13 August, 2007

What the Papers Say: "Empathy"

Andrew Billen, The Times

"A nasty case of the flashbacks

Jimmy Collins, an ex-con, kept having visions about other people’s pasts. Funny that. Watching Empathy, BBC One’s Saturday night supernatural thriller, in which Jimmy was the empathy-non-inducing hero, I had visions about the future. I spooked myself that I’d know what would happen next. Mind you, you didn’t have to be psychic to predict the plot of a police drama that owed much to Patricia Arquette’s Medium and everything else to Stephen King’s Dead Zone.

Jimmy (Stephen Moyer) was released from jail after being banged up because of an understandable instance of male-revenge violence. On the way out he shook the hand of one of the screws and, wow, it looked like the guard had one of those electric shock handshake gadgets in his palm. In fact, a nasty case of the flashbacks (and not even his) had been induced by the flesh press. Further plot devices confirmed that this tactile man did indeed have second sight or, as we doctors say, temporal lobe problems. But then he touched the coat of a murderer and, bang! He “witnessed” a girl being clubbed to death.

The police, predictably sceptical about his powers, arrested him for the slaying but, after an inordinate amount of time, were won round. The first to succumb was DS Jo Cavanagh, whom I surmised at once to be the sort of sassy female copper likely to have sex with someone who has served time for manslaughter.

What else did my visions tell me? That Jimmy would be arrested but there would be another killing, so he would have to be released? That the killer would turn out to be the grieving dad who gave one of those emotional yet articulate press conferences that grieving dads do on police dramas? Yes, they did. The only thing I didn’t see coming was that when Jo and Jimmy got it together in the film’s final moments, their first kiss would reveal to Jimmy her own traumatised past. I don’t mean that the “twist” caught me by surprise. I just didn’t imagine the production team would have dared hope that this farrago could have series potential.

The dialogue was blissful, however, its every other line fished from a slow-moving stream of police procedural clichés. My favourites: “Can you imagine if the press get hold of this?”; “You could have compromised the entire investigation”; “This stops, NOW!”; “You can’t possibly think I had anything to do with this?” “You two are off the investigation”; and “You’ll pay for what you have done.”

The script was cliché-perfect, however, when Jo, dressed in a generously low cut jumper, visited the wounded Jimmy in the closing scene. “You had me worried there,” she said, to which there was only one reply – the one Jimmy, of course, gave: “Nice to know you care.” Empathy was allegedly written by Steve Lightfoot, although I have an eerie feeling that in fact he left his Google search engine on over night having typed in “murder plots/dialogue” and this is what it came up with."


Michael Deacon, Daily Telegraph

"Freed from prison at the beginning of Saturday’s one-off thriller Empathy (BBC1), violent Jimmy Collins (Stephen Moyer) was determined to shake off his past. Unfortunately for him, he was soon lumbered with everyone else’s.

The nightmare started the moment he left the prison gates. Every time Jimmy made physical contact with another person, he found himself plunged into a vision revealing that person’s most unsavoury memory.

He shook a prison officer’s hand and WHOOSH! A vision of the officer beating his wife. He bumped into a chav in the street and WHOOSH! A vision of the chav pinching a purse. He went to bed with a hotel landlady and WHOOSH! A vision of her chubby husband in nothing but a vest, his face puffing amorously above hers.

But there was worse to come. On the news one night was a report that a teenage girl had been murdered. Colliding with a thuggish-looking youth outside a train station, Jimmy was confronted by a vision of the murder. He told the police. They thought he was a fantasist. So he rattled off an impressively detailed description of both the victim and the crime scene. That changed their minds. Now they thought he was guilty.

This was quite a fun set-up: quirky and creepy with lots of room for twists. You were always intrigued to learn what was coming next. If not exactly edge-of-the-seat, it was at least leaning-forward-expectantly.

