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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: White Collar – “Withdrawal”

“Withdrawal”

July 13th, 2010

I would posit that it is impossible to truly suffer from White Collar withdrawal – while I will not begrudge those who love the series more than I, I don’t think that the show is substantial enough for its overall package to be considered something to which one could become addicted and suffer from symptoms of televisual withdrawl (I am, however, aware that “Matt Bomer withdrawal” is likely a fairly common condition).

However, “Withdrawal” focuses on the parts of the show which I think have it on the verge of becoming an addictive substance, albeit more for those who have a particular appetite for this sort of procedural fare. The series still struggles to pull together its serialized storylines, as the premiere would have been better off without the tease at episode’s end which throw numerous character relationships into peril, but the central case and the way in which it was solved had enough charm to make the episode feel like a more welcome return than I had imagined.

I may not be jumping for joy that it has returned to my television specifically, but I’m pleased that it has returned in a form which makes for some nice summer escapism which is starting to build enough of a history to become something more.

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Lost – “The Candidate”

“The Candidate”

May 4th, 2010

For the first half of its running time, “The Candidate” felt like the show was going through a list of the ways in which this season has somewhat struggled with its competing narrative foci. The Flash Sideways structure is thematically interesting, but it feels as if the initial “what’s going on” dynamism has been replaced by a sort of meandering structure as Jack stumbles upon connections that we made weeks ago, and reveals elements of the story which bear emotional weight but which get saved until the episode’s conclusion. This might be fine, perhaps, if there was anything happening on the island to compare it to, but through the first half of the episode the show’s action seemed borderline illogical, leaving me pondering just how cranky this review was doing to sound.

And then, at a certain point in the episode, all hell broke loose, and the stakes of the season went up by roughly ten thousand percent. Life becomes a commodity, trust becomes more important than perhaps life itself, and the show’s poetic style gets turned on its ear like perhaps it’s never been turned on its ear before. “The Candidate” is not an exemplary hour of television, struggling mightily to set up its eventual conclusion, but that conclusion ends up being such a rollercoaster that it leaves the show in perhaps the best shape its been all year while leaving us emotional wrecks.

It’s something the show hasn’t really accomplished thus far this season, which means that we’re officially in the home stretch.

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White Collar – “Hard Sell”

“Hard Sell”

January 19th, 2010

Through the magic of Twitter, I’ve known for a few weeks that critics have been fine with how White Collar resolved its midseason cliffhanger, which I…well, let’s just say that I wasn’t buying what they were selling. So, going into “Hard Sell,” I knew that I wasn’t going to be writing an extended treatise on the show’s incongruous plot twist tarnishing what goodwill it had.

However, although I was able to put away that particular hat, “Hard Sell” remains, well, a hard sell for me. While they may negotiate the cliffhanger in a way that doesn’t damage the integrity of the show, it also does absolutely nothing to make the show more interesting. There’s some vague potential on the margins here that makes me wish this were an entirely different show, but as it is all this mid-season premiere demonstrates is that no matter the crazy ideas the show might introduce, it’s always going to revert back to a pretty blasé procedural with some charismatic leads.

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