Tag Archives: Serial

Reality Spoilers: Why The Jinx Can Be Spoiled (Even If It Should Be)

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Last night, The Jinx ended its six-episode run on HBO. The documentary series came to a conclusion with a stunning sequence of events, building a tremendous amount of suspense: would the second interview with Robert Durst happen? What would happen in that interview? And what would happen after that interview, when Robert Durst will have been confronted by the second “Beverley” envelope?

If you were watching live, the answers to those questions were an escalating series of events, culminating in a final scene that had me yelling at my television. However, if you weren’t watching live, that yelling may have been directed at The New York Times, who pushed an alert to their app users and wrote a breaking news tweet quoting Durst’s words and promoting their reporting on their connection to Durst’s Saturday arrest in New Orleans. It could have also been directed at the various outlets—Vulture, Buzzfeed, etc.—who subsequently tweeted the news as news, all of whom fielded complaints about “spoilers” from Twitter users.

In a piece this morning at Vulture, Ben Williams suggests that this marks “spoiler-alert” culture reaching “peak absurdity”:

“The key difference here is that The Jinx isn’t fiction. It is a docu-drama about a real man who is very probably a murderer multiple times over and whose cases have been covered in the media for decades. When a famous murder suspect all but confesses, it is news, and the fact that the confession happened within the confines of a television show does not mean that that news becomes subject to the same etiquette as the latest Game of Thrones killing. Because that’s fiction, and it doesn’t really matter.”

Beyond the fact that I would contend Durst’s statements in the finale of The Jinx in no way constitute a “confession,” Williams’ point is well-taken: the fact that Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series is making a contribution to an ongoing news story independent from the series itself means that the New York Times reporting is less spoiling the series itself—which they clearly had advance access to, in order to support the reporting—than they are extending the series’ impact to a broader audience, most of whom did not watch The Jinx (which drew only 446k viewers in the first airing of last week’s episode).

And yet while Williams’ distinction between a real life criminal investigation and Game of Thrones is valid, and would clear The New York Times in a court of ethics, I also think that the New York Times—and the other publications in question—could have crafted an equally provocative headline that did not actively spoil the events of the series’ final scene. I believe that the news could have been framed in a way that still broke the news in question without revealing in concrete detail the climactic moment of the series.

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Season Premiere: Fringe – “Olivia”

“Olivia”

September 23rd, 2010

Earlier this year, I wrote about what I called “procedural pacing,” wherein FX’s Justified gradually became more serialized throughout its first season: by starting with a more procedural format, and then having that format be interrupted and taken over by a serialized story line as the season wore on, the show established and then shattered its status quo. As a result, when the story eventually turned over in its entirety to Raylon Givens’ battle against the Crowder family, it felt “earned”: instead of seeming like an attempt to create false stakes, we had seen every step in this process, allowing the storyline to feel wholly organic and, more importantly, wholly satisfying.

I don’t think I entirely realized this before, but Fringe very much follows the same principle. It could have, at any point in its first two seasons, indulged in its science fiction premise to the degree we see in “Olivia”: we’ve known about the alternate universe since the first season finale, after all, so what was stopping them from introducing Fauxlivia at that point in the story? Fringe has had the potential for a serialized science fiction series since its pilot, and many have often criticized the series for not doing episodes like “Olivia,” a rollicking yet thought-provoking premiere, more often.

And yet, “Olivia” works as well as it does precisely because it is disrupting a status quo the series has established quite well over the past few seasons; much as Justified’s serialized elements had greater meaning due to the nuanced buildup, the slow development of the alternate universe and its role within this larger story has allowed the various dualities and conflicts the series is creating to have meaning which would have been lost had it been introduced at an earlier date.

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Haven – “Butterfly”

“Butterfly”

July 16th, 2010

The second episode of any series is often more telling than its pilot, as it represents the writers’ first chance to give an indication of where the series goes beyond the original concept. This is especially true with shows like Haven which rely on a combination of serialized elements and procedural components, as you start to see the balance take shape when freed from the more blatant exposition required in a pilot.

The two tests that I have for episodes like “Butterfly” are the Serial Extension test and the Procedural Competency test: the former looks at how the show expanded its serialized elements in order to keep viewers intrigued to see the series and its characters evolve, while the latter looks at how it constructs its stand-alone case in order to serve both those serial elements and our general entertainment. I wouldn’t say that, at this early stage, one is more important than the other: we may be enticed to stick around longer should the serialized storyline come together in an interesting fashion, but we’re more likely to quit earlier if the show just isn’t engaging in the stories it will tell in the majority of each episode.

