“Across the Sea”
May 11th, 2010
[For more discussion of the episode, check out my breakdown and analysis of critical responses to “Across the Sea.” Also, for a review of the series’ penultimate episode, What They Died For, click here]
Do metaphors count as answers?
It’s the question I found myself returning to throughout “Across the Sea,” a story which feels so designed to discover answers that it never quite achieves a narrative in its own right, although I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight to its effectiveness. However, while you could argue we get some facts and details that help us piece together previous events, there is very little of what one would call “clear” answers in the hour. What we get are extended metaphors meant to give meaning, rather than clarity, to that which has happened before and that which will happen in the future.
Considering the breadth of questions we as an audience have at this stage in the show’s run, there is no chance that the show will ever be able to make everything perfectly clear, and when tonight’s episode actually tried to provide “answers” it often felt unnatural, inorganic. Where the episode worked best is in using metaphors and abstract ideas to solidify human emotions and character motivations: this is the story of Jacob and his nameless twin brother (who we’ll call Esau for the sake of the Biblical connection, even if their mother’s name makes it less than perfect), but it both implicitly and explicitly gestures to what we’ve seen unfold on the island for six seasons, and in doing so gives greater meaning to that journey even if the “why” question remains unanswered.
I don’t think “Across the Sea” is by any means perfect, but I think it did a most admirable job at crafting a story which crystallizes the show’s journey thus far, worrying less about the big picture and more about establishing where the individual portraits the show has created fit into the mysteries of the island (which may remain unsolved).
April 1st, 2010
In its promotions for the show, FOX sells Fringe based on the tagline “New Cases. Endless Possibilities.” But what’s interesting, and ultimately enormously compelling, about “Peter” is that the possibilities aren’t endless at all: we know what happened to Peter at the age of 7, and we know the key parties involved, so the show isn’t interested in endless possibilities so much as it is interested in interpreting what we already know.
There’s a challenge in this type of episode, especially for a show that has created such a strong dichotomy between its standalone episodes and its mythology-driven stories; fans may go in expecting answers to big questions, and while “Peter” offers a couple of interesting tidbits and some neat connections it is first and foremost a story about the limits of humanity as opposed to the potential of technology. It is a starkly human story, largely taking for granted its science fiction premise in favour of a fantastic depiction of a man struggling against the inevitable and risking everything to save a life that wasn’t his to save, to right a wrong that was not his fault.
In the process he changed the course of time and space, and this show became both possible and extremely compelling, but for this hour none of that mattered compared to the love shared between parents and their children. “Peter” is a stellar negotiation of Walter Bishop and his dances with the dark side of morality, and in the hands of John Noble and with some nice stylistic flourishes, it is certainly one of the show’s strongest hours, if one that they’ll never be able to duplicate again.
“Welcome to the War”
March 30th, 2010
I was tweeting earlier this week, in response to some questions from Chris Becker about why we start or stop watching shows, as it relates to what I’d call “Replacement Theory.” For ABC, they are desperately searching for a show to replace their hit Lost, which is still pulling top notch demo numbers that any network would kill for. And so next year, when Lost will be over and ABC won’t have that viewership, they’re looking for a replacement show, something that will pick up those viewers and keep the momentum going.
However, with FlashForward having bottomed out on Thursday nights, V is the last great hope and ABC knows it: they’re airing it after Lost, they heavily promoted its return (including during nearly every second of tonight’s episode of Lost), and they’re doing everything in their power to sell this show as the future of science fiction at ABC. But, for every advantage there is a disadvantage: no show has ever done well after Lost, that heavy promotion pissed off many Lost viewers angry that it was obscuring the screen, and the network has failed to launch a single science fiction series other than Lost successfully, proving that perhaps science fiction doesn’t actually have a place at the network.
Or perhaps the problem is just that “Replacement Theory” requires a certain degree of separation: V might pale in comparison to Lost now, but perhaps judged on its own merits the show could prove a refuge to fans in the post-Lost era. “Welcome to the War” is unable to live down the problems which plagued the series in its opening four episodes, but Scott Rosenbaum does an admirable job of reminding us that this premise is actually compelling and that there is the potential for its characters to become more interesting as time goes on.
We’re just not quite there yet.
“Caballo Sin Nombre”
March 28th, 2010
“It’s not about taking sides.”
When parents separate, the divisions which emerge are complicated and often resistant to black and white definitions. While one partner may believe that the separation is in fact definitive, the other likely believes it is temporary or just a bump in the road. Children may want to take sides in order to try to bring the conflict to a close, but then they are told that it isn’t about taking sides but rather about being supportive and basically riding it out.
