Tag Archives: The Judge

Cultural Catchup Project: “Surprise,” “Innocence,” and the Art of the Game-Changer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Surprise,” “Innocence,” and the Art of the Game-Changer

April 29th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

One of the interesting buzz words to emerge over the past few years within the television industry has been “game-changer.” Used to describe episodes which fundamentally alter our perspective on a particular series, or which send a series in a completely different direction, it’s become a common term which producers or networks will use if they want to drum up interest in a struggling series, or try to regain lost glory with a series beginning to lose its luster.

However, I hate that “game-changer” has taken on an almost wholly promotional context, because episodes which actually “change the game” are a really fascinating part of the television landscape. There is great benefit in a reinvention of sorts, as the producers of Lost learned when the Flash Forward structure brought new life to a series at its halfway point, but it is just as easy to fall off the rails: J.J. Abrams learned this lesson the hard way when his game-changing second season finale of Alias was a stunning hour of television but sent the show in directions it wasn’t capable of supporting.

What makes a good game-changer is something which lives on potential rather than mystery, which not only changes the game as we know it but also gives us a glimpse of how the new game is going to benefit the series moving forward. The change needs to feel like something which springs from the story rather than from a network note, and the consequences need to be something the show won’t live down but that it can also live with.

In other words, a good game-changer needs to be everything that “Surprise” and “Innocence,” the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season, embody: by merging romance with tragedy, and by turning its central character into an unwitting agent of terrifying change, Buffy moves beyond the limitations of teenage drama to something that strikes deeper into the limitations of the human condition.

Or, put more simply, Buffy the Vampire Slayer just got real.

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Sons of Anarchy – “Fa Guan”

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“Fa Guan”

November 3rd, 2009

When I wrote about Mad Men’s big JFK episode yesterday, I noted that one of the problems with playing with history is that it is already determined, and as such the show is left only with seeing how individual characters react to it. It introduces an element of certainty that is potentially damaging to the show’s dramatic tension, and while the characters are well-drawn enough to handle it there’s something about it that just feels off.

What’s interesting about the second season of Sons of Anarchy is that there is a similarly predetermined element to its central storyline, and for the most part it doesn’t particularly matter. One of my concerns this season has been the omniscient nature of Zobell and the League of American Nationalist, always a good two or three steps ahead of the Sons and always happening to plan (or stumble into) the ideal counterattack to further raise tensions within the club. It’s created a scenario where the Sons of Anarchy are at the whim of the League, their every move either a trap designed by the League or else a dangerous scenario only necessary because of actions the League has undertaken. If the show is about a crumbling organization trying to keep it together while dealing with the impact of unpredictable outside forces, which this season has definitely been, then it may be problematic that for us Zobell is wholly predictable: wherever SAMCRO is, he’s going to be there before they are.

However, as “Fa Guan” demonstrates, this hasn’t damaged the series so much as it has simplified the “plot” and allowed the intricacies of the various interpersonal relationships to rise to the surface. The show might be more realistic if the League weren’t quite so “on point” with their various attacks, but it would also be a lot less entertaining, and considering the show is currently one of the most entertaining shows on the air I think that this predetermination is worth an occasional raised eyebrow.

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