“Keep This Party Going”
June 21st, 2009
Don’t say I never listen to blog comments, folks.
It’s the summer months, which means that things are pretty slow on the television front, and thus things to blog about are generally in quite short supply. Since I’m not amongst those critics lucky enough to be sifting through the new fall offerings, generally my attention is spent playing a little T.V. catchup (I’ll have thoughts on Sports Night Season 2 later in the week) and finding the summer programming worth spending time reviewing on a regular basis. For now, as you’ve no doubt noticed, that’s been USA Network’s Thursday lineup, Showtime’s Monday lineup, as well as some mid-week musings on So You Think You Can Dance.
However, I’ve also stopped by with some thoughts on the arrival of two Sunday shows, NBC’s import Merlin as well as HBO’s True Blood, which just started its second season. And, while I was admittedly quite turned off by certain elements of both shows, ready to call it a “Not quite for me, thanks” situation all around, there were quite a few comments (and reactions to the episodes I read elsewhere) that seemed to indicate there was something worth sticking around for. So, despite my initial misgivings, I decided to sit down tonight and give Merlin’s “Valiant” (the second episode which aired Sunday night) as well as the second episode of True Blood’s second season, “Keep This Party Going.”
Both ultimately have me curious, if not quite excited, to see where they go next.
I want to start with True Blood, as I think it’s certainly the loftier of the two shows. I would tend to argue that those who simply throw the show aside as a popcorn show aren’t entirely correct: it certainly is fun, but it also tries on occasion to be more than that, only to have that all pulled away by a particularly outlandish or ridiculous moment. Right now, though, the show’s in that ramping up period where it has me quite curious about the nature of Maryann, in particular, and the episode’s strongest sequences was the slowly devolving dance orgy perpetrated by her particular brand of magic. It was a scene that was legitimately fun to watch (Chris Bauer’s epileptic dancing was a highlight), and yet remained solidly sinister in Michelle Forbes’ freewheeling authority, giving the appearance of having given away control to the power of dance while managing to feel completely in control at the same time. She’s definitely one of the things that could keep me coming back to the show.
The other is the show’s willingness to make decisions that seem to indicate they know what makes their show worth watching: Lafayette is a particularly engaging and liked character, so making him into a vampire is actually an ideal way to keep the character around in a setting that perfectly fits his persona. In many ways he was wasted as a human (this reads like some sort of pro-vampire manifesto, but I’m speaking narratoligically), and to allow him to “play” with Eric more often is a really intelligent way for them to keep him around. As with the premiere, I am far more interested in the vampire side of this story than the human one, so that’s the kind of development that has me quite interested.
Where this emphasis on “fun” becomes problematic is that I wish we could just watch Eric and Maryann get blood in their hair or dance sexily at the bar than I would anything involving Bill and Sookie, or Tara and “Eggs,” or pretty well everything else on the show. Bill’s “daughter” and Sookie’s rather idiotic fallibility as it relates to her is too dumb to handle, Tara is a personality vacuum that is a pawn for Maryann to reach Sookie and isn’t treated much better by the show, and while I am curious to see what Ball and Company have to say about religious cults Jason’s storyline is the one example where I don’t know if Jason is the right character to really be telling that story. Still, by comparison to Bill and Sookie, I found Jason’s flashbacks to his own interactions with vampires, and that period where he himself was a sympathizer, was nicely handled by Kwanten, and resonated certainly better than anything from the “main” storyline with the daughter’s return to the family.
I’ll probably stick around for a few episodes, but the show will have to do more to keep my attention rather than prove an intriguing diversion.
As it relates to Merlin, meanwhile, I found “Valiant” a predictable but not disagreeable second episode; sure, it wasn’t particularly good, as the derivativeness shifted heavily into Harry Potter territory (evil magic in a tournament gave me definite Triwizard flashbacks, especially the way Merlin was sneaking around Camelot in order to solve the mystery therein), but I thought that as a “tea time” show (meant to be, like Potter, aimed towards all audiences) it was pretty inoffensive.
I can also see to what degree fans of the show (it aired its first season quite some time ago in Britain) could sense in this episode more than in the pilot a sense of what the show might be capable of. By all accounts it improves as it goes along, entering into more serialized territory, and as far as procedural beginnings go this one has struggled a bit with simplicity but has managed to make me at least a little bit empathetic towards Merlin and sitting comfortably in that place where the smug Arthur is at least moderately agreeable if not outright likeable. They rush a lot of the character development, jumping past real dramatic scenes in favour of comic ones, but they deliver on both fronts in the end even with a few shortcuts along the way.
And while some Merlin fans have admonished me for taking the show too seriously by drawing comparisons with Malory and my work studying the Arthurian Legend, I’d actually argue that placing Merlin as a servant does raise some questions about Camelot and the court that Malory ignores, including the role of the lower classes. Ultimately the show still doesn’t show legitimate peasants, as Merlin has access to the entire castle, free lodging, and apparently little want for food or goods, but placing him as a servant raised interesting questions of bureaucracy (with Arthur being admonished by his father for trusting the word of a servant over that of a knight), which is the kind of thing that draws me into these types of stories. No, it’s not as serious a perspective on the mythology as I’d like it to be, but it’s at least one sign that the show is more understanding of the story’s dynamics than I thought at first glance.
Ultimately, both shows are at that point where I’ll probably keep watching until I no longer have time – thesis deadlines are upcoming, and it might mean that episodes of both shows will start to pile up. Still, if ever you’re really desperate to hear my thoughts on a particular episode, send me an email or leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter and I’ll see if I can’t get to it eventually.
- The one thing Merlin really needs to do to keep me engaged even on a light-hearted family show perspective is to problematize the use of magic a bit more – having Merlin using it willy nilly while it’s perceived as this evil is a dilemma that Gaius, unfortunately, is too flakey to really get across, and some consequences outside of an “Audience knows he’s evil because he uses magic” scenario would be helpful.
- Speaking of magic, I really have trouble taking True Blood seriously when Sam’s secret is turning into a dog – it just makes me laugh, even when it’s supposed to be this super serious thing. I’m supposed to find it a little funny, right?