Summer plans

2010 May 31
by kvanaren

It is Memorial Day! Which means it’s summer!

Which means, from a TV programming standpoint, things are looking pretty slow for the next several months. This is the season of Wipeout, of five consecutive hours of Cake Boss, of Arnold Schwarzenegger movie marathons, and of course, of reruns. Tonight, for instance, the only real new programming on the networks is a two-hour episode of The Bachelorette, while a trip into cable land gives you the opportunity to choose between some Bones reruns, two new episodes of Cake Boss (the second of which is called – I kid you not – Cake Boss: Ultimate Cake Boss), and WWE Monday Night RAW.

Thankfully, summer television has changed enough that it is now also the season of Mad Men, True Blood, goofy USA shows like Burn Notice and Psych, my favorite SyFy show Eureka (subject of the very first post on this blog), and several cautious new network offerings. I’ll talk about as many of these as I can when they premiere, and there will of course be weekly Mad Men posts when the show returns on July 25th. Much as I dislike a lot of the reality programming and cheesy summertime comedy that gets released from June-August, there’s no point in denying that it’s also fun to rip apart on occasion (see: Secret Life of the American Teenager), so I’m sure there’ll be a little of that.

Still, new and interesting television has nothing even approaching a satisfying density during the summer months, so it’s also an opportunity to catch up with things that have been ignored or abandoned. I’m currently flying through the remaining episodes of Breaking Bad and will likely be caught up by next week’s episode, just in time to write about the last two episodes of season three. My docket this summer also includes The Shield, which is one of those shows I try not to admit having never seen, Party Down, In Treatment, and almost certainly some older stuff that I never watched when it first came out (because I was in second grade, and I wasn’t allowed to watch TV on weeknights). My current list includes Homicide: Life on the Streets, Hill Street Blues, and probably Dallas, but these are all subject to change depending on time, availability, and you know. Whim.

One thing I certainly am open to is suggestions, particularly about things I should be watching that I’ve never seen, or things I should be writing about that I’ve been ignoring. Please let me know if you’re absolutely dying for a post on Glee, or if the fact that I’ve never seen Married… With Children is going to seriously hamper my ability to appreciate the sitcom as a form. But I also need to reiterate something I mentioned a few weeks ago, which is that I will do my best to post whenever possible, but travel, weddings, and Comic-Con may get in the way.

Happy summer, and I hope someone tunes in to Cake Boss: Ultimate Cake Boss tonight and tells me what it was like.

Chuck – Chuck vs. the Subway and Chuck vs. the Ring Part II

2010 May 28
by kvanaren

At long last, I got around to watching the Chuck finale yesterday. As I’d hoped, it was full of all the things Chuck does when it’s at its best – lots of spy silliness overlaid onto more meaningful emotional revelations, lots of good protagonist development, plenty of family bonding, and a hearty side of Buy More hilarity. Shaw is much better as an out-and-out villain than he ever was as an ambiguous good guy, so his not-so-shocking return provided a strong forward-momentum for the two-hour episode. I thought the plotline with Casey’s daughter was nicely balanced between anxious emotional stakes and humor, particularly the moment when she manages to knock him silly. It’s a relief that Ellie is no longer the one odd woman out of Team Bartowski, but I can anticipate some carry-over resentment at being left in the dark for so long.

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My one complaint about the finale, which I absolutely enjoyed, was that I thought there were some missed opportunities involving Team Bartowski’s newer members. I was so thrilled to hear Beckman inform Morgan that he was their only hope, and loved the set-up with Devon, Ellie and Morgan getting ready to take down the armored van. I was hoping for something a little more involved and less accidental than resolving that plotline with a wayward missile launched from Casey’s headlight, though. Now that they’re all in the know, the best way for these characters to remain relevant, functional members of the team without transforming into punch lines is for them to occasionally provide legitimately helpful contributions. This has happened several times with Morgan, and some of my favorite parts of this season have been watching him become more than a video game-loving nerd who can’t even tie his shoes. The fact that he actually broke his thumbs, for instance – even though that sequence ended abruptly in a joke, I don’t think it undermined Casey’s subsequent praise of Morgan’s actions. Maybe it was enough at this stage for Ellie, Awesome and Morgan to just roll into action, but in the light of someone who’s willing to literally break his own thumbs, the headlight missile was funny, but I would have liked to see those characters get to do a little more.

