Lost – The Package

2010 March 31
by kvanaren

Almost anything was bound to be a let down after last week’s awesome episode of Lost. Even still, when you’re bumping along feeling resolved to the premise of the season, and then something comes and blows you away, and then you have to go back to that original humdrum sort of episode, it’s extra disappointing. Last night’s “The Package” just made it all the more clear that the flash-sideways lack meaningful stakes, and that the usual delay tactics have stopped being suspenseful and instead are just frustrating.

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The Jin/Sun sideways timeline had a few nice moments, particularly a little jolt of “wait, what?” when we realize that they’re not married, and the pleasure of ever-so-briefly seeing them together and happy, even if it did involve an unlikely cardigan-based striptease. (Seriously, no one wears sweaters like that without a shirt underneath. No one.) Keamy returns as an incredibly creepy dude with the surprising compassion to patch up Jin’s head wound before admitting he’s going to kill him. Russian guy gets shot in the eye again. Yes, we get it. Parallels. And then back on the island, things were just as drawn out and unnecessarily vague as usual, featuring Evil Tina Fey asking Jin about pockets of electromagnetism and Smokey literally knocking the English language out of poor Sun. At the end we get the barest glimpse of some promising developments. Jin looking at those photos of his daughter was really a lovely little moment, and then the titular Package turns out to be Desmond, which is hardly a surprising development, but at least means he’s finally back on the show.

Okay, this part was good.

Okay, this part was pretty good.

But there was just so much silliness… The worst of it was probably the bit with Sun’s new language problems. Amnesia is such a classic soap opera-y trope, and it’s essentially a magical self-generating plot device that allows you to scrap any requirement of plausibility with a simple veneer of inexplicable brain trauma. Sun’s head wound isn’t being used in quite the same was as your usual soap opera set-up, but the tool and its results are just as clumsy and unnecessary. When they landed, Sun knew English and Jin didn’t, and then she had to translate for him. When they finally (finally) reunite, he’ll have to translate for her! I’ll say it again: parallels. But in this case, it’s even more obvious and ham-handed than usual, and seems to serve little purpose other than too-perfect symmetry.

The other enormous piece of silliness in last night’s episode was something outside of the Lost creators’ control, but it nevertheless seemed to highlight what’s been so frustrating about this season. For nearly the entire episode, ABC put a seriously distracting logo for V in the lower right-hand corner, accompanied by a clock counting down to the show’s “highly-anticipated” return. The gimmick was especially obnoxious because last night’s episode involved a fair amount of subtitling and/or writing on note cards, and in a few instances, the V logo actually blocked part of the text. (For more on how absurd it was, Linda Holmes has a nice suggestion that networks hire a couch-based “No Way” consultant, and Alan Sepinwall rants a little bit.) Even worse, the countdown lock was not just a reminder of how long until V would be airing, but how also of little Lost we have left. Every time I glanced down at that stupid clock, its swiftly moving seconds were a depressing indicator of how little time was left for the episode to move on to meaningful developments. Or, even more depressing, it was a little stopwatch for when the show would actually move ahead with some major events: wait until there are ten minutes left, and then exciting things will start to happen.

For example: more Evil Sayid, please! He seems to come with super powers, like breathing underwater!

For example: more Evil Sayid, please! He seems to come with super powers, like breathing underwater!

I know it seems like I’m unreasonably negative about last night’s episode, and it’s a misrepresentation of what I felt while actually watching the show. I came away from it with the same resounding “eh” that I’ve had for several episodes this season, and it’s only in retrospect that I’m starting to feel like “eh” is actually quite infuriating. As I said at the beginning, it’s because “Ab Aeterno” was so good that “The Package” felt so mediocre. C’mon, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. Let’s move it along.

