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.
“Out of the Box”
March 9th, 2010
White Collar is what I would call a premise procedural. While it eventually falls into a rhythm of crime-solving like other procedurals, it starts with a central premise or setup that remains unresolved in order to provide the show its tension and its “added value” beyond the formula. For Burn Notice, it’s Michael’s never-ending quest to figure out who burned him, and for White Collar it’s Neal Caffrey’s quest to reunite with his beloved Kate. To some extent, both shows have their characters just killing time, waiting until the beginning and end of each episode where they will make incremental progress on their broader search.
What keeps White Collar from ascending to the level of Burn Notice is that, by and large, I don’t “buy” its premise. The same thing has happened with Burn Notice over time, as we reach the point where we wonder why Michael Westen doesn’t realize that he has a woman he loves, a mother who loves him, and a loyal best friend in Miami which give him more than enough reason to leave the whole “burn” mess alone. But with White Collar, it was sort of there from the beginning, with too many questions about Kate’s loyalty (and, frankly, her fundamental lack of personality) and the trustworthiness of Fowler’s plot to make it seem like we should be rooting for this reunion.
The show has always been at its best when Peter and Neal are friends, not enemies, and when Neal is a charismatic crime solver rather than a lovestruck idiot with enormous blinders to all sorts of logical concerns with his plan. As such, “Out of the Box” struggles to reflect what has made the show a pleasant experience over its first season, trapped in conflict and false goodbyes that we know will return us to the status quo, just as Michael Westen remains in the dark about who burned him.
At the least, though, White Collar seems to realize that things needed to be shaken up, and they’ve taken some intriguing (if predictable) steps to perhaps set the show on a better path heading into its second season.
“Flip of the Coin”
November 14th, 2009
Now four weeks into its run, White Collar is about where it was in its pilot: a solid entry in USA’s lineup. The show has yet to really transcend to the point where I would say it’s really growing into something new, or where it’s establishing a more complex identity, which isn’t problematic so much as it is perhaps a sign of the show being unwilling to go to that stage so quickly.
There are some growing pains, however, in terms of how the episode wants its stories to work and how they’re actually capable of working. “Flip of the Coin” has a couple of nice set pieces in it, along with some high quality guest stars to help bolster the episode, but it struggles to make all of that come together. There are some scenes where Neal’s suave nature feels perfectly at home in the context of these investigations, and other sequences where the believability is stripped away for the sake of convenience.
Still, there’s a lot of enjoyment within this episode, to the point where some of the shortcuts are ultimately overcome by one development in particular that could help the show going forward.
October 23rd, 2009
There has been much talk of late about whether or not NBC, in crafting a new strategy that actually creates programming that people are interested in watching, will be looking to their corporate sibling USA in order to discover the elusive secrets. The cable channel has been on a roll of late, with successful procedurals like Monk and Psych have been joined by Burn Notice and Royal Pains. Their shows vary in quality (I much like Burn Notice, but became burnt out on Monk and Psych – jury’s still out on the summer’s Royal Pains), but their success has become a foregone conclusion in the same way that the failure of NBC shows has become the status quo.
White Collar is the latest show to join this stable, and at first glance it is also one of their best. Borrowing heavily from Catch Me if You Can and Burn Notice, the show eschews explosions in favour of a more sly sort of series. Rather than following someone applying professional skills in an amateur setting (Michael Westen, in a nutshell), the show is the story of someone who has made a living working against the system but now finds himself of value to the very man who put him in jail.
What results is a show that some could argue simply checks off the boxes for how a USA procedural should operate, but one which does it with a sense of style that makes it pretty tough to resist.