Big Hearted

2010 June 30
by kvanaren

You could have knocked me over with a feather, but ABC Family’s new show Huge is actually sort of interesting.

The premise sounds like one of those shows that seems like it could be worth watching in theory, but also seems like it would be almost impossible to pull off. The setting of Huge is a fat camp, and the pilot begins on the first day, with all the campers gathered together in bathing suits, waiting to get their “before” pictures taken. We meet our protagonist, a rebellious punk-rocker type with purple streaks in her dark hair and a subversive streak a mile wide – her name is Wilhelmina, but she prefers Will. The hierarchy is quickly established, and we have no trouble identifying the socially awkward, the geeks, the popular guys, and the group of cute mean girls who everyone else quickly identifies as not quite fat enough to be attending fat camp. We admire Will’s spunk as she complies with an order to take off her concealing tshirt by doing so while singing and sashaying to striptease music. We recognize that the hottest, thinnest girl, Amber, is also incredibly self-doubting, and we feel for her. After chuckling at Will’s black market candy business, we shake our head with concern as she decides to run away and then sigh with relief when she returns, as she inevitably must. It is, after all, the first episode of a show about fat camp.

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The thing is that all those emotional twists and turns are reasonably easy to describe, but far trickier to navigate on screen. How does one go about crafting a camp director character who can be seen as cruelly authoritarian but ultimately dedicated to the task of bettering kids’ health? How do you maintain an environment that is a ridiculous, embarrassing torture chamber run by Big Brother’s thinner sibling while also building that environment as a supportive, well-meaning and potentially helpful place? The prom queen who’s actually sad isn’t that hard to create, but how does one establish sympathy for a protagonist whose defining characteristic is admirable rebellion and then undermine our acceptance of her rebellion in just the first episode?

Will's black market candy business

Will's black market candy business

The answer is: I’m not fully sure, but Huge does it remarkably well. Perhaps the pilot’s biggest victory is making the camp immediately problematic rather than banking on its pure evil or easy source of hope. Each character has a slightly different reaction to the place, and every reaction is valid. Will feels as though it is demanding that she hate her own body, Amber and others see it as a road to achieving their “thin-spiration,” and for some, camp is obviously a source of therapy that happens to also make them exercise. For at least one girl, fat camp triggers her many other insecurities and she is sent home for dangerous binging and purging.

It’s a credit to the show that my favorite moment from the pilot was the title moment, the scene when Amber actually says the word “huge.” She is not referring to herself or the other campers, or even in any reference to body size whatsoever. After flirting with a boy, one of the other campers explains that at a place like this, the playing fields are more level than at home, and that realistically, she could hook up with any guy she wanted at camp. After a shocked silence, Amber whispers excitedly, “this is huge!”

Amber

Amber

Usually when these moments roll around, they are winking metafictional bits of self-awareness, and almost always come off as either self-mocking, parody, or just flat-footed. This felt more like a show gently chiding its audience for assuming too quickly that it’s just a show about overweight kids. It’s a show about teenagers with social lives, and it’s about how hard it has been for them to be normal teenagers.

While I Was Gone

2010 June 28
by kvanaren

Here’s the thing about television in the summer – if you take a week off, there’s really not that much you’re missing. Yes, I do wish I could’ve posted last week, and yes, I would’ve found something to write about, but nothing too pressing, you know? The little TV I’ve watched has been almost entirely in airports and on airplanes, and a good half of that small amount has been the World Cup, which I enjoy but also barely know what “off-sides” means. I also watched several episodes of Say Yes to the Dress on a plane from New York to San Francisco (topical for me), selected clips of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Bethenney Getting Married? with my mother (who found them nauseating), and the first two episodes of Top Chef, which suffered from the usual crowd-of-contestants problem of most early season reality shows.

One of the few things I’ve seen that has peaked my interest on the TV front is the news (long-rumored, but seemingly now confirmed) that Steve Carrell will be leaving The Office after his contract runs out at the end of this upcoming season. It’s hard to blame him. He’s been doing that character extraordinarily well for a very long time, and brought far more new to Michael Scott than I would have thought possible at the show’s opening. But the show has seemed to lack inspiration this last season, especially after Pam and Jim’s wedding, and is obviously in need of either retirement or an overhaul. I’d prefer retirement, and keep my fingers crossed that the resulting hole in NBC’s Thursday night schedule wouldn’t lead to a ratings collapse that would sink Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. The ratings plummet seems to be highly likely, though, so my guess is that The Office will be headed for a makeover rather than a finale.

