More often than not these days, it seems as though every story is told as a series. Whether it’s books, movies, or TV shows, series are the format of choice. And why not? Once you get hooked on a world, on the characters and storylines that inhabit it, you want to see more and more and more of it. And while some stories I’ve known drag on and on, the really good stories have you – oh, I don’t know – standing in line for hours and purchasing the seventh and final book of a certain series at 1:30am, then rushing home and reading it in one sitting so that no one spoils it for you.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it, but Bramwell was a fantastic, brilliant British TV series from the late 1990s about a woman doctor in London of the late 1890s. Let me tell you, this is one of my favorite series ever. It was complex and meaningful, full of interesting characters and insightful reflections on a world that was as rich and swiftly-changing as our own is today. If you haven’t seen this show you need to zip over to Netflix or Amazon and watch it.
Skip “season four”. Why am I putting “season four” in quotes? Because it is the most shameful, appalling disgrace of a series implosion that I have ever seen.
Harsh words, eh? Well, it deserves them. I have never talked to anyone who has been a fan of the show who has had the slightest nice thing to say about the two extra-long episodes that made up “season four” of Bramwell. I don’t know what happened or why, but the writers of the series massacred their own creation. I mean, it’s bad. But at the same time, there’s a lot that a writer can learn about how not to write a series from this debacle.
So what exactly happened and why am I so critical of it? Well, in order to explain I need to give you some spoilers. (But you should still go watch the show)
The premise of Bramwell is that a woman doctor, Eleanor Bramwell, opens a clinic in the East End of London with the purpose of treating the poor and underserved. She has not found acceptance in grander London hospitals because she is a woman, but she is a good and capable doctor who genuinely cares about people. She is upper class, but that doesn’t stop her from getting her hands dirty.
She is joined at her clinic, the Thrift, by Dr. Joe Marsham, a middle class Scotsman who has also been discriminated against because of his class and nationality. The two are friends, but they come from very different worlds.
Over the course of the three “real” seasons of the show, Eleanor and Joe’s lives circle vaguely around each other, but they are never involved. Joe is married with three kids and Eleanor is in a different social class. But towards the beginning of season two we find out that Joe is in love with Eleanor and has been for a long time, despite knowing how wrong it is and how little chance he has. And then Eleanor gets involved with a colossal douchebag, Dr. Finn O’Neill. But all the while the friendship between Eleanor and Joe grows stronger. They begin to talk about things with each other that would have been outrageous and unheard of in 1897. Men and women simply did not confide those sorts of things in each other or have those sorts of conversations.
Well, by season three both Eleanor and Joe hit rock-bottom on just about every level possible. Joe’s wife dies and he has to give up his children. Eleanor is jerked along by O’Neill, dumped, reconciled, dumped again when he shows up married one day, has a nervous breakdown, then has to watch her father fall in love and remarry. The modern viewer cringes as the show makes the strong point that it didn’t matter how capable a woman was, if she was single she was still a child in the eyes of society. But at the same time, the overall storyline of the show as a whole brings Eleanor and Joe closer and closer and closer together, until the final episode when they tip over the brink.
Realizing that the solution to all of her problems, professional and personal, is right there in front of her and has been all along, Eleanor suggests to Joe that they get married. Dramatic tension is maintained as Joe practically has a coronary at the idea (of what he has dreamed of for years) but doesn’t answer. Until finally, in the last seconds of the last minute of the last scene of the episode he burst out in the most beautiful and romantic proposal that TV has ever seen … only to have the episode end before Eleanor gives her answer.
Brilliant writing. Excellent plotting. The viewer has been carried along on this subtle journey, realistic in all its period propriety. The emotional investment in the lives of the characters is complete. By the time you get to that stunning proposal – in which Joe rightfully points out that apart, he and Eleanor are so miserable and so lonely, but together they are so strong and accomplish so much – you are ready to plan the wedding yourself.
So what did the writers do in “season four”? Did they have Eleanor and Joe get married, deal with the inherent issues of class and marrying down? Explore the complications of Eleanor instantly becoming a mother of three, and without birth control, probably more? Did they jump down the rabbit-hole of Eleanor’s father’s disapproval and inevitable withdrawal of the funds that keep Eleanor and Joe’s clinic afloat? Did they go after the holy grail of two unlikely friends becoming lovers on a not-quite equal footing?
No. They turned Joe into a dictatorial sour-puss and had Eleanor cheat on him, sleep around (in 1897!), and run off to South Africa.
What. The. HELL!
I couldn’t even watch both episodes. After the first one I sent the disc back to Netflix and went online to find out the full extent of the damage. I may never recover. The only explanation I can think of is that someone somewhere decided the actor who played Joe Marsham wasn’t attractive enough to be a romantic hero. Although I do have my own alternative-ending fan fiction (that is currently 52k words and counting because I work on it now and then for my own entertainment). But why am I so passionate in my hatred of what the writers did to this show? Why does it aggravate me to the point of writing an overly-long blog post deriding it?
Because the writers of Bramwell committed a cardinal sin of writing that we would all do well to learn from so as not to repeat it: they broke the trust of their viewers.
The reason why “season four” of Bramwell is so atrocious is not because Joe is constantly on Eleanor’s case over her behavior, or even because Eleanor does it with a guy she hardly knows in a wine cellar during a party. No, what makes “season four” unforgivable is the fact that the writers contradicted the characters and plots that they had painstakingly built over three shining seasons.
As a writer, if you create characters that are going to stretch over many books, TV seasons, or movies, you have to keep the behavior and choices of your characters consistent. Yes, it is vital that those characters change and grow. Their opinions about the world they live in and the people they interact with can change. After everything that both Joe and Eleanor went through in their lives during the three “real” seasons of Bramwell, it’s only natural that they would be sadder but wiser. The same is true of characters in books.
It is also important as a writer to stay true to the rules of the world you have created. If you’ve established a late-Victorian society with strict social mores, mores that your characters believe in and adhere to, you can’t break the rules in the middle and establish a new set of rules without a lot of build-up and explanation.
Now, I know a lot of writers like to be rule-breakers. I’m one myself. I chafe at the idea that you have to follow tropes in your writing. I want to kill off main characters and have the hero be seduced by the villainess once in a while. The problem is, breaking rules illogically seriously irritates your readers.
I may never forgive the writers of Bramwell for what they did to their own characters. Am I a romantic who wanted Eleanor and Joe to end up together from the very first episode of the show when Joe told Eleanor to watch his bicycle and she *gasp* rode it? Absolutely! But my hatred for “season four” is not only because the writers brought the two characters so close together only to rip them apart, it’s because the way they did it was cheap and groundless. It almost felt as though they deliberately wanted to destroy the show after the fact. It was the inconsistencies, the world-breaking incongruities of character and plot, that turned me off in the end.
As a writer, I vow never to break my own worlds or bastardize my own characters. I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of monstrosity, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. If we can learn anything from the debacle of “season four” of Bramwell, it’s how not to write a series. If you love your readers, and I trust as a writer you do, for God’s sake, don’t give them the literary middle-finger by knocking them out of the character development course you have set at the beginning of your series. You WILL break faith with your readers if you do.
I’m just happy that I’m the kind of person who rewrites the ending to stories that I love and am disappointed in. I’m sure my Bramwell fan fic will grow and grow every time I watch the series. And as far as I’m concerned, my version of events is the right version of events.