It’s happening in superhero films and it happened in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s recent BBC adaptation of Dracula; characters are becoming increasingly snarky and determined to get laughs. Our screens are filling up with people who feel like needy stand-ups. True jeopardy is becoming increasingly rare in commercial cinema because filmmakers – or perhaps the studios guiding their hands – are obsessed with making light of every moment, lest it become too much of a downer. This has made Marvel films unwatchable. And in the case of Dracula it was a stake through the programme’s heart: every time it became genuinely scary, up popped a smart-arse comment to bring the whole thing crashing down.
It would be easy to write a parody of this complaint: ‘No programme is allowed to be funny, says miserable writer.’ But comedy is essential and dramas needn’t be po-faced in order to be successful. The problem comes when someone – often a comic writer doing drama – attempts to do both at the same time. “I have this cake, and now I’m going to eat it,” they say. Then the audience get all the satisfaction of watching another person eat cake.
When I interviewed Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld recently, he explained that directing action-comedy is deceptively hard. You’re walking a razor-thin line, he said. If the action is too real, the audience start to think it’s too intense for a comedy; and if the comedy is too funny then this damages the authenticity of the action. But action-comedy is a genre in its own right, and when it is done brilliantly it is bliss. What isn’t a celebrated genre is horror-that-is-funny-but-only-sometimes. Dracula needed only to be scary. No one wanted it to be funny. “Looking forward to this new Dracula! My only ask is that it’s peppered with zingers!” is something literally nobody said.
It was hard to enjoy episodes two or three of the show – the second couldn’t justify its length and the third was gloriously awful – but I don’t think I’m in a minority in thinking that episode one was very promising indeed. Here was what looked like a lovingly crafted, interestingly different, deliciously spooky tale. But, perhaps because they have been accused in the past of writing female characters badly, Gatiss and co-writer Steven Moffat decided that Sister Agatha needed to be a one-woman gag machine: “We’re writing a feisty nun who proves that women can be funny,” they must have thought. “Think of the memes!”
But the problem is that absolutely no one behaves like Agatha behaves. This makes her obviously a character. It’s the same problem in all these films and shows: the suspension of disbelief is shattered entirely because no-one makes quips when they’re shitting the bed. “Why would the forces of darkness wish to attack a convent?” the Mother Superior asks Agatha. “Perhaps they are sensitive to criticism,” she replies, all but winking to the camera. This is when a massive wolf-vampire is pacing outside their gate, eager to rip their throats out. If the main character isn’t scared, why should we be? “The bats are a little noisy, would you mind?” she says shortly afterwards. Now we’re in the realm of all-out comedy. A couple more jokes and it would have been Mrs Brown’s Boys Does Dracula. That’s before we discuss episode three, in which Dracula escapes from the transparent cube in which he has been imprisoned because he guesses the WiFi password. I’m not sure anyone watching cared after that point.
Writers of drama need to show more courage. Even if you weren’t aware of it, as soon as a drama drops its dumb jokes you will notice the escalation in quality. You’ll remember what you’ve been missing out on. You’ll enjoy not being treated like an idiot. And you’ll breathe a big old sigh of relief.
‘Dracula’ is streaming on BBC iPlayer now