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Still, there will be plenty of time for that, as we were all able to watch this season finale comforted by the knowledge that there will be a season four – such a luxury. The revelation of his father’s lair makes it look as though Chuck’s being positioned to take over another, different type of ultra-secret mission, possibly outside the knowledge of the CIA. While I’m sure there are interesting stories to tell, I do worry about the way that story will get framed for Chuck’s personal life. He’s just spent three seasons slowly coming out of undercover for all the people he cares about, and it would be so frustrating to have finally reached this point only to shove him back into secrecy. Maybe there’s something about Chuck’s character that needs some disconnect between his private and professional self, or maybe the show’s structure really requires two adjoining worlds with restricted boundaries. Whatever the case, Chuck is almost always better when he’s not acting on his own, and the last thing I’d want to see is him falling down into a superhero spiral of lonely responsibility.

I’d like to end with a plea. We don’t know what will become of the Buy More, or its now unemployed workers. But please, for the benefit of all of us. Free Jeffster!

My favorite finale of the season

2010 May 27
by kvanaren

The main TV season has come to an end, and I’ve been working to catch up on all the finales I missed while flying through New Mexico. My favorite so far, in terms of its utter, absurd, unbelievably crazy levels of ridiculousness has been the finale to Private Practice. In it, Maya and Dell are in a car crash, and while Addison tries to figure out how to save Maya’s unborn baby while also preventing Maya’s permanent paralysis, Maya’s father Sam unknowingly operates on the guy who smashed into their car. Meanwhile, Cooper and Charlotte decide to get married, Violet and Pete get back together, and Naomi’s boyfriend lies to her about receiving a new treatment for his end-stage ALS, with the help of her other sort of boyfriend. At the same time, Amelia freaks out about her surgical competence, and then even though Addison is able to save Maya and the baby’s life, it’s actually Dell who dies suddenly from an undiagnosed brain bleed. Which is a shame, because it seems like just a few episodes ago that his ex-wife died in a massive explosion, which means his young daughter Betsey is now parent-less. And then at the end Addison sleeps with Sam, after Naomi gives them her blessing. All of this happens in just one hour of TV – about forty-two minutes, not counting commercials.

I know.

Sorry, Dell. Your minutes are numbered.

Sorry, Dell. Your minutes are numbered.

Yes, this is a particularly egregious example of finale mayhem from Shonda Rhimes, whose flagship show Grey’s Anatomy went with the classic “there’s a shooter roaming the hallways of this hospital” technique for its final episode of the season. At least the Grey’s finale got two hours to fully milk all the terror and heart-pumping melodrama – Private Practice tried to pour twenty-two buckets of crazy into a one-gallon Ziploc bag, and the result is about as watertight as a sieve. With a hole in it. I really think it even beat out last year’s finale, in which one of pregnant Violet’s crazy patients showed up at her house and cut Violet’s baby out of her womb while a conscious Violet attempted to coach her in order to save the baby’s life.

Cooper proposing to Charlotte, while many people he loves are dying

Cooper proposing to Charlotte, while many people he loves are dying

And that right there is why I have continued to watch Private Practice, even though it is arguably among the worst primetime soaps out there. Every time you think you’ve achieved some kind of limit about how much crazy plot you can fit into an hour, Private Practice says, “You know what? I bet I could squeeze another marriage proposal somewhere in there.” But the real spectacle comes from watching the writers attempt to create dialogue for characters with supposedly realistic lives and personalities inside the show’s manic-depressive funhouse universe. The results are particularly apparent in this last episode – at one point or another, almost every character looks at someone else and says, “Why does this sort of thing keep happening to us?” “Why can’t we catch a break?” “What other terrible things could possibly happen?” “When will this awful day ever end?” The result is kind of amazing. It’s as though you’re watching an insane show where the characters have become self-aware and are beginning to voice their dissent against being perpetual martyrs to over-the-top melodrama. Violet really voices it best, while they all sit in the hospital waiting room. “Once again, here we are, in the same place, with somebody else… I just want to scream, to whoever keeps doing this, to just stop. Stop bringing us here.”

