September 16th, 2010
Admittedly, the sheer chaos of future Thursdays means that Nikita is unlikely to be part of my regular viewing rotation yet alone my regular blogging rotation, but “2.0” (the series’ first post-pilot episode) was interesting enough that there’s a few points I want to make.
How you approach the first episode after the pilot is a real sign of where the show is heading. Free from pilot limitations, there is the potential for an expansion of the series’ world or the series’ sense of history; at the same time, however, networks (especially networks like The CW) are always worried about new viewers potentially popping in to sample episodes beyond the pilot, so there is pressure to capture the essence of the series for a number of weeks after the pilot airs.
“2.0” is trapped in that process, desperate to bring the series’ two worlds together while also balancing a standalone storyline along with a flashback to how our two protagonists met a year earlier. It’s too much for the episode to really handle, and gives us no real sense of how the series will strike a better balance in the future.
September 9th, 2010
As far as world-building goes, The CW’s Nikita is comfortable remaining in familiar territory: shadowy “government” organizations working under the guise of national security while in fact engaging in nefarious activities was something that Alias and Dollhouse both dealt with pretty extensively. We’ve seen shows about spies before, and nothing Nikita offers in that department is particularly new (especially when you consider that it’s a reboot of a television show which was based on a movie, but since I’ve seen little of either I’m more likely to think in terms of other series).
The difference, I would argue, is where we join this particular story: rather than starting at the beginning, we jump in at a point where our protagonist is on the outside looking in, seeking revenge against those who wronged her rather than experiencing those wrongs herself. It is, as I note, a familiar story (Alias did something remarkably similar), but by joining at this particular point the show skips over the emotional wringer and focuses on the flashier, more dynamic parts of this story. The result, to some degree, is a lack of depth in the show’s characters, as everything we learn is done through exposition or flashback rather than experiencing it in real time; however, simultaneously, joining at this point gives the show a much clearer sense of what kind of structure it will take on for the future, allowing the pilot to function as any good pilot should.
It also means that it had no real chance of being great, but I don’t think anything here indicates that the should couldn’t get there if given the time and a push in the right direction.
June 27th, 2010
There is a half-finished draft of a post wherein I vowed to give up on Entourage this season sitting on WordPress’ server, written late last week as I wrestled with this decision. I thought that this was going to be the season when I would finally break down and stop watching a show that I’ve unfairly subjected to indepth critical analysis despite the series’ complete lack of interest in any of the qualities which would warrant such indepth critical analysis. There’s a point where I would have to accept that the show I want Entourage to be is never going to exist, and that for better (or, far more likely, for worse), the show will remain as airy as it has ever been without any sense of consequence or real dramatic stakes.
And yet I think the necessary intervention is less about the twenty-two minutes a week I spend watching something so trifling and more about the half hour I sometimes spent analyzing it. While I would never defend the series’ quality, and certainly feel that it has devolved considerably since its initial potential, the show’s seventh season has started off without any pretensions as it relates to what kind of show this is. The show’s problem in the past is that it has contained elements which could be a more interesting series if they were only allowed to play out until their logical (and complicated) conclusions, but “Stunted” has no such elements: it’s quick, it’s simple, and its entire plot can fit comfortably into a cable listings logline.
And so, both because I won’t be alone and because Autumn Reeser personally told me I should continue watching on Twitter, I’m going to keep watching, albeit without taking out my critical frustrations on a show completely disinterested in changing.
All-Stars, No Story: SYTYCD Season 7
June 16th, 2010
When it was announced that So You Think You Can Dance would be changing its structure for its seventh season, in theory there shouldn’t be any complaints: after all, many of the show’s fans were frustrated by the sixth season, where the series felt stale for the first time. However, that staleness wasn’t really the result of the show’s structure so much as the decision to schedule the series in the fall (only weeks after the fifth season ended) and an unfortunate new stage which sucked some of the life out of the series. We were suffering from fatigue more than anything else, and while some small changes could bring us back to the franchise it seems as if Nigel Lythgoe decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
While we’ve known for a while that the series was throwing out its Top 20 structure and going with a Top 10 (in fact a Top 11) and teaming up the individual competitors with All-Stars from previous seasons, it wasn’t entirely clear just how that would work. The show is still a collection of 11 dance routines as it was before, but there are newfound conflicts in who we’re supposed to be paying attention to (the competitor or the All-Stars), and with Mia Michaels sitting in for Mary Murphy there is simply something different in the air.
