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.
Meet Mr. Mayor
May 15th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
It’s somewhat strange that I would be spoiled about Buffy while watching How I Met Your Mother, but when Harry Groener recently appeared in an episode of the series my Twitter feed lit up about the reunion of sorts between he and Alyson Hannigan, for he played Sunnydale’s mayor. At that point in my run through the series, I had heard Principal Snyder raise the Mayor’s name in a somewhat ominous fashion, so it meant that I started to read into those type of comments a bit more carefully. I still didn’t know any details about who the Mayor was, but I did know that he was going to play somewhat of an important role.
I ended up speculating a lot in my head about who the Mayor was, and whether his introduction would successfully solve how it is that the citizens of Sunnydale seem perfectly content to be living on a Hellmouth. One of the benefits of this project is that the commenters have been telling me this for a while, suggesting (without spoiling, which I am grateful for) that they may be more aware than I had imagined, so I’ve had a lot of fun discovering that they were quite right.
The Mayor of Sunnydale is the absolutely perfect antagonist for the series, a wonderful mashup of the show’s supernatural forces and corrupt politicians which simultaneously humanizes monsters of the week while demonizing humanity. I’ve yet to scratch the surface of the Mayoral influence, but I’m certainly already appreciating the new face of “evil.”
“At the Foot of Canal Street”
May 2nd, 2010
How do you solve a problem like Katrina? If Treme started out by looking at how people survived the storm and how they are struggling to bounce back personally and professionally from its immediate impact, “At the Foot of Canal Street” moves onto how it is that the myriad of problems caused by the storm are being fixed. As the nation talks about canceling Carnival or not rebuilding the city, and as the city’s public works contractor is revealed to be incompetent, characters are forced to wonder whether they should take things into their own hands and try to enact some change on their own.
There’s some broad strokes in this particular part of the episode, characters proposing political campaigns and recording profanity-laced YouTube videos, but it subtly ripples through the rest of the show’s characters and storylines. Everyone has that point where they wonder if they should take their fate into their own hands, or where they struggle to do the right thing because they know it’s bigger than they realize, and Treme is just as interested in those responses as it is the direct engagement with bureaucracy and national media. “At the Foot of Canal Street” doesn’t entirely fix some of the show’s early red flags, but George Pelecanos nicely integrates even the show’s most problematic character into a narrative that feels as genuine as the rest of the series.
“A Disquiet Follows My Soul”
January 23rd, 2009
After last week solved what we would consider to be the series’ biggest unsolved mystery, the identity of the final Cylon model, this week is suddenly faced with a very different question: if the identity of the final Cylon isn’t going to be the lynchpin of the second half of the show’s fourth and final season, then what is it going to be?
It’s more or less the same question that the show’s characters are trying to deal with: if, in fact, the supposed path is now entirely out the window, what should they be doing and how should they be achieving it? The problem they face is that, while Team Adama is ostensibly right about their plan to move forward, it is a plan more progressive than some people in the fleet can handle. The episode brings to light that dichotomy that we are always forgetful of: while we might see the logic to Adama’s plan based on our experience with these Cylon models, the rest of the fleet hasn’t had that opportunity, and spurned on by a political force like Tom Zarek they are potentially in a position of something approaching a revolution.
But “A Disquiet Follows My Soul” is in itself an exercise of omission, grounding us very strongly in the experience of William Adama as he faces a true test of his health and determination. With a euphoric Laura Roslin risking her own death in favour of living in the moment staring him in the face, Adama has to ask himself that question: does he believe enough in his own vision to be able to push forward his own agenda, or is the sheer uncertainty of it all a justifiable reason to sit back and find solace in the present?
The episode never particularly answers this question, but the very posing of it serves as a launching point into the rest of the season.
An NBC Special
Well, you can’t say that Saturday Night Live doesn’t have guts. Perhaps, though, they could use a lesson or two in comedy.
In a season where Saturday Night Live is emerging as a cultural powerhouse in an election year, tonight’s special was a chance to further the show’s cause with some politically topical humour that captures the things that have made SNL work this season.
That thing, though, is Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. And the one thing absent from tonight’s episode of SNL Weekend Update: Special Edition?
Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.