Skam has always been made in service to its audience.
In the beginning, this was an abstract statement: Skam existed as a way of fulfilling the public service mission of NRK, specifically aimed at younger viewers. It was a fictionalized glimpse of what it was like to live as a Norwegian teenager circa 2015, grounded in realism and focused on reaching teens on the platforms where they spend their time while also interrogating—but not demonizing—how those platforms are shaping their experiences.
But once the show began airing, its audience left the realm of abstraction. They became real viewers, drawn to Skam for any number of reasons: whether it was the commitment to realism, the ability to relate to the characters, investment in relationships, or obsession with the transmedia release schedule that keeps you constantly on edge waiting for the next piece of the story, Skam became a hit, first in Norway and then in countries around the world thanks to the work of fan translators and the wonders of streaming video and Google Drive. Suddenly, a show designed as a service to Norwegian teenagers generally defined became a service to an expanding global audience, a diverse and complex fanbase with expectations distinct from the public service mandate at the core of the project.
In this transition, “service” starts to shift in meaning. There is “public service,” where the show began, but there is also “fan service,” as well as the need to “serve” the story being told, and the characters brought to life over the course of the series. Suddenly, as Skam entered what was announced as its final season, it was being made in service of all of these ideas, forced to balance competing—or at the very least overlapping—goals in the process.
I was at a Thanksgiving gathering today, and an open question was asked regarding the quality of Glee this season. An initial opinion suggested the show was terrible this year, and without any hesitation I disagreed: Glee, to my mind, has been measurably better than last season, and probably the season before.
I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion, but it was met with skepticism by the room, and perhaps rightfully so. Given the sheer number of words I spent laying out my frustrations with the show before quitting weekly reviews, I am all too familiar with Glee’s flaws. And to be clear, the show has continued to have these problems, and I’ve continued to sit on my couch and complain to Twitter about them like a crazy person. But around those problems has grown a season moving with purpose the vague “graduation” theme never offered, pulling fewer punches and forcing its characters to ask questions that occasionally threaten to mean something.
Put more simply, Glee is a better television show this season. Its flaws, while still numerous, feel like the byproduct of trying to do something instead of the byproduct of doing nothing, a constructive shift that helps the show overcome its occasional missteps to reach musical resolutions that feel earned.
To Each Their Own: The State of the Pre-Air Review
July 19th, 2010
There’s currently a stir of controversy around reviews of Mad Men’s fourth season, which was sent to critics in the past few weeks – as always, Matthew Weiner has expressly requested that critics avoid talking about anything in specific terms, which has created some discussion surrounding just how much critics show bow to his wishes (especially considering that many are ignoring them to varying degrees).
For me, this is less an issue of Mad Men and more an issue on the state of pre-air reviews, something which used to constitute the large majority of television criticism but which has now been forced to share the spotlight with the post-air reviews and analysis which have blossomed in the internet age. In a discussion on Twitter, I raised the point that I struggle to see why anyone would really need (or want) to read a pre-air review of Mad Men’s fourth season, and there was rightfully some pushback from Dan Fienberg, who pointed out the role that critics can play in letting viewers know their opinions on a series and whether it’s worth watching.
I didn’t mean to suggest that the critics were part of the problem here, or that their views have no value; rather, I was suggesting that the medium is very much the concern. While new series which represent an unknown quality, or series which are reinventing themselves in a new fashion, are ideal subjects for pre-air reviews, shows which have become as established as Mad Men feel as if they confound this particular method of critical analysis. This isn’t to suggest that critics are unable to have negative opinions about the series, or that they should be forced to bow down to Matthew Weiner’s demands, but rather that there are other mediums through which those opinions will be better represented, and other ways to express this opinion which doesn’t require tiptoeing around plot details in order to communicate with the reader, or not bothering to tiptoe around plot details and potentially angering spoilerphobes like me.
I may be particularly wary of spoilers, and thus steer far clear of pre-air reviews as a result of my stance on this issue, but I think that the diversity of approaches makes pre-air reviews a nebulous medium which seems less and less relevant in the age of outright spoilers and indepth post-air analysis.