Violet, unlikely voice of reason (thanks, The Soup)

Violet, unlikely voice of reason (thanks, The Soup)

It is my dearest wish that what we’re witnessing on Private Practice are the first inklings of a deeply devious meta-fictional long con, three seasons and countless births, deaths, and forcible C-sections in the making. Here’s how it would go down – first, it’d just be one or two characters wearing “Shonda Rhimes, puppet-master” tshirts. Then, the characters would gradually refuse to participate in their own over-dramatic death scenes, begin to find each other neither repulsive nor alluring but merely “nice,” and slowly, the show would grind some kind of Beckett-esque halt. With a long sigh as I acknowledge how unlikely that scenario is, I set aside this season’s Private Practice finale as one of my favorite of the season, and can only hope it keeps doing what it does best next fall. Maiming, screwing, baby-swapping, evading the police, aborting, bickering, screaming, marrying, healing, killing, and of course, dying.

Lost – The End

2010 May 26
by kvanaren

Apologies for the dearth and delay of blog posts – I’ve been driving across the country for the last several days. Wasn’t it smart to take that little hiatus while absolutely nothing was happening on TV?

We did set aside some time on the epic road trip to watch the Lost finale, which meant that we watched the show in a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona after spending the day hiking in the Grand Canyon. My goals at the time included 1) staying awake to watch the finale and 2) staying awake long enough to grapple with the ensuing onslaught of blog posts, alternate endings, and internet outrage. Success! Followed by failure.

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For the most part, I think the finale was what we all expected it would be. The main focus was on the characters, on providing satisfying endings to the relationships we’ve watched all along, and on giving an arc to Jack Sheppard’s life in particular. When each new character experienced the memories of their past lives, those lovely little flashback bits were an excellent way to touch on all of the emotional highlights of the past several years. I thought the action sequences in the finale were right up there with the best the show has done, especially that amazing leap flying leap Jack made at Smokey. And then at the end, no matter how many questions were left unanswered or plot threads abandoned, there were all the happy people sitting together, helping Jack (and, of course, the audience) let go. Regardless of your hang-ups about the rest of the show, it’s hard to argue with that as an ideal moment of conclusion – you get to see everyone you love, including Vincent, and then it’s over.

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There was so much left unexplained, which was just as everyone has trying to prepare themselves would be the case for many years now, but actually, my primary question from several weeks ago received an unbelievably definitive answer. Frustrated by the lighthouse and the lack of definition about Jacob’s role, I asked whether this show was science fiction or a Christian morality play. (In that instance, I asked, but also failed to define: a morality play is a medieval theatrical allegory in which a human protagonist encounters personifications of evil and is tempted by sin.) Clearly, and despite how much most people would prefer it to be otherwise, the morality play theory has won, although the finale was careful to underplay the “Christian” part of that equation. (Don’t believe me? Look more closely at the iconography going on inside that church.) The sci-fi tone and mysterious, experimental bric-a-brac were exactly what everyone had been hoping they were not – they were all Maguffins, built to let us watch characters cope with obstacles rather than figure out how the obstacles work. During the last half-hour, it was hard not to think back to the first few seasons, when fans kept suggesting that the Island was heaven, or hell, or purgatory. Cuse and Lindelof denied the truth of those theories, and although the instinct is to shout, “Not fair! We were right all along!” it’s not really true. The Island wasn’t a metaphor for purgatory or hell, it was just a metaphor for the far more mundane and perplexing metaphysical experience of life, and it wasn’t until the end that those impulses toward reading the show’s plot existentially gained fictional traction.

