A Few TV Thoughts

The Bedlam of Showing vs. Telling

Horror. Not a favorite genre of mine. As a preteen, any desire I had to experience fear of the bogeyman got played out during a horror film festival. So it’s shocking that I love BBC America’s Bedlam, a British television series that follows four flatmates who live in an old hospital’s converted apartments. Old hospital being the safe way to sell flats where asylum patients received horrifying treatments back in the day when that wasn’t so frowned upon.

Well then, what’s so special about Bedlam that a horror anti-fan raves about it?

Bedlam Title Card

To understand why, first, we have to hit the forums. Yes, there was a fierce debate when this series first aired, split 50/50 love it, hate it. As I read I found a consensus forming around the complaints that most bothered viewers. Every writer is told the first rule of storytelling is to show not tell. I’m actually one of those writers who love this rule! I know I’m such a writing geek but when a writer uses techniques really well I have to rave. And that is what the hating 50% can’t stand — instead of being told how to think like the majority of modern storytelling we experience today we are asked to think for ourselves as if we were watching real life.

While it’s really odd to start raving about my love for Bedlam by talking about the haters I feel it’s important to draw the line in the sand. Showing is a technique heads and shoulders more genuine and sincere than any telling and can enhance the viewing experience.

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#1: Four flatmates who have no apparent income live in a swanky flat for free.

First of all it’s Kate’s flat. Her Da owns the building. Seems pretty self-explanatory but I’ll explain further. She pays the bills each month. So really the other two don’t have to contribute anything unless she pushes them to as the name on the lease. She also works full-time for her father selling the other flats in the building. To know what you are selling a lot of companies give you a flat as part of your job, they don’t even need to be your father. It was made perfectly obvious in the first episode though, when her father gave her a ring they found on the job site for her birthday – he’s a cheapskate.

This leads us to reason he’d be very willing to give her a flat as part of her salary, especially in lieu of cold hard cash. He gave her a swanky one because so many are still vacant. If she gets money from her friends then great, less he needs to pony up in the long run. Now if this seems contrived to you then so be it. It doesn’t make sense her father owns the place and doesn’t give her a flat. Sorry. Now maybe it’s the fact Kate doesn’t demand rent. Oh wait, she did a couple of times. She herself made it clear she wants Ryan and Molly to pay rent. She doesn’t push too hard though because they put up with her and keep her company in the rather huge flat. All part of Kate’s bitchy character.

As for the other two not having more pride, etc… Molly is lost and needy, frequently changing jobs for some reason or another. A friend’s flat is a great cushion. Ryan has his own business. When someone is working from home, like a writer or programmer, they tend to like having other people in the house, I know I do. They don’t get out as oft as people who drive to work and they need human interaction too. Great reasons to share a flat and frequently be at home.

This is a matter of common sense and being willing to piece together the situation because you have a question. This question of how do they afford the flat was deliberately presented by the writers to give you a reason to think about what you were shown.

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#2: The audience were told nothing of the flatmates history or background.

First of all we were told everything we need to know of back ground and history through dialogue and the situations the characters got into. Kate through interactions with her father was successful on her own. She came to Bedlam Heights at her father’s behest to help him sell the flats. They inferred he had to hard sell her on the idea. We found later that she’s close to her father because he raised her a single parent when her Mum ran off. She’s greatly influenced by him as a result.

Molly is a long time friend (opposites do attract) and Ryan is a school chum. They both accept Kate for who she is and even though she’s bitchy are rather fond of her. Many a bitch have friends who love them and don’t see the person the same way the rest of the world do. These relationships tell you a lot about Kate and the two friends themselves. It’s obvious from the tension between Kate and Jed they have a history. Not only as cousins but something deeper. Something Kate doesn’t even want to admit to herself let alone face. She nitpicks her friends but not Jed. She rather avoids him and skits around him, only facing off with him straight on when it’s about work for the property.

Now this is the back history of just Kate and I derived most of it from the first episode. I could do a similar rundown for each of the other characters but instead I challenge you to watch the show yourself and build your own back history through what you are shown.

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#3: We have no clue why Kate is such a bitch and always self sabotaging herself.

Now you can assume some things about Kate from her background. First and foremost that she’s rather a bitch because she sacrifices what she really wants for success and appearances. She learned this at her father’s knee of course. You can see this whenever she talked to her father about any problem, including Molly’s missing friend. He is not a man to cross and her natural obedience to him makes it hard for her to rebel even as a full-grown adult. Most things she’s learned don’t affect her life much after she’s sacrificed them and any frustration she feels she releases through some unhealthy self sabotage.

