Marcella is an ITV crime drama with a titular cop whose dark personal life gives her a unique insight into her investigations, just like every other titular cop in every other ITV crime drama since the beginning of the universe. Yet viewers expecting a cosy cop show were left unnerved by the final episode of the second series, which aired earlier this month, in which Marcella visits a hypnotherapist to reveal she killed her own daughter and takes a blade to her own face to give herself a Chelsea smile. Unrecognisable, she begins a life living on the streets. Before the hour is up, though, DNA evidence has been used to mark her legally dead so that she can return to the force as an undercover agent.
If you find that all a bit far-fetched (like one viewer who tweeted “can someone please explain that whole ending to me? None of the characters’ backstories were tied up and instead she’s now the joker?! Eh!!?”) , you’re probably not ready for the direction telly is heading in. In the last few years, the most hyped TV shows, such as Twin Peaks, have dispensed with linear storytelling, instead creating meta-worlds where normal characters deal with strange occurrences and jumbled timelines. It’s almost as if these shows deliberately try to disorientate audiences.
Westworld, the HBO hit nominated for 22 Emmys and returning for a second season this week, confused viewers by creating a series of robots whose lives exist on a loop, meaning storylines taking place over decades could appear sequentially, tricking the viewer. The ability to swap bodies in the Marvel series Legion, meanwhile, means you never know whether the characters you’re watching are really themselves. In this new generation of shows, seemingly normal people are constantly interrogating the realities they find themselves in, unsure whether they are experiencing magic or just the side-effects of trauma, psychosis or AI.
This is all happening at a time when our ability to judge what is true or fake in the real world is becoming ever more difficult. “In this particular moment with Brexitand Trump a lot of our notions of reality really are being disrupted,” says Dr Helen Marshall, who teaches a masters in science fiction and fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University. “Television shows like Black Mirror, which are projecting into the future but not very far – the kinds of world they’re throwing up seem increasingly plausible. TV can be both escapist but can also be a way of thinking about what reality is and how reality gets constructed. I think we’re really into those questions right now.”
So while there are lots of reasons we’re getting more shows this odd, there remains a question as to whether weirder is better. Some viewers resent the fact that most of these shows demand viewers spend time reading online episode recaps and fan theories just to understand what’s going on. When the first season of Westworld ended, for example, there was a notable backlash from critics who thought that, in all its twists and trickery, the show had failed to tell us anything about humanity and consciousness. One particularly scathing review, entitled Westworld Is Bullshit, challenged the whole notion that complexity equals ingenuity.
That has always been the issue of complex TV. If things are too straightforward, savvy audiences will guess the ending before it happens. If they’re too complicated then watching starts to feel like a second job, especially when shows prioritise plot twists and conceptualism over likable characters and good scripts. But perhaps it’s outdated to think that TV should be entertaining. The concept of the serious novel or experimental cinema is accepted. Maybe it’s time we acknowledged there are some shows you watch for simple escapism, and others you have to work for.