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A few months ago, I stumbled on an article written by David Foster Wallace about David Lynch, in which he includes a fascinating bit on the mystery structure of Twin Peaks. “Like most storytellers who use mystery as a structural device and not a thematic device,” he says, “Lynch is way better at deepening and complicating mysteries than he is at wrapping them up.” This seems absolutely right, and is clearly a problem for many works that employ a mystery structure. But there’s another question underlying this statement: “What would a show look like if it used mystery as a thematic rather than structural device?” And the only answer I could find is that it would look a lot like Lost. The show is really only interested in the thematics of mystery – suspense, ambiguity, red herrings, a mismatch between the scale of an object (a button) and the scale of the questions it poses (are we just subjects in a giant human experiment?). The plot threads and tiny clues are only useful in two contexts, both of which make it so that they have relatively little impact on the final conclusions. They are useful as half-readable, perplexing, compelling, unsolvable puzzles, perpetually extending the audience’s sense of mysterious confusion. And from that perspective, they are also half-readable, perplexing, unsolvable puzzles that provide the week-to-week hook of a series television show. Walt, the numbers, the fertility problem, the donkey wheel, shots at the outrigger, Faraday’s theory of the constant: these things are a flood of embellishments meant to improve upon on the central experience of not knowing. No wonder this show has engendered so much anger.

While I think “morality play” has a lot to recommend itself as a name for the genre Lost has been exploring, I think there’s an even better one. The medieval morality play has its roots in an older, more biblically focused genre of theater: the mystery play. In the original context, “mystery” means something like “miracle,” and it’s meant to apply to all the impossible, astounding feats of God’s power that take place in the Bible stories these plays retold. This definition of mystery brings it closer to the place Lost has been occupying for the past several years – a mystery that is inherently supernatural, inexplicable, and ultimately unimportant except for the way it impacts our characters. Lost is the mystery play of the twenty-first century.

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Yes, this is an extremely generous reading of what Lost has been doing for the last six years. I don’t mean to overwrite the show’s undoubted failings. For instance, a show focused on characters should make more consistent and meaningful use of those characters. A mystery play should probably be more apparently a mystery play from the get-go, or at least from around season two. Wasn’t it comforting to see all of those heterosexual couples cozying up to each other in the last scenes? How about the mind-numbingly predictable dialogue? But it’s so easy to denigrate this show, and much harder to try to take it at its word.

Last night, after running to Safeway in desperate search of post-road trip food, I overheard a guy complaining about the Lost finale on his cell phone. “What about that dude Faraday’s mother?” he asked. I don’t know, man. I really don’t. But it’s pretty awesome that you’re still wondering.

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Lost – What They Died For

2010 May 19
by kvanaren

So that’s it, then – only the finale left to go. Widmore’s dead, Jacob explained why he picked the Losties to be the candidates, Jack volunteered to be the new Jacob, and sideways Desmond is pulling a classic, series-ending Get the Team Back Together move. It seems we’ll be waiting until the last possible moment to understand exactly what the sideways world is, but the vague suggestions about how Desmond relates to the Smokey/Jacob storyline are beginning to form. Desmond, it seems, is an extra, unlikely piece in this whole arrangement, and something about his ability to withstand electro-magneticwhositwhatsit makes him a measure of last resort. And yet, in spite of what sounds like an odd-man-out scenario, he’s clearly central to what will connect the sideways world back with our main storyline, as he’s the one orchestrating the Oceanic 815 reunion tour. From what we learned in this last episode, it looks like the burden of the island’s future will be in Jack’s hands, but I think Desmond will be the one responsible for the future of our characters.

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In the past few weeks, there’s been a well-deserved deluge of coverage about the end of this show, but one type of piece that occurs most frequently is the list of questions that need to be answered. Here’s one from the LATimes showtracker blog, a request for the most desired answers from Alan Sepinwall, a list of 50 questions that require answers from io9, and this meta-breakdown of types of questions from Jason Mittell. I think in the post-game blow by blow of what this show has done for television, one of Lost’s most characteristic features will be this relationship it has created with its audience. For what other show, even one with a fairly standard mystery format, could you ever imagine the dominant concern being this flat-out, madness-producing obsession with questions and answers? It’s more than just a desire to know how things work, what happened, or what will happened – the emotional impact is much closer to anxiety, a deep irresolvable unease over the possibility of answerless questions. These pieces about the questions that most need responses are attempts to sort the many puzzle pieces of this show, or they’re reminders of things that may have been forgotten, but they’re all also striving to mediate the inevitable disappointment of a season finale that cannot possibly resolve everything.

Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have been very open about what they’re trying to do with this show, and their lack of interest in providing pat answers to every tiny open-ended problem. When Alan Sepinwall asks whether he’ll ever figure out who’s shooting at the outrigger, they tell him “no,” and when he points out that there have been many outriggers this season that could potentially supply the answer, their response is “we can’t entirely deny that we’re taunting you.” Which is great, and funny, and also completely their prerogative as storytellers. Part of what makes this whole question/answer thing so fascinating is that it points to something about our expectations as audience members. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that we have a right to creative control over stories that we’re not making – this is central to the whole shipper insanity on Chuck this season – and the demand that storytellers bend to an audience’s will is usually in the worst interest of the story. From this perspective, I am definitely sympathetic to Cuse and Lindelof. If they want to end this story with the island blowing to smithereens, or the discovery that it’s all taking place inside a snow globe, then we’ll all just have to live with it.

Details still matter: Clearly, we're supposed to remember that this was also the first image of the first episode

Details still matter: Clearly, we're supposed to remember that this was also the first image of the first episode

It’s hard not to feel a little duped, though, and I’m not talking about feeling betrayed over the lack of resolution to the Walt storyline. The disjoint here is a result of something fundamental about the way Lost has been built for the last six years, and the steps season six has been taking toward the conclusion. These last several episodes, especially “Across the Sea” and “Ab Aeterno” have been strong mythological underpinnings for the show, and have insisted on thinking about Lost in terms of abstractions. It’s about big, unsolvable, human nature things, these episodes tell us – it’s about good and evil, and faith, and whether people change, and some pretty broad Oedipal stuff. Of what we now know to be the three crucial original characters, two don’t even have names! We’re not supposed to be caught up in all the little minutiae, because what matters are these larger, more philosophical questions. That’s fine! Except, for the last six years, Lost has been asking us to pay attention to minutiae, and rewarding us when we do. “Say,” it says, “remember this character’s face? Now where have you seen her before? Didja notice that copy of A Wrinkle in Time on the bookshelf? How about the fact that Walt’s picture is on the milk carton Hurley’s drinking?” When you’re rewarded for noticing and interpreting all these details, it’s no wonder that you then focus on the multitude of details you can’t quite read. It matters that Sawyer has several names – why does Marvin Candle also go by Pierre Chang, Mark Wickmund, and Edgar Halliwax? Who’s shooting at the outrigger? Why did scary mysterious people always look like they were dripping wet in the first season? Lostpedia is a testament to an audience just trying to keep track of the little things. From the beginning, Lost has been rewarding its audiences’ minute attention to detail, and so it does feel unsatisfying to learn those little things are what we should now be ignoring.

But how much do they matter? In both this episode and the previous episode, we never get to hear the magic words

But how much do they matter? Notice that in both this episode and the previous episode, we never get to hear the magic words

I’m going to enjoy the finale no matter what happens. But I wonder if whether one of the things that will be clear about Lost in hindsight is this contradiction between detail and abstraction. If nothing else, this show may be remembered for the disconnect between the way this story has been told and the thing we’re now learning is actually the story.

Chuck – Chuck vs. the Living Dead

2010 May 18
by kvanaren

Last night was the last hour of Chuck before the actual season three finale next week, and like last season, it featured the return of Father Bartowski and some escalating Intersect concerns. Also – Shaw is still alive (and maybe has an Intersect in his brain now)! Ellie is being recruited by a Ring agent! Big Mike is the new manager of Jeffster!(!) General hilarity and ratcheting tension ensue!
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I do wish that more of these plotlines weren’t so reliant on simple communication problems. Couldn’t Chuck have just told Sarah and Casey that he thinks Shaw is still alive right away? Why not tell Sarah about his dangerous mental status? It probably should have been the most annoying, but I was actually okay with Chuck feeling reserved about telling his Dad about the new Intersect – or I would have, if it hadn’t gone on for quite so long. The most annoying of these has to be the Ellie/Ring plot, if only because it’s been established for so long that Ellie and Awesome are the least sneaky, least deceptive people on the planet. No one who’s been around Ellie in the last two episodes could ever believe that she’s okay, and the idea that she’s cheating on someone based on that message alone was so absurd as to be laughable. Besides, she would tell someone she’s being recruited. C’mon now.