As for her friends: she, by turns, loves and envies Molly because she feels Molly does as Molly wants. Molly’s free of obligation and responsibility, unlike herself. Ryan doesn’t have a clue what he wants. He can’t even decide on his sexuality. If he’d only figure it out he could do as he pleases. It infuriates her causing her to lash out at them.

The first episode we are uncertain of Kate’s relationship with Jed, all we know is they are cousins and he irritates her. By the end of the episode, after he saves Kate once, and still turns back at the continuing warnings to save Kate, we realize there is more to their relationship than at first is stated. From their past, Kate is well aware her father doesn’t want her to be with her cousin, even though they aren’t really related. Not even in love is she allowed to make her own decisions.

As the season progressed we came to see her father doesn’t want her with Jed because he is well aware of Jed’s parentage and doesn’t want a wakadoo for his daughter. Jed won’t pretend with her father even to be with her. He won’t keep up appearances and put what he wants on hold to be with her. It’s sad but Jed doesn’t seem to feel she’s worth it since she won’t make the effort for him either.

This kind of character may not be to your preference but it is a legitimate one. We are shown this beautifully through Kate. She’s not even willing to rebel for herself let alone to love someone else. This kind of person falls back on passive aggressive behavior because it’s their only way to rebel against the cage they are inside willingly. They’d rather hurt themselves and those around them than step outside.

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#4: People would be crazy to move into a place called Bedlam anything.

Many Brits are atheists or non religious. If you don’t believe in a God or life after death, why in the world would you believe in a spirit? Now I know of the legion of Supernatural fans, I’m one of them, but just because the Winchesters believe in a quasi-God (they talk to angels for goodness sake), doesn’t mean every cynic out there does too. To most people, who are godless especially, the Bedlam Hospital is just a crazy cool old building. It’s renovated after all with all the modern conveniences yet with the high ceilings and old character touches you can’t find in modern structures.

There are also the lovers of the paranormal that like being around ghosts and haunts, even to the point of living with them. Now even if some believe in spirits, they don’t necessarily believe they can be hurt by them. Fact is, there is a large base from which to garner residents and only the economic times are keeping them from filling the place in droves.

Simple as that.

The theme of this show as we are shown in this case is standing up and fighting for what our heart desires vs doing what is sound, logical and sensical. Jed wants to save Kate though he could be sent back to the loony bin. Molly loves Ryan though he’s not playing for her team. Ryan wants what he can’t have whether that’s Kate or hid focus of the moment. People want to live where they can have modern and traditional details. Yes, people want what they want.

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#5: The dialogue was stilted and the acting awful, but it got better as the season went on.

This one really gets me. I don’t disagree some programs’ dialogue makes you groan and roll your eyes. That’s not a problem in Bedlam though.

This odd relative of your friend and landlady drops into your lives, by bursting into your flat and interrupting you when you’re half undressed. As Kate you are trying to get who you think is a gay man to sleep with you. As Ryan you are who you think is a gay man going at it with a woman just because you’d never normally get her if you were straight. As Molly you just told your best friend you really like Ryan and would love it if he made a move on you. You come to see your friend blatantly disregarded your feelings, like usual. Then said instigator has the audacity to beg a place in their flat for the night. Kate is annoyed at this relative she’s never even mentioned and appears reluctant to even have him around. Then we learn in the morning Kate dished about her relative’s history in an institution as a warning to her flatmates.

Now after all that – why in the world would these two friends have a nice, easygoing conversation with this stranger free of tension, unease and uncomfortable silent moments knowing and feeling all that?

They wouldn’t!

The conversation would be uncomfortable and stilted at times. The dialogue did it’s job, gave us information and showed us that the atmosphere was not conducive to starting off well. The actors weren’t awful they were acting the part – of uncertain, uncomfortable bystanders with a potential crazy person in their mists but still a relative of their friend and landlady. How would you feel in like situation? Not chummy and easy-going that’s for sure. No, as we were shown it would be awkward.

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As an audience we have to free ourselves from our expectations to be told everything. By doing so we open ourselves up to so much possibility. The only real flaw of Bedlam is to bring a very supernatural and eerie subject like ghosts into a very well-developed reality. It’s subtle and nuanced much like real life. We don’t need a sledge-hammer, we need our eyes, our minds and our hearts.

I can’t change other people’s perceived flaws with a show. I can explain why their thinking is flawed. All I can hope for Bedlam is I made my point here. This is a subtle, depthful show that happens to be about freaky ghosts in an old hospital. The location and source of the conflict inform the characters rather than dominates them. At it’s heart this is a character driven story, not a monster an episode procedural. This is showing people, not telling.

What side of the debate are you on: stories that show or stories that tell? Do you go in with a stack of expectations or a will to enjoy yourself? Are you a horror fan? Or a horror anti-fan?

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