Chuck – Chuck vs. the American Hero

2010 March 30
by kvanaren

Chuck has been strong these last few weeks, and all signs point to next week’s episode as a real fizzing whizbang. Some of this has to do with the usual things that make for good television – the acting is well done (for the most part, although last night Shaw yelled “NOOOOOO!” and it was his own little “KHAAAAN!” moment), the plots are moving swiftly and taking risks, character development is working well. That aside, though, it’s pretty obvious that what’s happening on Chuck lately is unusually epic for a show that’s twelve episodes into its nineteen-episode season. As I mentioned briefly last week, there’s a really good reason for that. Chuck was initially given a thirteen-episode order for this season, and then several months into production, that order was extended to nineteen episodes. Last night’s “Chuck vs. the American Hero” was to have been the cliffhanger that leads into the season finale. Instead, we get this oddly climactic mid-season huzzah, and then what will be a really interesting transition between next week’s ersatz-finale and the group of new extra episodes.

This is what the run-up to the end of a season looks like

This is what the run-up to the end of a season looks like

There are several odd things about this, but one of the biggest is just how obvious it is that something out of the ordinary is going on. The appropriate tempos, tones, plotlines, the special momentousness of a season finale is so well established now that you can see it a mile away, even when it’s hidden in the middle of a season. Last night’s episode was laden with “This is a Big Deal” cues, mostly to do with the ongoing evolution of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship and the standard end-of-season revelations (in this case, that Sarah was the one who killed Shaw’s wife). But there was also plenty of smaller stuff falling into place – Casey donning a ski cap to join Devon and Morgan in Operation Charah is a classic humorous, worlds-colliding, lead-up-to-the-end shenanigan, as is Jeff and Lester being the ones to successfully stalk Shaw. Even the musical cues were operating at full finale throttle. Chuck has a special, eighties techno-esque theme that it reserves for particularly epic moments on the show, and there were plenty of teases of it in last night’s episode.

Also this

Also this

It’s hard to see clearly because it’s just a matter-of-fact aspect of television, but it’s actually quite astonishing that premieres and finales have become such patterned, familiar, known objects. Because the marketing and production obstacles of making television are so visible underneath the surface of a show, we see quite easily why finales are such reliable Game Changer or Cliffhanger or Major Character Deathtrap or OMG They Finally Kissed episodes, and we accept the rules for How You End a Season and expect them to be followed. And yet, the whole thing is actually completely bizarre. Major network television shows are unwieldy, unbalanced things that resemble a piece of clay you’ve rolled only in the center. The ends are enormous, heavy globs of Relationship Drama and Suddenly a Shot Rang Out! and the middle is barely thick enough to hold them together. Shows with seasons that run for twenty episodes often have a mid-season hiatus, which follows the same rules as a season break, except in miniature. When a major character’s life is in mortal peril at the end of an episode in December, you know you’re going to have to wait three or four weeks until you find out if they died.

And this

And this

Which is why it’s so refreshing and strange to see this big epic lump of Eventful Things in the middle of this season of Chuck. I’m really, really curious to see how they’ll knit together what’s obviously an ending with the remaining six episodes, but for now, I’m mostly just enjoying my unexpected plot windfall at the end of March.

Egg Salad!

2010 March 29
by kvanaren

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about reality shows for a while because they’re not even marginally related to my List of Giant Things, but I’m making an exception today for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which premiered on CBS Friday night to some pretty decent ratings. The premise of the show is actually quite broad once you try to nail it down – Jamie Oliver, of Naked Chef fame, spends three months in Huntington, West Virginia, a city recently named the unhealthiest city in the United States. His goal is to incite some change in the city’s eating habits by reworking the public school menus, promoting fresh and unprocessed foods, and educating people about food and cooking. The show will run for six episodes, two of which have already aired, and in the first two, Jamie focuses on helping one family cope with obesity and changing their diets, and tries to instigate change in one elementary school’s lunch program.

