October 14th, 2010
The most common word I’m seeing in evaluating tonight’s 30 Rock is “experiment,” which is more evaluative than you might think.
We call it an experiment because it wasn’t actually very good. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy tonight’s 30 Rock (I did), or that the episode was a failure (it wasn’t). If the episode had actually lived up to expectations, we’d call it a risk worth taking, or a ballsy decision, but instead we consider it a one-off experiment in order to better reconcile its struggles within the show’s larger creative efforts.
As noted, I thought “Live Show” was fun, and think that there were parts of the way the episode was designed which worked quite nicely, but any deeper commentary built into the episode was killed by the live format. Many of the jokes landed, and a couple of the meta moments were successful, but any character development and much of the potential meta-commentary were lost in the midst of audience laughter.
“Surprise,” “Innocence,” and the Art of the Game-Changer
April 29th, 2010
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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.
“This is The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done in My Life”
November 8th, 2009
At the heart of every solid episode of The Amazing Race is a narrative of fall and redemption. It is morbidly entertaining to see a team fall apart in the face of pressure, watching as an individual turns into a blubbering mess right in front of us, and when they eventually triumph over adversity (or, at the very least, come to terms with their predicament) it’s even more engaging. There’s something about the Race that brings this out in people, which is why this week’s trip to Sweden is particularly intelligently designed: it is all about creating a scenario where teams will fall apart, and as such given an opportunity to redeem themselves.
It’s also a chance, through the use of the new Amazing Race “Switchback,” for the show to right one of the wrongs in its past by revisiting a particularly infamous challenge. By returning to the scene of the most gruelling roadblock in the show’s history, the show gets to demonstrate how it should have done things last time, in the process creating a good combination of pathos and tension that justify the way in which the task makes the rest of the leg largely irrelevant.
May 18th, 2009
“The trouble doesn’t seem so troubling”
As I was taking a look at a really enjoyable spec script for How I Met Your Mother last night, I was forced to consider the question of whether or not the show’s defining characteristics are necessary components of its success. The show is known, at this point, for its time-bending narratives, ridiculous life theories, and its continuity in regards to both tiny throwaway jokes and the eponymous question of the Mother’s identity, but are those qualities necessary to create a good episode of the series or, in the case of “The Leap,” a fitting season finale?
In many ways, “The Leap” isn’t an episode that relies heavily on HIMYM’s signature story-telling methods, but they’re all present in a way: it features some narrative shuffling designed to assist the dramatic end of its storyline, it uses the show’s own continuity to create another life theory, and the continuity of the four-legged farm animal mistakenly inserted into Ted’s Birthday last year makes an appearance. But, outside of a brief mention at episode’s end that promises yet again that we are closer than ever before to the identity of the Mother, the episode was not about Ted’s love life.
The result is, without question, a stronger finale than last season: Ted’s relationship with Stella was an element of the series that never quite worked, and I was worried a few weeks ago that it was going to rear its ugly head for the finale, creating drama where drama was not necessary. Instead, Ted ends up facing his dramatic arc of the season with a lady of another species, and the drama comes from the right place and, more importantly, at the right pace considering what has come before it. Combine with the return of Lily, and Marshall being Marshall, and this felt like vintage HIMYM without feeling as if they were relying too heavily on those broader signifiers.
They weren’t exactly stepping out on a ledge and leaping across a metaphorical alleyway with revolutionary plotting, but in many ways the finale felt more grounded as a result.
“Goodbye, My Friend”
March 5th, 2009
Holy flashback, Harry Henderson.
There’s a whole lot of familiarity in “Goodbye, My Friend,” an episode that cribs quite liberally from last season’s “Succession” and this season’s premiere, and it’s not all bad. I liked both of those episodes, and after spending a lot of time on relationships we get a far more individual-driven hour that pairs off some characters that we’ve never seen together while even reintroducing some characters back into the fold however briefly (Hi, Josh! Bye, Josh!).
The episode didn’t really break any ground in Liz Lemon’s fight for a child, but I can’t resist sad and pathetic Liz; similarly, I don’t think that Frank’s brief foray into respectable life is going to change his character, but I just can’t resist Jack Donaghy on a mission to rescue someone from their sad middle class existence. Combine with a Jenna/Tracy subplot that might as well have been ripped out of the show’s second season, and you have either a sure sign that the show is fundamentally bankrupt, or a sick sense that Tina Fey knows the show can rip off itself and still entertain us, just like Harry and the Hendersons ripped off Shane.
Well, Tina, you got me – I had a lot of fun with this one, self-plaigarism be damned.