And it’s proving to be, at least right now, a diversion from what used to make the show so engaging – while my choice of title may make it seem like the problem is that the show is focusing too much on the All-Stars (I couldn’t resist the play on No Guts, No Glory), the truth is that they didn’t focus on the all-stars at all, which is even more distracting and confusing for audiences and judges alike.
May 19th, 2010
Throughout Modern Family’s first season, episodes have been airing out of production order, which isn’t overly surprising: a lot of new comedies air this way based on the strength of certain episodes and to ensure new viewers stick around for a while. However, it means that we’re not really able to read too much into the show’s long term character development, as episodes become interchangeable; I’m not suggesting every sitcom needs to have such character development, but this feels like the kind of show where characters are going to get older over time (especially the kids), and where I’d hope that they would evolve into new stories as this successful show continues into future seasons.
However, I would have been perfectly fine had “Family Portrait” been aired earlier in the season, as I don’t entirely understand why it was chosen as the season finale. Rife with cliches and some fairly broad storylines which show the characters at their most archetypal, and fairly low on great material for the show’s breakout characters, it seems strange that this would be the note the show wanted to leave on when compared with last week’s vacation episode that ended on an earned emotional conclusion. For a show so willing to control the order of things to provide the best possible impact regardless of production order, to place this “okay” episode in this position as opposed to last week’s really strong outing either indicates they don’t really care what not they leave on or that they have a very different conception of what works about this from my own.
Considering that I’ve been sort of at arm’s length with the show all season, it’s probably the latter.
“What They Died For”
May 18, 2010
“I think you’re mistaking coincidence for fate.”
[For more analysis of this week’s penultimate episode of Lost, check out my roundup of Critics’ commentary from across the web.]
Earlier today, TV scholar Jason Mittell wrote a rather fantastic analysis of the variety of different types of questions floating around as Lost comes to an end, nicely capturing the ways in which categorizing the questions helps us outline our own “priorities.” Say what you will about “Across the Sea” (as I, or the critics, did), but it has certainly forced Lost’s active audience to consider which questions matter most at this late stage in the series – rather than forcing us to see things a certain way, the episode forced us to see things of our own choosing, things which help form our personal view of the series heading into its conclusion.
When the episode was labeled as “divisive,” it’s easy to presume that the division lies between those who liked it and those who hated it, but the divisions go much deeper than that. The discussion of the episode brought to light how each individual viewer (rather than “groups” of viewers who we bundle into particular categories) has viewed the series thus far, and in doing so led them to the variety of questions which Mittell classifies; rather than eliding these sorts of big questions or attempting to lead viewers in a certain direction, Lindelof and Cuse sat their audience down by the fire and told them that they had a choice to see this show in whichever way they wanted to going into these final episodes, and they have been more than willing to take the criticism and praise found in the questions that viewers have been asking in the past week.
I make this point because “What They Died For” is all about human agency, about how and why we make choices and what it is that pushes us to do things which may seem morally reprehensible or potentially dangerous. The episode is an important connecting point between the show’s two realities, emphasizing the ways in which choices – and the trust implicit or explicit to those choices – shape both the show and its characters on the island and within the newly introduced sideways stories. By putting to rest any doubts about the position of free will within the series, one can’t help but feel that the show is also empowering its audience to enjoy the same type of agency as we head into the finale, picking up on the spirit (if not necessarily the content) of last week’s divisive episode.
And I, speaking entirely personally, think it worked really well, but I think we’re to the point where saying this objectively may be going against the point of it all.
“Out of the Box”
March 9th, 2010
White Collar is what I would call a premise procedural. While it eventually falls into a rhythm of crime-solving like other procedurals, it starts with a central premise or setup that remains unresolved in order to provide the show its tension and its “added value” beyond the formula. For Burn Notice, it’s Michael’s never-ending quest to figure out who burned him, and for White Collar it’s Neal Caffrey’s quest to reunite with his beloved Kate. To some extent, both shows have their characters just killing time, waiting until the beginning and end of each episode where they will make incremental progress on their broader search.