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The entire concept is rife with tricky problems of tone, etiquette, and diplomacy. It’s actually quite similar to The Marriage Ref in its foundation – an incredibly wealthy celebrity is going to tell middle-class and poverty-level Americans how they should be living their lives. Oof. And yet, as frustrating and potentially disastrous as that idea is, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution does a pretty decent job of coping with it. Jamie talks repeatedly on the show about how much he respects the area and knows what he’s asking is going to be hard. He offers himself up for abuse on a local radio show, and refuses to back down from a conflict with one of the cooks in the school’s kitchen. He tries to defuse some of the whiffs of classism or any denigration of Americans by noting repeatedly that England’s school food is just as bad as ours. Most helpfully, he addresses the problem directly, saying over and over again to cooks and housewives and school administrators, “I know I’m some crazy rich English person. I still want to help.”

I find the portions of the show where Oliver works with an individual family to be fairly routine. They eat an incredible amount of junk food, and are at risk for all sorts of diseases, but this type of show (help people get healthy!) has been bandied around a lot in reality television. Focusing on individuals helps give the story dimension and human interest, but it feels unoriginal. Where Food Revolution really becomes fascinating is in Oliver’s work in the school system. The kitchen is full of all the horror stories you know exist and yet shudder when you see in real life. Pizza for breakfast, chicken nuggets for lunch, kid after kid throwing away their apples, mashed potatoes made out of pellet-shaped potato pearls, a classroom where no one knows the difference between a tomato and a potato. “What is this?” yells Oliver, holding up an eggplant. Silence. “It starts with egg!” he adds helpfully. “Egg salad!” offers a kid in the back.

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My favorite part of the first two episodes is a scene near the end of the second episode. It’s Oliver’s last day of his trial week of cooking new menus for the elementary school, and he’s hoping the beef fajitas will go over well. In the middle of prep, he walks into a discussion between the principal and the regular kitchen staff about what utensils to give the students – the fajitas really require a knife and fork, but the kitchen rarely gives out utensils at all, and doesn’t even keep knives on hand. The staff feels that the kids are too young to handle knives, and Oliver’s stunned. He tells them that the kids in the English schools he’s worked with use knives, and one of the cooks asks for “documentation.” “You teach ‘em to read, you teach ‘em to write, you teach ‘em to use a knife and fork!” he offers, to baffled expressions. Finally, the staff scrounges up some knives from the summer program, and predictably, the students have no idea what to do with them.

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In a voiceover, Oliver points out that not having knives around is a symbol of the school’s abandonment of “real food,” and he’s right. The entire school menu is based around food that kids eat with their hands, which means it’s been processed to within an inch of existence and then shaped into unnatural rectangles or dinosaur shapes. The great thing about the whole scene is that the knife is such a simple and meaningful object in this discussion, a lovely, essential emblem of everything that’s not working. Food Revolution may be slightly scripted, and clearly represents a highly edited picture of Oliver’s experiences in Huntington. But those images of kids stabbing oranges with a knife, spitting out salad, and gazing cluelessly at a potato are real enough to be quite persuasive. It’s edited and dramatized, yes, but that’s how we learn. And if Jamie Oliver wants to go from school to school teaching children how to use knives and forks, more power to him.

Terribly Crowded

2010 March 26
tags: ,
by kvanaren

It’s List of Giant Things Day! (See previously, Twin Peaks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

It’s hard to even know where to start with Deadwood. This could easily be a 1,000-word blog post on any number of things about the show: its fascinating adaptation of a specific time and place in American history, its immense network of characters and plotlines, its distinctive and completely idiosyncratic dialogue, the detailed attention to set design and costume… it overwhelms. Ian McShane’s performance alone deserves 1,000 words.

