Enough with the callous…

I got a flyer through the letterbox the other week from a local chiropodist, advertising amongst other things, the service of “callous removal”. It made me giggle, but it also made me think that maybe I could do with this after all, because it’s partly why I’ve struggled with crime drama, movies, and books during the pandemic.

This has nothing to do with feet, and everything to do with creating some kind of sympathy or empathy between characters and audience. And in many cases, it’s been lacking, to the point where I’ve had to give up watching. This happened with two recent series, both of which I was looking forward to. One was Bloodlands (above, with James Nesbitt as an embittered Northern Irish police officer); the other was Tin Star Liverpool, a slightly crazy sequel to the Tin Star series showing on Sky Atlantic. Bloodlands was critically acclaimed, TSL less so, but I couldn’t cope with either.

I watched TSL mostly for the Liverpool setting as it’s my home city, and sure enough there were some great shots of the waterfront and the city centre, although much of the action was centred on the town of New Brighton on the other side of the River Mersey. I’d never seen the original series set in America, but I knew enough to realise that the main character (played by Tim Roth) and his family had been set up by some AC-12 style “bent coppers”, and were heading home to exact their revenge.

The first few episodes bowled along with a mix of action, dark moments and quirky comedy: so far, so noir. But then, without warning, it took a turn into pure unadulterated nastiness, with the sort of horrific, collateral-damage savagery I’d normally expect from x-rated gangster films. And worse, after a brief moment of reflection and the acting equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, the main character, and his wife, and his young daughter, simply walked away without a shred of remorse. I was upset for days; switched off instantly, and deleted all the remaining episodes without bothering to watch another second – and probably never will.

I assumed it was a one-off and that I simply hadn’t understood enough about the series canon to know what to expect, but then Bloodlands came along. Again, I watched the first couple of episodes and thoroughly enjoyed them: the atmosphere was dark thanks to the background of the Irish “troubles” of the 1970s and onwards but the storyline was gripping and the characters believable. And then the Nesbitt character did something so apparently unforgiveable that I lost all sympathy for him and couldn’t bear to watch any more.

Those of you who’ve read my work know that I don’t exactly expect characters to be squeaky-clean do-gooders. I like a bit of reality, a bit of grey-scale in between the black and white of good and bad. But it has to be balanced. Characters, especially main characters, have to engage my interest; I have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I also have to believe that in the end, they’re better than the people they’re chasing – or that if not, they suffer the consequences.

Too often, lately, those last aspects seem to have been missing. I’ve used Bloodlands and Tin Star as examples, but they’re by no means the only ones. And at the moment, with so much bad news, misery and depression around in the world, I’ll be choosing my crime drama very carefully, and leaving the callous, hard-hearted characters in the box where they belong…