Reviewing radio drama — Trust Inc

Workers in Canadian film & TV often complain about how hard it is to get press coverage and reviews, squeezed in between the American releases…and radio drama has even more obstacles. So today I’m looking at a current CBC Radio drama…and also using it to reflect and opine on some broader ideas around storytelling in the radio medium.

Trust Inc is a new CBC Radio drama set within the world of a public relations firm, the spin doctors who try and make sure their client’s message gets out there…and the skeletons in their closets don’t. It’s been promoted as a “satire”, but I’m not sure it is. I’ve certainly seen the word “satire” used in that way before, but I think most of us generally conflate satire with comedy — “wit” and “sarcasm” are some of the words my dictionary employs. The blurbs for Trust Inc try to cover themselves by labelling it a “satirical-drama”, but it’s basically just a drama — those expecting a wacky and skewering satire will be disappointed.

I’m a regular listener to radio dramas, which is why I kind of find Trust Inc a bit frustrating…and disappointing. And I’ll admit, I haven’t been a huge fan of the CBC’s last few radio dramas, Backbencher (about a novice MP learning her way around parliament hill) and the battlefield drama, Afghanada, which amassed over a hundred episodes — a number almost unheard of in the post-TV era of radio drama because modern radio series tend to have short seasons (often just 4 to 8 episodes) so that even long running radio series (in, for example, the U.K.) still might only amass 20 or 30 episodes. The claim is Afghanada was a big success — how one defines “big” success in modern radio drama being, of course, open to interpretation. One reference suggested its audience was in the hundreds of thousands…putting it on a level with some Canadian TV series…if true (I don’t mean to be cynical, but I am aware of how even in TV ratings you can get some wildly conflicted reports on audience numbers).

Unfortunately, I can’t help wondering if the CBC’s trend toward more episodes is as much a negative as a positive — that is, the CBC commissions more episodes per season for its radio dramas than, say, the BBC…precisely so they can produce fewer series. Instead of commissioning a bunch of different series, reflecting different tones and styles (comedy, drama, suspense) and employing different actors and crews, they just commission one or two but with a longer episode run. Now, obviously, if you’re enjoying the series, the larger episode order is great!

But there can be a certain stodgy earnestness to some of these recent CBC radio dramas — a feeling they aren’t quite letting their hair down and being entertainment, first and foremost, and allowing any earnestness to arise naturally out of the drama.

Maybe I’m too self-conscious of it from having once looked at submissions guidelines for CBC Radio where it was advised that when pitching a drama it should be explained why a series was important. Which puts me in mind of coming upon a blog (not too long ago) by an excited writer explaining how her series idea had been optioned by CBC Radio. Her proposal was, apparently, for a kind of Dark Shadows mystery-soap about robbery and murder at a hospital with werewolves and the like thrown into the mix. Wow! — I thought, excitedly reading that description — I can hardly believe CBC Radio would go for that! Then reading further down her blog, she explained that the notes that came back on her proposal asked for a few changes. Namely: drop the werewolves, drop the supernatural, drop the mystery-suspense, and, oh yeah, drop the soap opera aspect. Keep the hospital. Apparently what the CBC brass wanted was simply an earnest drama illustrating the dilemmas faced by the modern medical profession, essentially White Coat, Black Arts only with actors, I guess. Sigh. (And at the writing of this, I’m not sure the CBC is going ahead even with that watered down version of the series).

You can see why I’m a bit skeptical about the sticky fingers of earnestness interfering with the storytelling process. I mean, don’t get me wrong — I’m all for social relevancy (how many times have I cited Wojeck as a landmark in Canadian TV over the years?). But a balance must be struck.

So first up — Trust Inc certainly isn’t a bad series, in terms of the acting or the production. Anymore than were Backbencher or Afghanada. But as a series — as entertainment — it so far is failing to quite excite me.

And perhaps following the style of Afghanada, it avoids the notion of a main character. For the first few episodes, it seemed as though Georgina Reilly (Pontypool, Murdoch Mysteries) as young up-and-comer Serena was supposed to be the main character, she was the focus of the plot and was the narrator — but the focus has moved around like a roving spotlight, with different episodes narrated by different characters, with Serena sometimes barely appearing. Indeed, it doesn’t even stick to its PR firm premise, with one episode where a journalist — a recurring character — takes centre stage and narrates.

It smacks a little of a series that is trying too hard to please too many people, where they can’t even decide who the series is about. Or where they’re trying to satisfy too many editorial notes from the brass. Y’know, where they pitch the idea of a PR firm, and then an executive nods sagely, puffs on his cigar, and then says with deliberate nonchalance, “I like it…but, you know, journalism is also a great setting for drama” to which the creator immediately replies: “Did I say it’s just about a PR firm? Heck — no! It’s, uh, also about, um, this journalist…”

The problem I have with Trust Inc is that I’m finding it a bit — well, dull. This kind of relates to my point about the characters — by switching POV regularly, they aren’t really building up any strong, dynamic personalities to hold our interest. Serena herself is just kind of — what? She’s not especially smart…but she’s not especially dumb. She’s not especially principled…but she’s not especially unprincipled. She’s not especially seasoned…but she’s not especially green. She’s not witty, but she’s not dour. She’s not passive, but she’s not bitter. She just…is. She’s not even endearingly bi-polar…(okay, yeah, I loved Claire Dane’s in Homeland).

