Monday, February 27, 2012

In Which We Debate the Value of the Mytharc

The A.V. Club has an excellent article about the re-emergence of long-form storytelling in modern entertainment and whether or not that is a “good thing”.

Anyone who’s ever marathoned a new television show over a weekend, say while stuck in one’s apartment during an east coast blizzard that may or may not rhyme with “flomageddon”, knows that the lines between “episode” and “installment” can get pretty blurry. Having personally watched all of The Wire in such a fashion, I can recall everything that happened, but I can’t rightfully tell you which season it occurred in. You lose your sense of time, kind of like how taking a subway in a new city gives you absolutely no idea how big the place is or far away any particular landmark is from another one. So the argument that fitting everything into one bigger narrative can actually harm a show does potentially have some merit.

The most dreaded word known to TV-watching man?

This passage, in particular, I think summarizes how problematic the divide is between deciding between long-form and short-form storytelling on television:

Then there are shows that adhere to the USA network’s model of modern-day television “mythology.” These portray themselves as having a larger mystery at play, but really are procedurals covered in breadcrumbs. Shows like Burn Notice popularized this model, which soon spread to other USA shows and to other networks as well. The model: Any particular episode will have roughly 90 percent self-contained story. This works well and counters the trends listed above. But for some reason, these shows also feel the need to have a larger, ongoing story that serves as the spine for a season. Whether it’s Michael Westen seeking out those who burned him in Miami, Nick Burkhardt discovering his past on Grimm, or Rebecca Madsen investigating the reappearance of criminals on Alcatraz, these shows feature long-running arcs that usually harm, not help, their sturdy-if-bland lather/rinse/repeat episode structure. Rather than having the two dovetail, they often work against each other, producing uncomfortable friction as both sides seek to establish the same space.

For me, I rather like the serialized format. I would rather watch one 10-episode long season of a show that I liked where a full plot was promoted, engrossed and dealt with than a 22-episode long season where we just got a lot of filler. That said, my only addendum to this article is that I think the question of how serialized a show should be should depend largely on the kind of show it is. Serialized television works when there’s a big mystery or big issue to be developed and discovered. Sitcoms just don’t need that kind of grand scope. No one really needs to know the back story to understand that Ross and Rachel kind of have a thing for each other and are totally an OTP for suburban America.

In other words, the finale of The Sopranos may have instructed us to “don’t stop believing”, but the lesson may be that, for some shows, such belief should really only be ongoing for no more than three episodes at a time. Otherwise, you run the risk of just ending up with a mess on your hands.

Avenge me!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lost Girl Found

It seems like we here on the tv blog are constantly on a mission to fill what I like to call the Buffy void. You know what I mean: we need a show with a tough female lead with smart writing, sexual tension, and sidekicks. For a while there we had Veronica Mars and even The Nine Lives of Chloe King, but it seems that lately...nada. Unless I am missing something.

But wait! There is hope! A few weeks ago SyFy premiered a Canadian-import* drama, Lost Girl, that while not on the same level as Buffy (I mean, what is really?), it is certainly doing a good job of giving me my fix. Bonus--it has a supernatural theme and not one that has been done to death.

It's about the Fey. By which I mean faeries.Oh, and it also is quite sexy. The main character is a succubus after all.

She's hot, but hot enough to die for?

This isn't the type of show you need to think too hard about. The people are all good looking (but in a Canadian non-Hollywood way), there's lots of cool mythology surrounding the Fey and their culture, there's a sassy goth sidekick, and oh yeah, lots of sexy time.

Bo is a succubus. In what I thought was a nice departure from your standard teen-oriented show of this kind, she already has her powers when we meet her. In fact she kind of has an over-abundance of power. Bo draws strength from making sexy with people--most of the time unintentionally. Which means she tends to wake up the next morning to dead lovers.

