In this week’s column, Lynden Barber investigates what makes effective crime stories in MotherFatherSon on iView, what happens when wealthy Australians are confronted by the experience of sleeping rough in SBS On Demand, and how Stan is catering for cinephile’s Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree.

MotherFatherSon, ABC iView
MotherFatherSon. Photo © Steve Schofield

A truism about crime stories: the best ones are not primarily about the trail of clues or the subplots. Neither in most cases are they about the brilliance of the detective, journalist or criminal at their centre.

They’re not even about who actually ‘dunnit’. Well, they are partly about all these things, of course, but when stories get a grip on the imaginations of tens of thousands or even millions of viewers, it’s mainly because of something else. Relationships.

Often those relationships are within a family (or family surrogate). But they can also be about the relationships between different segments of society, represented via emblematic characters.

Think about it: Breaking Bad worked not just because it was about a schoolteacher who started manufacturing drugs in the desert. It worked because he had a terminal illness and wanted his family to have money to live on after he was gone – and also because he declined to tell his family what he was up to.

The Sopranos was the story of a vicious and banal crook. Viewers only found him interesting because we saw his ever-changing relationship with his shrink – a mother surrogate – in which he variously hid or unpacked his emotional and psychological vulnerability. We also got to watch the awkward intersection of his criminal career and his intimate family life.

It’s no different with stories from a detective’s point of view. Sherlock Holmes is principally about the relationship between Holmes and his partner, Watson.

You can tell the makers of BBC series MotherFatherSon screening on ABC iView understand this principle. It’s up front in their choice of title. On one level the series is about the corruption of the press, but while it has a dead body or two to contend with, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in the identity of the victims or the perpetrators – at least, not in the first three of its eight hour-long episodes.

What makes it compelling is the strained and often upsetting family triangle at its centre – two parents and their grown son, in a milieu of power and wealth that affects their emotions and relationships profoundly.

The mother (Helen McCrory) is wealthy British woman Kathryn Villiers, who works with a homeless charity and was formerly married to a powerful American press baron Max Finch (Richard Gere – yes, that Richard Gere).

To her embittered chagrin, her powerful ex took custody of their son Caden (Billy Howle) soon after their marriage collapsed. Caden now has control of one of his daddy’s newspapers but he’s out of his depth, too sensitive for such a tough position, clamped into the hot seat because of his father’s ambitions rather than love – and  he knows it. Caden only survives from day to day by snorting pot loads of cocaine. Things are bound to go badly wrong for this poor guy and, of course, they do.

Writer Tom Rob Smith (London Spy; The Assassination of Gianni Versace) has woven in sub-plots about a couple of crimes in which Gere’s empire might be implicated, and if they’re not easy to figure out in the first couple of episodes, this is mainly, I think, because they’re not meant to be. They’re plot seeds that will doubtless grow and blossom.

What gives the series its heft is the intensity of its emotional worlds. Having serious acting talent on board helps. I’ve seen McCrory a few times (she played Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Blair in the movies The Queen and The Special Relationship) without thinking further about her, but that option is no longer tenable. She’s magnificent here, playing an Oedipal sub-text without making it too crude or obvious.

Howle is less well-known but very moving. And here is further evidence that Gere has matured amazingly well, having ditched the mannerisms, viz. the rapid eye blink, that marred some of his middle career performances. A character as powerful and arrogant as this requires a weighty screen presence and Gere has that several times over. His Max Finch doesn’t need to yell and shout. He dominates a room just by quietly walking into it.

Filthy Rich and Homeless, SBS on Demand
Filthy Rich and Homeless

Talking of the wealthy and homelessness, we have Filthy Rich and Homeless, SBS on Demand’s third series in which a small group of… well, perhaps not exactly rich, but at least comfortably middle-class people volunteer to become homeless for a relatively brief period, including spending nights on the wet streets.

Of course, they’re not entirely on their own – there’s always a camera not far away and a social worker on hand to check in on them. But most seem to find the experience genuinely confronting and upsetting – and very quickly.

I know some viewers will regard this cynically. Obviously, it’s a form of so-called reality TV, i.e. it’s artificially set-up. But is it good reality TV or bad? For this viewer, it’s the former. It shows that a form responsible for so much degrading and vulgar television can also be used for a social good. It encourages viewers to see life from the point of view of the disadvantaged and show they are not so different from you or I; the “there but for the grace of God go I” principle.

One thing I learned from the first episode was the way that a person’s sense of identity can so quickly become lost as their life becomes solely about the moment-to-moment need to survive. I’d not much thought about this before, which I suspect is true for vast numbers of people who like to think they believe in a caring society. The hard truth is that this stuff can be scary. But sometimes we need to be confronted.

The Wild Pear Tree, Stan
The Wild Pear Tree

Serious art films and older cinema in general are hard to find on Netflix. Australian rival Stan has obviously recognised this, as it’s collecting an encouraging number of titles likely to appeal to cinephiles. While the list is still relatively small, it’s at least a start. I’d missed The Wild Pear Tree, the latest from Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, on its initial cinema release, and was pleased to find it screening on Stan alongside the director’s 2008 title, Three Monkeys.

This is for the true believers: it’s three hours long, doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of conversations in different settings as an abrasive young man returns from college to his hometown, where he looks for a publisher for his first novel. The film is at a low ebb in the middle, with an over-extended discussion between two Imams, but Ceylan’s greatest strength is his eye; he started out as a photographer. There are some glorious visual moments, especially when the protagonist meets a female childhood friend in an autumnally golden orchard.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.