Going into the show’s fourth season, the narrative was drawn as clearly as the zig-zagging border line: with two football teams in town, one led by our fearless hero and the other by the villainous interlopers, this season was going to be about the fight between the Lions and the Panthers. And the season finale drew out this narrative, pitting the respective opening games of the two teams against each other as Coach Taylor put together a group of scrappy underdogs and Wade Aikman looked to continue the Panthers’ momentum from last year’s state championship appearance.
But what the season premiere demonstrated, as we abandoned the Panthers narrative to witness the bludgeoning of the East Dillon Lions to the point of Eric Taylor forfeiting the game, is that the show can’t sustain that narrative. The East Dillon Lions are not ready to become rivals with their crosstown brethren, for as we learn here they are not actually a team at all. After the humiliation of their loss, the players are either disillusioned by the less than glorious nature of the team or angry at Coach’s hypocrisy to warn them against quitting when he did the very same thing on Friday night.
What Coach Taylor needs to do is start over not so much in terms of abandoning these players, but rather shifting his own narrative perspective to one of building a team more than building a competitive one. They’re not unconnected ideas, of course, but the show has to essentially take a step back from the season’s central premise to get the Lions (independent of the Panthers, unless when entirely necessary) up to fighting shape.
The result is another strong episode, but one which is somewhat trapped by the need to rewind the clock and yet also advance ongoing storylines that don’t necessarily relate to the team.
[After reading Media Studies scholar Jason Mittell’s thoughts on the finale over at Just TV, I got thinking about the narrative structure of the finale, and how different it was from the season that came beforehand. As a result, we have our third part of The Long Goodbye: the most formalized attempt I’ve made at describing Season Four’s struggles.]
It is impossible, and probably not even desireable, to go into a series finale without some sense of the agency of the show’s writers, creators and producers who are behind the strings pulling things together. By the very nature of the media hype surrounding the event, especially for shows which have garnered critical or commercial success, there is going to be a focus on the person “responsible” for what people are about to see. In many ways, it’s about blame: if things go awry, if decisions are made which anger long-time viewers, there will be someone who can be held up to the clambering crowd of naysayers as the individual who sent their beloved series down such a dangerous path.
Battlestar Galactica is no exception to this rule, and its finale had numerous moments wherein you could feel Ronald D. Moore exhibiting creative license, making decisions to leap forward in time, to explain away potential plot holes, to prescribe meaning to things in a way which didn’t feel as organic as we may have liked. But that’s his prerogative, this show having been his “creation,” and it’s also not a fundamentally bad thing: while it may end up being divisive, as a show that was designed to get people talking many of his decisions in the finale were well-crafted and connected with the series’ existing identity.
And yet I do have a problem with this idea, just not in the context of the finale itself. My problem is with the fact that the same type of sense of the producers controlling the flow of traffic, withholding information or making deliberate decisions, has been present from the very beginning of the season in a way that wasn’t as productive. There was very little organic about the way the season was organized, as if proximity to the series’ final destination sent them careening around in circles for eighteen episodes before deciding in the finale to get on with it already. The result was, in a bit of a fascinating twist, the realization that for the most part this Finale could be viewed directly after Season Three and still be an effective emotional climax to the series.
With that realization, the omniscient writers and producers who were in charge of this journey are suddenly held accountable not just for the end, but for everything that came before it – considering this question closer makes the ultimate case for the value of shortened cable seasons as opposed to the lengthened order the series was provided.
Considering how much time and energy I’ve devoted to Battlestar Galactica, one would think that I would have spent all of this week preparing an epic list of episodes, plus some final thoughts before the show’s series finale this evening. However, I realized at a certain point that I couldn’t do it: there was too much to say, too much that I’d end up repeating in tonight’s review of the finale itself. If I was going to discuss or engage with the series, I had to diversify.
As a result, after many requests and much rumination, my brother Ryan (from McNutt Against the Music) and I collaborated on the very first, and special, edition of The McNuttCast, a half-hour discussion about popular culture, including television, movies, music and video games.
In this episode focused solely on Battlestar Galactica, we discuss everything ranging from favourite episodes and characters to the pacing concerns in Season Four and our hopes for tonight’s finale. We discuss some big questions, including at what point the series first struck us as something genuinely unique, and also some smaller things along the way.
