Bloodlands (episode 1) Pete Travis (BBC Prod,2021 ) James Nesbitt, Charleen McKenna
viewed as broadcast, 21 Feb 2021
‘Bloodlands’ is the most recent example of that kind of ‘Who done it’ ( and why?) series that comprises a drama told over many episodes, wrapped round some kind of ‘police’ investigation. In the guise of ‘Bloodlands’ the genre starts to look more tired than ever. The appearance of this genre on TV screens, first announced itself some years back with the ‘Scandi Noir’ TV series re-purposing and transposing Agatha Christie type designs and devices into the mood of the current zeitgeist. These types of TV series may be well or badly made, served by lesser or better scripts and casts, but they all draw on the same implanted script mechanics. They all comprise the same ingredients that can be shaken and stirred in infinite variation: the motivation puzzle, the false trails and red herrings, the usual suspect, the skeleton in the cupboard, the stooge, the patsy etc. But as readers of Agatha Christie discover in the end these plot designs tend to become outworn, the gears ground down through overuse.
‘Bloodlands’ judging from its first episode, looks like it’s come to the very end of the line: it’s hit the buffers. Even the title, ‘Bloodlands’ points up a level of desperation in marketing. Its direct titular somatic reference looks to attract an immediate prurient interest. This is a gimmick more confident series haven’t needed: The Bridge, Line of Duty etc. The problem with this type of title is that is quickly leads to a sort of semantic inflation, producers feeling the title of their series has to ‘top’ that of any rival in attracting sales interest.
The salient feature of all these types of cop/tec dramas is that their scripts define their form. They are a mechanical apparatus. The scenatios are built on a design that shares analogous properties to the maze: dead ends, circuitous paths that double back on themselves, false leads, the illusion of progress and the engendering of false hope of success. The popular appeal, as per Agatha Christie, is the posing of a certain type of problem whose solution is in theory possible through the application of logical reasoning and a ‘common sense’ understanding of psychology and motivation. Shake into the mix the fiery condiments of murder, corpses and kinked sex and you have the perfect distraction machine.
These shows are Heath Robinson type artificial contraptions, but some certainly have successfully plumbed into other other areas of psychic resonance. ‘The Bridge’ characterised by its dark tenebrous setting, felt it was set in the Viking underworld of the dead, with the eponymous bridge as a sort of symbolic lifeline out of Hel. This may not have had much to do with the convolutions of the script but it provided quasi-mythical undertow to the drama.
Nothing as interesting as this was evident in ‘Bloodlands’. Everything about ‘Bloodlands’ came across as a collection of tired clichés and repetitive tropes. The opening sequence was a series of night shots of Tom Brannick driving through Belfast. They were all very familiar types of images: the confusion of lights, the confection of refraction and reflection through the car windows, all intercut with Tom’s face and eyes, a montage assembled to express the man confronting the anarchic dangerous energy and dynamic impersonality of the big city. But the opening section delivered nothing more than a visual cliché. The which opening was followed up with familiar story tropes: Tom, the tec with the murdered wife, the in-house police dysfunctional tensions, the suspicion of the local community, an act of sudden unexpected violence in the petrol bombing of a police car. Each card was played out by the script writers was a familiar contrivance, underscored by a dull script and workaday cinematography that occasionally resorted to drone shots to leaven the visual monotony.
You might say that these crime series have good actors. But only if in saying that you mean that these actors are good at doing what they are told to do. Because that looks like what they’re doing. Most of the directors of these pieces are instructed to keep a high level of control over the productions which are made with a view to being sold across the world. With this is mind the actor’s face must be rigorously disciplined to exude only appropriate expression: in practice this requires the actor hold back on the emoting. Their expressive palate is usually restricted to small number of face masks: the po face – hard eye/mouth muscles non reactive; the doe face – soft eye/mouth musculature, reactive; the gloat of trimph/self satisfaction, reactive. There are others, but not so many. The permitted expressions dominate because they are safe and easy to constrict within the undulating frantic plot and sub-plot lines. In relation to this ‘Bloodlands’ in its corralling of the expressive faces of its actors, in particular of course, Nesbitt and McKenna, goes to extremes, an indication perhaps of the world wide sales ambitions of its producers. By the end of episode 1, all we had seen of James was an invariant po face, sometimes hard eyes and sometimes harder eyes, there were some doe eyes from his daughter and some gloat face from McKenna as she made a cock joke. That was it. A kind of Europudding one dimensional playing that could either turn Europe on or turn the audience off, depending on who can be bothered to watch the expressive monotony of the next episodes.
The scripting of ‘Bloodlands’ comes across as compromised. In particular in relation to its setting in contemporary Belfast with ‘The Troubles’ as backstory. The main use of the setting and back story in this first episode was the justificatory phrase that was repeated again and again was: that at the time of the Good Friday peace accord nothing could be done about these suspicions as any action might have put it in jeopardy. This was repeated so often that I started to feel I might join in.
‘Bloodlands’ looks like a cynical attempt to exploit its Belfast setting but it offers little else to its chosen format or genre. Dull acting, plodding dialogue, unconvincing script, predictible camera work. The emphasis is to play safe. The Northern Ireland situation is not taken on, as represented it is nothing more than an interesting backcloth against which to play out the standard tec fare. Ironic at a time of course when post Brexit, that Irish question again looms large on the geo-political horizon. Across the water from the BBC’s England events are moving that might make ‘Bloodlands’ look more like history than it already is.