DO YOU want form or content? I regularly confront the dilemma: should I review TV programmes that, on the one hand, cover really important issues, but are neither well-made nor compelling, or those that are glossy and entertaining, but ephemeral?
This week, I offer one that falls squarely into the first of these categories. The Cult of Conspiracy: QAnon (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) could not investigate a more important subject: the huge following, in the United States, of far-Right theories — disseminated mainly by social media, but taken up by TV pundits, and, alas, some Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
The heart of its belief system is that prominent public figures — politicians, Hollywood actors, all Democrats — run a huge paedophile network, imprisoning underground vast numbers of children as sex slaves in unspeakable satanic rituals. A saviour, Donald Trump, was about to unmask and defeat this evil, but even he was constantly thwarted by the nefarious powers of the sinister elite that secretly runs the world.
This conviction spreads far more widely than the US: an eager UK follows, hugely overlapping with anti-vaxxers and other libertarian movements. For us, the significance is not just the fact that such enormous numbers of people are willing to subscribe to this destructive farrago, but how much it borrows from religion. It is a matter of faith, of placing your trust in a system that gives meaning, focus, and direction to your life — and which is proof against all argument and evidence to the contrary.
This casts a valuable spotlight on what genuine faith should be like. A matter of personal conviction (“I just know that it is true”) that admits no possibility of external reference, and that denies all debate with non-believers, is shown here — whatever its adherents may claim — to be less divine than diabolical. Unfortunately, Benjamin Zand’s investigation, although courageous, was confused and confusing, and far less compelling than the lethal phenomenon, which is happy to incite violence and ideally overthrow governments, deserves.
BBC1’s drama You Don’t Know Me (5, 6, 12, and 13 December) was about a different matter of faith: could the prisoner at the bar, having dismissed his lawyer and delivering his own closing speech, make the jury believe that he was innocent of murder? His oration topped and tailed a chain of flashbacks showing us how much the prosecution misunderstood what had actually happened, and how much more complex the real sequence of events was. Samuel Adewunmi was magnificent, magnetic, as the defendant; the whole (black) cast were splendid and believable.
The series’ triumph lay less in the story, which surely stretched to breaking point the actuality of our court procedures, than in the depiction of the hidden world of drug gangs and their miasma of threats, violence, even murder — a sickening vortex from which, once it has caught you, there is no escape, and which engulfs your life and dreams with fear and despair.