When The McNuttCast moves to its normal structure, it’ll be a bit more of a departure for me and the blog – rather than replacing any existing blog content, it’s rather there to add a little bit of diversity. While I’ll be leading the way on television, and the Elder McNutt has the music beat, we’re pretty even on movies and video games, so it will be interesting to see how I adapt to suddenly discussing those topics on a regular basis in a critical framework beyond Twitter. There’s more information about our goals and our future structure in the first episode.
In the meantime, though, it’s all Battlestar all the time – in our 30-minute structure (this one runs a bit longer) we don’t have room (or the free time) to delve into every single episode, so feel free to let us know which ones we forgot, or which ones we were remiss in including. And, of course, come back in the wee hours this evening for my full, likely thesis-length review, of the second part of “Daybreak.”
NOTE: You can find chapter breaks in the list below – we’re currently working on getting the Subscription side of things together, as this was a bit of a last minute launch (and the Elder is currently on a plane on his way to Saskatchewan of all places). When we get things finalized, we’ll be sure to update accordingly.
Methinks that Ronald D. Moore has placed a red line right down the ranks of the Galactica faithful, which is something that he seems to revel in – it is not that the beginning of “Daybreak” is inherently a bad episode, but rather that it represents a very cautious approach that is treating this three-hour finale as an episode in and of itself as opposed to an extension of the episodes that came before it. The result is another in a long line of setup episodes, weaving in and out from his main character’s past lives in Caprica City in a way that makes thematic sense to the show as a whole, but doesn’t actually feel like it connects with the mutiny, or the rest of the fourth season thus far.
There’s something to be said for this kind of approach: with a cast this large and with a timeline this varied in terms of both action and reaction, it’s easy to see why returning to who these people were before “the Fall” would be of some value. And yet, at the same time, I left the episode not pondering how much these characters have changed but rather how much they’ve remained the same. Something about the way the episode was structured made it a bit too easy, the parallels between their former lives and their current predicament too simply stated, for us to forget some of what has happened to them, to remove the context of forward momentum and replace it with a potent nostalgia.
The result is something different, not something wrong: when Adama has his heroic speech, we are properly on the edge of our seat, properly considering the gravity of this situation, and properly realizing just how epic this is going to eventually be. But we’ve been waiting for something epic for a long time now, and by layering that suspense with the catharsis of the flashbacks we’re taken out of the season and placed into a series perspective perhaps too disconnected from the season thus far.
I’m left wondering not whether Moore is steering this ship in the right direction for the finale, which has the right kind of epic qualities as we need it to have coupled with a strong connection to these characters and their past lives, but rather whether this finale remains unchanged from the plan originally designed for when the second season was to be only 13 episodes – I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have been any different. As a result, while it feels like we’re heading in the right direction for a series finale, I don’t quite know if it feels like an ideal capoff to the season in and of itself.
With the end of Battlestar Galactica only a few months away, it has come to the point where we are beginning to place into context just what we’re watching. When I wrote a lengthy and esoteric review of “The Oath” in the hours after its airing, I was emotionally exhausted, having been taken to the brink by the pure adrenaline that the series was using to drive its characters to new levels. I wasn’t thinking in that moment about what kind of introduction it was to this conflict, how it picked up on the episode before it, or how it fit into any broader tradition. Instead, it was a hearkening back to episodes of the past, “Pegasus” most directly, and a sign that the show still had the ability to tell these kinds of stories.
And in the process of writing so much, I think I created for “Blood on the Scales” a set of expectations: I expected it would resolve the mutiny but leave the underlying problems quite emphatically clear, and I expected it would give us more of the Cylon side of this story. And as I wrote in my original review of the episode, posted late on Monday morning after a weekend debating tournament kept me incapacitated and unable to blog the episode, I didn’t feel like it met those expectations. There was something about it that felt off to me, and I’ll be the first to admit that in that post I don’t clearly argue for my disapproval. However, in responding to some thoughtful comments, I began to piece together at least some of what was bothering me.
