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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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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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Warehouse 13 – “Elements”

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“Elements”

August 4th, 2009

Warehouse 13 is a show about some really complex supernatural events, there’s no question about that. However, really, the show wants nothing to actually do with any of them. When a pop song is used to rob banks, the story quickly shifts to the quite humanitarian and kindly reason for the thefts, and the show wants us to empathize with them and let them get off scot free. When the mystery of an evil chair is solved, it’s not due to some evil mastermind plot but rather a crazy scientific explanation and some unfortunate circumstances. Everything needs to right itself in the end, which makes the show’s complexity somewhat quickly resolved by episode’s end.

Last week’s “Claudia,” a compelling tale of Artie’s past encounters with a young scientist and his sister coming back into his life, was another example of this: in the episode, Claudia and Artie manage to bring her brother back from some sort of between world existence, the same age as he was 12 years previous and ready to re-enter the world. The show never stops to question the implications of this, and this week they even shipped him off to Switzerland to work as if the 12 years was just a bunch of facts he needs to learn and Springsteen records to catch up on. The show doesn’t feel the need to stop and consider any of this, and that’s something that really stands out for me.

I’m not suggesting that the storylines should be less complex or more realistic, thus justifying this approach a bit more, but rather that they need to be careful about what kind of shortcuts they pull to achieve their goals. “Elements” is an episode where the mythical meets the realistic, Native American creation mashing up with an epic battle between high-powered businessmen, but in attempting to resolve the storyline there’s a few missing pieces, links that rob the storyline of any real impact in an effort to cleanly move onto the next week without asking the difficult questions.

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Warehouse 13 – “Magnetism”

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“Magnetism”

July 21st, 2009

In choosing to blog about Warehouse 13 of the past few nights’ television lineups, I don’t want you to think I prefer it to any of them: I quite liked the third episode of Hung, preferred the second episode of Entourage’s sixth season to the premiere, thought last night’s Weeds and Nurse Jackie were decent and laughed a whole lot at tonight’s Better Off Ted. However, none of those things were particularly surprising, and Warehouse 13 is a show still trying to find its legs and thus somewhat more unique in terms of analysis.

While I thought “Resonance” was a really winning turn for the series, “Magnetism” starts to show some holes in the show’s premise. It’s clear why they aired episodes out of order in order to be able to go with the dramatic and compelling story of the world’s most powerful pop song as opposed to, say, an episode about a piece of furniture. In the same vein as the show’s pilot, which dragged in its mystery, this week’s episode has them searching for what’s causing some strange behaviour, a trope that is only as interesting as the behaviour itself considering that the object will remain a MacGuffin.

In the end, I thought “Magnetism” was ultimately quite charming, integrating enough humour into the storyline itself to overcome its seriousness. There’s a serious contrast going on with this show, where some rather broad (but entertaining) comedy emerges in storylines that are actually quite serious in their ramifications. The action demonstrated that the show could become tedious in its procedural plotting, especially if they repeat themselves too often, but the comedy and the relationship between characters was really strong, and inspired me to actually kind of like the episode despite some of my concerns over its tone.

It shows that the show continues to win the war, regardless of the battle at hand, which is a pretty good endorsement at this stage in its run.

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Warehouse 13 – “Pilot” and “Resonance”

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“Pilot” and “Resonance”

July 7th & July 14th, 2009

I fell asleep watching the Warehouse 13 pilot.

It’s a true story. I was there, trying to get through it, but I was exhausted from being up early and the pilot wasn’t really engaging me on any level. It wasn’t that it was bad, or that it actually put me to sleep (I consciously paused it before conking out moments later), but the fact remains that there was something about Warehouse 13 that wasn’t really connecting with me.

However, upon finishing the Pilot last night, and digging into “Resonance” this afternoon, I can say quite emphatically that the show is more than capable of keeping me awake. No, it’s not a replacement for Battlestar Galactica by any means, but it doesn’t try to be. What it represents is Reaper with less comedy, Fringe without the mythology, and every crime procedural you’ve ever seen with a sense of whimsy that’s often sorely lacking on those shows. It has no grandiose ideas about its position in the television world: what it delivers is what it sets out to achieve, a light-hearted but nonetheless resonant piece of dramedic television.

And in the middle of summer, when television often feels like a wasteland, a weekly trip into the depths of Warehouse 13 is something I’m already looking forward to, if not particularly obsessing over.

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