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A Manipulated Medium: Thoughts on Warehouse 13, Covert Affairs and White Collar

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.

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Season Premiere: Warehouse 13 – “Time Will Tell”

“Time Will Tell”

July 6th, 2010

Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.

I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.

It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.

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Season Finale: Warehouse 13 – “MacPherson”

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“MacPherson”

September 22nd, 2009

There is something potentially idiosyncratic about “MacPherson,” the finale to one of the summer’s most enjoyable new series Warehouse 13. The show has oft times been notable not for its epic, mythology laden finales but rather its clever short form action pieces, delivering procedural episodes which connect with the audience and highlight the show’s enjoyable cast of characters. “Macpherson,” by comparison, is all about twists and turns and for the most part puts aside its indulgences in favour of appealing to other senses.

It’s a bold decision for a show that has been built around a fairly simple formula and now is going to have a heck of a time getting back to that status quo, and it’s one that I like in theory. While I had expected this episode to put to rest the MacPherson story for good, a first season arc that provided necessary back story for Artie and the warehouse itself, instead it felt like a whole new launching off point which compromised the integrity of our cast of characters beyond recognition.

It leaves a lot of open questions in regards to just what this show is going to look like in the years ahead, something that I didn’t expect from a show which felt so gosh darn comfortable in its own skin just a few episodes ago. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the right decision, and in some ways I think the finale needed to do something more to make it all work, but consider me most certainly intrigued.

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Warehouse 13 – “Breakdown”

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“Breakdown”

September 8th, 2009

It may seem weird to a few days out be blogging about a show that’s pretty unheralded in terms of critical analysis, but there were some observations I wanted to make that wouldn’t quite fit into a Twitter comment and so here we are discussing “Breakdown,” what’s really the last “minor” episode of Warehouse 13 before the Michael Hogan guest spot next week and the finale the week after.

One of the things that I’ve discussed about Warehouse 13 is a rather annoying trope wherein the people attempting to solve the mystery (so to speak) end up getting personally tied up in it. Take, for example, a while ago when the life-draining Spine of Saracen latched itself onto Pete as they attempted to solve its various properties. I liked the story itself, bringing in past agents and kind of offering a sense of the self-sacrifice which can be involved in the job, but by placing Pete at the center of the conflict it meant there was only one conclusion: we know Pete is going to be fine, so the threat of his death is a false one. If it were on someone else (say, the female former Warehouse agent), there’s some semblance of uncertainty, and a chance for the show to head into some darker territory.

But the last couple of weeks have demonstrated that there is value to this kind of structure so long as it is handled in the proper fashion. Last week’s “Homicidal Prison” was an example of the show dealing with a couple of lingering story beats (Myka’s boyfriend dying in Dallas and Pete ignoring his second sight (of sorts) and not warning his father against going to that fire) in the midst of a fairly interesting story. It wasn’t that we ever thought Pete or Myka were going to kill themselves, but rather that we needed to see them face off with those struggles. In that context, placing them in the center of everything worked, and the episode felt stronger because of it.

In “Breakdown,” meanwhile, Pete and Myka are once again at the mercy of various artifacts, but in a way that didn’t feel like a forced ramping up of tension, and that captured the fun and enjoyable side of the show without necessarily foregoing the more suspenseful moments. It wasn’t the deepest episode of the show yet, but it showed the kind of potential behind having the show’s leads front and center in the battle between free will and artifacts, and that the producers know what they’re doing heading into the finale.

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Warehouse 13 – “Burnout”

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“Burnout”

August 11th, 2009

“This place is like “The Spine” – it’ll use you up.”

I don’t pretend that Warehouse 13 is a more complicated show than it purports to be: it’s a simple summer procedural, and to expect too much from that is to place expectations on the show that it’s never going to live up to. Thus far, it has done a strong job of developing the universe of the Warehouse slowly but surely, and that’s resulted in some entertaining television if not quite as much serialization as I might want in my procedurals.

However, the above quote is an effort to paint a far darker picture of the events taking place, and in many ways the show balances the more campy/supernatural side of its plot with attempts to emphasize the dangerous, potentially life-ending work being undertaken by the Warehouse employees. In “Burnout,” we got a crash course in both how this should be done and how it shouldn’t, as two different but connected devices create legitimate questions and suspense-free scenarios varying in effectiveness.

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