Saturday, October 8, 2005 by

Broadcasting a drama serial which deals with issues of psychology and paranormal in primetime Saturday night deserves brownie points. However while Afterlife may be all that, it is also yet another example of brainless, sensationalist entertainment transmitted on those evenings by ITV1 in lieu of anything better.

To date, the press reviews for Stephen “GhostWatch” Volk’s latest foray into the realms of the supernatural have been almost entirely upbeat. But it’s difficult not to conclude that the plaudits have been earned primarily off the back of Lesley Sharp’s involvement in the project and, in particular, her previous track record for appearing in decent, interesting drama serials. Here her performance remains pretty good, but her adoption of a tremulous monotone as a way of signifying her character’s hidden inner torment starts to grate by episode three, and you are left wondering if Sharp knows of any other ways of portraying trauma convincingly.

Andrew Lincoln, on the other hand, hasn’t turned in a convincing performance since he was Egg. Here he adopts the “Dev from Coronation Street” method of acting as a short hand for exuding academic charisma. This means anything he can lean against is fair game for taking his weight, while his lines are punctuated with unconvincing hand gestures and bizarre moments of vocal over-emphasis. On a brighter note, the relationship that Lincoln and Sharp have fostered shies away from the traditional “will-they-won’t-they” school of interplay in favour of showing that each is too wrapped up in their own personal problems to be able to fully connect with the other.

In many respects though, the acting is the least of Afterlife‘s problems. Obviously influenced by the recent (now largely over) box office fascination with films such as The Ring and Dark Water, Afterlife majors on building a similar kind of suspense. This is particularly noticeable in tonight’s episode, in which troubled teenager Daniel finds himself stalked by a horrific apparition that has a nice line in walking up to things in a terrifying way. One of the hallmarks of the aforementioned Dark Water or, more obviously, The Grudge is the director’s willingness to abandon conventional storytelling in favour of stringing together a series of scary set-pieces. In fact the sketchiness of plot and total absence of any kind of explanation can heighten the terror (giving such films a plausible arbitrariness that more closely resembles the real world). But in the context of an ITV1 drama and, in particular, one in which the ability to terrify the audience is at best limited, the lack of decent narrative closure comes across as a big shortcoming, leaving episodes flapping loosely in the wind as the end credits materialise.

In this respect, this episode worked slightly better than last week’s (in which the death of a schoolgirl at the hands of a known sex offender came to absolutely nothing). However the dénouement unintentionally sent Afterlife into decidedly choppy waters. The plot consisted of the aforementioned Daniel being terrorised by the ghost of his mother’s aborted foetus. According to Sharp’s character, this deranged foetus was walking the Earth in search of some kind of acknowledgment of its existence. Whilst you can imagine Volk saw this as a relatively neat plot idea, the episode itself threw up all manner of questions regarding the ethics of abortion, implying for a start, that an aborted foetus is an actual human being (surely this is not a “given” but rather the central point of contention in the ongoing pro-life and pro-choice debate). Worse still, after breezily establishing this “fact”, the episode then implied that the fate of all aborted foetuses (or, at best, foetuses aborted by women who keep it a secret and then marry into the church) is to roam the Earth in torment, destroying the sanity of any offspring that their mother might later produce. This is patently not an intelligent contribution to the debate.

The biggest problem here though is not the paucity or the extremity of the argument, but that it was obviously not meant as any kind of reasoned argument at all, rather you could tell that Volk had dreamed it up as a plot twist – nothing more, nothing less.

Of course television shouldn’t have to always tread carefully across contentious or sensitive issues, but if you are going to run rough-shod over such matters and risk upsetting or – and I don’t think it’s too strong a term – traumatizing those viewers who might currently be grappling with the issue at hand, it would seem your minimum responsibility is to at least recognise you are dabbling with things you don’t truly understand.

What makes it worse in this case is that this is exactly what Afterlife is supposed to be about.


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