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.
I’m sort of in love with Warehouse 13 in its second season, if I’m being honest: no, it’s not a particularly complicated series, and this week’s subplot about Mrs. Frederick using a bizarre ball to suck McPherson’s echo out of Leena was nonsensical and silly, but the rest of the episode (“Beyond Our Control”) was incredibly comfortable in its world. We only recently started venturing out to Univille over the past few episodes, with the introduction of the post office worker and Pete’s missing belongings, but what little foreshadowing this provided was effortlessly folded into this story of Farnsworth’s 3D projector gone mad. What makes Warehouse 13 work is that it doesn’t feel like the world is being manipulated when a new case is introduced: the series’ premise so clearly allows for this sort of phenomenon that it can just sort of run with it. While last week’s episode with the super hero felt slightly more manipulative (as any story involving getting a super hero skeptic into a skin tight suit is likely to be), this story just floated along in a really clever fashion. The effects work was dodgy, but that sort of added to the charm: they had an idea, and they didn’t let a fairly low budget keep them from having fun with it, instead embracing the camp value of the various films and going along for the ride.
There were some functional elements to this procedural story, as Claudia gets a meet cute with a local hardware salesman, but for the most part there are no outward machinations towards making this story into anything more than it is. While the introduction of Jaime Murray’s H.G. Wells as a super villain has upped the stakes, the series hasn’t been manipulating otherwise unrelated stories into the broader serialized arc. This was a simple episode about a project gone wild which played into the series’ interest in technology and even got some nice mileage out of some simple comedy with the reveal that the townspeople dislike the Warehouse employees because they think they work for the IRS. The episode established a fair amount without really manipulating much of anything, letting the characters discover it for themselves and just having the story unfold from there. As I mentioned, the Leena stuff was ridiculous, but it couldn’t mar what was otherwise a really fun little episode of television which knew not to force something which wasn’t organic to the story being told.
Ultimately, Covert Affairs isn’t going to be that hands off with its procedural storylines, although I don’t want to suggest that this is a problem. The fact of the matter is that freshman procedurals love to make thematic connections between the cases being solved and the characters being developed, and you can see the appeal: time is of the essence when you’re trying to invite viewers into the world you’re creating, and what better way to do that than manipulating the procedural stories to speak to themes and storylines happening outside of the realm of the CIA? The result, in the case of “Walter’s Walk,” is a procedural storyline which shows how Annie fights for the little guy (in this case, a super smart little guy named Walter), and how she’s willing to follow the leads which are more emotional than criminal in an effort to do right by the people involved. The presence of a hard-working single mother and a double agent unable to handle balancing work and family also tie in to her sister’s desire for Annie to become guardian of her children should something happen to her and her husband.
Nary a moment of the episode feels wasted in this respect: Chris Gorham’s Augie helps Annie get over some of her worries about her hand-to-hand combat, while the Joan/Arthur relationship scenes offer a glimpse into the future for those who choose to balance working for the CIA and having a meaningful relationship. Throw in Sendhil Ramamurthy’s arrival as a liaison within the department to spy on Annie and use her to track her former lover who now works as a sort of rogue agent, and you have an episode that services just about every one of the series’ directions. And while there’s no doubt that the story was manipulated to within an inch of its life to become this multi-functional, the important thing is that only the series and its characters have been manipulated. So long as I, as an audience member, simply see the fingerprints on the narrative rather than feeling the fingers trying to force my emotions or my interest in a particular direction, I accept that series will rely on these sors of stories early in their run. They’re not the best procedural episodes you could imagine, but their amongst the most functional, and that’s the important thing at this stage in the game. I didn’t write about the premiere last week, but Covert Affairs has enough going for it that I’m along for the ride – there’s nothing here that Alias didn’t already handle with a more interesting structure, but as a USA’d version of Alias I think the show is quite competent.
