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June 10, 2011 5:17 pm

The virtues of a flawed character

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No hero can appear on a British TV set without his chain of sins and mistakes clanking behind him

The flaw’s the thing. No hero can appear on a British TV set without his chain of sins, traumas and mistakes clanking behind him. Aristotle’s Poetics, as influential a work as any on the form that drama has taken in the west, laid down that the hero should have hamartia – often translated as a tragic flaw, of conscious or unconscious doing – which will bring him down. Hamartia now comes with the territory. Built into the reflexes of every writer, every script editor, is the stern memo-to-self: No Hero Uncrippled.

Thus Dr Paul Weston, star of In Treatment (Sky Atlantic Tuesdays), as bad a case of hamartia as ever crossed the ocean to torment us. The format is innovative but simple: in most episodes, Weston (Gabriel Byrne) faces a patient in his consulting room and tries to tease out his or her story, searching for the deeper reason as to why they’re there. At times in the first series, Weston would go to see his “supervisor” – a retired therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest), with whom he battles and keens, and whom he later visits with his wife, in an unavailing effort to save their marriage.

In the second series (now running) Weston is divorced. The father of a patient, a navy flier who may have killed himself, has started a $20m lawsuit against him. Another former patient, angered for different reasons, returns to hammer away at Weston’s increasingly fragile ego. Paid $150 an hour to know others, his ironic flaw is that he too slenderly knows himself. Early in the first series, he calls his old therapist in suppressed panic and reveals himself as angry, paranoid about his wife’s fidelity and contemptuous of therapeutic assistance. The series, adapted by Rodrigo García – son of the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez – from the Israeli original BeTipul, depends heavily on male patients who harangue and insult Weston, and female patients who try to seduce him. But it rivets you to the screen, not just because of the fine playing, but also because it keeps its mind open as to whether this is – as the patients often say – self-indulgent crap. As the flier, an Iraq war veteran, puts it: “We do what we do so you can sit there and talk to people for a living.” Therapy – treated with reverence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) onwards, made (reverentially) comic by Woody Allen – has never before received this degree of analysis. Ideally suited to the close gaze of the small screen, it works.

Jackson Brodie’s flaw is none of his doing: he is obsessed with the drowning of his sister, Niamh, which he part-witnessed when he was barely adolescent. Brodie (Case Histories, BBC1 Sundays), played by Jason Isaacs, is a former army regular and police detective, now a private investigator, a Yorkshireman in Edinburgh, divorced with a young daughter. He is handsome but damaged, dishevelled but focused, his strength lying – as in the original characterisation by Kate Atkinson in her novels – in his ability to read the situation psychologically – an analyst who does not sit still.

Thus, in a near-ridiculous couple of episodes, he intuits the cause of a crime 30 years old, discovers a murderer in a sad fantasist in his thirties who clings still to his mother, tracks down a young woman who had disappeared for a decade and finds an old woman’s cat. There are two more of these coupled stories to come. Watch for a starry cast, the beauty of Britain’s finest city, sensuously photographed, and a sweet strain of wit saving it from bathos and absurdity.

The five hours of Injustice (ITV1 Monday-Friday) are, if you missed it, worth catching up on. The unwinding of a murder displays a barrister (James Purefoy) – liberal, comfortable, happily married, admired – as possessing the supreme arrogance of one who cannot bear to learn that the accused he has defended is not, as he has judged him, innocent. It also displays a detective inspector (Charlie Creed-Miles) with chips on both lower-class shoulders, who is promiscuously abrasive, physically violent to suspects, abusive to his wife, yet possessed of an instinct as to the character of the murderer. He is determined to get the culprit, as much to assuage his rage as to do his duty – but, in the end, to serve justice. Both men’s flaws condemn and elevate them, degrade justice and serve it at the same time. Anthony Horowitz’s script captures, especially in the character of the policeman, something close to tragic grandeur.

As if to illustrate the fictional In Treatment navy flier’s comment – “we do what we do so you can sit there” – a new series (Our War, BBC3 Tuesdays) uses footage taken from the helmet cameras of British soldiers in Afghanistan to bring to us, sitting there, the chaos of war. The first episode showed the deployment in 2007 of a platoon of the First Anglian regiment in a bombed and deserted town in Helmand province, their ambush by a group of Taliban fighters, and the death of one of their number.

Their fear, oaths and disciplined courage flood through the film, as do comments such as “it was like someone else doing it”; “like a film set”; “like a spaghetti western”. It is a sharp irony, that those young men – schoolboys when the Twin Towers were hit – should also be “sitting there” as, at the same time, they were doing what they must do. BBC3’s remit is to bring television to the young; in this series they bring home to us all the nature of comradeship, of fear and of the cost of our free and easy lives.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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