Friday, October 24, 2014

Strange

Strange is the best television show you’ve probably never heard of let alone seen. It’s one and only season aired originally on BBC One in the United Kingdom during 2003 and was rebroadcast in the United States on Showtime and later Chiller. Created by Andrew Marshall, the show was an intelligently written supernatural mystery in the vein of The X-Files only if Fox Mulder was a defrocked priest instead of an FBI agent. Each episode featured our protagonist John Strange (Richard Coyle) investigating a demon living among us in human form with the help of a nurse named Jude (Samantha Janus). They are aided in their endeavors by Kevin (Timmy Lang), a young man with Down’s syndrome and psychic abilities, and a resourceful hacker named Toby (Andrew-Lee Potts). A recurring antagonist, of sorts, is Canon Black (Ian Richardson), an imposing figure who disapproves of Strange’s methods and who sometimes impedes his investigations and sometimes helps with them depending on how they benefit his own agenda, which remains tantalizingly elusive with morsels doled out over the episodes.

When a priest is brought into Jude’s ward suffering from a stroke, Strange contacts her. It seems he was doing research for Strange about a demon known as Azal who can manipulate electricity. Naturally, Jude is skeptical of Strange’s admission that the Devil really exists until the demon’s presence strikes a little too close to home. “Kaa-Jin,” featuring a demon that summons its master by assembling body for it host from body parts from different bodies, is the weakest episode of the series in that it isn’t all that compelling with a rather conventional resolution. Fortunately, Strange rebounds with one of its strongest episodes, “Costa Burra” about a spectral horse and carriage that takes a person so that a banshee can stay in our realm. This episode offers an interesting twist in that the demon is remorseful of what it has done.

Known for his comedic turn in the popular British sitcom Coupling, Richard Coyle gets to show off his dramatic chops as the damaged and driven Strange. The actor manages to tread a fine line between vulnerability and obsession with occasional comic asides. He also has the same knack that David Duchovny had in The X-Files of conveying a lot of expositional dialogue about the show’s mythology in a compelling way. He also plays well off of Janus and the show wisely avoids romantically pairing them up while still showing that their characters care for each other deeply.

Samantha Janus is Coyle’s ideal foil as the skeptical woman of science and a single mother raising her sometimes delinquent young boy while holding down her nursing job and helping Strange on his investigations. She’s beautiful and smart, but unlike Scully in The X-Files, is more open to the supernatural, especially when experiencing it first hand. She’s also no damsel in distress, even saving the lives of Strange and her son by vanquishing the demon in the pilot episode.

Ian Richardson’s Canon Black is a wonderfully entertaining red herring. Initially, it seems like he’s the primary recurring antagonist, but, as the show progresses there’s more to his character than it seems. What appears to be ambivalence is actually ambiguity as he has his own agenda. The actor also brings a wicked sense of humor, mostly in the form of withering glares and sarcastic put-downs he directs at his young assistant. Richardson can change tone on a dime and his character is one of the most interesting in the show as Black’s priorities seem to be maintaining plausible deniability about the presence of demons in public, but privately he does everything in his power to keep their existence a secret.

A pre-Primeval Andrew-Lee Potts plays the small but significant role of Toby, the horny hacker that finds information online for Strange. He provides much welcome comic relief in the form of banter with Strange and Potts plays well off of Coyle in their scenes together.

Marshall does a brilliant job in the pilot episode of not only establishing the world of the show, but also introducing the key characters that inhabit it. He also sets the tone – a mix of supernatural horror with well-timed moments of levity that act as a safety valve from the tense mood that is pervasive throughout. He also does a good job of establishing the show’s mythology: the Devil exists and has many demons that run around doing his bidding each with their own specific abilities. It is up to Strange and his allies to uncover these demons and stop them.

Where The X-Files adhered to a monster-of-the-week format interwoven with a recurring alien conspiracy thread, Strange is much more focused with a specific demon every episode building up to the reveal of why Strange was defrocked and the circumstances behind his wife’s death. In this respect, it more closely resembles Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer T.V. show. I like that Strange and Jude discover the various demons through legwork in the form of research and deductive reasoning, much like the characters in Whedon’s show. For a show based in the supernatural, it uses visual effects sparingly, usually for the climactic showdown with the demon, instead placing an emphasis on character and story.

In 1999, writer Andrew Marshall, known mostly as a comedy writer, came up with the idea for a T.V. show about the Devil residing somewhere in England and someone trying to find him, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work until he developed it into a concept where demons live in the city in human form: “It rather conveniently fitted in with the Agatha Christie-type plots, where you had to guess who was the demon this week.” He was inspired by ancient myths and legends featuring demons.

Marshall wrote every episode with Joe Ahearne (Ultraviolet) and Simon Massey (Ballykissangel) directing with filming taking place in Ealing Studios and on location in parts of North London during a particularly cold winter. The pilot episode aired in 2002 and drew a solid 5.83 million viewers, which convinced BBC executives to greenlight a full series of six episodes. Marshall had only written six scripts, one of which was used for the pilot, and wrote a new episode that acted as a second pilot episode for viewers who hadn’t seen the first one while still continuing the story for those that had. Unfortunately, the airdate was pushed back several times for various reasons before finally being broadcast in May 2003.

The second episode alienated viewers that didn’t understand what was going on, but still got decent ratings. The ratings dropped over subsequent episodes before leveling out at just over three million viewers. BBC took Strange from its prime time Saturday night slot to after the movie that aired that night. They also stopped advertising it and the show was eventually cancelled.


Unfortunately, Strange only lasted one season, ending because of poor ratings. The last episode concluded with a cliffhanger that left Strange’s life hanging in the balance and the small fanbase clamoring for a resolution that Marshall penned in a short story on a fansite. It’s a shame that the BBC didn’t handle this show better because it was smartly written and well-acted. It deserved more of a chance to find an audience and time for Marshall to delve into the fascinating backstories of its main characters.

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