What keeps White Collar from ascending to the level of Burn Notice is that, by and large, I don’t “buy” its premise. The same thing has happened with Burn Notice over time, as we reach the point where we wonder why Michael Westen doesn’t realize that he has a woman he loves, a mother who loves him, and a loyal best friend in Miami which give him more than enough reason to leave the whole “burn” mess alone. But with White Collar, it was sort of there from the beginning, with too many questions about Kate’s loyalty (and, frankly, her fundamental lack of personality) and the trustworthiness of Fowler’s plot to make it seem like we should be rooting for this reunion.
The show has always been at its best when Peter and Neal are friends, not enemies, and when Neal is a charismatic crime solver rather than a lovestruck idiot with enormous blinders to all sorts of logical concerns with his plan. As such, “Out of the Box” struggles to reflect what has made the show a pleasant experience over its first season, trapped in conflict and false goodbyes that we know will return us to the status quo, just as Michael Westen remains in the dark about who burned him.
At the least, though, White Collar seems to realize that things needed to be shaken up, and they’ve taken some intriguing (if predictable) steps to perhaps set the show on a better path heading into its second season.
March 10th, 2010
“It was on this island that everything changed.”
I’ve got an extremely early wakeup call tomorrow, so I intend for this to be somewhat less lengthy than previous reviews. However, Lost delivered another solid entry into the sixth season this week, so it’s tough to be too brief: there’s a lot of interesting elements at play in “Dr. Linus” which reveal some new subtleties to the Flash Sideways structure, which reveal more nuance to Michael Emerson’s performance (which I thought was impossible), and which point towards answers to a few key questions without, necessarily, answering them completely.
And so there’s plenty to ruminate, speculate and potentially even pontificate on, so forgive me if my promise of brevity proves to be as inaccurate as the statement above: on the island that we know, everything stays the same, but Benjamin Linus’ story of the island of Elba reminds us that sometimes the most substantial change is how the stagnation of one’s position drives them to the point of disrepair. Napoleon remained Emperor when he was exiled on Elba, but his power was false, and it eventually wore him down: this is the story of a man whose quest for power met a similar end, but it is also a story where change seems plausible and, in another universe, an established fact of life.
From this point forward, it might also be the driving force of this series.
March 4th, 2010
I understand sitcom formulas: I know why they exist, I know why they can sometimes be very funny, and I understand why there are quite a few viewers who are in love with them. And while I’m on the record as amongst those who are not quite on the Modern Family bandwagon, I respect a lot of what the show is doing, and do not begrudge it for being formulaic to varying degrees each week.
If I’m being honest, “Fears” was one of the best episodes the show has done in its most limiting formula, the separation of the three families into distinct stories. The theme was consistent, the comedy was varied, and the show perhaps came the closest yet to earning its saccharine conclusion. None of the stories fell too far into comic farce to feel like they were shoehorned into the corny conclusion, and while every story was on the edge of tipping into that land of love and caring that makes me want to throw up, they mostly stayed within something funny and sweet without going too far.
And yes, that’s the most convoluted way of saying “this was a pretty good episode of Modern Family” you’re likely to find.
“Dead is Dead”
April 8th, 2009
Forgiveness is a really interesting emotion, primarily because of how subjective it is. There is a great moment in “Dead is Dead” where Locke suggests that he and Ben discuss the elephant in the room, being the fact that Ben, you know, murdered him, and Ben immediately heads into a long and rambling explanation of how he had to do it, how it was the only way, how he knew he couldn’t leave it to him, etc. Locke, meanwhile, just shrugs: “I was just looking for an apology.”
Locke, of course, has a very different value of forgiveness, having been through so much, and in his new resurrected form Locke is more sure of himself than ever; he forgives Ben because he’s now alive, and he now has purpose, so who is he to really complain?
The problem with the episode is really not a problem at all: Benjamin Linus’ flashbacks are designed specifically to show us those moments where his empathetic nature emerges, some sign of the young boy who went into that Temple returning as part of this new individual. However, in the present day, we see that Ben is still just as much a monster as before, and I think there’s something inherently problematic in the way he treats these situations with such moral dichotomy.
But it’s supposed to be problematic, and Michael Emerson delivers another knockout performance, and “Dead is Dead” succeeds based on the show’s emphasis on his duality.