she wakes up in hospital, a stalker, Nathan, is managing, quite successfully and utterly unbelievably, to convince her that he is her boyfriend. The crash must have caused selective amnesia, he tells her. Fancying the nutter, she goes along with it in spite of the warnings of Sophie. As an agony aunt, she'd better write a letter to herself pretty quickly, because this one looks like it's going to end in tears if not worse.
Metropolis is much more plot-driven than This Life and its narcissism is not as screaming. Written by Peter Morgan, who has travelled the drugs and rehab circuit, it displays an admirable knowingness in parts. Alastair, a sad buffoon really, has stolen cheques from his parents and is about to check in to an expensive rehab clinic. But the thriller aspect of the series, pivoting on Nathan's stalking of Tanya, is too daft. More credible, given Charlotte's bedding by the wealthy sleazebag, is Matthew's loutish pursuit of frightened, but flattered, Sophie.
Atmospheric "big city" shots - trains snaking between high-rise buildings; offices overlooking the bustle of the streets; commuters swarming from the Underground - supply mood and context. Likewise, individual scenes, such as Tanya's accident, partly shot from inside the crashed car. However, the social context of dynamic, thrusting females and work-shy, parasitic males seems overstated. Perhaps, as hyperbole, this is valid, but as actuality the gender contrast is hardly that stark yet, even among London's graduate twentysomethings.
An eight-parter, airing twice weekly, Metropolis presents a cast of characters with obvious similarities to the first-year lawyers of This Life. Charlotte, stuck (like Milly with Egg - remember them?) with a feckless, live-in lover, does a Milly by becoming involved with a powerful, older man. But her ambition also means that she's not unlike Anna, the Scottish siren whose appetite for men was surpassed only by her ruthlessness for career success.
No doubt it was tempting to add a thriller dimension to the old formula. But the implausibility of the stalker sub-plot detracts from the aimed-for realism. Of the women, only Sophie, despite reneging spectacularly on her student vow to remain a lifelong socialist, elicits sympathy. The gap between university ideals and job-market realities has always hit twentysomethings, and the atomisation of student friends when career concerns kick-in is a valid theme. Even if you might envy the youth of this sextet, you'd be glad not to have to live their lives.
HEARTS and Bones, the week's other twentysomething "ensemble drama", is written by Stewart Harcourt. Focusing primarily on Emma (Dervla Kirwan), it is less plot-driven than Metropolis. Indeed it uses voiceovers to explain characters' private thoughts and motivations. Nonetheless, even though this device puts viewers right inside characters' heads, thereby increasing intimacy between the watchers and the watched, it is even more difficult to feel sympathy. Their narcissism guarantees this.
In this one, the London-based six-pack is from Coventry. Emma lives with Mark, a science teacher with whom she has a seven-year-old son. However, she's feeling the itch associated with seven years of relationship and has the hots for Richard, Mark's brother. Richard is a butcher which perhaps partly explains the title. Anyway, even though Emma and Mark have agreed to get married, she propositions Richard over a rack of raw ribs which he's chopping. He thinks before bringing the cleaver down on her suggestion.
Richard, you see, is living with Louise, a Jack Kerouac-reading blonde who sleeps in a football jersey. No doubt, the manoeuvrings regarding the relationships of this group of twentysomethings are of interest to viewing twentysomethings. But libido, though the consequences of its drive ought not be underestimated, can hardly be the sole motivating force of real people in compromised situations. With Emma however, it appears to be. Hence the voiceover to express her private thoughts.
"I wonder what he [Richard] looks like naked?" she thinks as she walks through Balham, listening to A Whiter Shade of Pale on her Walkman. Certainly, this is intimate, but it's also banal because it's unlikely that she can't picture the butcher with his kit off. In fact, such a consideration has little more than the cartoonish appeal of a thought bubble in a teenager's magazine. Quite simply, it's more Jackie than Freud and whatever yearning or motivation may be implied seems incongruous.