I think that “Butterfly” passes the Serial Extension test with some spooky terminology and a sense of history, but it fails the Procedural Competency test: while certainly not the worst hour of procedural television I’ve seen, the dialogue just isn’t capable of selling this material, and the story’s conclusion is unbelievable not because it involves magic, but because the episode failed miserably at engaging me within its resolution, leaving me skeptical that the series can execute on the small tidbits we’re getting on the serialized front.

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Justified – “The Collection”

“The Collection”

April 20th, 2010

I don’t have anything particularly important to say about last night’s episode of Justified, but since I didn’t talk about last week’s episode (featuring the introduction of Raylan’s father and aunt/stepmother), I figure it never hurts to stop by and say that I continue to dig the series, and continue to not quite “get” the response that the show is too “procedural” or some other word for “less interesting than highly serialized drama series.” [See: my piece a couple of weeks ago]

Jamie Weinman has often gotten after me (and others) that there are certain shows where using the word procedural seems ill-advised: he argues that the term refers to the procedure of solving a crime (or a medical mystery), and that for shows which are “standalone” but don’t take that form it isn’t an accurate description. I’ve always understood his point, but it’s hard to resist that binary of procedural and serialized when it comes to the current television landscape.

However, “The Collection” (and to some degree last week’s “The Lord of War and Thunder”) demonstrates that while you could argue that Justified is more “standalone” than FX’s previous serialized stories, it is very difficult to argue that it is more procedural. While there are cases to be solved on the series, the episodes do not end when those cases come to their conclusions – they continue on to ponder something larger, considering the events of the episode on a scale larger than the procedure of the U.S. Marshall service and developing a more complicated series than early doubters imagined.

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Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket: Consistency and Balance in FOX’s Fringe

Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket

April 1st, 2010

There are some shows that I can honestly say I’ve given up on: I stopped watching shows like Desperate Housewives because it was clearly not going in an interesting direction, and it had long gone past the point where the strength of the performances could carry my attention. However, there are other shows that I stop watching where there isn’t that moment of decision, where I don’t consciously make some sort of decree about it. I didn’t give up on The Mentalist or Grey’s Anatomy so much as I gave up on finding the time to watch them, which is a completely different situation and one that is particularly common on Thursday nights.

And so when I stopped watching Fringe, it wasn’t some sort of judgment on the show’s standalone episodes, or any sort of disappointment with its serialized development. Rather, Thursdays are busy, and the NBC comedy block having become four-strong this year (at least in theory) has made Thursdays busier than ever. Sure, it says something that Fringe was the first show I dropped, but I don’t want to make that out to be some sort of judgment when it wasn’t one.

I’ve spend the past few days catching up on Fringe’s second season, which I dropped after the second episode, and it’s been quite an illuminating experience. When you step away from a show like Fringe for so long, and end up watching it in this sort of condensed fashion, you see a lot of things that you might not have seen before: your perception, in other words, becomes more important (or at least more noteworthy) than reality, fitting considering the role that played in the episodes I had a chance to watch this week.

While some may argue that Fringe is “inconsistent,” I would argue that it is our perception which varies as opposed to the show itself: depending on where we place our expectations, Fringe is either a compelling procedural with a (relatively) complex serialized mythology or a blasé procedural with intermittent signs of serialized intrigue. I don’t think either of these perspectives are wrong, or unfair to the show, but I would argue that it has been pretty consistent in its ambitions in its second season.

And while I don’t necessarily perceive the show as one of television’s finest, I had a lot of “fun” catching up on the show…in fact, I had more fun than I had expected.

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Series Premiere: Dollhouse – “Ghost”

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“Ghost”

February 13th, 2009

According to logic, and the internal methodology given to Echo before an important mission, you can’t fight a Ghost. And, let’s be realistic, you can’t really pin one down either, trying to define it by regular rules of physics or biology ultimately proving a futile task.

In many ways, Dollhouse is a Ghost of Television, a show that is very tough to pin down and has almost no interest in trying to have this happen. The series, like the actives who are part of the Dollhouse roster, can be wiped clean after every episode, so it is very difficult to judge the pilot as we would normally judge a pilot. The point here is not to actually pin anything down, but to demonstrate for the viewer the types of things they might see and, most importantly, the types of things that we should keep an eye out for in the future.

And, as such, there’s something difficult about passing judgment on this as an actual series. All we can really do is take the parts that we’re given here that we know will remain constant and begin to judge them, but even then the show is going to be meandering all over the place and those parts might be able to rise to the occasion better than we currently realize. It makes all of this, well, a little bit inconsequential; I have a feeling that week by week I’ll be chiming in with another opinion that’s been altered from the week previous, something that with time could get a little old.

For now, though, I’m along for the ride, for two main reasons: because I think the show has some potential as a serialized procedural, and because I’m mildly afraid that the Whedon fans will hunt me down and break my legs if I don’t.

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