The longer a drama is allowed to run, the closer it comes to resembling a soap opera. The difference between these two forms is that while both are made from the relationships between fictional characters, dramas use those relationships as a means of articulating some deeper truth about the human condition. Soap operas are dramas that have been robbed of significance; they treat the relationships between fictional characters as ends in themselves.
As someone who has never entirely understood why I am supposed to become emotionally invested in the lives of people who do not exist, I am very sensitive to the difference between drama and soap opera and I am always wary of films and series that move from one form to another. An excellent example of the slide from drama to soap is the French procedural Spiral. When Spiral first aired in 2005, it was a tightly-written drama exploring how various aspects of the French legal system interact as part of an investigation and how incompetence, mendacity and institutional dysfunction can get in the way of justice. At the time, many people compared Spiral and to The Wire but where the two programmes part company is that while The Wire used its additional seasons to expand its critique of American society, Spiral lost interest in the real world: By the third season, the writers of Spiral had shifted their interest away from the French legal system towards the emotional lives of their characters. By the fourth season, the procedural elements were serving as little more than an excuse for characters to bicker, plot and occasionally jump into bed with each other. A fifth season of the programme has been produced and has begun to air and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue indefinitely. Spiral’s viewers may have been drawn in by the critique of French society but it is their emotional investment in the characters that keeps them coming back. In the nine years since it first aired, Spiral has transitioned from a drama about the French legal system to a soap opera set in courthouses and police stations.
This process is also beginning to affect the on-going collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and the comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; a creative partnership that began by producing thought-provoking drama now traffics in smug, middle-class soap opera.
Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon first worked together in 2006 on A Cock and Bull Story, an ambitious film-within-a-film adaptation of Laurence Sterne ‘s infamous metafictional novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Written at a time when the formal conventions of the novel were still being established, Tristram Shandy is widely considered to be unfilmable as it goes on for nine volumes without ever really coalescing into a recognisable story. For example, despite being written as a biography, the book carries on for hundreds of pages before the titular character is even born. A Cock and Bull Story is a fantastic adaptation of the novel as it extracts the book’s ideas about the narrative-resistant nature of modern life and projects them onto a pair of bickering comedians.
A Cock and Bull Story casts Steve Coogan as a more arrogant and insecure version of himself. Seemingly poised on the brink of a Hollywood career, Coogan is so desperate to assume the role of a Hollywood star that he bristles at every slight and becomes obsessed with British TV actor Rob Brydon’s insistence that the two men are on an equal professional footing. Brydon is so effective at undermining the script that Coogan has chosen for his life that all of Coogan’s professional, personal and romantic anxieties wind up resting on his co-star Gillian Anderson and the fear that Brydon will somehow charm both the film and the actress out from beneath him.
A few years later, Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon reprised their collaboration in The Trip, a semi-improvised comedy drama that was released in the UK as a TV series and in the US as a film. As in A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan and Brydon play exaggerated versions of themselves who bicker and try to out-do each other as they drive around the North of England visiting a series of exceptional restaurants. Coogan’s love life is just as complicated as it was in A Cock and Bull Story but his insecurity and ambition are more evocatively shaped into the figure of a man who is forever trying to improve his lot. Brydon’s character is also better drawn as he comes across as less of a buffoon and more of a man who undermines Coogan’s ambition simply by radiating contentment from the inside of a shell-like comfort zone fashioned from a collection of shop-worn impressions. One of the series’ recurring motifs is the revelation that Coogan is just as gifted an impressionist as Brydon, it’s just that he would rather not trade on it. More effective as a film than as a TV series, The Trip lacks A Cock and Bull Story’s structural cleverness or thematic richness but it is still a delightful comedy drama built around the portrait of a man who keeps moving forward despite it seemingly getting him nowhere closer to happiness.
The Trip did very well at American film festivals but it feels more like a professional vehicle than a work of art. Over and above the fact that the series is little more than the banter sequences from A Cock and Bull Story drawn out for three hours, the Trip feels too cynical and convenient to pass muster as a story that needed to be told. For example, how better to keep everyone in the public eye and on the pages of broadsheet newspapers than by having them visit a series of expensive restaurants that could then be reviewed by hacks only too happy to slipstream the PR spend? I enjoyed the series enough to watch it all the way through as the photography and jokes were good enough to make the middle-class smugness tolerable but it also reminded me of the Ocean’s Eleven series in that everyone involved seemed to be having way too much fun not to chance their arms again.
Just as cynical and even less substantial, The Trip to Italy revisits the central dynamic of A Cock and Bull Story for a third time as Rob Brydon recruits Steve Coogan for a journey from one exquisite Italian restaurant to another. Again, we are confronted with the ‘joys’ of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan imitating Anthony Hopkins for the best part of three hours but this time the improvisations feel a lot less directed and the relationship between the two men much less tense and evocative. Since The Trip, fictional Coogan’s career has plateaued prompting him to transfer his ambitions away from the professional arena and towards the personal including a doomed (and under-written) attempt to rebuild his relationship with his son. Less naïve and visibly less content, fictional Brydon spends the entire journey considering the bitterness of his marriage whilst seducing deck-hands and winning roles in Michael Mann films.
Critics are as much the victims of pandering as anyone else. When a middle-aged white guy writes about the minutiae of his life then the middle-aged white guys who write about these types of things in broadsheet newspapers are incapable of not taking him seriously. Many of these critics roll their eyes at media that panders to other groups but the second a work of art suggests that their lives are worthy of artistic scrutiny, all critical instincts evaporate. Why else would so much mainstream literature and European film revolve around middle-aged men having affairs and getting divorced? The Trip to Italy is about hugely successful middle-class, middle-aged white men eating fine food, having sex with beautiful women and still feeling a little bit sad and yet few critics seem willing to call it what it is: cynical, self-indulgent, pandering bullshit that amounts to little more than Twilight for the Viagra and red wine generation.
What makes The Trip to Italy so unbearable is how little it offers the viewer. Works like Philippe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill and A Cock and Bull Story may obsess over the lives of people whose lives have long been over-represented in the arts but they somehow manage to overcome their poor choice of subject matter and find new things to say. The Trip to Italy has nothing to say… it is nothing more than a well-shot soap opera trading on the audience’s attachment to the characters. The only thing worse than the fact that this series got made is the fact that, like Eastenders or The Bold and the Beautiful, it could go on for ever.
How about touring the restaurants of Northern France in time for the game season of 2015? How about escaping the London weather for a gastronomic tour of picturesque North Africa in the winter of 2016? How about pushing the boat out just that little bit further for a 2017 tour of the most photogenic eateries in South East Asia? The Guardian fucking loves this shit… who could possibly object to Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan imitating Anthony Hopkins for three excruciating hours every year from now until the day they die? In fact… death needn’t be the end as CGI could allow the BBC to bring Rob and Steve back to digital life for 2050’s The Trip to Hell in which the lads compare Terry Wogan voices whilst tucking into steaming bowls of poo and broken glass on the (beautifully photographed) banks of the river Acheron. Oh no… Rob Brydon has been manacled to the same rock as Alfred Hitchcock and a jealous Coogan has reacted by saying something catty about his Michael Caine impression! How utterly delightful, let’s all give these tedious pricks a bit more money and attention!
Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story is a genuinely excellent meta-fictional drama that says all kinds of interesting things about life’s refusal to abide by the stories we would seek to impose upon it. The Trip to Italy takes what was good and interesting about A Cock and Bull Story, strips it of meaning and drowns it in venality resulting in nothing more than a smug, pandering soap opera aimed at emotionally stunted middle-aged men. Fuck this shit, and the people who made it, and the people who failed to come out against it.