Lost Girl is about how Bo not only discovers how to refine her power, but also about her heritage as a Fey. There's hints as to a dark past, her parents are not what she though, blah blah. Oh, and there is a super sexy were-changer wolf guy. Basically, the show is easy on the eyes and the brain, but it's not stupid. It's just a fun jaunt into a world you don't see a lot about on television.

And don't just take my word for it; Mo Ryan over at The Huffington Post pretty much raves about the show every chance she gets. 

Check out new episodes of Lost Girl on SyFy Monday nights at 10pm. You can also find videos of entire episodes on the website and SyFy is pretty much constantly showing reruns.

 This might be the real reason I like the show. When the main character is a succubus, the sexual tension is pretty much never unresolved. Yay!

*They have tv in Canada?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Welcome Back to the Rock. Again.

It’s time we all just faced up to the really horrible truth of this year’s television season: Despite some valiant efforts to bridge new territory in storytelling or reality exploitation, TV networks really, really just miss Lost and want it back.

The latest heir apparent to the landmark show about mysterious happenings on a time-traveling island is Alcatraz, a show about mysterious happenings on a time-traveling island. Some of the cast is even the same. The premise is that Something Happened on the infamous prison island in 1963, just before it officially closed, whereby 302 inmates suddenly vanished. They are now reappearing in our time and a team of plucky heroes is on the case to hunt them down. No word yet when the polar bears will emerge, but one assumes they’re coming.

But seriously. Which one of us is the Kate?

It’s tempting to say that Alcatraz is learning a little something from Lost’s mistakes – namely that while you need a good mystery to keep people tuning in, audiences will only trust you for so long and so you’ve got to dish out some of the goods. And it doesn’t count if you just keep adding questions that you have no intention of answering. In that sense, Alcatraz does a fine job of helping us to feel like the story is going somewhere. By the end of the first episode, we know that there’s a secret cabal of men who have some nefarious plan for these reappearing criminals and we even know something of their backstory. We’ve been treated to an intriguing, albeit brief, view of a secret prison where the villains (or ARE they?) will be housed after being caught and we even get the sense of a much bigger story, what with the promised interconnections of our two lead characters.

It fizzles a bit, however, when after four or five episodes we’re stuck with the exact same formula each time. Mysterious psychopath from the past emerges in modern day San Francisco, the detective and her nerdy sidekick hunt them down and along the way manage the seemingly irrational and secretive behavior of their new boss. The big reveals don’t even pack that much of a punch because the story is formulaic enough that we know when to expect them. Also, some of the plot holes are big enough to build the Golden Gate Bridge through. To wit, why do none of these recently re-emerged criminals just hop the first bus to Mexico rather than stick around San Francisco to commit new crimes? Hopefully, this is only a case of networks needing a Dollhouse-style opening, one that doesn’t demand the mythology overtake the individual stories, thus letting new viewers on board.

The problem with that approach is, unless your television show has the words “law” and/or “order” in the title, most people don’t watch scripted television just to tune into the story, they also want to get to know the characters. Watching the growth and development of your leads is really where most television dramas get their mojo from. Ironically, that’s a lesson from Lost that the creators of Alcatraz haven’t quite picked up on yet. Although you can easily go overboard with characterization to the point where you make the audience forget if it’s watching a television show or reading someone’s diary, we’re far more interested in hearing about people than about things.

“I could do something that moves this plot forward, but then when would I find the time to stare wistfully out to sea and remember my past transgressions?”

I’m hopeful that Alcatraz pulls it together, even if some of the conceits in the show are a bit laughable. Parts of the show are total nerd-bait, including the notion that you can successfully live in San Francisco when you are paying off your school loans after two PhDs and your only income is running a comic book shop. The show is really at its best when it’s showcasing the cruel and bizarre inmate torture of the 1960s prison system and how the inmates, themselves not exactly sympathetic characters, deal with that torture. The potential for this show is significant, let’s just hope the network’s need to create another Lost doesn’t interfere with what the show should actually be.