There are two tv shows I go out of my way to watch. The first is obviously Doctor Who, and the second is Holby City. Seriously, it’s really, really good.
It helps that they have some great actors, but it’s just a classy programme all round. It takes the time to build up characters, and actually (unlike soaps, generally) keeps them consistent – you rarely find nice doctors suddenly turning nasty if the storyline demands it, for example. It also pulls off the Cheers / West Wing trick of making them all likeable. When the emotional storylines come around you can’t help but empathise, and it’s regularly moving. Tonight’s show had two widowers struggling to deal with their new relationship. Not something you see on tv very often, and very easy to get wrong, but I really felt for both characters. Elsewhere one of kindest people in the show was getting screwed over by his girlfriend and, knowing his history, you’re sure he’s not going to cope well and you really don’t want it to happen. Did, though. Cow.
The writing varies with the writer, as with any show, but the dialogue is rarely less than effortless and often witty as hell. Storyline-wise, you can sometimes feel the writers coming and going – the occasional episode will wrap up a bunch of plots, to start afresh the next week – but it’s always neatly interwoven and, importantly, not forgotten. They’re happy to reference two-year-old storylines if necessary. The modular nature isn’t surprising with a full-time show – I don’t think it’s been off the air in three years – but they also have various long-running themes that cross boundaries. For example, there’s been an atheism/religion element in the last nine months. A couple of patients have referenced Richard Dawkins, an atheist consultant turned to god in a time of desperation1, and a Catholic doctor clearly has issues dealing with things that go against his faith. It’s not terribly overt, and I don’t know whether it’s ever going to come to anything (or even which side it’s on, if any), but it’s definitely deliberate. The ethics of private medical care come up regularly, too.
I also think it’s technically well made. The lighting on tonight’s show was beautiful, and their long-term use of popular music, relevant to the themes or events of the particular episode, is evocative. And, as I said, the acting is top notch2.
I think it’s the long-term stuff I like most. They’ve put the effort into creating consistent characters, with back-stories that don’t go away. It’s common to sniff at soaps / long-running dramas, but I think this is why they’re worthwhile. Building up characters and situations over literally years allows for emotional resonance you can’t get elsewhere – in books, sure, but no film or standard tv show has that kind of time. You follow the lives of these people, and share in their joys and tragedies. It’s genuinely upsetting when a loved character dies, but the complete opposite when, say, a long-running romance comes to fruition. And of course it goes away, but there’s a pleasure in these experiences that’s unique to the medium. I’m not ashamed to admit liking it – that’s what storytelling is all about.
Bit gushing? Probably. But atm it’s one of my favourite things on tv. Credit where credit’s due.