Pearls and swine

Television 2005 - Andrew Billen wonders why none of the best stuff gets shown on the main channels

I value writing this column partly because I am a lazy TV viewer. I watch plenty of television but not, left to myself, many programmes. Instinctively unadventurous, I show intense loyalty to a relatively few shows. Thanks to the invention of the hard disc recorder, I can, for example, honestly claim never to have missed an episode of ER or Friends, a feat of which I am not particularly proud.

The point about being the New Statesman's television critic, however, is that you are made to watch other programmes. These may turn out to be good or bad, but I choose them because they look as if they will have been produced with an eye to quality. Consequently, I judge them by the highest standards. The result is that the programmes I watch out of choice and habit rarely get a second mention. So, because it's Christmas, here are my bouquets to two television programmes I have enjoyably watched unpaid this year, and thank-you notes to half a dozen others.

It was appropriate that I should grieve for the passing of Six Feet Under in Nov-ember, for grief was its subject. Before its final slide into sentimentality in the last episode, this HBO serial presented the most detailed and intelligent investigation of death ever on television. Yet love was at the front of the screen most of the time: familial, of course, between members of the Fisher family, owners of a funeral parlour in Los Angeles, but marital, extramarital, homosexual, platonic, erotic, adolescent and middle-aged, too.

It did not flinch from complication, as when the more spiritual of the Fisher brothers, Nate, was left bereaved by a woman whom he had all along wanted to disappear. The backdrop to these tang- led loves, however, was death, the family trade, and it was Nate's death that finally concluded the series. As he told his wife, death's purpose is to give life meaning. It gave this brilliantly acted drama, one that broke down divisions between comedy and tragedy, its meaning, too.

An interesting recent round-table discussion in the trade paper Broadcaster turned to the question of why the best of American drama was better than the best of our own. One conclusion was that having a team of writers answerable to the "owner" of a series (in Six Feet's case Alan Ball) combined the best traditions of the one-off authored piece (a la Potter) and the work ethic of the soap-opera writers' room. Well, perhaps the second series of Bodies, part-owned by BBCs 3 and 2, would have benefited from another sensibility at work beside that of its creator, Jed Mercurio. But that would be to quarrel with the best contemporary British drama of the year.

At first, I worried that this season would simply repeat the mordant theme of the first, namely that hospital politics and NHS policy protect rather than expose incompetent practitioners. There were signs of crudeness, as when a geriatric patient was mistaken for dead and woke up in the morgue. But the depth of the character acting made the series increasingly compelling, particularly in the case of the senior consultant Roger Hurley (Patrick Baladi) who, ironically enough, was a useless surgeon but a rather good husband and father.

Grisly though the birth scenes were - for once on television, babies emerged from the birth canal looking bloody and newborn rather than pink and two months old - the grisliness of the hospital bureaucrats was even more revolting. In the end the flawed, sexist but brilliant surgeon Tony Whitman (Keith Allen) was fired for "stealing" an extra cup of coffee from the hospital canteen - a ridiculous pay-off, you might think, but Mercurio, a former doctor, was not joking: in real life a surgeon made headlines after being suspended for canteen theft last year. I suspect Mercurio wasn't joking, either, about the other scandals that his drama exposed.

My sofa and I made plenty of other appointments to view this past year. I admired Newsnight's imaginative coverage of the election; Newsnight Review had a lively year, getting out of the studio a bit, although I was sad to see Mark Lawson end his long stint as its main presenter. This Week's week-in-week-out pulse-taking of the Blair government became addictive late on Thursday nights. Sky News's relaunch in October missed a few beats of its own, but in its quieter hours the station is bravely re-establishing the current affairs magazine on British television. Dragons' Den and The Apprentice reinvented business coverage as entertainment. And it was pleasing to see on posters Ricky Gervais describing Channel 4's Peep Show as the best British comedy. It is.

This is the time of year for charity, so I shall not complain about those programmes that have wasted my sofa time. I can't help feeling a little unseasonably towards my fellow viewers, however. Six Feet Under's final season was shown on E4 and will not be repeated on Channel 4. The West Wing can now be seen only on More 4. Bodies has been a ratings flop for BBC2. It has taken three seasons for even Peep Show to be noticed. As for the excellent, scabrous western Deadwood on Sky One - well, do you know anyone who watched it? Yet these are television's pearls, and the swine reject them. Are my tastes innately superior to the public's? Or has its taste been coarsened by too much CSI, Casualty and Little Britain - and by being sent too few tapes to review?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.