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And in truth, that’s the takeaway experience of Deadwood, a sense of an immense amount of stuff crammed into a relatively small container. The show is set in an American frontier town in what will eventually become Kansas, right at the beginning of Deadwood’s gold boom. Every shot of someone walking down the street overflows with people, mud, horses, signs for new businesses, price lists for food and hardware, laundry drying on a line, broken liquor bottles, piles of newspapers, dogs, sacks full of mail, wagons, stands selling food, two guys in a bar fight that’s expanded outside, women emptying chamber pots from balconies, prostitutes leaning up against porch railings soliciting tricks. Even in the camp’s many indoor spaces, rooms are crammed full of things hanging from the ceilings, things littering the floors, lanterns and glasses and pistols piled up on every flat surface. It’s an aesthetic mirrored in the show’s narrative structure, where a single episode can follow twenty-three characters and five plotlines, and even mirrored in the dialogue, which comes spilling out in arcane obscenities and multiple subordinate clauses.

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Links and clips!

2010 March 25
tags:
by kvanaren

Um, it’s Thursday. And I haven’t watched this week’s Justified yet, and I don’t watch American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, and I thought last night’s Modern Family was really good, but am having a hard time coming up with anything more in depth than “Luke’s argument that Van Gogh painted Starry Night because aliens are watching us from above would make an excellent art history paper.” So, links!

  • As a supporting piece of argument for my post last Friday on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the academic canonization of television, Slate.com has this article on the booming academic focus on The Wire. Yes, I’m sure there’s a least a little “aren’t we just so current, building a curricula around this television show” patting on the back, but for the most part, I’m still convinced that the bigger story here is how little anyone is surprised or shocked about it. The show is just that good, and it’s really useful as a tool to talk about narrative, about sociology, poverty, race, politics, education, crime, drugs, American cities, bureaucracy, the list goes on.
  • And speaking of meta-discussions about criticism and high vs. low culture, there’s an interesting debate going on at the moment, that started with this pretty careless piece about why music criticism is never a good idea, and has started to garner some interesting responses. The responses are all interesting, but my favorite bit is actually a comment on this one, which points out that far from trying to kill people’s buzz, criticism itself can be a pleasurable act. This seems to be so inherently true that it’s easy to forget, but it deserves to be a part of the discussion. I mean… why else are there so many blogs? Everywhere! Spouting opinion and judgment and (very, very occasionally) thoughtful commentary! Like this one!
  • Chuck ratings are not looking good. TV by the Numbers has declared that it’s officially panic time for Chuck fans, so I’m looking forward to some Subway sandwiches in my future.
  • Hey, check out this (my guess is) Scandinavian guy who cloned himself and then spent a long time figuring out how to play themes from television shows!

Lost – Ab Aeterno

2010 March 24
by kvanaren

Well.

That was… quite something, wasn’t it?

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I know there’s been some grumbling that it’s not exactly in good faith to abandon all of the main characters for an entire episode so close to the end of the series, but at this point, I would totally love to watch an entire season of Richard Alpert hanging out as the puppet-masters’ majordomo for a century and a half. Nestor Campbell was really great last night, which certainly helped sell the episode, but it was also a relief after all the incessant flash-back/forward/sideways to watch a fairly linear plotline that explains a lot of the show’s craziness. The episode also did something incredibly satisfying that the show hasn’t done much at all since its first seasons – we watch a character’s over-the-top, inexplicable behavior for a while on the island, and then we get a lovely, fully-sketched backstory that provides a persuasive way to interpret all the stuff we already knew about him. There have also been a few comments that the show spent too long on Richard moldering inside the Black Rock, but for me, that entire sequence was one big “it makes so much sense now” moment. A deeply religious guy who believes he’s a murderer but that he cannot be forgiven is going to accept that he deserves to be tortured pretty easily. That same guy is then going to leap at the opportunity to spend eternity trying to atone for his sins by proving humanity’s ultimate goodness. When he then discovers that his eternity of service has actually been in the name of a demigod who has no strategy or game plan… you end up with Richard, going mad, trying desperately to kill himself in the Black Rock. It really hangs together quite nicely, and does so without the repetition of explanation we’ve gotten for characters like Kate and Jack. (“Jack’s drunk. Again. Wow, his father really damaged him, didn’t he? Now we finally understand why he’s so screwed up! Again!”)

