In the past year, the BBC has served up three disappointing thrillers, with finales that turned them from being genuinely thrilling to laughable.
First, there was The Replacement. The series starred Morven Christie as Ellen, an architect who was suspicious that her maternity cover was trying to take over her life (she was). The concept sounds odd, but it really worked – at least at first. Viewers were hiding behind the sofa from Vicky McClure’s eerie villain, and it felt like this very feminine tale could really take off.
Alas, we were fooled. The last episode was a mess, with Ellen – who had just swallowed a load of sleeping pills – seen hot-wiring a car to rush to the rescue of her kidnapped daughter. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the series and that doesn’t make sense to you, because you’d be none the wiser even if you had.
Then there was Paula. What began as a dark, compelling thriller about a woman (Denise Gough) who was stuck in rut and let a murderous pest control man into her home (easily done) ended up tying itself in nonsensical knots. Basically, Paula got a bit fed up with said pest control man (played by the impossibly handsome Tom Hughes) ruining her life and killing her family members, so she took her revenge by burying him alive in her basement, in a coffin equipped with air pockets, a drip feed, and a waste disposal system.
And finally (I can only hope) there was Trust Me, the identity theft drama. This series was led by Jodie Whittaker as Cath, a nurse who loses her job and decides to impersonate a doctor to create a better life for her and her daughter. Okay, this one does actually sound a bit ridiculous from the outset – patients could die just so this person can have a slightly bigger flat – although there is shockingly a factual basis to this tale of impersonation. But that doesn’t excuse its implausible turn of events, where everyone who discovers Cath’s secret chooses to let her off, she is promoted to senior doctor, and even hooks up with the guy who almost definitely killed her ex and the father of her child. Hmm.
All three of these mini-series were ambitious (I realise now, overly so) and had deeply unlikable female leads, who were written with hardly any redeemable qualities. It was reassuring to see women being penned as real and flawed and human (rather than unattainably perfect, maternal and feminine), but as these series went on it became more and more difficult to empathise with their characters, and therefore care about their fate.
This was a real shame for the fantastic actresses at the helm of these thrillers – which failed very much in spite of these women, not because of them.
Christie made the fear and frustration felt by Ellen in The Replacement palpable. Olivier-winning Gough, meanwhile, was marvellously miserable in Paula. And Whittaker, of course, is one of the most-talked about actresses of the moment, what with Broadchurch under her belt and preparing to be the next star of Doctor Who.
If the talent ain’t broke, what about the scripts? Are TV writers running out of ideas? Increasingly bonkers concepts are being written and commissioned in an attempt to stand out, but what’s the point if they can’t follow through?
Left-field ideas shouldn’t be thrown out of the writers room, but they need to be harnessed and to lead to a satisfying ending. With all three of these thrillers, the plot could have held if the supporting male characters bore a shred of normalcy, but instead they were just as misguided as their protagonist, if not more so. Crazy conceptions may get the viewer hooked, but without a real ending to hold on to we’re lost.
Let’s hope that series two of Doctor Foster stays on form…