When TV drama mirrors real life

THE terrorism that Western society has been witness to over the last decade or so has undoubtedly made an impact on the prominence of the subject in our culture; the threat we feel as a nation after the events of 9/11, which ultimately saw the United States, the world’s current superpower, suffer terrible attacks has given our country a new heightened state of uncertainty over our safety.

The media, as always, has reflected this heightened sense of threat. A day doesn’t go by in which we aren’t reminded of situations overseas. These reminders are reinforced by a number of documentaries, analytical literature and prime-time drama also about this new threat on the West.

Wide interest is hardly a surprise. Without undermining the delicateness of the subject, popularity in these new sub-genres may just be down to the fact that people like to relate what is happening in the world to what is on their TV screen.

For example, pre-recorded episodes of Spooks – a BBC MI5 drama – showing a terrorist bombing in central London were almost pulled after they were set to air just two months after the terrible 7/7 London bombings.

The fictional terrorists in the Spooks episode were not religious extremists yet the show had so many similarities with real events that the BBC did agonise over whether to drop the episodes.

However, the fact that the show reflected the public mood and gripped audiences by asking the big questions about terrorism, were eventually reasons why the shows, although heavily edited, went ahead.

The executive producer of Spooks at the time, Jane Featherstone, said that the decision to show the episodes showed the extent to which a drama holds a mirror up to society.

“We reach an audience that doesn’t watch Newsnight or Panorama. It’s not lecturing in any way and it’s told through characters that are as flawed as we are and it will spark debate,” she said.

More recently from over the pond is Homeland, an Emmy-winning conspiracy drama (and personal favourite of President Obama) about a CIA investigator trying to establish whether a former Al-Qaida prisoner of war has been converted into a terrorist spy by the enemy.

With scenes depicting the contrasting brutality and coercion used against this US Marine hostage, it is clear to see that the show, like many of its kin, takes a view on terrorism that is character-driven and characters that are not always shown to be perfect.

It isn’t too far of a stretch to imagine that if US captives can relent under pressure, the environment future terrorists tend to be brought up in can directly dictate their actions – these psychological aspects are surely another reason why, in script terms, terrorism is such rich material for TV dramas (not to mention ample excuse to include intricate plot and visual effects such as explosions or vast fires).

The complex politics that can often lead to terrorist action means that television can be the easiest medium through which the public can gain an understanding over foreign affairs. In fact this is suggested by Jane Featherstone earlier in this article.

Speaking personally it would be a bit of a lie if I were to say I knew exactly what was happening currently in the Middle East yet I know I would much rather learn as I go with characters from Homeland rather than trawling through more wordy reports in our newspapers.

TV can help reach audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged with such serious topics.

We can only hope that the TV authorities represent such serious and complex issues in a manner that both engages and informs their audiences.