Still, as seems de rigueur is these twentysomething dramas, Emma confides in an older man - her boss - as a prelude to engaging in sex with him across his work desk. What is all this young woman, older man stuff meant to suggest? Predatory oul' lads, using position as seduction? That male contemporaries of these women are generally too immature even for the Jackie consciousness underpinning the motivation of females approaching 30? Anyway, the understanding boss leaves a big, raw lovebite on Emma's neck - hardly ideal on the eve of the wedding.
And so, we cut to the reception after the nuptials of Mark and Emma. She's wearing a silk scarf to hide the results of her workplace necking. But the scarf slips and the bite mark is revealed. Mark is angry. The credits roll. In fairness to Hearts and Bones, some of the acting, not least Dervla Kirwan's, is compelling. But the script and the motivations of the principals hit too many false notes. Again, it's difficult to feel empathy or even sympathy for these people because, by definition, their narcissism repels rather than attracts.
Of this week's two debuting dramas, Metropolis is likely to be the hit. There are dark and ominous forces at work in both of them - not least the search to create another This Life. Perhaps the pressures on people in their 20s are such that youthful friendships not only cannot be maintained, but must be sexually sundered by the discontent of females in their physical prime outgrowing the boorishness of their male contemporaries. Maybe old Hollywood had it right in those romantic dramas where the hero was always twice the age of the heroine.
But that seems regressive. It's clear that both the BBC and ITV are chasing the twentysomething market. But two more sixpacks of friends from the English provinces finding such similar emotional graphs to their lives in London is anti-original. Like the cops, docs and frocks which dominated TV drama throughout the mid 1990s (and they haven't quite gone away, you know), drama seems to be chasing another formula. Fair enough, the lives of twentysomethings guarantee characters in their physical prime. So, we get sexualised, photogenic telly. But that's what we get most of the time anyway and there are other stories in the world too.
ONE of those other stories was told in Doohoma, a nostalgic kind of 28 Up revisiting of a 1972 documentary which looked at the lives of the Cosgrove family from the Co Mayo village of the title. Splicing between the black and white of then and the colour of now, we could see how a generation has improved life for the family. Back at the time of the original film, husband Tony had to leave his wife Bridie and young family for nine months of the year to work in England.
Scenes shot in the England of the time were particularly evocative. In overcrowded digs or Irish drinking clubs, Tony's life seemed harsh and lonely. Then again, life as an economic refugee always is. The old footage recalled a pattern of mass emigration which is now all but dead. It also reminded you that, in spite of well-publicised success stories, being Irish in Britain has seldom been an easy station. Then again, being Irish in rural Mayo has seldom been without other hardships.
We saw Tony and Bridie now, and their grown-up children. Some live locally and others in Dublin. Compared with their parents' lives, the present generation have, materially and emotionally, a great deal for which to be grateful. And they are. Talking about the original documentary, the Cosgrove children expressed sadness at what it portrayed. But they were also proud of their parents who battled through. Far removed from the vulgarity and posturing of the more objectionable new wealthy, Doohoma showed the real and humane benefits of the boom economy. As a slice of TV, as well as social and economic history, it was engaging.
FINALLY, Dallas Night. Screened to mark the 20th anniversary of the who-shot-JR-Ewing? episode, this latest Channel 4, bank holiday, theme night convened members of the cast of the 1980s super soap. JR (Larry Hagman) has aged alarmingly and Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) has toned down the lip gymnastics. But the Krebbs, Ray (Steve Kanaly) and Donna (Susan Howard) are even more bloated with Texan bull than they ever were in the series: as kids blast each other to bits, they do repulsive TV ads for America's gun lobby.
Lucy (Charlene Tilton) aka The Poison Dwarf, as named by Terry Wogan, also featured. So too did Wogan. There was a lot of unoriginal old guff about the success of the series being based on having a villain as the central character. Of course, this is largely true. But it was in the wider context of the Reagan and Thatcher years that Dallas epitomised the greedy mood of the times. "It was really a cartoon," said JR. So it was, but the loot it generated for him was anything but Mickey Mouse. It was tempting to wonder what the glut of twentysomething dramas might seem like 20 years hence?