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Right, I suppose I should start with what this thing is and why I want to write about it. The Game is Toby Whithouse’s six episode 1970s-set spy drama, seemingly originally intended to be a big BBC production before never quite making it to the schedule and making its debut on BBC America, where it got next to no coverage and largely sunk like a stone. To some extent, this last fact is what interests me about it. When announced, it felt like Whithouse’s audition piece: his big BBC One drama with which he’d become the inevitable successor to Steven Moffat. But between his absence from both 2013 and 2014’s Doctor Who and the fact that this basically landed flat on its face, the landscape has changed, such that Whithouse has largely fallen away as the heir apparent. And since this really looks like it’s going to disappear without much of a trace, that seems worth documenting.
So, first, because I assume essentially none of you have seen it, the basics. The Game follows an elite MI-5 team as they investigate a seemingly massive Russian operation involving sleeper agents in the UK. You’ve got a pretty standard set of stock characters. Brian Cox is charming as MI-5 head “Daddy,” Paul Ritter is the poorly closeted gay high society type, Chloe Pirrie is the secretary who proves terribly competent and eventually becomes an agent in her own right, Victoria Hamilton is what in a more modern-set show would be the profiler, Jonathan Aris is her autism-spectrum husband and audio specialist, Shaun Dooley is a cop assigned to MI-5, and Tom Hughes is the protagonist, Joe Lambe, who was blatantly cast on the principle of “cast me somebody who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch only a decade younger.” Over the course of the story, it becomes obvious that someone’s a mole. Is it Joe Lambe, whose loyalties have been questioned since a botched operation a year ago that resulted in the death of his lover, and who has old scores to settle now?
No, it’s totally Sarah, Victoria Hamilton’s character, which is in hindsight obvious because she’s the only one of the set who isn’t a blatant cliche, so clearly she has to turn out to be a femme fatale in the end.
This is making The Game sound like it’s excessively easy to mock, which, to be fair, it in many ways is. The 1970s espionage setting means that it’s unabashedly competing with two of the great heavyweights of British television drama: the BBC adaptations John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, and The Sandbaggers, an ITV number that famously only ran for three seasons when its creator Ian Mackintosh disappeared, prompting endless conspiracy theories suggesting that Mackintosh, a former Royal Navy officer, had revealed something he shouldn’t have on the show. Both shows crackle with 1970s authenticity, what with having been made in the 1970s (well, Smiley’s People was early 80s, but), and are nuanced character pieces about flawed geniuses in worlds full of flawed incompetents who do terrible things in pursuit of noble goals. In short, exemplars of that classic British television trick of replacing all the action sequences in something with tense conversations between great and good British actors like Alec Guinness, Roy Marsden, Richard Vernon, and Michael Jayston. This is a tradition of television in which anything short of outright greatness is going to be conspicuous in its failures. Given this, the blatant mediocrity of The Game is an obvious failing.
Except that’s not quite fair. The Game isn’t so much blatantly mediocre as it is a show that constantly threatens to resolve into something brilliant before turning out to be perfectly content with being derivative. Even well into the final episode, there’s an electrifying tension based on the ambiguity over who does and doesn’t still have secret plans that haven’t been revealed. It’s just that none of it actually manages to go anywhere. Still, its failures are instructive in terms of understanding how television operates in late 2014, and what the dominant tricks and concerns of the medium are.
One thing that interesting television, where interesting is defined as “interesting to me,” has been increasingly doing is trading hard on making the basic nature of the show a source of ambiguity and tension. Moffat, of course, is the reigning master of this, with his work being hugely concerned with the question “what sort of story is this.” (Case in point, Death in Heaven, where the central tension is “what sort of protagonist is the Doctor,” and where the teaser for Last Christmas involves explicitly discussing whether the ending of the episode is an acceptable resolution or if the story ought be defined differently.) This is a tricky business in some ways, because it really screws with a lot of models of narrative based on some notion of “playing fair” with the audience.
Generally, there’s two approaches to doing a suspense-based narrative. In one, the audience’s knowledge is kept basically in line with the protagonist’s knowledge, so that we get information at the same time they do. The tension comes out of trying to figure out the gaps – it’s the tension of a mystery. In the other, the audience knows more than the protagonist, and watches the protagonist catch up to them. In this approach, the tension comes out of the question of whether the protagonist will catch up. It’s the tension of a countdown, the archetypal example being one from Alfred Hitchcock about a bomb under a table.
But the “what sort of story is this” approach requires a third variation, in which the audience knows considerably less than the protagonists. The Game, for instance, hinges massively on the question of whether Joe Lambe is a traitor or not, carefully giving strong evidence in each direction while never allowing us to actually get solid confirmation until the climax of the final episode. More to the point, it relies on a narrative structure in which revelations to the audience dramatically alter the way in which we watch scenes. The reveal that Sarah is the mole, for instance, takes place in the final scene of the fifth episode, in a scene that deliberately comes out of almost nowhere, and in an episode where a key plot beat is a red herring reveal that Alan, her husband, is the mole, which is built to with a montage of various characters going about their morning routines while we wait to see which one is going to check a dead drop. (Alan, it turns out, is innocent, but has already figured out that Sarah is the mole and has decided to protect her, although why he checks her dead drop is inscrutable.)