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Essential communication issues aside, I’m a fan of the double-Shaw reveal. “He’s dead! He’s alive! He’s dead! He’s alive!” has to be done pretty carefully for it to be at all effective, and I thought last night’s attempt was remarkably successful. By the time we reached the end, the final reveal was hardly that surprising, except that it had the added bonus of taking place at the moment Shaw was downloading an Intersect. Separately, those two events would have felt fairly ho-hum; together, they were worthy of a second-to-last episode. It was also a canny way to avoid having to pay Brandon Routh for that episode – did you notice that even after he placed his hand on the pad and we got his “Identity Confirmed” image, we still didn’t get a shot of his face?

My other favorite moment from last night (second, of course, to everything to do with Jeffster!) were some throwaway lines from Chuck and Chuck’s dad. With Shaw, we now have the third handsome white dude to line up for an Intersect download, and while that’s not so many, it would be really nice for some superspy diversity to eventually have a presence. In the mean time, though, we have Sarah, who as Stephen Bartowski points out, is so impressive all on her own that she doesn’t even need a computer in her brain.

Next week: season finale, which according to this teaser, will include many very exciting things.

Up Front

2010 May 17
by kvanaren

It’s a big news week for TV, but as I’ve been traveling this weekend, I’m still catching up on the various stories from NBC and FOX’s upfronts, which took place today. I did watch the trailers for all of NBC’s new shows – an absurd number of brand new shows will air next fall, thanks to the enormous 10pm crater where The Jay Leno Show used to be. Many of them look pretty mediocre, especially the new comedies, but I’m quite curious about Undercovers, as well as The Event, which will be airing after Chuck on Monday nights. From what I can see in the trailer, it looks like a multiple-storylines descendant of 24 and perhaps FlashForward, with a whiff of the Jason Bourne series.

The cast, the production, and the overall mysteriousness are all intriguing (hey, it’s Kerry Weaver!), but this is one of those shows where I am most curious in how it will play out as a television series in specific rather than a fiction more generally. If it’s about a specific event, what happens once we know what that event was? Can you build an entire TV show around the fallout from one moment? (FlashForward certainly couldn’t.) Much as I’d hate to read the book by its cover, just the title by itself suggests some possible problems in sustaining the show for a long period of time. It’s a singular noun, and not something that’s abstracted, or a play on words, or even a good ol’ open ended proper name. The Event says that we should be paying attention to one, very specific, very important thing, and I just can’t wait to see how long you can possibly sustain that kind of single-minded focus.

Much more on the up fronts tomorrow, but for now: these two shows are exactly the same, aren’t they?

TV News Round-Up

2010 May 14
by kvanaren

Because the network upfronts are on the horizon, lots of tidbits about next year’s schedules are beginning to surface, particularly from much-beleaguered NBC.

  • Hooray, a fourth season of Chuck! Thirteen episodes, and no word yet on whether it will be a fall or winter premiere, but it’s just so nice to not be fretting about Chuck’s existence long into the summer. I think it’ll be interesting to see the dynamic between Chuck and NBC’s new spy-couple J.J. Abrams project, The Undercovers, and I can only hope that something as high-profile as a J.J. Abrams show might help throw a little attention back onto Chuck.
  • With the news that NBC has renewed Chuck, Parenthood, and all of its Thursday comedies come the news that finally (finally!), Heroes has been put out of its misery. Did you even realize that show was still on? How about Trauma or Mercy, both of which were also cancelled? Here’s hoping NBC manages to put its act together next year.
  • Although buried in NBC news, it’s also been suggested that ABC is cancelling Romantically Challenged, FlashForward, and (very sadly) Better Off Ted. None of these come as real surprises given the ratings, but I certainly will mourn the loss of Phil and Lem.
  • Okay, okay, I was saving the craziest one for last: NBC has cancelled Law and Order. I’m just gonna let that sit there for a second.…  Yeah. A few things to keep in mind – Law and Order: SVU will still be around, and there will also be the inauguration of a Law and Order: Los Angeles version, so it’s not as though the franchise will suddenly disappear. Still, it’s the end of a very long-running, defining, successful, and culturally influential era. Relieve some of the show’s most familiar devices on this slideshow, and take a moment to do a nice “CHUNG CHUNG” the next time someone says something dramatic.

