I greatly loved Dr Gemma Foster, but am appalled at the thought of seeing her again. The announcement that BBC1’s Doctor Foster has been recommissioned confirms the apparent new lunacy that all hit fictions have to come back, regardless of how distinctive and satisfying the originals were.
ITV started this with Broadchurch series two, which should perhaps have been a warning, as it achieved the remarkable double of casting doubt on both the storyline and the quality of the brilliant original. The Fall also returned and fell short of its first mark, but, despite this, The Affair has just come again with diminishing pleasure, and a second season of Happy Valley is in production.
The prospect of re-encountering Sarah Lancashire’s DS Catherine Cawood is almost as alarming as the idea of a reunion with Suranne Jones’s Dr Foster. Although Happy Valley and Doctor Foster are, at one level, cop and medical shows – genres in which successful series can become as fixed as Christmas – Catherine’s and Gemma’s professions were incidental to their personal stories. What the hell will they do next? Will the doctor be betrayed by another lover or the detective be stalked by a further criminal?
The pressure to leave a first series open-ended to the possibility of a second has also visibly begun to make final episodes less enjoyable. The worst things about Doctor Foster and another renewed BBC1 drama, The Missing, were the closing moments, where the viewer’s expectation of a firm and final handshake from the characters was replaced by a shrug and a face that said “CU again?”
Many TV bosses will ask why you wouldn’t reward the 8.25 million viewers of Doctor Foster with another series. But I think that the model of comedy and entertainment TV – where if The Great British Bake Off or a Catastrophe does well they are brought back as quickly as possible – is falsely being applied to drama.
It’s easy to understand why. With a new show, executives first need to have an idea and then persuade viewers to watch it. How much simpler it is all round to greenlight a project where both the format and the audience are already established.
Should Sarah Lancashire really be back for more Happy Valley?
Dramatic fiction, though, is the one area of TV where the theory of repeat custom becomes problematic. In contest and comedy programming, the set-up is the sell. Fans of Bake Off would have been understandably furious if they had tuned in for the second run to find Ant and Dec presiding over a cocktail-shaking competition, though probably less annoyed than Peep Show admirers discovering that the new protagonists are Tom Courtenay and Wendy Craig playing grandparents in Surrey. The first half of the term “sitcom” promises a situation that will change little.
Most serious dramatic stories, though, make the opposite promise that the narrative will be wrapped up. Browsers of BBC Store, the online archive shop launched last week, will notice that the dramatic classics of the past (Edge of Darkness, The Singing Detective) came and went. The attitude of writers then was that a success gave you the power to write something else. Middle-ground has been found on this issue with the “anthology series”, where the title comes back but the characters and story change: as in Fargo, True Detective and, reportedly, The Missing. This is cleverer than repetition, but another alternative would be to look at the old option of just stopping.
A BBC drama hit of the past was The Six Wives of Henry VIII. These days, an executive would automatically ask: “Hey, is there mileage in him marrying another half-dozen next season?” But, now as then, some great dramas should be left as history.