Watching 6Degrees – a six-part series from Stirling Productions for BBC Northern Ireland, which follows six freshers as they begin first year at an unnamed Belfast university – it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.
Not unexpectedly, Hollyoaks is the obvious and unavoidable comparison, a soap opera that is similarly concerned with the innocuous lives of students and their flawed family and friends.
6Degrees is not a soap opera, but it has all the characteristics of one. There are the stereotypical, two-dimensional characters through which the writers explore well-worn issues like alcoholism, sexuality and otherness.
The acting is sometimes amateurish (although experienced English actress Georgia Maguire is impressive as blow in, Jess) and the direction often pedestrian: the least said about the out of focus shots in the third episode’s hospital room scenes, the better.
The sex-obsessed characters drink a lot, dance in nightclubs after a few drinks, try to avoid the drink after emotional confrontations with family members, and grapple with who they are and where they’re going in this life.
But 6Degrees differs from Hollyoaks in one rather important way: it has absolutely no idea what its target audience is.
Hollyoaks was created by shrewd screenwriter and producer Phil Redmond – who thought that a soap opera for young people was long overdue. Aside from recent racy episodes pitched at an older audience, it has always aired pre-watershed in order to attract the largest possible viewing figures, when teenagers, students and young adults are watching.
The producers of 6Degrees, meanwhile, have inexplicably aimed a teen drama at adults. Had they removed the expletives from the series, there is no reason whatsoever that 6Degrees could not have aired pre-watershed, thus attracting the type of audience who are themselves obsessed with sex, drink and where they’re going in life: namely, teenagers.
Hollyoaks and other daytime soap operas have long since tackled drug-taking and homosexuality explicitly, so the argument that you can’t show young people smoking spliffs or young men kissing young men pre-watershed would be a hollow one.
One thinks, then, of other post-watershed dramas that 6Degrees might be compared with. Being a child of the nineties, This Life and Teachers inevitably spring to mind.
The characters in those series – young professionals rather than students – were similarly hedonistic and, at times, juvenile, but they were so well written and acted that they become iconic. As a result, both of those shows inevitably attracted a much wider audience and countless industry awards.
Sadly, the chances of this happening with 6Degrees – at least on the evidence of the first three episodes – is miniscule.
There are some redeeming features. Most of the characters are likeable and there is the odd memorable line, such as ‘In Belfast there is always someone who knows the person you’re trying not to be’.
It’s also nice to hear characters on television speaking in various Northern Irish accents – from 'cultchie' Antrim and south Down to Derry, here represented by the hard-drinking, ass-kicking Eva – and any show that embraces such eloquent Northern Irish phrases as ‘Aye, your hole!’ is always going to get a laugh from me…
The novelty, however, soon wears off, and we are left with what feels more like an educational video aimed at secondary level students than a hard-hitting, rib-tickling, sophisticated adult drama. 6Degrees should either grow up, or drop out.