It's really hard to imagine a title worse than Cougar Town

2010 May 13
by kvanaren

One of the rarely appreciated upsides of television as a form is the ability to take something that’s not working and almost completely re-invent it. The opportunity to build something over a long period of time, to step back from a finished episode and understand what could be improved and then actually have the chance to improve it in the next episode – this is something that television can do, and most other forms of fiction cannot. I say “rarely appreciated,” but of course this kind of radical mid-stream change is also rarely occurring. If things are really going awry, shows tend to get cancelled before they have a chance to really change anything. Sometimes the changes do take place, but the moment when the show could gain momentum has already passed. Dollhouse is a great example of this phenomenon: by the time the show shifted away from its creepy, morally ambiguous standalone format, its target audience was long gone.

But sometimes a show can actually figure out how to change while there’s still a chance for that change to do some good, and the best place to see this right now is on a show called Cougar Town (god help me). In the first several episodes, Cougar Town is exactly what you’d think it would be – Courteney Cox plays a newly divorced forty-something in search of hot young men. I feel unrepentant for not giving Cougar Town even a first glance when it premiered last fall, and even for scoffing whenever its name would show up in ratings or reviews. The name is, after all, Cougar Town, and everything about the concept and the proposed execution turned me off. I even overlooked Cougar Town’s possibly promising creator Bill Lawrence, formerly of Scrubs, because the title alone gave me the heebie-jeebies. A few days ago, though, I happened across Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Lawrence, where they talk about the changes that have happened over the course of the show’s first season.

This is an image from the pilot of Courteney Cox flashing a junior highschooler. Oh I wish I were kidding.

This is an image from the pilot of Courteney Cox flashing a junior highschooler. Oh I wish I were kidding.

By all measures, those changes have been immense. Far from focusing on Cox’s attempts to wrangle a young lover, Cougar Town has become an ensemble sitcom about a bunch of wacky neighbors and their silly, normal lives. It has a strong undercurrent of the same bizarre humor that fueled Scrubs for so long, but the tendency to veer off into surrealism remains well in check. It’s no Modern Family or Community, but there’s no doubt that it’s funny. The biggest signal that what’s on now is a completely different show than what came before? They’re actually thinking about changing the name.

So now that the show has moved so far from the original idea, what are you going to do about the title?

I’d like to (change it), and the studio has been talking about it for three reasons: One, partly as a result of common sense and partly from their research, they find too many instances of testing of people saying they would never watch a show called “Cougar Town” – “I don’t want to see some show about a 40-year-old woman nailing younger guys” – and then they screen an episode, and people go, “Oh, I would watch this show.”

There were probably several impetuses behind the changes that have occurred over this season, but my favorite explanation is one that Bill Lawrence gives in answer to a question about the way television comedy has been developing.

I think it’s always very weird when television comedy chases the idea when it should be chasing execution. I read some logline for “a really conservative Ann Coulter-like talk show host is really messed up in her personal life.” Why can’t it just be there’s a really cool, interesting female character? I think feature films sell on the idea, and I think TV works based almost entirely on execution. I don’t think anybody is going, “Wow, that show is executed poorly, but the idea is so cool I just have to keep watching.”

This is a good description of problems with comedy, but I think it’s a strong explanation for a lot of network television right now. The difference between cool idea and strong execution is exactly what has made FlashForward such a terrible show, and the same can be said for the reason shows like The Good Wife are actually quite enjoyable. It started with a snazzy idea – the protagonist is the wife of a politician coping with scandal – but the reason it’s still entertaining is that that idea quickly became relegated to the bigger, more important work of putting together an effective show, week after week.

I seriously hope that Cougar Town manages to change its name. Not only would the name change signal this shift from concept-driven to execution-focused television, it would be moving away from a concept that wasn’t even good to begin with. Because right now, however good the show may have managed to become, it’s still called Cougar Town.

Lost – Across the Sea

2010 May 12
by kvanaren

From reading around the internet last night, it appears that last night’s episode of Lost will go down as one of the most divisive in the whole expanse of the show. It’s not hard to see why, either – three episodes out from the series finale, you abandon all of the major characters to tell a story about people we hardly know set in an indefinite ancient past? The episode is set up to be a source of answers, and then most of those answers so vague and ill-defined that “it’s the Force” is a reasonable stand-in? And, as if ready-made to tap into my own personal Lost pet peeve, of the three characters we did follow, only one of them had a name, which meant the entire episode was riddled with indefinite nouns. “I only thought of one name!” Hah. Yeah.

