Tuesday, May 01, 2007

TV novel versus Telenovela

ITV Productions has announced its working with writer John Fay on Liaison, a major new drama series inspired by the TV novel storyteling style of HBO's The Wire. No broadcaster's bought the project yet, but ITV Productions seem to be gung ho for this series about the work of police family liaison officers, examining their lives on and off the job while showing how they interact with the families of victims and killers. The show would play out over two series like a novel, with a beginning, middle and end.

The TV novel is a brave choice of format, because it demands viewer loyalty. A show like The Wire is utterly uncompromising about this, displaying a stunning narrative density while expecting audiences to pay attention. At the Script Factory's TV Forum in London last week, speakers pointed out how dialogue-driven TV drama is often little more than radio with pictures. Filmmakers follow the mantra 'show, don't tell'; too much TV drama opts for show and tell.

The TV novel is not a wholly new concept. In the 90s science fiction series Babylon 5 was a prototype TV novel, telling a greater story over five years and 110 episodes. That can make for a very slow start and a lot of patience from the audience. More common now is the story-a-season model, as pioneered by the likes of Murder One and made popular by 24. Then there's serial storytelling, as seen in Lost and a host of failed clones in the last couple of years.

Science fiction sensation Heroes [coming soon to BBC2] mixes serial storytelling and the story-a-season model. Each episode is labelled as a chapter, and the big ensemble cast suggests a novelistic approach, but its comic book roots offers a closer analogue. There are plenty of other variations upon this style: the Big Bad season-long arc, as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each episode stands on its own merits, more or less, but certain plot threads build through the year to a Big Finish. Doctor Who has a hint of this in its Bad Wolf/Torchwood/Saxon subplots.

TV novel may be catchphrase of the week, but British TV's still scrambling to find a way of embracing the telenovela. This is a South and Central American phenomenon that went internatinal with the massive crossover success of Ugly Betty. Essentially, these are finite series, much like a novel. So, how are they different from TV novels? For a start, there's the general style and subject matter.

Telenovelas tend to be romantic melodramas, up to six episodes a week, with 120 episodes in all. The storytelling style is heightened to the point of being lurid, or over the top, or sometimes camp as a row of tents. In Spanish- and Portugese-speaking countries where telenovelas started, storylines tend to be historical romances, cross-class romances, teen dramas and pop music stories. [I can sense Simon Cowell's minions developing a Pop Idol telenovela as I type these words.]

Whereas TV novels tend to be tough, gritty and often challenging drama, telenovelas are light, frothy and above all entertaining. In its own way, Footballers' Wives was not unlike a telenovela. Shows like Bad Girls, No Angels and even Skins could have been tweaked to fit the telenovela style, with considerable ramping up of melodrama. The question is whether British production companies want to embrace their camp side and plunge face-first into the fluffy souffle of telenovelas? Or do they prefer to crave out grim and gritty, award-winning TV novels?

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