Some shows survive when the cast starts being swapped out. Law and Order, is the classic example, but even shows as disparate as Cheers, ER, and Friday Night Lights have been reasonably successful at moving from one main cast to another. It’s a flip side to the problem of television longevity that we don’t talk about as much, because so few shows make it long enough to encounter this obstacle. Generally, it has better odds of succeeding on shows like Law and Order or ER, where the procedural or the soap opera formats provide enough regular, repetitive plot structure that characters become at least somewhat replaceable. The Office’s problem is that its plots have always been mere excuses to showcase the Dunder Mifflin nutjobs, and are actually painfully boring without the additional twist of Michael, Jim, Dwight or Andy Bernard to screw things up. It’s sensitivity training day. We sell printers now. It’s Angela’s birthday. Michael wants a girlfriend. Replacing Michael Scott not only upsets the character make-up of the show, it endangers everything that has made the show work.

I don’t think it’s impossible, and despite my reservations, I think The Office with a new manager of the Scranton branch could be really great. It just seems really, really unlikely for that to be so. Plus, I worry that the final result will be eight season of the Steve Carrell The Office, followed by one tragic final season starring David Caruso. It’s just going to look so unfortunate in your The Office: The Complete Series box set, don’t you think?

Death and All His Friends (who are also dead)

2010 June 16
by kvanaren

Watching this first episode of the third season of True Blood was different for me than it has been in the past, because between last season and this, I’ve actually read the books that the series is based on, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. I’m fascinated by the connections and divergences between the books and the show, in part because I think the multi-episode, multi-season show is most closely related to the novel series form. Even serialized novels, which can look a lot like a television show broken down into individual episodes, have no strong corollary for the role of the television season. The novel series provides the clearest parallel because each book follows several different plot arcs but always makes some attempt to tie them up at the end, and while characters, themes and major conflicts carry over from one book to another, we see the book as a single, complete unit. The same can often be said for the television season, particularly the consecutive thirteen-episode season on cable networks like AMC, HBO or FX.

deaduntildarkAnd yet, while books are often made into blockbuster movies or movie series (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, ahem, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), there have been fewer examples of the book series-TV series crossover until Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and True Blood started to appear in the last few years. So I’ve been interested in how True Blood compares with the originals, especially because the plot of the show is so ridiculously esoteric. (And also, I will be honest. Those books are seriously addictive, completely empty brain candy, and reading them is like stuffing your face with caramel corn and then falling into a sugar coma for the next three hours. Plus, my Kindle enables me to purchase them for pretty cheap without also having to stare at the physical reminders that I’ve just bought eight books with titles like Definitely Dead, Dead as a Doornail, All Together Dead, Club Dead, Death Comes for the Archbishop –wait.)

The first thing that strikes you when thinking about how to translate a book into a television series is that although a season may be roughly equivalent to a book, a book is not similarly equivalent to thirteen episodes. Television has a much more demanding, far more structured internal organization, because each episode has individual requirements that a chapter just does not have. The books are full of sex and excitement and fangs and blood-sucking, but there’s no way it could be enough to fill out thirteen balanced, satisfying, exciting, complete episodes. It’s easy to see why True Blood is so overloaded on subplots, because rather than try to divvy out Bill and Sookie’s romance into unimpressively small chunks, it’s much easier to just add on a whole Lafayette storyline, and then make a bigger deal out of Tara, and also give Terry Bellefleur and Hoyt more to do. At least up through these first two seasons, True Blood has left out very little of the basic material from the first two Harris novels, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas, but it has added a whole lot more.

Which is why season three is going to be so interesting in terms of how True Blood continues to negotiate this relationship with the original novels. While Sookie’s relationship with Bill peters out quite quickly during the third novel, True Blood’s Sookie and Bill seem to be on much steadier ground, fueled in part by the well-publicized relationship between the actors who play them (Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer). Indeed, Bill largely disappears from the novels after the third book, and Sookie’s healthy sex drive get sparked by several other lucky supernatural beings. I’m curious as to whether the show will continue Bill and Sookie’s lusty relationship, and in doing so, effectively divorce itself from anything other than a very loose connection to the novels, or whether TV-Sookie will end up dumping Bill’s unfaithful rear-end and turning to greener pastures.

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Let’s just say this – after reading the books, I’d love to see the show explore Sookie’s subsequent relationships, and was therefore quite heartened to see the show give us a good long glance at Eric’s naked body. And it was completely because I’m interested in the show’s future relationship with the books, and not at all because I enjoyed the view. (Oh, True Blood. At least you objectify both sexes.)

