I was watching Torchwood last night and thoroughly enjoying it and not for the usual sci-fi adventure reasons but for the reasons that really make Torchwood and the new Doctor Who stand out from the crowd of usual suspects in TV viewing these days. British TV is perhaps not what it used to be (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t lived there in nearly twenty years) but it still remains sharply differentiated from American TV in some very important ways.
One of the things I was particularly enjoying last night was that everyone was just a bit pudgy. No one was spending regular time at the gym, and it looked like the entire cast had been spending too much time in the pub between series. There were no defined abs and impossible bulging calves. I know this because, of course, there was plenty of semi-nudity because the British, in general, are way more casual about the human body in general. Even our most attractive lead characters were only as attractive as people you might meet at work or at the pub, and the rest of the cast were just as ordinary as you or I.
Stereotypes were played with so each character is believable: Gwen, the attractive spunky ex-police officer, has an adorable chunky boyfriend who spends time cooking beans for the team while they’re hiding from the law; Jack the virile action hero with the mysterious past is gay (and wow, not interested in Gwen). This same attention to the human in characters can be seen in the powerfully funny Shaun of the Dead where ordinary blokes and birds combat the horror of the living dead.
I remember when I was first exposed to British television and I commented on the strange almost washed out quality of the lighting in their shows. I was told that this was because they used natural lighting for many of their comedies and dramas. At first I was put off by the coolness of the tones, but over time I have come to see that it is part of the national aesthetic which seems to favor a naturalness over extreme artifice in contrast to American movies and TV shows. In America’s CSI: Miami everyone is glamorous and too cool for their own skin. Even in shows that I enjoy, like Bones, everyone is gorgeous. In Doctor Who the hero is a skinny charming but flawed buffoon, and his female sidekicks run the spectrum from annoying to adorable.
In Torchwood last night Ianto when to the shops to stock up on supplies. He didn’t forget the TP. In the heyday (sadly past now) of HBO the same attention to detail and naturalness was applied to The Sopranos with its bulky, sometime endearing, but threatening hero, and all the ugly duckling henchmen, and of course the realism of Janice. A character dies on the crapper. Life is what happens to ordinary people every day, and even sci-fi fiction can remember that in the details of toilet paper and chunky cuddly teddy boyfriends who like baked beans.