Perhaps another problem with the switching narration idea, and basically focusing on a specific character every week, is not only that it means it’s hard to build an audience connection/affection for anyone in particular, but it also hurts the notion of relationships between the characters (it doesn’t come across as an ensemble, so much as an anthology where we have a different main character every week). There’s little sense of camaraderie between the characters — or that they even like each other (though I think there’s supposed to be romantic tension between Serena and the reporter — but it feels more academic than emotional). Granted, a lack of deep friendships is probably authentic to many real work places, but in a fictional drama? The camaraderie and interaction of the characters often becomes the bedrock upon which a series is built, we enjoy the interplay, and it’s part of how we come to care about the characters, because they care about, and are cared for by, others.

As with film or TV, an interesting character, a charismatic performance, can make the difference. It might seem a bit odd to talk about “charisma” in a non-visual medium — but it’s true. I’ve listened to plenty of radio dramas where the characters — and the actors who play them — create as powerful an impression as any film or TV performance. David Threlfall’s performance as amateur detective Paoblo Baldi in the BBC Radio series, Baldi, draws me back more than the perfectly okay, but generic, mystery plots. And when the actress who played his police detective foil was replaced…you noticed it. I really liked Derek Jacobi in a series of old TV movies about the 11th Century detective, Brother Cadfael…but after hearing Philip Madoc play the part on radio, I’m torn as to which is my favourite. There are actors I’ve grown to like, and I genuinely perk up when I hear they are attached to an audio play…yet couldn’t for the life of me put a face to their voice.

Actually, I just listened to the most recent episode of Trust Inc (yup, you can’t say I’m not giving it a chance) in which the focus shifted to Julie Khaner (Street Legal) who, as the firm’s boss, hadn’t previously been given much to do. But thrust into centre stage, and narrating, and paired up with A-list guest stars Colm Feore and Stephen McHattie…it started to crackle a bit. I don’t know if it’s just that Khaner, Feore and McHattie are a little older than the others, or maybe with more of a theatre/radio background, but they seemed far more in control of the material — and aware of the subtle possibilities of their voices — than the others. Or maybe I was just predisposed to like ’em from other things I’ve see them in. But that episode actually held me more than some of the others.

Actually the previous episode, veering a little toward being a “suspense” story, was also a little stronger. So maybe just overall the creators are getting a better grip on things.

But it’s still just a “little” stronger. Even with the Khaner-focused episode it held me only in fits and starts.

The plots of Trust Inc just kind of wallow about in the middle. As mentioned, it’s not really a “satire”, per se. It’s not a biting, funny comedy about the wacky world of a PR firm. It’s a drama…but not an especially gripping one. It occasionally veers towards being an actual suspense series…then swerves aside again. And the narrative structure is a bit odd — stories that ramble about, stretched over two or three episodes, but not really building to any particularly satisfying denouement. It kind of wants to use the premise to tackle some real world issues (in one story arc, the team is hired by the Occupy Movement) without ever really grabbing you by the collar and shaking you out of your complacency. And being a PR firm…principles aren’t really their bag anyway. In the first arc (stretched over three episodes) Peter Outerbridge (ReGenesis, Bomb Girls) guest stars as a rising politician who gets embroiled in a sex scandal…but it’s not like we’re exactly rooting for the guy, or thinking that Serena and the rest are somehow upholding a higher principle by running interference for him.

I mean, honestly, I’m hard pressed to imagine Trust Inc as a TV series. I can’t help thinking if it was filmed for TV, a lot of critics would dismiss it as dull and even boring. As slice-of-life more than gipping drama.

Which, to be fair, its creators and their fans might say is the whole point — radio can try low-key things that you can’t get away with on TV with their demands for bigger, broader audiences (reminding me of some old CBC Radio mystery series which could often tilt toward “low-key”). Trust Inc is for people who find most TV too melodramatic. Although, if that were truly the intent, I’m not sure why they would throw in the bomb scare plot! But the thing is, there’s a valid point to that — of saying that one medium shouldn’t just slavishly imitate another. But then one just has to look across the pond to Great Britain, with its far more prolific radio drama industry, where they regularly produce comedies and thrillers and sci-fi every bit as dynamic and populist as any TV series — clearly they don’t feel radio has a need to be somehow less pulpy than TV.

Frankly, I’ve long felt that radio could be a medium to dramatize stories too expensive for TV — particularly in Canada, where budget limitations curb what can be produced. And to be fair, that sometimes has been the case: Steve The First, Canadia 2056, Afghanada, A Fine Balance were all Canadian radio productions tackling material that would’ve been hard to mount for TV without massive budgets.

