Friday, 1 May 2009
Zuul... part 1
I was watching an episode of “The Mentalist” last night and something bothered me. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. In fact it wasn’t until I slept on it, and awoke this morning after having a dream that I was being chased by a giant orange well versed in the mystical art of Ninjutsu (Gee Note: Not that it had anything to do with The Mentalist but seriously, a big ninja orange? What the hell is that about? And why was it chasing me, rather than acting like a Mr. Miyagi type mentor? I mean something like “Wax on. Wax off. Yes. Very good Gareth-san. Now feel free to cook with me some duck.” would’ve been quite a nice dream to have. But no, I have to get the orange with anger management issues) that I worked it out. “The Mentalist” is a prime example of what’s wrong with today’s television.
“The Mentalist” takes the form of a weekly whodunit with a new case, new suspects, and a new resolution every show. Now it should be noted that I grew up on whodunits. Every week my parents and I would gather around the television for a nightly dose of “Poirot” or “Morse”. They were densely plotted, complicated dramas both finely produced and performed, and made national stars out of their leading actors. Every show we’d discuss the list of suspects and voice our opinions of who we thought was responsible for the heinous crime. My mother would use her natural intelligence and intuition to try and work it out, while my father would try and logically put the pieces of evidence together. Me, I’d just randomly guess (Gee Note: Leading to such conversations as;
ME: I think the milkman’s sister did it.
SOMEONE ELSE: Why do you think that?
ME: Because I… er… um… I don’t like her eyebrows).
The thing about those shows were that they were textbook whodunits. The detectives had to scratch and claw for every scrap of evidence, everybody lied about everything, and a twist at the end always had you kicking yourself that you hadn’t seen it sooner. Most importantly they took their time. Which is in complete contrast to shows like “The Mentalist”. You see in today’s advert driven, remote flipping, executive controlled T.V. land three and four part programmes are considered in the same vain as taking Jessica Simpson to an all you can eat BBQ buffet. I mean it’s not really a good idea. And so instead of a slowly built narrative you get the whole damn thing, murder, detection, confession, all in 45 minutes.
And it’s a struggle to make it all work. Take for example the episode of “The Mentalist” I watched last night. Without giving too much away there was a serial arsonist on the loose and the team had to track down their man before he managed to flambé a local estate agent. But here’s the thing, outside of our regular group of investigators only a handful of other characters were introduced during the entire program. And once the first victim’s widow and teenage daughter had left the screen never to return after about thirty seconds, we were left with only two additional players. One of which was the estate agent. The same estate agent who was the arsonists target. The other one, er, wasn’t. Hmmmm. Which one could the arsonist be? Put some coffee on people, this could take all night.
The problem is that on American television the whodunit has been on a slippery slope ever since Columbo decided that audiences didn't really need the "mystery" part of a murder mystery (Gee Note: By the way, imagine being the guy who stood up in that particular creative meeting and announced "This new show. I like it. I only got one thing to say. Do we really have to keep the killer's identity a secret every week? I mean what if, now think about this, but what if we told the audience who the killer was before the opening credits?". Now anywhere else in world that statement would have been met with the sound of crickets chirping. Not in Hollywood though. No idea is too crazy for those guys. Murder mystery without the mystery? By George, that's some woovy berserk thinking outside of the box). Hell even the last proper American attempt at a whodunit, the fantastic Murder One, lasted all of two seasons before being canned. Which is a massive shame seeing as a quality whodunit is one of the finest forms of entertainment going.
My favourite whodunit of all time has to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles". A Sherlock Holmes adventure, it contains everything a good whodunit should have. Uptight English aristocracy? Check. An isolated landscape? Check. A ghostly demon dog from the pits of hell scaring the bejesus out of everybody? Check.
See, "Baskervilles" is kind of a template for every Scooby Doo episode in existence (Gee Note: I wonder if anyone has ever made the comparison between Conan Doyle and Hanna-Barbera before? I can't be the only one surely. Unless of course I am. In which case I must be a genius. Or, you know, an idiot. One of the two). Basically one of the suspects is using a big dog to scare people to death by dressing it up to look like Rick Moranis out of Ghostbusters. When he's in his red eyed killer mutt phase obviously. Not when he's a small spectacled accountant. I mean dressing up a big dog to make it look like a small spectacled accountant probably wouldn't scare people to death. I'm just saying, if your masterplan for world domination is to dress animals up as the dude from “Honey I shrunk the kids” then you may want to rethink your career choice as a supervillain.
The key to the “Baskervilles” story is of course the hound itself. It’s an iconic image, a big black dog, with piercing red eyes and flames spouting from it’s mouth. And amazingly enough, the demon beast is a commonly sighted creature. Take, for example, the tale of the Black Shuck. Since Viking times a ghostly hellhound has been reported stalking the countryside of East Anglia. Reports vary in size, from an average canine to something the size of horse. Sometimes it appears in a cloud of mist, sometimes headless, and sometimes reading a copy of that morning’s Daily Mail and commenting at how falling house prices are all the governments fault. Probably. One thing is always the same though. It scares the hell out of anyone who see’s it.
Arguably the most famous sighting of Ol’ Shuckey was on August 4th 1577 at St. Mary’s Church in Bungay, Suffolk. During a service a vicious storm rumbled through the clouds above and a gust of wind blew the doors open. Where upon something evil entered the church. According to the Reverend Abraham Flemming “This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) runing all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a momet where they kneeled, they stragely dyed”. Or to put in modern terms “Dude. This bloody great big dog walks in and runs down the aisle. And then it goes past these two people who were on their knees praying, right, and the next thing I know they’ve gone and snuffed it. I mean, what the f***?!!?”.
According to the story Blackie made its escape from St Mary’s and an hour later turned up at the neighbouring Holy Trinity Church in Blyth burgh. Again same deal, thunderstorm, church doors fly open, hellhound charges down the aisle. This time however nobody dies, but as the dog makes it’s escape is bolts through the North door, leaving a set of scorch marks with it’s paw on the door. A lightening strike promptly hit the church, felling a spire which damaged the roof and destroyed a set angelic statues.
Which I think you’ll agree is all kinds of dramatic. More recently on one summer’s early evening in 1917 schoolboys J. H. Harrison and Gooley Craske (Gee Note: Gooley? Is that even a real name? I’m not sure that it is you know. And if it isn’t then why didn’t his parents go the whole hog and just call him Strikewing or something? I mean if you’re going to have a pretend name why not go mad?) were travelling home when they passed an old railway bridge. It was there, on the opposite side of the railway bank, they spied a "great black animal...sort of jumping and gliding quite fast” towards them. Understandably quite scared the pair ran for their lives. Later when quizzed about the animal they gave a description that matched that of the Black Shuck.
And even now, every once in a while someone reports sightings of ghostly dogs in East Anglia. Inevitably they say they’ve seen a big hellhound. All red eyes and fire and spookiness. And oh gosh it was scary. Which, you know, it might very well be. I don’t know I’ve never seen the thing myself. Last time I was in East Anglia I was too busy trying not to make an arse of myself while staying with my girlfriends parents to notice any phantom woofers.
But I tell you what. I’ll take the Black Shuck over “The Mentalist” and a strange dream about kung fu fruit. Because at least with the Shuck, you know you’re not going to be disappointed.