The trouble was the dialogue. Jimmy was of the strong-but-silent type. Sadly, he wasn’t quite silent enough. Most of the time he was content to grunt and glare, but in argument, whether with the police or lawyers or fellow murder suspects or his ex-wife, language was Jimmy’s tool. A big clunking car tool.

His ex-wife (Amanda Douge) started a row with him about his refusal to shake her new lover’s hand (“What the hell was that all about?”), but he effortlessly matched her cliché for cliché. It wasn’t her fault, it was his. He’d divorced her because he didn’t deserve her. She didn’t know what he was turning into. Did she think this was what he wanted?

Jimmy had a prepubescent daughter, who was in the sole custody of his ex-wife. Because of his years in prison for battering a neighbour, supplemented by a few more for the manslaughter of a fellow inmate, he’d been absent for almost her entire life. But she’d still managed to inherit his gift for the verbally hackneyed, as well as boasting the kind of patient maturity unique to children in television drama.

“Mum still cares about you. She worries,” piped the nipper consolingly, during an unaccompanied visit to her brutal criminal father’s poky new flat. “Dad? I’ve really enjoyed today.”

In the end, Jimmy proved he hadn’t murdered the teenager, and used his visions to help the police find and arrest the man who had. The visions, decided a surgeon, were caused by a peculiar tumour in Jimmy’s brain. In the final scene, Jimmy asked the surgeon to remove it, but there was still time for an awkward embrace with a grateful (in fact, visibly rather randy) policewoman.

WHOOSH! A flabbergasting vision of the policewoman tied squealing to a chair in what was plainly some kind of dungeon, with a tall and shadowy figure lumbering towards her, wielding chains.

It was too dark to tell if it was Jamie Theakston."


Zai Bennett, Broadcast

"To any producers reading this, I apologise for not having responded to what will almost certainly be excellent proposals and scripts, but I've been busy watching TV. To be exact, I've watched three hours 49 minutes and 11 seconds of TV.

That may sound like a long time, but watching BBC1's Empathy makes it feel like a really long time. I must admit this programme sounded like the kind of supernatural procedural romp that I might enjoy. The idea behind the show - an ex-con gains the ability to see people's thoughts and then helps the police solve crimes - is spookily reminiscent of Patricia Arquette in Medium, but that's where the similarities to the slick US drama end.

I knew the summer had finally arrived when I tuned in to this, as it's only then that BBC1 would think it's okay to broadcast something as lightweight, grey and dull as this programme on a Saturday night at 9pm. Stephen Moyer was lifeless as lead character Jimmy, the writing was pedestrian and I felt as if I'd seen the same story 10 times before."

Zai Bennett is controller of ITV2


Danny Fenton, Broadcast

"More CSI in style than Prime Suspect, BBC1's Empathy was another incredibly stylish supernatural crime thriller and featured a level of special effects not normally associated with British drama.

The idea of the programme is that the protagonist "sees" the secrets, good and bad, in other people's lives simply by touching them. It's a classic premise that has bags of potential, a bit like being invisible for a day, seeing dead people, or having X-ray specs at a supermodel convention.

Empathy seemed such a soft title, but the show was far from it, going from passive to brutal and back in seconds and the flashbacks, crash zooms, point-of-view shots and speeded-up camerawork gave the show a frenetic pace. But I thought the style distracted from the somewhat pedestrian script and storyline, though that was probably a good thing.

The end result was a drama where style once again won over content, and resulted in a show that could have been an episode of The Bill on magic mushrooms."

Danny Fenton is managing director of Zig Zag Productions


Danny Stack said...

A bit harsh, don't you think?

Robin Kelly said...

I did watch it all the way through, something I've never managed to do with a Dead Zone episode, and I wasn't bored but I can't say I enjoyed it or am looking forward to the series (if it happens).

I would perhaps question complaints about the cliché plot - are they clichés or genre conventions? But the whole thing, including the story, characters and dialogue, was a little too familiar.