January 8th, 2010
I was talking (okay, tweeting) with The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias this weekend, and he classified “Getting Closer” as a fine example of a time when being hired to write immediate responses to television is not only inconvenient but downright confounding (to paraphrase).
It’s a great way to classify the episode, because a few days after watching it I still don’t really know what to say about it. I can say that I was surprised at various points where the episode wanted me to be surprised, and in a way which reflected emotional response rather than complete confusion. I can say that I saw the conclusion to Tim Minear’s script coming before the show made it explicitly clear, but what’s most interesting is that despite predicting the ending I still have absolutely no idea how it works.
“Getting Closer” is a fantastically entertaining episode of television, but its twists and turns depict a moral ambiguity which makes it almost entirely comprehensible. Tim Minear’s script is not so dense that we can’t comprehend what we’re seeing, but rather neglects (on purpose) character motivations to the point where the war which is supposed to pit one side (good) against the other (bad) has instead become more complex than anything in the Attic could ever be.
Which is yet another fascinating development in a second season that has been nothing if not compelling.
“The Public Eye” / “The Left Hand”
December 4th, 2009
“Everybody’s got a past – it’s the future [viewers] care about.”
Writing about Dollhouse is like riding a bike – the show has never suffered from a lack of ideas, making even its weaker episodes (once it got ahold of its identity) fascinating to discuss. However, there’s something inherently unsatisfying, in theory, about getting back onto that bicycle when you know that you’re about to run out of road, and in a very short period of time this bike is going to be absolutely worthless to you. So much of what I do here at Cultural Learnings is about contextualizing episodes in the past, present and future of any particular series, and in the world of Dollhouse that future has become a swift cancellation which could come as soon as early next week should the ratings from tonight’s two-hour block of episodes be so disastrous that FOX is willing to risk the wrath of fans as opposed to the wrath of advertisers and replace the show with reruns.
And yet, there is something about where this show finds itself mid-way through its second season that I find far more compelling than I should. I know this show is going to end, and yet there is something about the show’s view of the future that has turned its futility into an asset of sorts. It’s almost as if we’ve already reached the end of the road, but instead of a sheer drop the show is offering a lengthy kill on which we can simply coast down the hill with our hands off the handlebars feeling the wind in our face and taking those last moments to think about what was, what is, and what will (or would) be. It’s almost as if cancellation has freed Dollhouse from certain expectations, and what we get from this point forward is about what we take from the material rather than what the material necessarily says in and of itself.
As such, “The Public Eye” and “The Left Hand” are both really great hours of television not only because they’re well-executed in terms of basic plot and character, but also because through the wonders of a DVD bonus feature we as an audience are perfectly situated to understand the ramifications of what is going on here at levels that go beyond the immediate to a future that we might never be able to see but that we are able to vividly imagine in ways that allow the show to survive beyond the certainty of its fate.
December 1st, 2008
After catching up with last week’s episode of Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, I posted on twitter that anyone who was actually interested in science fiction television should be watching this show instead of Heroes (Five episodes behind and feelin’ fine). There are a lot of reasons for this, from the show’s willingness to engage with the human implications of its events to its simultaneous interest in building its characters individually as opposed to en masse as part of broader story arcs. While at times one wishes the show would be less vague in terms of the grand scheme of things, it manages to take that vague setting and find a foundation in the characters and their plight.
At its core, “Self-Made Man” is a procedural mystery: spotting a Terminator model in a photograph from New Year’s Eve 1920, Cameron goes on a journey through the archives in search of a clue to why a Terminator would be sent back to that particular date. But what the Josh Friedman and his staff have been demonstrating all season is that they have a command of this series: even those elements which feel quite simple (in this case, largely inconsequential and without detailed reasoning beyond an episodic context) are executed with such a precise sense of both character and theme that it doesn’t matter when we don’t get the “Why?”
While other shows spend so much time focused on building suspense for that particular question and forget to build characters, Terminator is carving out a niche for itself as the kind of show that uses its characters for more than acting out plots – while it’s still not to the level of some of Lost or BSG, it is nonetheless quality science fiction television at this stage of the game.
“Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today”
November 10th, 2008
At the end of “Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today,” Sarah Connor says that nothing ever changes: that it is the same thing that drives her every day, and that all of her decisions will continue to revolve around that concern. While I don’t doubt this mother’s dedication to her son’s safety, I feel like this statement paints a picture of this show as something repetitive, something that boils down to an action-packed joy ride of destruction at its best and an elaborate holding pattern at its most languid.
And there have been moments when Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles has felt like both of those things, especially in the early parts of its first season. However, like the first season finale before it, this week’s episode (the eighth of the show’s twenty-two episode season) is an example of the ways in which the show has resisted becoming a pure action series, and how those potentially slow-moving sections have given the show a chance to build characters who believe in things, who have complex emotions, and who can fire off some guns while remaining grounded in some kind of reality.
As this week’s episode weaves in and out of everyone’s stories, there was never once where I questioned whether that character had something to contribute to this story (even if the device seemed unnecessary, gimmicky), and each of them reached an apex of sorts in this episode as it relates to their characters. For a season that has spent considerable time tracing the origins of Skynet through the introduction of Shirley Manson’s Terminator model, it is telling that the most action-packed episode so far is all about people (as sucky as they might be, Riley) – it’s also the best episode of the season so far.
“Samson and Delilah”
September 8th, 2008
The last time I took a look at Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, you’d think that I wouldn’t be here blogging a second season premiere. Not only was I fairly harsh on the show’s third episode, but the ratings were declining and the buzz was slowly dying. In a strike-damaged season, there was no question that a show like Sarah Connor would just get lost in the wind, a failed attempt to capture a franchise audience with a show that wasn’t living up to its potential.
Well, I had more or less written it off in this fashion, but in the slow summer months I revisited the series and finished off its nine episode run. And while I wasn’t quite driven to blog about my experience, I was quite simply pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t poetry, but the season finale in particular demonstrated a willingness to embrace a larger dramatic perspective, and the episodes leading into it did a strong job of furthering the show’s connection to the broader franchise storyline. As some have taken to saying: it might indicate that we’re living in an opposite world, but Brian Austin Green’s arrival in the series actually coincided with a strong improvement in quality.
So with this new perspective, the show’s surprise second season renewal seems more than justified: it’s a show that was on a definite upward swing heading into the its final episodes, and with the strike limiting pilot development this is one of many shows that deserve a chance to recapture audiences’ attention. So while the momentum is in its favour, and the cheaply priced DVD set likely sold quite a few people on trying the show for the first time, it does need to prove that it can sustain itself in its sophomore season.
The verdict on that front, though, remains iffy: with a rather tepid introduction of the new corporate conspiracy and a chip malfunction that creates a particularly volatile rollercoaster ride of a premiere, “Samson and Delilah” is a heavily action-oriented episode that feels like an organic, but frantic, followup to last season’s cliffhanger explosion. And while I could have done with more set pieces that didn’t feel like one long chase scene, there are moments here that remind us that this show is in better hands than I thought eight months ago.