But in the world of Breaking Bad, it’s all about taking sides: the people who succeed in this world, the people who are holding the keys to their future, are those who accept that things can be black and white, and that they are the ones who choose one side or the other. It is those who attempt to sit in between, to act one way but try to live as if they are the other, who end up choking to death, or end up so throwing a pizza onto a roof. By trying to keep one foot in each world, by trying to prove that grey areas are the way to go, these people only hurt the people they love while failing to impress the people that could kill them.
“Caballo Sin Nombre” is a mediation of sorts on this idea, and it continues to establish that the certainty of human agency is integral to the future of Walter White and his black or white life.
The Shows of the Year
December 21st, 2009
When you’re selecting the Top 10 shows of the year, you reach the point where you have to ask yourself: what would the year have been like if this show hadn’t been on the air?
And this criteria oddly kept a few shows off this list that I thought would have been here, shows which felt like they made a fairly substantial impact at the time but eventually felt defined more by a single episode than by the season as a whole, or by a single performer rather than the entire ensemble. And then there were shows which I love, shows that hold a special place in my heart and held special places within my End of Decade retrospective, but delivered seasons this calendar year which felt as if they were relying on rather than building on previous success. And then there were shows that I know are objectively better than some of the series which are on this list, but yet never felt integral to the year in television as we know it, that never felt as if they had made an impact on my experience with this medium over the past twelve months. Throw in the shows I just don’t watch, and those which just barely missed the cut despite meeting my criteria, and I’m sure there’s plenty of shows which you would contend should have a place on this list.
However, the shows on this list are a reflection of what was a really great year in television, a year where shows with intense fan support proved to withstand critical scrutiny and where shows with strong reputations delivered seasons that demonstrated intense control over their characters and their journeys. It was also a year where we recognize the joys of the Sophomore Season, where a network shows enough faith in a series to give it a second kick at the can and is rewarded with a creative explosion impossible to ignore. And it was also a year where, according to the list below, the network with the worst track record somehow managed to be affiliated with five of the best shows on television, demonstrating that there are some shows capable of transcending industry finagling to simply be great television.
Performers of the Year
December 19th, 2009
I am not capable of working magic, so I shall not attempt to rank every single amazing television performance of the past year and boil them down to only ten selections. It’s an impossible task that the Emmys are incapable of doing correctly even when they have numerous categories in which to highlight particular nominees, so who am I to try to cover all of my bases with just ten names?
The purpose of this list, rather than trying to represent every great performance, is to highlight those that had an impact on me, and to some degree to highlight those which might not be represented elsewhere on the list in terms of particular episodes or the series themselves (and since I limited it to one performer per show, in some instances I refused to make a decision and chose to represent them elsewhere). In some cases, this means singling out the one part of an ensemble that I enjoyed, and in others it means singling out obvious candidates because there may not have been room for their shows on other lists (although I could just be messing with your heads, who knows?).
Now, in selecting this list, I had two basic rules:
- If they won an Emmy or some other major award, chances are I didn’t include them.
- If I didn’t see it (e.g. Breaking Bad), I can’t award them for it.
The second rule is there for an obvious reason, but the first is a bit more complex. I know that someone like Toni Colette gave a great performance in United States of Tara this year, no doubt, but I also know that she already got an Emmy for it – I don’t really need to tell you she gave a great performance, and I am more likely to give her spot to someone who hasn’t won an Emmy, or who should have won an Emmy, or who might some day win an Emmy. This isn’t to say I’m avoiding all buzzworthy individuals, but rather to suggest that I tried to avoid the usual suspects (so, no Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, for example).
So, without further ado, let’s discuss the Top 10 Performers of the Year (in alphabetical order, by the way).
The other day, I tore into the Golden Globes for being star fetishists, arguing that their choices reflect a clear lack of interest in actually honouring the best in television (when Entourage is your default, there is something very wrong). However, I think sometimes we pick on the Golden Globes so much that we forget that other award shows which actually have some shred of credibility are just as capable of proving disappointing.
And so I feel I need to provide equal treatment, and criticize the Screen Actors’ Guild for a bizarre set of nominations (click the link to read if you want to know all of the context for the below rant) which seem to indicate that they’re not actually watching television at the moment. While the rut SAG has fallen into is less egregious than that of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, its relative credibility makes its shame a definite disappointment during this end of year awards season.
