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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.

Kiss of Death

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.

Kiss of Death

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.

Kiss of Death

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.

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 12:19 PM | Comments: 5
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead



I thought you'd be watching this! I have to say I found it tedious and irritating, with a highly predictable final "twist".

The whole thing depended on the viewer being interested in, or caring about, the personal lives of these characters - but they were all complete strangers to us, and not remotely likeable ones, at that. Except perhaps the aforementioned George.

As an episode of an existing drama, like the Casualty story you mentioned, it could've worked. But it wasn't, and it didn't. I hope we won't be getting a series!

Posted by: Philly Q, May 27, 2008 8:56 PM


Well, as it turns out, this was only ever intended to be a one-off after all, so you’re in luck!

I wonder if you would have enjoyed it more if the number of available perspectives had been limited to three or four instead of the massive number with which we were presented. One of the things I really liked about the Casualty episode I mentioned (which I really must get round to writing about in a more extended manner at some point, given how often I mention it on this site) is that each of the three perspectives were told sequentially, each lasting about 20 minutes and covering an entire day. The result of this was that each perspective offered information not available in the other two, so, for example, something in storyline B or C would explain something you saw in storyline A, thereby justifying the unusual structure. With Kiss of Death, the perspectives chopped and changed so constantly that at times there didn’t really seem to be any point, because nothing was really being concealed from us for more than a few minutes, and the end result wasn’t really any different from that of a normal “God’s eye” viewpoint.

Posted by: Whiggles, May 30, 2008 10:50 AM


Flashbacks: boring on TV since 2005, except where Lost is considered.

Posted by: Rob, May 30, 2008 11:00 AM


What does Lost do with flashbacks to make them not boring? I only ask because I’m not overly familiar with Lost, but from what little I’ve seen of it, I found its use of flashbacks to be hopelessly trite, desperately trying to inject a bit of interest every week by throwing in yet another “Oh my gosh this character has a dark secret that they haven’t mentioned to anyone yet” twist.

Posted by: Whiggles, May 30, 2008 11:14 AM


Yeah, the number of rapidly-alternating perspectives didn't help - there were times where we essentially saw exactly the same thing twice, and the only different "perspective" was the camera angle!

But it was mostly down to the dreary, irritable characters and grim, humourless atmosphere. I liked Louise Lombard a lot better in The House Of Eliott!

As for Lost, I'm convinced not even the scriptwriters know where the plot's going, they just make it up as they go along....

Posted by: Philly Q, May 30, 2008 2:08 PM

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