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While “Ab Aeterno” did a great job of building an effective backstory for Richard, the biggest implications are to do with Jacob and the Man in Black, who continues to go frustratingly unnamed. (“A friend?! Really?!!” shouted the person sitting next to me on the couch.) It’s obviously time to drop my concerns about whether or not this show is science fiction, because “Ab Aeterno” answered that pretty definitively. No. Maybe humans have been using science fictiony type accoutrements to try to understand the island, but at its core, Lost is a medieval morality play. Figures representing opposing moral forces attempt to sway mankind one way or the other, and insignificant individuals just get caught in the crossfire. I do still have some hope that the Jacob = sugar and spice and everything nice, Man in Black = snakes and snails and puppy dog tails dynamic will still prove to be reductive, or at the very least, will eventually be reversed. They’ve both killed too many people to come away from it with a cheerful allegiance either way, so maybe Sawyer has the best idea of the bunch – just get the heck out of there, and let the demigods duke it out for themselves.

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As a further result of the island-is-the-cork-that-keeps-the-evil-genie-in-the-bottle revelation, Lost has also solidified the type of show it’s going to be at the end, and the sorts of questions we should be asking. “How?” is no longer a question Lost is going to spend a lot of time answering – “Ab Aeterno” had some nice confirmations of lower-level how questions, like how the statue was destroyed, and how the Black Rock ended up in the middle of the island, but as I said, these are mostly secondary concerns. The big question is now (and, I suppose, has always been) “Why?” We’re not going to get any specific explanations for how Jacob brought the plane down, or how the numbers really work, or how the island keeps women from conceiving or how Hurley talks to dead people. It’s a morality play – it doesn’t matter how anything happens. It’s why you make certain choices, and why you are the person you choose to be.

Maybe this is still going be pretty disappointing for fans who are largely interested in the how sorts of questions. But I think in retrospect, it will look more and more like Lost has been doing this stuff all along, and that in fact, its entire narrative flash-everywhichways technique has been building those why questions into the structure of the show from the beginning. (See above, re: Jack’s father screwed him up pretty badly. “Now we finally understand why…”) Sure, it hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole way, and there are lots of big questions that will feel seriously unsettled if they don’t get answers. Why that whole time travel business, for instance? (Speaking of which, if anyone has possible answers to that… yeah. I really do not know.) Perhaps in looking closely at the entire show’s run, it’ll feel like there were way too many misdirects and side stories, and that the show was disingenuous in creating certain expectations about what it would become. But at least for now, I feel pretty pleased that we have this framework in place for the end of the series, and a bit of a road map for what’s to come.

PS. Please, please enjoy Kate Beaton’s Lost comics. (This one is my favorite. Also this one. And this one.) They’re the best thing to happen to Lost commentary since Lostipedia, or Maureen Ryan’s theory that Lost is now actually Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The sitcom, dismantled and rebuilt

2010 March 23
by kvanaren

Chuck was good last night, but before I think a lot about how this episode is working, I’m going to wait and see how the writers transition through this mid-season climax (the result of an original order for thirteen episodes) and into the end of the season (the subsequent result of NBC upping the order from thirteen to nineteen).

I do want to talk a little bit about The United States of Tara, which returned last night on Showtime for its second season. The first season was a bit bumpy, but made for some compelling watching, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing where the story would move. Part of its appeal is that the show doesn’t fit easily into any of the familiar TV genre molds, and even its duration makes it a bit of an oddball. The show runs half an hour (a full premium cable half-hour, that is, not the twenty-two minute network version), and is a wacky, tightly-wound play on the familiar half-hour sitcom format – the family story, where comedy and awwww-inducing melodrama build a regular, infinitely repeatable structure into each episode, Full-House-style. In this family story, there’s a dad and two adorably quirky kids, and they live in a lovely house and occasionally the crazy aunt comes to visit. And also, the mom has several multiple personalities, who range from a biker dude named Buck to a rebellious teenager named T, and they appear and disappear at frightening, unpredictable moments.