In a way, what kind of nags at me listening to Trust Inc (and Backbencher and even Afghanada) is as I mentioned earlier, that sense of “earnestness” — a certain self-conscious self-importance, touching on “issues” (the Occupy movement, political scandals) but more because they feel they should, like activist dilettantes…rather than with a burning, driving, passion. Dialogue — and scenes — that can seem almost pedagogical, there to illustrate some point (and not with much subtlety) but doing so at the expense of just letting the characters be characters and the plot be a story.

And maybe that’s the point I keep returning to: a feeling that Trust Inc isn’t sure what it wants to be. It rotates its main characters, it looks in on current issues, then looks away again. It’s a drama that sells itself as a satire. I’m not sure what the creators would say is supposed to be dragging me, the listener, back week after week. The characters — who are a bit non-descript? The milieu they work in — which doesn’t offer the intensity or “higher principle” of a crime or medical drama? Or simply the plots — which can just kind of meander amiably about?

Actually, there’s another thing I wanted to touch on. And that is the heavy reliance on a voiceover narration by the lead characters. Now, radio dramas can go in two directions. Some avoid narration altogether, preferring to tell the story simply through the scenes, like a TV drama. And, when done right, it can be amazing how clearly action can be conveyed just by the scenes themselves in an audio drama — where you can “picture” the character’s expression even during a silent pause.

However, I don’t object to a voice over narration — either by the lead character, or even by a third person “voice of god” narrator. It can be useful to clarify a scene (particularly an action scene) that might be confusing in a non-visual format, or to provide a commentary, or emotional perspective (by allowing us inside the character’s thoughts) or even just provide a literary colour by bridging scenes with poetic descriptions (in the Khaner-focused episode, I seem to recall a nice passage or two as she describes driving out of Toronto for the week-end). But I do think narration should be used sparingly, to support the scenes, not the other way around. And I did find Trust Inc maybe was leaning a bit too heavily on the narration, not always allowing the scenes to breathe on their own, allowing us to be rooted in the moment by virtue of the sounds and atmosphere, or to allow the actors to define a scene by their delivery — a pregnant pause, a slyly delivered line. If you’re having a conversation between characters and it’s constantly being broken up by the voiceover commenting on the scene, there’s a danger — not always, but often — that it will pull us out of the moment, when you want to be pushing us into it. At times it seemed almost as if it’s an audio book as much as a radio drama. It’s particularly problematic if the narration is basically utilitarian, describing actions (and emotions) we can readily infer. Granted, I’m sure actors like that…it allows them to delve into their character’s psyches by literally filtering every moment through their character’s perceptions.

Afghanada and Backbencher both, to my mind, leaned a bit too heavily on the narration, while, for example, Monsoon House used it just to bridge scenes, while Canadia 2056 only used it to introduce the episodes. Baldi (the U.K. series I mentioned) doesn’t use any narration at all.

Trust Inc is not a bad series, in terms of acting or production. But it’s a series that just doesn’t really spark for me. And really, that’s all I’m talking about — how I, as an individual, react. As I mentioned, some episodes have held my attention better than others, suggesting maybe it’s finding its footing. But it still gets down to the fact that I’ve listened to a few episodes simply to give it a chance…rather than because it truly is interesting me the way I listen to other radio dramas because I want to.

I’m glad CBC Radio is still in the business of radio drama. In fact, I want them to do more. After all, the more they do, the less a single show like Trust Inc has to shoulder so much of the burden. People who like Trust Inc can like Trust Inc, and people who don’t could then listen to something else.

But left to man the fort by itself, Trust Inc is a perfectly okay radio drama — but maybe a too smugly earnest one.

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2 Responses to Reviewing radio drama — Trust Inc

  1. Yetayale says:

    i liked your post. As someone who enjoys narrated dramas but thoroughly enjoyed monsoon house what do you recommended i start with? I tried finding Baldi but I have no idea where to start to look.

    • Administrator says:

      BBC Radio 4 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4extra) is a great place (the current programs available for on-line streaming are linked here http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4extra/programmes/a-z). The programs are constantly in rotation, so just because something isn’t available now doesn’t mean it won’t be in a few days, or few weeks. Right now they are airing some Baldi, for instance. I also heartily recommend keeping an ear out for McLevy (another detective series, starring Brian Cox) and the comedy Cabin Pressure (with, among others, Benedict Cumberbatch).

      And iTunes has some radio dramas (for sale) including Canadian ones. The Canadian sci-fi comedy, Canadia 2056, I also think is hilarious. You can also find radio dramas at Amazon and places like that (the BBC has done lots of Agatha Christie radio plays) as well as from companies like Britain’s Big Finish (http://www.bigfinish.com/) which does some first rate audio plays, mainly SF, such as their long running Doctor Who audio line. There’s also an enjoyable line of Perry Mason dramas from a company called The Colonial Radio Theatre.

      How these suggestions help.