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I had been trying to delay writing about The Singing Detective for a while now, because I really can’t make my mind up about this show – it’s a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs, moments of television brilliance and moments of extreme monotony. I was very much impressed by the first episode, I thought it intertwined the three storylines in a very clever fashion and I liked the fact that it required the viewer’s active participation in order to make sense of its narrative style. It certainly felt like an innovative format, especially for a television program (and – no offence – especially for a British television program, because BBC shows, at least in my experience, tend to be on the dull side).

Once that novelty wore off, however, and once the thrill of deciphering its narrative strategy faded, I must confess I was rather bored. The second episode, as Leslie observed as well, did not offer anything new (perhaps with the exception of Marlow’s ex-wife visiting him in the hospital) and the writing seemed much worse than in the first episode. The third and fourth episodes managed to spark my interest again, but they didn’t seem as brilliant as the pilot.

One reason I’ve been enjoying these last couple of episodes is, no doubt, the increasing role of the storyline centered on Marlow as a child. First of all, the young boy who plays him offers a remarkable performance – seeing The Singing Detective in the same screening with The Sixth Sense really made me think about the performances of this kid and, respectively, Haley Joel Osment, and they are indeed two of the most outstanding child actors I have ever seen!

Second, the storyline of Marlow’s childhood seems to me as the most interesting, poignant and well-made of the three parallel storylines that are being narrated to us. The fictional detective story that he is writing in his head is impressive due to its visual style and classy mise-en-scene, but somehow I feel that it lacks substance and moves way too slow, especially for a mystery story. The fact that it is regularly interrupted by the other two storylines, plus the fact that it is meant to be seen one episode at a time, on a weekly basis, negatively affects its continuity – at least in my opinion – and dampens my investment in the mystery. It is just not exciting enough, and continuous enough, to sustain my interest from week to week.

The storyline centered on Marlow’s life in the hospital is, just like the fictional detective story, exquisitely well made yet somehow also falls short of the expectations that the first episode set forth for me. On the plus side, these scenes are embedded with a remarkable sense of realism and the performances are, again, outstanding (and here I’m referring both to Marlow himself and to the supporting cast of doctors, nurses and patients). Moreover, the way the musical numbers are integrated into the plot is highly original and efficient; undoubtedly, these are the scenes I have enjoyed and appreciated the most (the “Bones” song from the first episode has been stuck in my head for almost a month now, and I’ve been making my friends watch it on youtube, but nobody seems to think it’s as funny as I do!). However, on the down side, I must say that these hospital scenes are uncomfortable to watch – which is not always a bad thing when it comes to film and media, but in this case they are too uncomfortable to watch. The greasing procedure?!? Marlow watching that adorable old man dying in front of him and waiting until he’s dead to call the nurse?!? His skin in extreme close ups?!? These are all very poignant scenes, and they are indeed efficient in jolting the viewers, but I would have kept such scenes for strategic moments in the series, and not have them as the main setting and principal storyline of the show because ultimately they do take their toll on the audience.

The childhood storyline, and its increasing prominence within the narrative structure of the series, has therefore been like a breath of fresh air for me – I think the characters are very well portrayed and the intrigue is interesting. I also really appreciate the Freudian connotations of his relationship with his mother; the psychological motivations of the characters are intelligently crafted and it is obvious that their interactions have a sound theoretical basis in psychoanalysis and Freudian dream theory (especially the way in which, based on Marlow’s mental trauma and memory tricks, identities are displaced and interchanged between characters: the ex-wife appearing as the mother, the evil man as her lover, etc). These childhood scenes are brilliantly filmed and acted – just think of the classroom scene! – and they do a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere of England at the end of the war, without falling into stereotypical imagery. Moreover, the childhood storyline has captured my interest more than the other two, because there is that thrill of understanding what happened in Marlow’s early life that led to his present condition, his obvious psychological traumas, and his caustic and cynical nature. And to return to my initial point, I do think it is a problem that I am more invested in the mystery of Marlow’s childhood in rural England than in the mystery of who killed Sonia and who are those dark trench-coat-clad men sneaking through dark alleys.

One Response to “The Singing Detective”

  1. Ioana – what did you think about the end of ep. 4, where the childhood plotline seems to intersect with the other two around the character of Binney/Finney?

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