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Nevertheless, I’m convinced that this will also become a touchstone moment for this show – it will be the episode we talk about when we discuss how expansive Lost is, how archetypal, how mythic, how completely audacious. (Because if nothing else, “Across the Sea” was about as far from an episode of Law and Order as one could ever imagine an episode of television being. Oh ho, no formula fiction here, friend. You will spend this entire episode thinking, “what the hell is going on?” And you will like it.) “Across the Sea” was built to give the impression of answering questions, and in some instances, those answers were relatively concrete. Man in Black turned into Smokey when Jacob pushed him into the Cave of Wonders. Jacob and Man in Black are twin brothers, who, in their childhood forms, look suspiciously like the Children of the Corn we’ve been seeing pop up around the island. Man in Black and Allison Janney are Adam and Eve. (What? If you don’t give me a name, I’m going to use the only one I have.) The donkey wheel was an early project of Man in Black’s to try to leave the island. Black and white board games apparently have a long history on the island, going all the way back to a brotherly game of senet, which is thought to be the oldest board game and for which no one really knows the rules. And speaking of rules, Allison Janney was the one who somehow made it impossible for the brothers to kill each other, and made Jacob the protector of the island and the Cave of Wonders.

I thought Claire was the new Rousseau, but it appears the island is actualy just full of crazy bedraggled women hiding out in the jungle

I thought Claire was the new Rousseau, but it appears the island is actualy just full of crazy bedraggled women hiding out in the jungle

There were concrete answers, but “Across the Sea” was more about suggesting that the most important answers aren’t meant to be quite so definite. How did the Cave of Wonders turn Man in Black into Smokey? What’s with that glowy light, anyhow? How did Allison Janney get to the island? If Allison Janney isn’t making dead people talk to Man in Black, who is? After a certain point, Lost isn’t interested in the minutiae, and “Across the Sea” was a firm suggestion that you shouldn’t really be, either.

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I think that ultimately, “Across the Sea” will not be controversial for its subject matter. Lost has been asking its audience to speculate about the distant past for quite a while now, and to get an episode that both deals with the genesis of the island’s dual god-like figures and looks a lot more like myth than science fiction feels fair. We’ve been puzzling about gods, monsters, and the nature of good and evil for a while now, and in that context, “Across the Sea” is entirely appropriate. What will continue to cause consternation is the timing of this episode, so close to the final conclusion of this show. It kills the momentum of the last few episodes, but that’s a relatively small problem in the face of the much larger frustration that an episode like this causes. What does Lost gain from waiting so long to reveal the origin of Jacob and Man in Black? Reveals like last night’s are quite different than the discovery of an answer to a long-standing question. We’ve been playing 20 Questions with Lost, and for the most part, it’s fun. Answers put pieces together, connect characters, explain relationships, etc. etc. But “Across the Sea” was less like a question and answer, and more like a realization that you haven’t really understood the rules to this game even though you’ve been playing it for six years. I liked this episode. I like finally knowing a little bit about the underlying rules. It’s hard not to feel a little put off, though, by the knowledge that supposedly this has been here all along and we didn’t even get a glimpse of it until three episodes from the very end. That footage from the first season was a helpful way of reminding viewers why we care about the Adam and Eve skeletons, but more than that, it was a reproof. You may have thought this show was making it up as it went along, but this has always been here.

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Better late than never, though, right? I suppose only next week will tell. My wish list for the final three-and-a-half hours: an answer about the flash-sideways, and a connection between all this mythological business and Desmond’s time-travely, “Who is your Constant?” business. A happy ending for Desmond and Penny. A fair amount of carnage, hopefully including either Jack or Kate. Some answer to the roles Widmore and Eloise have been playing. Bonus points: What about Aaron? What was the deal with not being able to conceive babies on the island? What happened to Vincent?

There are probably other things, and I’m forgetting them. But really, isn’t that what this whole experience of watching Lost been about? “There are probably other things, and I’m forgetting them”?