Much of that, ultimately, was confirmed by Tuesday evening’s rewatch of the two episodes that join together to make a most intriguing chararacter study, even if I will argue that they are telling two different stories (especially when you consider them in context with “A Disquiet Follows My Soul,” which we’ll get to later in the post). They are episodes that are filled with amazing moments, but I feel as if “The Oath” is about showing the power of the mutiny over these characters, whereas “Blood on the Scales” is the characters showing their power over the mutiny. I find the latter to be, for all intents and purposes, more problematic, a far more expedient and much less rich way of letting this storyline unfold. I’m not suggesting that the episode was poor, or that its multitude of moments were any less powerful than those in the preceding episode, but rather I believe that the show’s transfer of agency is too easy and that, while the ramifications will continue to be felt for quite some time, not enough was done in the episode to demonstrate that this mutiny was about more than personal retribution and identity.
So what I want to do now is revisit these episodes to create another set of expectations: the things that felt like they should have been given more time here that, ultimately, are going to have to wait to live another day in the remaining six episodes, starting with tonight’s “No Exit.”
For the second time this season, I found myself in a situation wherein being able to watch Battlestar Galactica wasn’t in the cards. I am not a fan of this particular development, as it is inherently frustrating, especially when the episode was actually spoiled for a couple of people I was with for the weekend. BSG’s friday night time slot seems great in theory sometimes, but when you actually have an event going on it’s kind of tough to find the time to slot it in.
And by the time I did sit down late Saturday night to watch “Blood on the Scales,” I have to say that I didn’t find it quite as exciting as some others did. Perhaps it was the scenario in which I watched it, but there is something about this episode that felt like it was the simplest of solutions. There wasn’t anything surprising in the episode, outside of a couple of loose ends that never really played a role in the episode. This isn’t to say that the episode lacked excitement, or that its darkest moments had no impact on me, but rather that for all the escalation and all the entertaining turnarounds it ended up exactly where we knew it would end up.
So this isn’t likely going to be incredibly lengthy, primarily because I wrote so much about “The Oath” that saying too much more here is probably going to get redundant.
I had to wait over forty-eight hours to watch this, the beginning of the end for Battlestar Galactica as it enters its final ten-episode stretch. I logged onto Twitter in my hotel on Friday evening, as I am in Montreal for the continent’s longest running debating invitational; it was a force of habit really, but I found something I wasn’t prepared for. I saw a tweet that said the words “Final Cylon.” I paused, threw my hands in front of my screen, and immediately went on a self-imposed twitter ban (which failed miserably once I devised security methods to avoid spotting more spoiler material).
I was, regardless of my adverse reaction to spoilers in general, shocked by this news: here is this piece of news that we were so desperate to discover, so apparently integral to this final season that they changed the opening title cards, and all of a sudden we have the answer in this episode’s final moments. It all felt so counter-intuitive, so different from how we expected this episode to go down.
In that sense, it is almost exactly the opposite of the fourth season premiere last year, which felt like the very basic repercussions we had spent a lengthy time imagining. Here, the common trait was that everything was bigger than we imagined: while not outside of the realm of possibility and the breadth of internet predictions, the events which transpired had an extremist slant that never felt sensationalist and more importantly never felt as if they were ending or simply stalling for time. The “who” question for the Final Cylon is not really the show’s preoccupation: instead, their identity is a sharpening of focus, a lynchpin of identity for what we now know is a far more complicated Cylon mythology.
The world of Battlestar Galactica was broken open when we learned the identity of eighty percent of the final five, but what resulted was an isolation of their turmoil to an investigation into their psychological well-being. The irony is that here, as their identity becomes public and the entire fleet becomes part of their journey, their inner trauma only becomes more profound: these characters now have even more complicated questions about their identity, just as humanity does facing the scorched earth they believed and prayed was home, and they have new factors such as history or destiny to consider more carefully.
“Sometimes a Great Notion” feels like another stage of escalation in the season’s general purpose: it is not about who the Final Cylons are so much as who they were, who they are, what they are understood to be, and who they wish to be in the future. Answering those questions is not so much about naming them than letting them loose in a world now even more defined by their unique journey. The result here is an episode that, more than anything in the first half of the season, feels like we’re sifting through the denseness of this serious to the intersection of philosophical and personal interests that will define the series finale.