More broadly, the entire Russian operation is an endlessly shifting thing, the contours of which change episode-by-episode. By the end, it’s an entirely incoherent shamble – a series of deliberate red herrings and decoys that turns out to hinge on the assumption that Joe will figure out that Sarah is the mole on a precise day chosen a year in advance, that he’ll confront her privately, and that he’ll respond to the information she gives him in a precise and predictable way. The climax involves a montage of events that, in order for the resolution to work, must not have actually been taking place concurrently, or that require Brian Cox to effectively teleport from a confrontation with a treasonous deputy Prime Minister (my aren’t we subtle, Toby) to the ops room in a matter of minutes.
It would, of course, be a mistake to complain that these are plot holes. This is the sort of thing Doctor Who and Sherlock get away with as a matter of course. And the fact that the show can work like this is telegraphed repeatedly. It’s called The Game, after all. The idea that everything is just a charade is there in the title. And withholding key information from the audience is explicitly one of its basic tricks. It’s not a problem in the least that the resolution not only can’t be guessed from the setup (that being an essential part of how the “what kind of story is this” show works), nor that the Big Elaborate Russian Conspiracy doesn’t actually make sense (what evil mastermind’s plan does?). Not even Brian Cox’s teleporting routine is a problem as such. Enough information is conveyed with pacing, camera angles, editing, and music to keep the dramatic arc running, and by the end the audience is so used to the structure of “and now here’s a reveal that changes our understanding of the basic structure” that we can be trusted to put aside our previous knowledge without protest.
No, the problem is that the end configuration just isn’t very interesting. The big twist is that Joe’s fridged lover is secretly alive, and the Russians plan to use that to blackmail him into complicity with their operation at the last second. The resolution is that Joe was not actually stupid enough to walk into their trap without backup, and there’s a sniper positioned to take out the Russian sniper. The final confrontation between Joe and the Russian mastermind has the dying Russian gloat that he’s beaten Joe anyway, because he can never truly trust his lover. Only the subverted fridging is even remotely clever here, and it’s not actually allowed to have any impact because everything else is straight from the “obvious genre trope” bin.
Which is the crux of the problem. The “what kind of story is this” structure relies on the answer being “something new and innovative.” Certainly this is the implicit logic of the show that The Game tacitly invokes, Game of Thrones, which takes this structure to its most all-encompassing and bombastic end. That show is electrified by the way in which it uses psuedo-historically accurate materialism to engineer surprise disruptions of the mythic fantasy logic that quietly (albeit increasingly loudly) underpins the world. But given actual historical materialism to work with and a similar central metaphor, Whithouse is ultimately unable to conjure anything more interesting than a story about a brooding white male protagonist indistinguishable from every other brooding white male protagonist in contemporary television. (It’s in this regard both revealing and damning that Whithouse is on record as being opposed to a female Doctor.)
Perhaps most frustratingly, the show comes close to a much more interesting approach. A subplot about Sarah secretly taking contraceptive pills comes to a head in the same episode that she’s revealed as the mole, and she’s got a fantastic monologue about how she’s not willing to bring a child into the world she sees every day at work, and not willing to stop working her job in such a dangerous world. It seems for all the world like we’re going to get an explanation whereby she’s turned traitor because she views any end to the Cold War, even a British defeat, as preferable to the game’s continuation – a sort of maternal Ozymandias motivation that, given Whithouse’s avowed love of Alan Moore, seemed entirely plausible. Instead she’s a traitor because… erm… well, actually, they never get around to resolving that.
The result is a show that isn’t awful, but that is unsettling in its flaws. Or, at least, a show whose flaws are such that they cast Whithouse’s previous successes in a new light. Even back with A Town Called Mercy, there was an increasing sense of Whithouse as a writer who was basically in step with the television of 2008 or so, but who has spent six years failing to evolve. It’s not that he’s not learning new tricks – The Game is blatantly a response to Sherlock, and tries to make a go at that show’s mesmerizing shell game of ambiguity over who’s figured out what. Rather, it’s that he’s not really taken on board anything about why these tricks work. He’s not interested in telling new sorts of stories.
To be blunter, Whithouse belongs to the very 00s era of television where it is all about, as I said, brooding male protagonists. In this regard it’s unsurprising that he was drawn to the 70s spy setting, which was in many ways ahead of its time in its choices of protagonists. But it’s nevertheless slightly shocking how, in just a few years, Whithouse has managed to go from looking like a talented up and comer to looking like someone who’s on the wrong side of an aesthetic revolution. Frankly, if we’re going to have someone stuck in the past for the next showrunner of Doctor Who, I’d rather have Gatiss, whose nostalgia is idiosyncratic and weird, than Whithouse, whose nostalgia ends up being a reaction against almost everything interesting going on in television right now.
Which just about sums up The Game: it’s a show about the 70s that’s tragically stuck in the 00s.