“Getting some (Critical) Perspective”
December 15th, 2009
[This is Part Three in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
When I entered into university, I knew that it was going to change how I approached various parts of my life. A liberal arts degree, by nature, is about developing analytical skills in order to more carefully consider and understand the world around you. And while I really enjoyed my high school experience, I knew that university would shift me even further in that direction, and I was ready for the challenge.
However, something very strange happened, in that concurrent to the development of greater critical analysis skills I started watching a rather enormous amount of television. And at that point, the two worlds started to converge, and I discovered that they were more peanut butter and chocolate than they were oil and water. It would be a number of years until this entirely crystallized, but it became very clear very quickly that I was not a “normal” television viewer.
The serialized shows that I was exposed to during this period are those which helped solidify my critical faculties, driving me to consider them from multiple angles and almost begging for a more careful consideration than most viewers might have been partaking in. And while I won’t pretend that this is the only way to watch television, there is no question that the convergence of my sudden interest in television and the critical analytical skills developed in university is an incredibly important part of how I enjoy this medium today: watching intently, taking notes, and spending as long writing about the episode as I spent watching it.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Paticipation
November 21st, 2009
In this week’s review of AMC’s remake of The Prisoner, I wrote at length about what I saw as a failure of the show’s narrative: in my eyes, the series struggled due to a lack of information that resulted in no emotional connection with the characters and, as a result, no real connection to the story. I resisted the argument that the series’ sense of mystery, and its complex thematic conclusion, justify this structure, and friend of the blog David J. Loehr brought up a great example to support my point:
It makes me think of Hitchcock’s example of the “bomb under the table” idea, that you can show ten minutes of two men having the most boring lunchtime conversation ever and BOOM, their table blows up. That’s a cheap thrill at the end of ten boring minutes. Or you could show the bomb under the table, then continue the exact same scene, boring conversation and all, except now it’s fraught with tension as you wait for the bomb to go off. The sixth episode is the bomb, at least in this example if not in modern lingo.
However, based on conversations I had with some of the always great posters at NeoGAF and today’s Futures of Entertainment 4 panel on Producing Transmedia Experiences: Participation and Play, I’m starting to understand why some have argued that the series was actually a success. It seems that those who enjoyed the miniseries are those who so inherently bought into the sense of mystery and intrigue (inspired both by the density of this miniseries and the decades of debate over the meaning of the original series) to the point where they began to see narrative gaps as clues, and inconsistencies as paradoxes meant to be seen as part of the broader narrative.
I would argue this was not by design, and that these viewers are taking poor execution and turning it into a game that the writers and directors didn’t actually create. They have effectively “gamed” the miniseries, taking a trend that is popular within serial dramas like Lost and applying it regardless of whether it is actually part of an intended transmedia experience.
It’s a behaviour that indicates television has become an environment of “game” (by providing a clear sense of how audience can participate in the construction of narrative) or be “gamed,” and that AMC missed an opportunity to improve the response and increase the impact of the miniseries by not actively pursuing this avenue.
“No More Good Days”
September 24th, 2009
ABC is pretty much cursed.
See, anytime they create a new show that emphasizes mystery, or features science fiction elements, or has a large ensemble cast, or evokes more questions than it does answers, it’s going to be compared to Lost. And, for almost all of those shows (The Nine, Invasion, etc.) they truly are shows that come in the wake of ABC’s monster hit, shows that attempt to use the sort of serialized storytelling at Lost’s core in order to bring in more audiences.
However, they are almost always what one would consider a failure, if only because Lost works for reasons which go far beyond its buzzwords or its structure. What makes it work is a focus on character over plot (something that sustains the show when the plot takes a back seat), and a sense of execution that comes from having strong people behind the wheel and (perhaps more importantly) a cast and crew who are willing to learn lessons as they go along.
So, if ABC wants us to proclaim FlashForward the next Lost, they’re going to have to do a lot more than an action-packed clip montage at episode’s end and a pilot with an emphasis on secrets, mysteries and a large ensemble cast. This isn’t to say that I don’t find FlashForward fascinating, or that its pilot was unenjoyable. However, trapped in the hype about being the new Lost, the show fails to feel as if it has a clear grasp on what kind of show it wants to be beyond “a show like Lost,” a definition that might get its foot in the door but needs to be followed through on.
And the only people who know about that are those who blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds and saw a future where the show is either a huge success or a crippling disappointment. And, you know, the show’s producers. In the meantime, we just have to take their word for it with “No More Good Days,” a pilot which sells a premise but doesn’t necessarily prove it’s capable of delivering on its promise.