Friday, May 09, 2008

It's about time.

A friend who was in a brutal traffic accident a few years ago told me once of his utter anger at Casualty: a character had a similar accident and because he wasn't fairly immediately sanguine about losing his legs, the doctors and nurses fretted that he was unusual. They'd been treating him for several minutes, he should cop on to himself, sort himself out. I'm told it recently had a side story, a B-story in which someone learned they had cancer, went through all the chemotherapy and died within the one episode.

I did explain to my friend that it's written into Casualty that all accident stories, all guest stories will be completely dealt with in a single episode and, moreover, that one episode will cover one shift at A&E. Maybe we'll see someone going into work first, maybe coming out after, but otherwise, it's in that eight-hour period. But of course really what I was saying was precisely the same as my friend: we were both saying Casualty is unrealistic and aggravating, I was just using more words.

We all know this one-shift approach is rubbish and we have all complained about TV characters, in many shows, miraculously getting over amnesia/nuclear war/dry cleaning within a single episode. But I think we've been trained to accept it anyway.


I was just re-watching Noél, a particular favourite episode of The West Wing from December 2000. I remember it being criticised a lot at the time for how, it was said, Josh Lyman gets over his post-traumatic stress in an hour.

But he didn't. The episode concentrated on the ten or so hours of one day, the first day in which he is diagnosed and after which he will begin treatment. More, the episode was actually set over a two-week period as we saw Josh crumble. So, two weeks, ten hours, the start of longterm treatment, it was exactly right. More, the reason for doing the episode was directly because Josh had been shot at the start of the season, the makers didn't want to pretend that goes away easily.

So how does The West Wing get criticised when it seems you have to be ill or in an accident to get mad at Casualty?

I don't know. I thought I'd figure it out if I just talked it over with you but I have to say you're being very quiet so far. I don't doubt that you agree Cas is wrong, Wing is right, but why the difference in perception for most people? It can't be that we expect less of Casualty, though I believe we do, because that suggests we expect more of the Wing and that it let us down but I can't see how. Nor can it really be that The West Wing is more popular than Casualty because, again while that's patently true worldwide, it's utterly the reverse in the UK. And it cannot be acting,it surely cannot be acting because Bradley Whitford is superb as Josh and, er, there are probably people in Casualty too, presumably.

Perhaps it's to do with how Casualty is bone-numbingly sequential: it will only tell a story in one direction, will only ever do this happens and then that happens and then the other happens. That West Wing, quite typically for the series, was focused on one day but it jumped through it while simultaneously taking us through those two weeks beforehand.

But I don't know, I really do not know. And because you have no doubt which approach I favour, I'm troubled by it all.



hardy24 said...

The key difference, not that I want to make excuses for Casualty, since I can't stand the show, is that the characters recovering from an injury are only available for the one episode, and everyone watching knows that. It's the constraints the show works within. With the Wing, Bradley Whitford was a regular on the show, he was in the episode previous and he was in the next episode. Again, the audience knows this, so they see the greater possibilities the Wing could exploit within the story line and in there mind choose not too.

William Gallagher said...

I see your point, the regular versus the guest.

But as I recall, the criticism of the Wing was not that we never saw anything further in the series after this, it was specifically about this episode: that his problems were wrapped up in an hour.

So shouldn't this have worked the other way? Here was a show that really was dealing with consequences, but it got knocked while the one that never does is always let off.

David E14 said...

I loved Casualty - until I qualified and started to work in a hospital, and then I couldn't bear to watch it. Partly because of Charlie's awkward empathy, partly the busman's holiday syndrome but mainly because of the speed and degree of recovery from devastating accidents and diseases.

A friend of mine briefly gave medical advice to the programme and was asked to come up with a dramatic condition that could cause the patient to be in intensive care expected to die, but within the episode awake and back at work completely physically recovered by the next week. Nothing that bad could be recovered from so quickly.

There is a current irritating trend for characters in films and on television to 'die' (poison, drowning etc) and then after a short period of someone giving them chest compressions they cough and are immediately back to full health.

Whilst I find that amusing or annoying - depending on whether the rest of the story is suspending my disbelief - it has a very real, and upsetting side effect. When someone comes into hospital similarly ill their relatives expect them to be instantly cured.

People cannot distinguish between fact and fiction and tv hospital dramas give people very unrealistic expectations.

William Gallagher said...

Ouch. I've heard GPs saying their patients expect them to drop everything and come over to walk their dog or something, because that's what they'd do in Doctors, but that's crunchingly bad.

I'm reluctant ever to think that people cannot tell fact from fiction, but as unpalatable as it is, I know you're right. The number of people who used to apply for a job on Crossroads, for instance, was startling - not actors looking for a role, real-life motel staff wanting to work there.