The typical British drama is very short. Unlike its American counterpart, which can run up to twenty four episodes, British television shows will be very lucky if they get six episodes. Almost none of the dramas commissioned ever get second seasons because they are made for telling a single story and once that story is over that’s it. It is unusual for British television to have story arcs which characters move through. Comedies are more likely to get consecutive seasons but additional seasons don’t come with extra episodes. In fact, additional seasons often come with a reduced episode count or being condensed into a single yearly Christmas special.
This has absolutely nothing to do with popularity. In fact, some of the most popular shows, such as Gavin and Stacy or Sherlock are the biggest victims. As understandable as it is that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have other projects, you wouldn’t see HBO’s Game of Thrones take a two year break just because Peter Dinkage had to shoot X-Men: Days of Future Past. For HBO, that might not be a bad idea actually. Maybe then G. R. R. Martin will have time to release the next instalment.
As much as we, the British audience, lament the use of short seasons, it is something we must endure. And it means that British television shows have to be tighter and engaging. There is no room for filler or time wasting dialogue. The show has to grab the viewer’s attention immediately and follow through quickly. American television shows can have a lacklustre episode or two out of twenty or so because it won’t hurt the overall quality of the show. For a British programme, one bad episode out of three or four can halve your entire viewership. There is no room for error and shows can often live or die on the quality of their first episode.
This week ITV aired their new crime drama, Prey, which they have been promoting for months. And why not? It boasts some serious talent. John Simm headlines the cast but he is followed closely behind by Rosie Cavaliero and Craig Parkinson. I must admit, the adverts did get me interested in the show. It looked intense and I do enjoy John Simm as an actor. So, with time to spare on Monday evening before WWE Raw, I decided to check it out.
For my immediate impressions of the first episode, check twitter. As for now…., well, I am mostly indifferent. Prey is good. It is well acted and directed and there is very little in the story that feels unnecessary. However, I did expect the episode to be more suspenseful whereas there was very little that was actually surprising. Many of the bigger events from the episode were already shown in the advert.
The plot follows Simm’s Constable Marcus Farrow has an argument with his estranged wife. The following night he finds her murdered and, despite being a police officer who would presumably be trained to react reasonably in times of stress, he touches the blood, touches the murder weapon, leaves prints and loses his key. And guess what? He’s the main suspect. The point is, of course, that murder of one’s family is so traumatising that even a police officer wouldn’t react normally. I can’t deny that. Unfortunately this is a scene that viewers have witnessed in too many crime dramas. It is clear that they are setting up Farrow to be on a one man mission to clear his name but it being so obviously set up doesn’t make it come off any better. There is also a reveal near the end of the first episode that could be seen coming a mile off.
Cavaliero’s Susan Reinhart is also a bit too quick to presume that Farrow is guilty. This is probably connected to her personal issues with her ex-partner but it was disappointing to see it happen with only a couple lines of obstruction. As with most of these shows, the problem really arises from a lack of communication. Simm’s character never bothers to mention that his family was recently threatened, or that Craig Parkinson’s character was an onlooker to such an event. It’s not like it slipped his mind; he shows up at the pub where it happened as soon as he escapes.
Thankfully, the second episode was a marked improvement. There is mounting tension as Farrow desperately tries to connect a recent murder case and the murder of his own wife and child. Reinhart too becomes increasingly frustrated at both her personal life and her inability to understand Farrow’s actions. Finally, the episode ends with a surprise that was actually unanticipated. It just shows how much the little details make a difference. Prey is strong in every other aspect, such as acting, pacing, and atmosphere but the story in the second episode is allowed to happen so much more organically than in the first that it helps elevate the entire series.
The biggest question is ‘how many people switched off after that first episode?’ I’m sure that first episode intrigued a lot of people enough to give a second episode a chance, as it did for me, but I am equally confident that some would have been put off by what they seen as being too run of the mill. Even I wasn’t as eager to watch the second episode. Last week I watched the first episode on ITV player a couple of hours after it aired. This week I didn’t get around to watching Prey until the following day. I wonder how many others felt the same lack of enthusiasm.
Prey is a solid crime drama with a talented cast and a tension driven story. It is also a prime example of why, for British television shows, the first episode is crucial. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression and that is never truer than when talking about British TV. If you have stuck with it though, you can catch the final episode tomorrow night at 9pm on ITV.