Sexy vampires and crazy subplots

2010 June 15
by kvanaren

I think the experience of watching True Blood primarily boils down to two somewhat opposing features. The dominant and most obvious aspect of the show is its outright pulpiness – it is an unusually self-aware and delightfully sincere soup of bloody viscera and sexual fluids. Violence and sex are so intertwined on the show that one is often confused for the other, and both are so overwhelmingly present that at times True Blood feels an un-plotted excuse for bloody, erotic vignettes. It would feel un-plotted, that is, except for the other primary feature of the show, the one most apparent to David as he watched Sunday’s premiere. He’d seen the first few episodes of the first season, and was sure that he could understand everything that had happened in the remainder of season one and the whole of season two by just watching the ninety-second “Previously on” clip reel. So I fired it up, and after ninety seconds of Maryann being gored by a bull, Lafayette in Eric’s basement, Jason at the Fellowship of the Sun, Godric’s self-immolation, baby vamp Jessica, the Bon Temps orgy, Sam’s search for his family, and finally Bill’s proposal to Sookie and subsequent kidnapping, David was left sitting there with his mouth agape and one index finger raised. “I was wrong,” he said.

And now it'll be all that... PLUS WEREWOLVES!

And now it'll be all that... PLUS WEREWOLVES!

True Blood is one of the most crazily plotted shows on TV right now, and it’s so strangely convoluted and overcomplicated that the sex and violence feel like excuses to take a breath from the forty-seven characters who all require mental juggling. As I tried to explain a basic plot outline after the unhelpful “Previously on” reel, I found myself again and again concluding with “well, I forget how that actually went down, but then he died,” or “I don’t know, it was something to do with this arrangement between Eric and Pam and the Queen of Louisiana?” or even, “actually, I don’t remember whether she died or if she just… left?” Snort.

Somehow, I find all of this firmly rooted in the “forgivable” column, even though I have nearly identical problems with Big Love, a show I continue to watch despite its probably permanent “unforgivable” status. True Blood’s saving grace in respect to this over-the-top plot silliness is its compellingly consistent atmosphere, which lends everything a surreal, sly, knowing quality. Where Big Love reaches for melodrama and emotional realism in the same moment, True Blood recasts everything in its immense breadth of material (gory murder, evangelical ministry, sex, small-town politics) in the same garish light, placing it all on the same level. It’s hard to believe that Barb’s grief over losing the Mormon church exists in the same world as J.J.’s villainous eugenics program, but Tara’s alcoholic mother and Bill’s werewolf showdown feel like pieces of the same puzzle.

Oh yeah.

Oh yeah.

So those are my general feelings about True Blood. Tomorrow – some specificity about why I’m so pleased to see Vampire Eric naked.

Breaking Bad – Full Measure

2010 June 14
by kvanaren

Last night’s Breaking Bad finale was just as awesome as expected, although it represented a shift for the show that I hope won’t be entirely permanent. Unlike previous moments of high tension in the show (okay, okay, that’s basically every episode, but still…), the focus was entirely on Walt’s business with Gus and Jesse, and Skyler, Walt Jr., and Hank fell way into the background. It was a great episode, moving from Walt’s newly confident adversarial relationship with Gus to his decision to take out poor Gale and then forcing that burden onto Jesse, but it lacked an aspect of Walt’s life that’s provided such high stakes in the past. Now that Skyler knows about Walt’s criminal life, the constant sense that Walt was trying to build a house of cards has faded, and the only thing he has to risk now is his own humanity, which he seems quite comfortable squandering. Watching Gus transform into the merciless drug kingpin we always knew he was made for a great episode, but I hope Breaking Bad won’t lose the balance between Walt’s family and his criminal enterprise in the future. (A future which is now assured a fourth season, by the way!)

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There are several great interviews with both Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan that went live after last night’s episode, but what I found most fascinating was this question and answer from Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Vince Gilligan.

…Last season had a very clear plan, and you were laying seeds for the plane crash from the very beginning. So this year, you didn’t have anything like that in your head going into it?

…this season was kind of a different deal in a lot of ways. One sense was, as a reaction to the pre-ordained feeling of season two, we wanted this season to feel as if it was being lived in in the moment for us writers. Therefore, we kind of winged it. We tried to be as true to the characters as we could, we tried to let them tell us where they were headed, and we tried not to oversteer them into scenes we thought would be fun scenes. Rather, we tried to listen to the characters and see what they wanted to do and where they were headed. That’s really the approach we had to season three, and it had its positives and it had its negatives, too for us. It was a different way for doing it. Going forward into season four, if there’s yet a third way of structuring a season, maybe we’ll try to find it just to keep things fresh and interesting.

