Saturday, December 10, 2005

Overpromised and underdelivered: The Ghost Squad

I'm getting a hell of a lot of hits from people searching the web for torrents, or information about The Ghost Squad, C4s new, disposable, pop cop drama.
In my previous post I wrote about how excited I was by the potential of the show’s premise, only to lace this with a wary appraisal of the first two episodes, which didn’t actually deliver very much.

Five episodes in and the series has continued to underwhelm this viewer. Despite my own thoughts, it’s nevertheless winning plaudits from the TV press, who compare it, to a man, to Garnett’s The Cops. The comparison is ludicrous; especially so, since a far more obvious candiate for the show’s “inspiration” exists. I’m talking about Between the Lines, whose pips The Ghost Squad is not qualified to shine. This is not mere nostalgia talking. Season one of Between the Lines is out now on DVD and rocks hard. In contrast, favoured comparison piece The Cops hasn’t been seen for over half a decade. While we’re on the subject, where the hell are my DVDs of Buried, and Tough Love/Lenny Blue?

Here’s how Channel Four punt the skein (listen to me and my fancypants jargon):

The Ghost Squad stars Elaine Cassidy as Amy Harris, a young and idealistic undercover detective, whose work soon becomes a sinister and violent journey of discovery.
Recruited to the Ghost Squad by the tough Detective Superintendent Carol McKay (Emma Fielding), her new and powerful boss – they soon clash when Amy doesn't tow the party line. Amy's shadow and support in the Ghost Squad is Pete (Jonas Armstrong), a thrill-seeker with a dangerous edge. Depending on each other in the edgy world they inhabit, theirs is a relationship that is always electric.

Undercover for weeks or months on each case, the set ups are costly, and Amy can't afford to fail. But what is success? In the complex world of political expediency nothing is clear cut.

Sounds exciting doesn’t it? Let’s look at it in a little more detail. “Amy doesn’t tow the party line?”. Hiffle. Pete’s “a thrill seeker with a dangerous edge?” Piffle. “Nothing is clear cut?” Old plum pud. Yes, that’s all the detail it deserves.
I had a joke about how fitting it is that a show called The Ghost Squad should be so anemic, but worried it was a cheap shot. But fuck it, I’ve got no good will left. This is a miserable, bloodless excuse for a show. I don’t know what the writers think they are doing, but so far they haven’t introduced a case whose outcome hasn’t been clear within the first five minutes. The plots are simplistic, their resolutions unsubtle. There’s no tension, no conflict, no suspense; nothing that happens will come as a surprise to anyone who’s switched on a television at all in their lifetimes. There’s not enough intrigue, not enough violence, not enough sex. Even last week’s lesbian clinch was dull. It’s come to something when it takes me so long to suspend my disbelief I miss the scene of girls snogging.

Look, it ought to be simple. You’ve got these undercover cops who infiltrate dodgy firms to put away corrupt officers. You can investigate any rank, for any reason, anywhere in the country. Before you even start, there are intriguing questions about loyalty, honesty, identity, and etranger you can make your characters face. Plots can revolve around what it’s like to live someone else’s life for months on end, whether it’s better to be an honest crook than a bent copper, or if you fight someone’s corner or hang them out to dry. Every episode should be a mystery that makes us curious about the characters: is he bent or isn’t he? will Amy’s cover be blown? is McKay simply furthering her own political aims? will Amy have to compromise her beliefs to get a result? is Pete in any way useful?

Instead we cruise slowly along, every single beat marked by a thousand galley slaves pulling on the oars of a bloody big ship, too fucking huge to miss, with no question at all what direction it’s headed in.

What a waste. But it’s no damn good complaining. If I’m so convinced there’s a potential for great stories in the setup, it’s up to me to find them. I am taking up the Stack challenge, of writing a spec for an existing British TV show. It may not be as sexy as Alias in its heyday (and I mean Alias as in the gestalt of the show, not J. Garner, who I’ve always thought has the features of a rough Gary Erskine sketch), but it’ll be mine.

Category: Movies and TV


  1. Have you ever sent anything to the BBC writers room?

    Unlike in the US where you need a spec of an existing show to prove that you 'get' the paradigm and can be creative witihin it - the writers room only wants new, orginal writing. Or so it seems.

    I'd like to hear whether they actually do anything in this room or whether they just accumulate stuff.

    Good luck with the spec.

  2. I love the fact that they make a point of only wanting to see original work, and then stick you on Waking the Dead.

  3. Ha ha, I like that. The Stack Challenge. Makes me sound like Danny Baker on your doorstep with a camera crew and a box of washing.

  4. The Ghost Squad, was an exciting and refreshing change to all the other crap C4 usually pump out.

    I don't understand why its constantly hailed as being underrated and a real disappointment.

    I've learnt from just about everything i like that there is no point in listening to critics opinions any longer, they just go along with what the rest of the media are saying. Pathetic really.

  5. If I recall, most critics praised TGS; the Radio Times, in particular, really liked it. Nevertheless, C4 couldn't get anyone to watch it and it was cancelled. That I found it to be a bag of reheated turds had little do do with their decision.