Thoughts on Kiss of Death
Last night saw the screening, on BBC1, of Barbara Machin’s latest venture, a 90-minute crime drama entitled Kiss of Death. It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to say that I think Machin is one of the best writers working in television at the moment. She wrote my all-time favourite episode of Casualty, Perfect Blue (as well as two other episodes in my personal top ten - an impressive feat, given that she’s not exactly prolific), and created Waking the Dead, for which I am forever grateful to her. She also wrote the only episode of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman worth a damn, and has continued to demonstrate a refusal to be governed by the constraints normally imposed on the genres with which she works. Two Christmases ago, she turned Casualty on its head by adopting a Rashômon-like structure to tell a gritty medical thriller story, and Kiss of Death applies much the same format to the police procedural.
On paper, Kiss of Death is not all that different from Waking the Dead. Most of the same personalities are present and correct: we have the haunted senior police officer, the slightly oddball forensic scientist, the over-eager junior female detective who worked hard to get out of uniform, and so on and so forth. The programme’s uniqueness came not from its characters or the situation in which they found themselves but from the fragmented manner in which the story was told. Whereas the Casualty episode Killing Me Softly used the unprecedented (at least in Casualty) but fairly straightforward concept of showing the events of a day consecutively from the perspective of three different characters (each shift being indicated by flashing the character’s name up on the screen), Kiss of Death ups the number of available points of view to at least nine characters and continually jumps back and forth between them, also going both forwards and backwards in time. That I managed to keep up with what was going on is, I think, a testament to Machin’s writing and the directing of her old colleague, Casualty co-creator Paul Unwin, but I can imagine many viewers finding this very frustrating. Credit where credit’s due, therefore, to the often lowest-common-denominator BBC for commissioning and airing in a prime time-slot (9 PM on a weekday night) something that actually set out to challenge its audience’s expectations and intelligence. It’s just too bad it had the misfortune of airing directly after a highly sensationalised and tabloidish Panorama investigation into child molesters who use the Internet to prey on their victims.
Last night’s screening was billed as a one-off drama, much in the same manner as Waking the Dead when its two-part pilot episode aired back in 2000. It eventually returned for a full series in 2001, after certain stylistic elements and character backgrounds had been retooled, and I’d like to think that, in much the same manner, Kiss of Death has its own series to look forward to. However, I very much doubt that it could continue as anything but a one-off in its present form, given the extent to which the events depicted relied on the personal involvement of its protagonists. In what is becoming increasingly typical of television dramas, most of the main characters had a Dark Past, many of them interconnected. Our main detective, Kay Rousseau (played rather well by former CSI star Louise Lombard, this time sporting her native English accent with only an occasional Transatlantic vowel sound), had only recently returned to work after being convicted and later acquitted of the death of her baby, and it was implied that her being let off the hook was due mainly to work done behind the scenes by her ex-husband Miles (Ace Bhatti), who ensured that the “right people” worked on her case. Kay also had a History (with a capital “H”) with both her profiler, Clive (Shaun Parkes) and her forensic scientist, George (Lyndsey Marshal), the latter having helped put together the case against Kay during the investigation into her child’s death. George, it is also revealed, has or had a serious drink problem, and an action on her part in a previous case may or may not be connected to the murder that the team is presently investigating. Finally, Kay’s second-in-command, Costello, is played by Danny Dyer, which is enough of a defect in itself without giving the character any additional problems.
That probably all sounds a bit contrived, and, in a sense, I suppose it was. The structure was such that I didn’t really get to care a great deal for any of the main characters, apart from George, who I’ve come to the conclusion is my favourite, mainly thanks to her uncharacteristically enthusiastic reaction to the blood and guts that her job brings her into contact with. Seriously, the look on her face as she examines the contents of a murder victim’s bowel (see the image below) would put many a gore movie fan to shame. The rest of the characters, however, seemed a bit too distant or flawed to really care about them, and I suspect that a lot of this was a result of the unconventional narrative structure that had been adopted. With the episodes of Casualty in which Machin first began to experiment with this method of storytelling, this was considerably less of a problem, given that the audience had already established a relationship with the characters that she was using to tell her story, in the case of the likes of Josh and Charlie going back 15-20 years. Here, however, I found myself thrust into an extremely disorientating world populated by characters that I was getting to know only via brief snippets of information delivered in non-chronological order.
This probably sounds like I’m coming down rather hard on Kiss of Death, which is not the case at all. On the contrary, I really enjoyed it… if “enjoyed” is the right word, given the bleak tone and often gruesome imagery on display. The programme worked as an experiment first and a piece of storytelling second, and it required me to invest effort in it to get the most out of it, but I suspect that’s no bad thing. On the whole, I feel that the Casualty two-parter I’ve already mentioned was more satisfying as a piece of drama, mainly because I didn’t feel there that the structure was hampering my ability to connect with the characters, but Kiss of Death was a gripping, challenging piece of television and a more than welcome antidote to an often formulaic and predictable schedule.