Gilligan goes even further into this process in the interview, but what it boils down to is an insistence that there was surprisingly little planning ahead of time and that the season came together one episode at a time. I’ll admit right now that this goes contrary to my beliefs about what usually makes good television and why some shows fall flat, but I’m glad to have been proved wrong in this area. After so much anxiety about the ending of Lost, about shows that get cancelled prematurely, about the weight audiences put on series finales, and the pressure to pull together plot strings, my position has been that the best TV shows know ahead of time when they’re going to end, and plan accordingly. For most TV shows, I still think that’s the case, particularly for those shows where plot is as important or more important than character studies. Some degree of planning makes it easier to work around the multiple real-world obstacles that beset television production schedules, but it also means that each episode can be more purpose-driven and less likely to be a misstep in the bigger scope of the season.

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Yet clearly, it is possible to put together an amazing season of television with very little advance planning – at least, it is if you’re Vince Gilligan. I think it works because Breaking Bad isn’t set up as a mystery and because its suspense comes as much from the characters as it does from any particular plot line. Mysteries live and die by their plot structures, by the tiny clues and meticulous timelines. This is one reason why a mystery show like Damages has the flashforward narrative structure it does: when you put the end at the beginning, everyone knows where all the pieces need to end up. Maybe tiny details like Walt’s second cell phone or the broken windshield matter just as much on Breaking Bad, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what seals the deal on Skyler’s suspicions as long as something does. Of course, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what kind of show it is if the showrunner isn’t also as brilliant as Gilligan clearly is.

Can’t wait for season four. Up tomorrow, the return of True Blood. Whoo, sexy vampires!

Goodbye Sunshine

2010 June 11
by kvanaren

What would summer TV be without a new, trashy ABC Family show featuring attractive girls of questionable innocence? I direct your attention to Pretty Little Liars, which premiered this week on ABC Family.

Despite its seeming similarity, though, this particular series marks a strong departure from previous programming on the network. ABC Family has now jumped on the CW bandwagon of building its shows on successful teen novel franchises. CW began with Gossip Girl and then expanded into teen fantasy fiction with The Vampire Diaries, and both of those shows have proven successful enough to warrant continued production of television shows based on popular book series. The eighth book in Sara Shepards’ Pretty Little Liars series came out last week in co-ordination with the release of the show’s first episode, and I think it’s hard to deny the appeal of developing programming around a collection of long-form narratives with an already proven audience.

Let's not even talk about the fact that this lovely young woman is supposed to be IN HIGH SCHOOL.

Let's not even talk about the fact that this lovely young woman is supposed to be IN HIGH SCHOOL.

Pretty Little Liars actually looks much more like a CW show than a show for ABC Family – at least in the first episode, it has none of the earnestness or morals-focused messages of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Even though the subject matter varies, most of the ABC Family line-up has a characteristic sweetness, which can range from saccharine saturated conservative throwback family values shows with creakingly ancient premises (Secret Life, any ABC Family sitcom), or endearingly cheerful, occasionally wry but largely good-natured programming (Greek, my beloved and cancelled The Middleman). Pretty Little Liars is a departure from that spectrum of sweetness, and the results are both good and bad. The premise is that four girls in a clique share many secrets, one of the most important being the disappearance of their friend Allison, whose body is discovered in the pilot episode a year after first going missing. Turns out, Allison has been endowed with the ability to send creepy, blackmail-themed text messages from beyond the grave (or some particularly cruel imposter has taken on that unpleasant task), and the girls of Pretty Little Liars end the pilot episode after discovering they’ve all been recipients of these messages. Not only that, but there seems to also be a mysterious cover-up about a girl named Jenna, and now there’s a cop investigating Allison’s death. Stay tuned next week – DUN DUN DUN.

Text message from beyond the grave!

Text message from beyond the grave!