I wrote a bit about title sequences last week, and want to include The United States of Tara here, because they also do some impressive heavy lifting in building the mythology and tone of the show. (I find the music sort of annoying and unnecessarily repetitive, but the pop-up book aesthetic is pretty awesome.) The first images are of an American flag and a two-story middle-American home, which call back to the show’s sitcom ancestry and make a nice tie-in to the show’s title. The titles then shift into changing pop-ups of Tara’s three primary alternate personalities, and resolve with a close-up image of Tara’s face.

The show has a number of qualities that make it distinct from the simpler sitcom format, but the most significant one has to be the tone, which is largely shaped by irreverent Diablo Cody dialogue and trying emotional situations that constantly threaten to overturn the family into chaos and dissolution. The stakes are much higher here than on Full House, where there was never any question that Danny Tanner might pose a serious physical danger to his kids, and the show does a nice job of calling into question the premise of the usual, risk-free family sitcom fodder. And it’s not just that the stakes are higher – they’re really high, so that the entire family enterprise is perpetually skating around the enormous, terrifying reality of Tara as an entirely unknown quantity, deeply frightening and overwhelming. The show is packed with hazards and red flags.

Tara and her family

Tara and her family

When it’s not working, The United States of Tara suffers slightly from Big Love-ism, where the circumstances are so messy and bizarre that they overtake any of the believable “we’re also a real American family!” underpinnings. The shows have essentially the same structure, in fact: let’s watch a family who live with some alien, upsetting but fascinating thing (polygamy, multiple personality disorder) try to be normal! But The United States of Tara on the whole does a much better job of balancing the diverging trends, and has the immensely helpful benefit of keeping the unusual and the normal stuck in the same house together, while Big Love shoves most of its crazy onto a giant compound out in the country.

That said, it looks like the second season of Tara is extending its reach slightly, with Tara and her husband considering purchasing a neighbor’s house, even while it becomes immediately clear that he house is a powerful trigger for Tara’s transitions. While it seems like that should make me worried that the show will develop Compound Complex, I’m actually pretty confident that it’ll be an interesting and productive shift. The neighbor’s house, after all, is right next door, and it has the potential to become a powerful metaphor for Tara’s mental state without spreading the show too thin.

Robots Growing Up

2010 March 22
tags:
by kvanaren

I should really be writing about Breaking Bad right now. The first episode of its third season premiered last night, and wow. That show is incredible. Seriously, it is so awesome.

Confession time. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad. I know I need to. I have heard, repeatedly, about how great it is, and I know Bryan Cranston won Emmies, and apparently it’s just stellar. I am planning on catching up, hopefully by the end of this new season, but at the moment, the List of Giant Things is really holding me back. So, some day.

In the mean time – a note about Friday’s episode of Caprica, and the bildungsroman:

As a part of the List of Giant Things, I’ve been thinking a bit about the underlying construction of big, serious television shows, and wondering why there have been so few television shows that follow one of the most basic, reliable plot constructs in literature – the coming-of-age story, or more precisely, the bildungsroman. There have been many shows aimed at younger audiences that center on young protagonists trying to grow up (The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life, Boy Meets World, most Disney shows, etc.), but all the enormous, adult, highly-constructed (mostly) HBO shows of the past decade are about middle age. It’s not hard to imagine why, as there are endless reasons why a story about the growth of a young protagonist is troublesome from a production standpoint. Maybe most importantly, it’s nearly impossible to tell an extended, complicated story about growing up when you don’t know how long show is going to be on the air. You arrange it so that the story’s done in a season, and then you have nowhere else to go when your show’s a hit, or you cross your fingers and hope for five seasons to work with, and then your character never goes anywhere, because you got cancelled two seasons in. It works for a miniseries structure, but is nearly impossible in the American television production system.