However, switching gears, what I find so frustrating about White Collar is that so far this season it has gone beyond competent: I thought the premiere was really strong, and I thought tonight’s bit of political espionage from Neal and Diana was a really clever bit of plotting. Not only was the political stuff right up Caffery’s alley (and thus right up Matt Bomer’s alley), but the introduction of the prostitution side of things gave us a really great couple of scenes between Neal and Diana which spoke to their aborted chemistry back in the pilot. The return of Diana has given the show a shot in the arm, and using the hotel scenes to tell us a bit more about her past and to let Bomer and Thomason play off of one another was a really smart use of the story. I also thought that the way the episode weaved in Peter and Diana’s efforts to investigate Kate’s death without Neal’s knowledge was really smart, with the surveillance pictures making their way into Neal’s hands early in the episode and simply raising some suspicions rather than altering the case in any way. I also really quite loved the continued pairing of Peter and Moz, as the scavenger hunt brought out the best in both characters and demonstrates the way this cast is working quite well together. On the whole, it was a fun and entertaining hour of television, which is why I’m so frustrated by the series’ continued reliance on manipulating the audience.
I speak of last week’s “cliffhanger,” wherein it was revealed that Diana was the one holding the music box. The way the scene was designed, we were meant to believe that Diana was manipulating Peter, and that she was in fact secretly holding the music box and working a hidden agenda. There’s no ambiguity in the scene: the way it was placed at the end of the episode, and the way that Thomason played the line, it was very clearly designed to make us think that Diana was evil. And yet, in a completely offhand fashion in “Need to Know,” the writers use a conversation to reveal that Peter is well aware that Diana has the music box in a location only she knows about, and it was part of their plan to try to draw out potential suspects. In other words, the conclusion to last week’s episode was a complete red herring, which I would normally think is fine if the series had bothered to do anything with it. It’s not as if they developed a key scene where our uncertainty over Diana’s allegiance introduced additional tension, like placing her in a position where she is asked to shoot Neal and wondering if she will pull the trigger – if the red herring had been functional, I would have accepted that I had been manipulated for the sake of achieving a desired effect. However, there is no such scene: Peter simply reveals, nonchalantly, that this was the plan all along, and the episode goes along as if nothing happened.
It’s also a trick they pulled before: the mid-season finale was very clearly designed to make the audience believe that Peter was the one behind Kate’s kidnapping, but it was revealed in the opening moments of the series’ return that Peter was actually just warning Kate, trying to do Neal a favour. We’re reaching the point where the series will never actually be able to pull off a dramatic twist, because the audience will quite logically presume that it will simply be underwritten the following week without any sort of recognition. I’m fine with being manipulated so long as it’s for a purpose: a lot of shows like to mislead us, only to send us in a different direction and see if we caught their clues; however, with White Collar, they ignore clues altogether and present cleverly designed ruses which trick us into believing one thing, only to shrug it off and move onto their next elaborate ploy within the next episode. It’s unfortunate, because I really quite liked “Need to Know” on every other level, and I’d hate for an indulgent narrative affectation to ruin my enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant and engaging series that made me laugh quite a bit this week.
Part of the appeal of these procedurals is that we sort of sit back and turn off our minds, letting the shows take us where they want to take us, whether it’s into the CIA, into an elaborate political sting operation, or into a world where historical artifacts hold hidden supernatural secrets. And so we accept when a show manipulates its storylines to improve their function, or to help introduce us to characters; the problem, for me at least, is when a series seeks to manipulate the audience for no other reason than to create a week, or a few months, or speculation before it’s all quashed in a single scene with none of its potential, potential which could justify the manipulation, used in the slightest.
Consider this your final warning, White Collar.
- Another week, another terrible Green Screen sequence to remind us of Tiffani Thiesen’s presence in the series: after last week’s comments indicated it was because of her pregnancy, it was very obvious this time around, and the series’ attempt to suggest that her catering business is going nationwide is a convenient if not all that natural way of dealing with the situation at hand.
- Speaking of terrible green screen, how awful are those Covert Affairs credits? The animated stuff is pretty but lifeless, but the green screen work on the actors, cheesily placing them into the locations, is just hideous, especially Kari Matchett (which isn’t to say that she’s unattractive, which is factually inaccurate, but rather that the green screen betrays her). I like that the show has a credit sequence, and it’s still better conceptually than the mess which is Royal Pains’ credits, but still: yikes.
- I’m really liking how Alison Scagliotti’s Claudia fits in on Warehouse 13, and so I was pleased to see her get a shy, nerdy love interest – the show is quite earnest in regards to her character, and so I’m hopeful they spend more time with her in the future (especially now that she’s the series’ equivalent to James Bond’s Q).