These days, Dark and Gritty has become pretty much a default setting for most television, especially out of the US, regardless of genre – sci-fi, fantasy, procedural, superhero, medical, and more besides, most strive for a vision of ‘realism’ that is fixedly downbeat, grim, violent, and, ironically enough, not actually that realistic at all. It’s a rare new adaptation of a classic property that isn’t, in some way and to some degree, ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’. It’s bordering on an obsession at this point, and I have to wonder if it’s actually worth it…
To wit: the new BBC/Amazon adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Curious it should have her name in the title considering how much it deviates from the book (strong echoes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was actually much more Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula) in plot and tone. The new approach to Poirot might have been interesting, and John Malkovitch is far too good an actor to not be worthwhile, but it layers on the Dark and Gritty so thickly it practically suffocates the characters and story. I assume it was trying to capture some of the flavour of quiet, meditative Scandinavian dramas with its controlled, mininal camerawork and painterly aesthetic, but here it’s actually counter-productive, weighing things down so much there’s barely any momentum.
It has the same issue that hamstrings Endeavour, namely that the dark, shadowy, desaturated cinematography and low-key, mostly atmospheric music and slow, stolid directing leave things so heavy and gloomy it’s devoid of real depth or texture. The murders have to be graphic to even stand out amidst such unvarying gloom, and even then it’s only just. The lack of visual and tonal contrast in both shows – slightly worse in Endeavour thanks to them lowering the register of the actors voices in post-production, so even mellifluous Patrick Malahide sounds like he’s gargling gravel – is doing them a grave disservice. How’s the darkness supposed to be effective when there’s no light to show it against?
Even the latest incarnation of Doctor Who suffers a bit from this kind of tonal flattening, as does the new Watership Down, one of many reasons it’s much less potent than the 1978 film (haunting and visceral and definitely not ‘suitable for all’, despite what the BBFC might have you believe) or the original book. In fact, the 1978 film is a great example of the value of contrast, since its moments of brutality wouldn’t be half so powerful if they didn’t so sharply go against the tonal grain; you could even make an argument it’s too effective.
All of this is not to say there isn’t a place for programmes of this nature, just that when these settings, if you will, are being applied to things just because they can be, just because that’s what counts as ‘modern’ or ‘realistic’ or ‘adapting for current audiences’, then maybe they’ve become too much of a crutch. Certainly, ‘realism’ must stop being used as an excuse, as real life isn’t so relentlessly one-dimensional, so unvarying in mood, so consistently drained of colour and light and definition. At worst, going Dark and Gritty is lazy, cheap and hurts far more than it helps, and flags up a serious lack of imagination, something we’re sorely in need of right now.