Cultural Checkup: Suits and White Collar
August 12th, 2011
Although I’ve stopped watching Burn Notice, and ceased my bizarre commitment to the dull Royal Pains this summer, and didn’t bother with Covert Affairs’ second season, and didn’t even bother with Necessary Roughness (which I thought looked terrible), I remain really quite interested with USA as a network. With White Collar, they have a show that I think hits a lot of interesting buttons, and with Suits you have a show that seems to be aiming for the same goal. They’re shows that I like a great deal in particular moments, and that are in two very different stages of development.
However, as I drop in on both shows this week, I’ll admit that I find them a bit frustrating. While Suits has a lot of potential, its youthfulness shows signs of uncertainty in regards to questions of genre and narrative, problems that White Collar continues to carry even as it clearly leads the network’s offerings in terms of quality. I know that the general approach to USA programming is not quite this hyper-critical, but I’ve stored up a few too many things to say about the two shows, so I figured the Cultural Checkup was a good way to get through them.
July 17th, 2011
It has been over thirteen months since Breaking Bad finished its third season, which isn’t something that happens all that often. Of course, AMC will be dealing with this issue twice in one year when Mad Men returns early next year, but that show didn’t leave on an arresting cliffhanger. “Full Measure” was a thrilling hour of television, creating suspense through uncertainty as opposed to mystery. We know what happened, and the sequence of events that allowed it to happen were delineated without any sudden twists or turns, but the finale left us with a sense of disbelief: we were haunted by that final image more than we were shocked by it, and we desired its conclusion less to have something resolved and more to see something begin.
“Box Cutter” picks up where “Full Measure” left off, although not immediately. The episode is very interested in the dramatic power of delay, lingering in those moments of waiting for the other shoe to fall. It doesn’t seek to surprise us so much as it seeks to make us reconsider: it knows we spent a year thinking about the various possibilities, so it lays out a likely scenario and then basically sits back and lets our own anxiety drive this story forward. The result is bracing in its minimalism if a wee bit writerly, further cementing Breaking Bad’s reputation as one of the most distinctive dramas on television.
And, yes, one of its finest as well.
“Winter is Coming”
April 17th, 2011
“That’s an honor I could do without.”
The moment which brings “Winter is Coming,” the series premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, to a close is meant to shock the viewer. It is the very definition of a cliffhanger, a moment which makes us anticipate its resolution and theorize as to the result. I would also argue that it’s quite an effective cliffhanger, one which shapes the remainder of the series’ narrative and one which is tremendously well-rendered in this adaptation.
However, for those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin-penned novels on which the series is based, it isn’t a cliffhanger at all. In fact, for those viewers, it was never a cliffhanger: when the event in question took place on page 85 of my well-worn paperback, all one had to do was turn to page 86 in order to see what happened next. The cliffhanger would last mere moments, unless one somehow had the willpower to stop reading at that precise moment and return to the book a week later. Martin’s novels are designed to be devoured, not savored, and yet his story is now arriving in hour-long segments that will air once every week.
Ultimately, “Winter is Coming” demonstrates the compatibility of Martin’s novels and the televisual form: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have brought Westeros to life by capturing the spirit of Martin’s prose and by embracing the opportunities presented by both the visual and structural qualities made possible by HBO’s commitment to the series. The episode is a compelling introduction to this story and these characters, successfully navigating the plethora of pitfalls that are created in an adaptation of a high fantasy series.
But at the same time, let’s be frank: everyone, from fans of the novels to those who don’t know their Starks from their Lannisters, will need to adjust to the particularities of this particular form of storytelling.
And thus the Game begins.
A Manipulated Medium: Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar
July 21st, 2010
Television is by and large a manipulated medium: whether it parcels a larger story into smaller segments, or presents a series of smaller stories, there is a point where craftsmanship is dictated more by convenience than by sheer artistic merit. Writers take shortcuts, use shorthand, and do everything in their power to make sure that the forty minute running time of an episode manages to do everything it needs to do to service the larger story, or create a satisfying conclusion to the standalone narrative being constructed.
