It's a disconcerting thought, but most of my knowledge of social issues at the tougher end of things probably comes from the telly. From juvenile offenders (Out of Control), to rehabilitation (Boy A), drugs culture on council estates (Top Boy), immigrant labour ( Ken Loach's brilliant It's a Free World), railways (The Navigators, Loach again) and social services (the somewhat sui generis Appropriate Adult), the picture in my head of these matters is largely created by TV drama. And there have been many others, not on this off-the-top-of-my-head list (Peter Kosminsky's work, for example, swims belatedly into mind). Last night saw the conclusion of the BBC's first (I think) serious social issue TV drama of 2012, Tony Marchant's Public Enemies, which looked at the Probation Service. The story focussed on the relationship between a probation officer (Anna Friel) and a released offender (Daniel Mays). The plot can be easily found elsewhere, so I'll just note down some first impressions. Spoiler alert, by the way, if you haven't seen it yet.
The first thing is the genre, the social issue drama. These get so little release in mainstream cinema we must be grateful for the medium of television to keep them going. In terms of content, social issue dramas pull in two directions. First, they have to give realistic information on the topic, and I gather Public Enemies took expert advice to make sure that what it portrayed was accurate. Like all the films / series in the list above, it left me far more informed than I was before about the matter in hand. Today I actually know a little bit about things like release conditions, hostels and curfews, exclusion zones, probation disciplinary hearings, paralegals etc. But at the same time these series have to be dramas, with character arcs, suspense, recognition, resolution and the general Aristotelian kitbag. And in real life - whatever the social setting - character arcs and uplifitng resolutions don't happen all that often. So the social bit and the drama bit can be in a kind fo tension. This is a standard challenge for any realistic narrative, of course, cf Gaskell, Gissing and co.
Public Enemies started with heavy realism, taking us through the problems faced by offenders on their release, as they try to re-integrate into a hostile society, which is whipped up by a vicious media. As well as this, there was also an interesting line on the Probation Service falling into the culture of minimising risk rather than reforming its clients. But then the drama started to take over, and we got standard tropes of a Proving-his-Innocence story plus Romance plus a Twist. The central characters were very well played, but depended on several walk-on parts (like the ubiquitous resentful / baffled partner who watches helplessly as the protagonist get more and more involved, it no doubt happens, but had enough of that in The Killing, thanks). As a story Public Enemies worked, but as it developed the drama seemed to be shying away from the main problem it had set up. To ensure our empathy, the assumption seemed to be, it had to change the main character from guilty to innocent. So the whole issue of what's involved with a guilty ex-con being released, and how people - how we - react to this, was not really explored. Making us sympathetic to a guilty person would have been much more of a challenge, and I was sorry that Public Enemies didn't go down this road. Also, the girl in the Garden Centre had to quietly disappear so Friel could take over as the love interest, which seemed a little callous. But certainly a worthy piece of public education, with great performances all round.