Female robot bildungsroman, ultimately leading to the mass destruction of humanity: YES.

Female robot bildungsroman, ultimately leading to the mass destruction of humanity: YES.

Caprica has the opportunity to tell a story like that, and – in a twist that makes it way, way more fascinating – to tell a growing up story that feels new and relevant to our current cultural moment. There have been a few novels that have dealt with robots who wake up, as I mentioned in a previous post on this show, but Caprica has that structure plus all these added bonuses. It’s a show with a young character who is trying to find her way in the world, but who just happens to be a digitally constructed personality trapped inside a hulking metal skeleton. The fact of her digital heritage is curious, and her war machine body is an obstacle, but Zoe Greystone as a character is more central to the story than Zoe Greystone as an avatar. And in this instance, I think the show’s relationship with Battlestar Galactica can be a huge boon rather than a frustrating burden. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps mitigate some of the difficulty in spacing and timing a growing up story: when you start with a formless, not necessarily compelling young character, it’s tough to keep an audience watching long enough for the character to develop. We may not know exactly what Zoe will become, which gives the show freedom to move that story in surprising ways, but we do know what will ultimately happen to the Cylons, which creates an inherent curiosity about her that her personality might not have earned quite yet.

Bereaved father runs around Frank Miller-esque virtual world ineptly searching for daughter-turned-Neo-from-The-Matrix: NO.

Bereaved father runs around Frank Miller-esque virtual world ineptly searching for daughter-turned-Neo-from-The-Matrix: NO.

Which is why I am still deeply frustrated with Caprica. It could be so good, and yet it’s attached to two whole other plotlines that I do not care about at all. Tamara has the possibility to be a strong companion story to Zoe’s development, but as long as it’s just Joseph Adama doing a Michael-from-Lost impression around New Cap City (TAMARAAAA! TAMMMIIEEEE!!!), it really doesn’t move me. And maybe crazy-mom-sees-vision-of-dead-brother-and-hangs-out-with-polygamist-monotheistic-druggie will end up somewhere interesting, but right now, not so much.

Fears of cancellation continue to loom large over this series, so who knows if it’ll have a chance to address some of these weaknesses. I hope so, because there’s so much potential.

If I were at full Slayer power, I’d be punning right about now

2010 March 19

It’s List of Giant Things day!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has had one of the strongest presences in academic writing about television, or at least, it did until The Wire was crowned “the best show in television history,” and it became popular to fret over urban violence and the inevitable failures of modern institutions. Do not mistake me – I am all in favor of jumping on the “best show in television history” bandwagon, because The Wire just blows everything else out of the water.

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Still, Buffy holds a special place in the development of academic television criticism, because while The Wire was catapulted quite quickly into canonical status (is now the subject of classes at Ivy League universities, has become a benchmark against which all other television is compared, is constantly perceived in relation to Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, etc. as way of solidifying its high-culture position), Buffy grew into its position slowly, and the whole process was accompanied by persistent navel-gazing. There are dozens of books, but take for example Buffy Meets the Academy, a collection of essays broken into sections: Power and the Buffy Canon, Buffy Meets the Classics, Buffy and the Classroom. My favorite essay titles in the book include “Buffy Never Goes It Alone: The Rhetorical Construction of Sisterhood in the Final Season” and “Buffy’s Insight into Wollstonecraft and Mill” – the text is constantly reaching toward the language and references of a standard critical discussion, but is ever self-conscious about making a popular network television show with an audience of teenage girls its subject.

Buffy became an academic hit largely because it turns several favorite gendered tropes on their heads, and dramatizes the reclamation of the Gothic as an empowering female genre. Where the vampire story traditionally narrates the travails of lovely, victimized women, dangerously attractive vampires, and chaste, heroic male saviors, Buffy re-cast the role of Awesome Vampire Destroyer as a far-from-helpless heroine, known for her roundhouse kicks and her attraction to Bad Dudes. It’s not hard to read all sorts of gender politics, role reversals, high school metaphors and sexual commentary into Buffy. But it needs to defined against not just Gothic genres, but also earlier high school-focused television.