I don’t think this is an inherently negative notion, and do not use “manipulators” as some sort of slur toward television writers, a group of individuals I have a great deal of respect for. However, when it comes to this manipulation, there is a time, a place, and a methodology: there are some situations where writers should simply let their show breathe, where manipulating the story in a particular direction will only damage the series’ momentum, and there are also some ways in which you can manipulate your series which transfers the manipulation from the series’ characters to the audience, something that all writers should avoid at all costs.
While manipulation is a problem with high-concept procedurals (like Lost, Heroes or the upcoming The Event on NBC), it’s also present in the light-hearted cable procedurals which have become so prolific, and I want to use it as a theme for addressing last night’s episodes of SyFy’s Warehouse 13 and USA Network’s White Collar and Covert Affairs, as they each represent a different approach to manipulating the trajectory of a television series.
“Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”
May 20th, 2010
Last week felt like a finale, or at least how I had anticipated a Community finale to feel like. It felt like it solidified the group dynamics, offering evidence that the show has grown a great deal over the past season. It was a confident statement on which to head into a second season, emphasizing the dynamics that we’ve enjoyed thus far and would continue to enjoy into the future.
“Pascal’s Triangle Revisited” also feels like a finale, but I’m not entirely convinced it felt like what I anticipated a Community finale to feel like, or even what I want a Community finale to feel like. Throwing the group dynamics out the window, and focusing a lot of its time on supporting characters who aren’t part of the core group, the episode places the group’s future in chaos and delivers a traditional “shake up the status quo” finale that doesn’t feel like it reaches any of the series heights.
Instead, it feels like Dan Harmon and company have taken a small network note and delivered a slightly exaggerated, but never quite subverted, take on what you would traditionally expect from a sitcom finale. I don’t necessarily think that the events which transpire are bad, and I had a few good laughs in the episode, but the show I love was purposefully placed into peril, and I don’t really think that it resulted in a particularly great half-hour of comedy even if I respect the show for some of the choices it eventually made.
“The Time of Angels”
April 24th, 2010
This afternoon, I spent a few hours doing what I guess I’d call “Doctor (W)Homework.” After last week’s episode, it was clear from the preview that the show would be returning to two key parts of Steven Moffat’s oeuvre, and so many suggested that I take a look back into recent seasons of the series in order to follow the continuities. Since I am not one to doubt the intelligence of my Twitter followers and blog commenters, I took this suggestion to heart, and so I sat down with Series Three’s “Blink” and Series Four’s “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”
Inevitably, this created quite an interesting experience going into this week’s new episode of Series Five, as both the Weeping Angels (central to the Carey Mulligan-enhanced “Blink”) and River Song (introduced in the two-parter) effectively pick up where they left off, as odd as that particular phrase may sound when considering Professor (or Doctor?) Song. “The Time of Angels,” the start of a two-parter itself, delivers on the promise of those earlier episodes, heightening the terror surrounding one of the universe’s most dangerous creatures while proving that River and her magical blue book are both just as fun and just as tragic as we imagined when reintroduced in this fashion.
Some thought on “The Time of Angels,” although probably not before I write out some thoughts on the episodes which came before, after the jump.
“End of Line”
March 26th, 2010
While I hadn’t seen “End of Line” before writing my post about Caprica’s memorable scenes and their impact on its storytelling earlier today, I could feel myself posturing towards the finale throughout writing it. While I liked “End of Line” just fine, its position as a hackneyed [mid]season finale designed to allow SyFy to split up its original programming across different quarters meant that it would be pretty much forced to push the stories that haven’t had the same sort of thematic dialogue and striking sequences as Zoe’s story to some sort of conclusion sooner than might be ideal.
And while I know Battlestar Galactica got a reputation for its cliffhangers, I don’t think Caprica is particularly good at them, especially with its pacing as it is. The result was an episode that forced every story along like it was a high speed chase, leaving no time to really stop and consider the consequences or the thematic ramifications in the process. The few stories that had a chance to stop and slow down turned out alright, and those desperate for plot advancement are probably somewhat appeased, but “End of Line” is very clearly not the end of the line, and the usual slow build that defines the series was entirely absent in an episode that offered some good thrills but left out the chills.