1986, TV

The Singing Detective (1986)

Had I encountered this remarkable TV miniseries in my 20s, when I had my highest tolerance for meta commentaries on storytelling, I might have lost my mind over it. However, that tolerance has waned over the years and I struggled with it instead.

So the first thing we have to get out of the way is the likelihood that nobody had ever seen anything like this on English-language TV before. I should point out, though, that I have not seen Pennies from Heaven, only scenes from the Steve Martin bomb that was adapted from it. Still, I feel pretty confident in saying that nobody had seen anything like this before. There’s Berlin Alexanderplatz but very few English-speakers had seen it and, moreover, that is a straight narrative and this is not. The show is probably the most daring thing attempted in English language TV prior to the Golden Age of Television of our century.

At its best, the show is extremely clever, pretty funny, and fairly engrossing. At times, the satire of film noir conventions and the meta combination of struggling to write a film noir with that satire is incredibly well done. I would gladly watch a film adaption of this that just focused on the meta noir satire. (I assume the poorly reviewed American film remake is broader.)

But, watching this series in 2021, having seen an awful lot of attempts at meta commentaries on storytelling, and having seen a lot of satires of film noir, and having a declining tolerance for things too far up their own ass, I have a number of serious quibbles with this show:

  • It was very clearly made for UK TV in the 1980s and absolutely does not benefit from bingeing: The show assumes viewers are not able to watch the previous episode right before the current one and so there are endless callbacks and repeat shots. It gets boring pretty quickly.
  • It is way too ambitious and self-involved for its own good: I suspect the story of how Potter wrote this is a fascinating one (and I guess I could have watched the extras about it if I wasn’t so happy to be done with it) but there is too much material here. All of the material about the protagonist’s childhood could be excised and I am pretty sure the show would be better (not to mention shorter!). Besides helping to explain how unlikable our protagonist is, and why his character sings, it doesn’t add enough to other plotlines and doesn’t make the metaness of everything any more compelling. At its worst, it’s All That Jazz but funnier.
  • The main character is awful: Sure, I would have tolerated this guy a lot more in my 20s but I’m kind of tired of difficult men.
  • The jokes have often dated very horribly: There is plenty of humour here that was acceptable in the UK (among “polite society” anyway) in 1986 but it is outright racist now. That just makes for a bit of an awkward watch and it makes it less funny.
  • The music is all of a certain time, a time before I was born and much of it from a time before my parents were born. That doesn’t make it particularly relatable to me now.

The overall result of all of this is that I laughed a lot less than I should have. Because I was annoyed at the callbacks, the length, the stuff with Phillip the child, and the racist jokes, I missed so many of the actual jokes. And that’s too bad because I suspect one reason it has such great reviews and ratings is because it’s very funny, particularly for a show this meta. (Ambitious meta-narratives often suffer from a lack of humour.)

I can’t say I enjoyed it. And I wish I had been in a more receptive mood to all the jokes. But I can’t help but acknowledge how undeniably distinct and unique and path-breaking it is. There was nothing like this on TV in the 1980s (at least in English). And there wouldn’t be again for a very, very long time.


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