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Justified (No, not the Justin Timberlake album.)

2010 March 18
by kvanaren

The first episode of FX’s new show Justified was really pretty great, even though I spent a good twenty minutes just wishing Deadwood hadn’t been cancelled. If you don’t know either of those shows, the relevance of my desire is that Timothy Olyphant, protagonist of the new Elmore Leonard adaptation, plays a character quite similar to his role on Deadwood as Sheriff Seth Bullock: US Marshal Raylan Givens and Sheriff Bullock are both reserved, concise, manly men, decked out with firearms and many-galloned hats, who believe in justice as administered according to their own rules of law. The two characters are really the same man in a lot of respects, except that Raylan lives in a time and place that no longer allow for one man to capture and punish bad guys however he sees fit.

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens

This makes the connections between the two shows all the more fascinating, particularly because Justified also recalls Deadwood’s careful attention to a specific breed of Americana. After a serious misstep on the job in Miami, Givens gets reassigned back to his home town in Kentucky, where the villages he needs to visit aren’t even entered into the GPS, and a nasty gang of neo-Nazis has taken over the county. In this respect, too, Justified echoes some of the central themes of Deadwood – this place is un-mapped, out of sync with the rest of the country, and dominated by a few powerful individuals. While not as intensely idiosyncratic as Deadwood, Harlan County also has its characteristic language and patterns of dialogue (although this may have more to do with Leonard’s influence than specific Kentuckyisms).

Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock

Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock

It’s not hard to make these comparisons and they’re certainly not the most insightful form of criticism, but Justified comes into its own more clearly when seen in contrast to a show like Deadwood. Seth Bullock is an integral part of Deadwood, one part of an enormous cast, where he’s definitely not the most charismatic figure of the bunch, or even the most influential. Sheriff Bullock was an expected and respected part of his community, but Raylan is an antique. Somehow, he’s strolled right out of a nineteenth-century Western and into a story where the cops can’t shoot people on the spot and criminals use rocket launchers to blow up churches. (To be fair, they also rob banks, which is a pretty classic Western trope). The pilot episode mediates this somewhat by introducing Givens in a high-end Florida hotel, where he fits in as well as a down-and-out NYC cop who’s been unexpectedly transported into a sci-fi flick. He’s so out of place there, that by the time he shows up in Kentucky and his boss shrugs off some of Given’s eccentricities, they seem a bit more reasonable. Still, the impact on the show’s structure is quite clear: while Deadwood was about an entire American frontier town, Justified is built on one man who was clearly born in the wrong century. A pretty badass man, by the way, and I did mention he wears a giant hat, right?

Always gotta keep an eye out for the neo-Nazi redneck gangs

Always gotta keep an eye out for the neo-Nazi redneck gangs

I enjoyed the pilot a great deal, and for a show that is going to live and die with its protagonist, I think Timothy Olyphant carries the role incredibly well. I haven’t read any of the Elmore Leonard books with Raylan Givens in them, but I do wonder a little how his character will evolve. So often on television, protagonists shift less through what they do in the primary timeline of the show, but more through our perception of them as we learn about their pasts. I’m thinking primarily here of what we slowly learn about Don Draper on Mad Men, but also revelations about Tony Soprano’s childhood, Omar Little and his relationship with Butchie on The Wire – heck, Lost built several seasons on that exact narrative technique. Raylan needs some of that backstory, and Justified looks primed to give it to us, with the pilot dancing around repeated references to Raylan’s father. But I’m seriously curious about what that backstory might be. How does a man end up in the twenty-first century as a nineteenth-century lawman? At the moment, the character seems so much like he’s just stepped out of a stagecoach and into a town car, it’s hard to imagine what that development could look like. I’m looking forward to finding out.