I spent the second half of this week utterly engrossed in the 1986 British series The Singing Detective and I'm ever so glad I did. All I knew before this week was that there was a very smart television series from England by that name and, last year, an Americanized film remake starring Robert Downey Jr. Now that I've seen the series, I don't think I need to see the film, however equally stylized and intriguing it looked from the trailer.
While reading up on the show, I frequently ran into accolades like "the best thing ever written for television" and "the best television writing ever" and other similar phrases involving the words "best" and "television" and "ever." At first I dismissed a lot of them as just pretentious spooging, because I expected to associate that kind of hyperbole with any kind of television that's above-average (see most any recent HBO series, for example -- the same people who said The Sopranos was the 'best television ever' are the same people who then turned around and said the same thing of Six Feet Under, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.) But you know, I think they may be on to something here.
For starters, the show is insanely complex. Even a simple plot synopsis just doesn't do the thing justice, though for the sake of context here goes: Philip Marlow, an aging mystery writer ("with this name, how could I do anything but?") is confined to a hospital bed with acute psioriasis, which renders him nearly immobile, in constant pain, and completely helpless. Stripped of his dignity, trapped in a dehumanizing environment, placed on experimental regimens of different medicines and desperately craving a smoke, he retreats inside his head and, with his imagination, begins to write (or rewrite, really) an old mystery novel of his. It features, well, a singing detective. Also some hookers, post-war Nazis, rockets, and murder, but that's not the point.
Interspersed with this are flashbacks to Marlow's youth in wartime England and his parents' disastrous relationship, as well as a new narrative in the last third involving his wife and a lost screenplay. It's all very Freudian (I know, I know) and quite neatly fitting the bill of the whole Artist With a Tortured Past, but it works. And not for nothing; it's semi-autobiographical. Dennis Potter, the show's brilliant writer, did suffer from an advanced form of psioriasis and had several painful episodes stuck in hospitals while they tried out new chemical cocktails on him (one scene has a doctor reading off a list of medications tried on Marlow; the DVD commentary points out this is pretty much word-for-word the same list of treatments Potter had been on.) Potter also gave Marlow a very similar childhood, growing up in a rural area of Britain close to Wales, then moving to London near the end of World War II. There are other childhood episodes which mirror each other, but for the sake of spoilers I won't go into them here.
All this would have probably been compelling enough on their own if done like any other television drama -- present-day scene, hallucination, present-day scene, flashback, psychiatrist's office scene to explain what just happened -- but Potter was not known for being a straightforward television writer, apparently. All the storylines in The Singing Detective bounce off each other, cross back and forth, intertwine and mingle, until the desired effect is achieved and we are not certain anymore if what we're watching is "actually happening" in the First World (Marlow's hospital) or if it's just another hallucination from Marlow's fevered imagination. Characters from one world begin to pop up in others; several actors and actresses play multiple roles and there's liberal use of future echoes spanning several episodes. Two of the imaginary characters even begin to question their own existence near the end, and their story arc is brought to an amazingly satisfying conclusion in the final minutes of the last episode. And it works. It really works.
Dennis Potter apparently was never one to do strange things because he could, or to show what a clever writer he could be. There's no sense of him being a braggart. He did these things because they fit the story. The most famous of his twists-o-the-medium in The Singing Detective is having characters start in with lip-synched songs when Marlow's hallucinations get the best of him. When a group of visiting consultants stop by his bedside in the first episode and upset the patient, they suddenly burst into an eerie production number, lip-synching "Dem Bones" while a chorus line of nurses high-kick their way around passing carts and the hospital signs are all lit up in nightclub neon. Meanwhile, in the background, life is continuing on as normal for the other residents of the ward. It's hilarious and freaky and clever and bizarre all at the same time, and once it ends everything goes back to normal and at this point I'm just howling at the screen. Yeah, that was nice.
Each episode seems to have its own brilliant set piece; my favorite is the word association game Marlow and his psychiatrist play in the fifth episode. Watching the show with the subtitles on gives you a greater appreciation of Potter's dialogue and gives you a chance to really see the incredible interplay between the two characters during the game. It's terrific fun.
However, the series itself is nowhere near as light-hearted or as joyous as I perhaps have made it out to be. It's dark, cynical, nihilistic to a point, and absolutely wrist-slashing depressing in many parts. Marlow is a crass, bitter, misogynistic old fuck though he's got his reasons, and the fact that somehow we are able to wring up even a smidgin of sympathy for him is miracle enough, but Potter goes out of his way to demonstrate that, above all, Marlow's just as human as the rest of us. Most of the other characters get the same humanizing treatment; there's only one or two single-note characters in the entire ensemble.
I've watched all six episodes twice now -- once straight through, and once with the commentary track (and subtitles) on. This series just begs for repeat viewings, and I'm glad to oblige before I have to give the DVD back. Only once you've seen the entire thing through will you truly be able to appreciate all that happened, and much like watching something like The Sixth Sense or Memento with the full knowledge, all the better to catch the bits you missed, watching The Singing Detective again brings up new and interesting details.
I do not hesitate to recommend this series to anybody who's smart enough to appreciate it. Although I am not joining the camp who call this "the best thing ever done for television" nor am I about to canonize Dennis Potter for his contributions to the genre (and really, I can't just yet, since this is the only thing of his that I've ever seen) I am definitely not a staunch opponent of such theories. I will say it's one of the best things I've ever seen on television, though due to its frank subject matter and brief nudity (all handled with the utmost care and best possible taste) I never got the chance to see it on American television (it was apparently individually distributed to PBS stations on a by-request basis, it never made Masterpiece Theatre or any national slot.) Indeed, at one point in the commentary the director mentions how nowadays, the BBC probably wouldn't touch The Singing Detective as it is and, he said with a sigh, "We'd probably have to go to HBO to get it done the way we'd want it done."
C'mon, guys, there are far worse fates to be had. I myself am just glad we have the brilliant original available for us on DVD.