But ABC Family’s familiar reminders about the dangers of premarital sex and the puppy dog longing for a soul mate are nowhere to be found, and instead the whole thing comes off as Desperate Housewives Junior. I don’t miss the preachy language or the plot lines that go CLUNK in the night, especially when so much of the moral righteousness was undermined by salacious visuals or shenanigans like political guest appearances. (Bristol Palin was a guest on a very special episode of Secret Life last season. No, I am not joking.) I do miss ABC Family’s oddly antiquarian tone, though. For so much of the programming, the network has been a place where the sappy family bonding moment is not immediately revealed to be devious or ridiculous. No longer. Pretty Little Liars is built on the CW mode of sly undercutting and teenage betrayals, and its tart sharpness does slice through all of that sweetness quite effectively. Case in point – Hanna, one of the four female leads, has a shoplifting habit and is caught by the police. Rather than receiving a sharp reprimand from her mother and shamefully returning the stolen item, Hanna’s mother tells her that it matters what other people think, and then gets the charges dropped by sleeping with the arresting officer. It’s illegal, sexy, wrong on so many levels.

Hanna, comtemplating theft, and her mother, contemplating Hanna's arresting officer

Hanna, comtemplating theft, and her mother, contemplating Hanna's arresting officer

Poor ABC Family. It feels a little like watching a particularly attractive, evil popular girl take down the less glamorous class sweetheart with one crushing comment.

I want to know!!

2010 June 10
tags:
by kvanaren

Because I spent my Thursday making an enormous amount of strawberry jam rather than watching television, today you get this AMAZINGNESS from William Shatner in lieu of a blog post.

Glee – Journey

2010 June 9
by kvanaren

The weirdest thing about the ending of this season of Glee was the final moment of joy when the Glee club discovers it has been given another year. It was weird not because it seemed out of place or at all unexpected, but weird instead because Glee has actually been assured of its survival for at least two more years. Thinking back to the show’s premiere, there was general uncertainty about whether a tonally uneven show about a plucky, self-aware group of high schoolers who enjoy performing Broadway-caliber musical numbers could ever have a broad audience appeal. That uncertainty has been put to rest far more definitively than I ever would have imagined – for a scripted network show to be renewed for a third season before the first season’s even completed is as unlikely as stumbling across a woolly mammoth on your way to work.

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There are all sorts of highbrow and probably true things to say about why that might be, and what it is about Glee that has made it so culturally appealing at this moment. I might pick the pomo route and talk about how effectively the show is built to capitalize on reference, pastiche, imitation and camp. Other options include the show’s tricky, occasionally unsuccessful blend of sincerity and snark, or a discussion of how well Glee meshes with FOX’s American Idol to create a solid programming block based on spectacle-laden covers of familiar pop music. But you can’t think about the show without also considering its many missteps. Two pregnancy plots, and one of them’s a fake pregnancy? Is Glee really dealing with issues of race, sexual orientation and disability, or is the club just a beautiful, diverse rainbow of unquestioned stereotypes? Does no one else find Mr. Schuester a little creepy? At the end of the day, is Glee about real people whose emotions we have to take seriously, or is it a farcical high school fun house? A panel prompt for next fall’s FlowTV conference at UT Austin asks participants to consider what it is about the show that makes it a “breath of fresh, yet problematic air.”

Puck and Mr. Schuester sing "Over the Rainbow"

Puck and Mr. Schuester sing "Over the Rainbow"

It’s really easy to see what’s been problematic about Glee, but the clearly harder-to-categorize quality of freshness has won out. The finale had a fair amount of it on display, with the key moment being New Directions’ total loss at Regionals. Any other show would have put them straight into the win column, or perhaps fudged around with a miscount or disqualification before declaring victory. Even Friday Night Lights, a show unusually comfortable with burdening its characters with loss and sadness, pushed the Dillon Panthers straight through to the State Championships. On the surface, it’s easy to see why the loss makes sense for a show like Glee, where the baldly stated emphasis of the finale and the less consistent purpose of the show overall has been to celebrate the students’ love of the club and personal achievements rather than victory in the eyes of others. But it would be so easy to give them both – to have them succeed for themselves and also get a giant trophy. Instead, the finale concluded with a lovely little cover of “Over the Rainbow,” sung by a teacher in appreciation for his students, even though they lost. At least in this sense, Glee stuck to its guns.

The interpretive dance/birth montage version of "Bohemian Rhapsody"

The interpretive dance/birth montage version of "Bohemian Rhapsody"

It is also so quintessentially Glee for an episode that includes two lovely, heartfelt numbers like “To Sir, With Love” and “Over the Rainbow” to also throw in the bizarre interpretative dance/birth montage version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The scene was impressive and baffling, and much as I’d love to remember New Directions’ adorable Journey medley as the definitive Regionals performance, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is far more representative of the show. Incredible vocal and dance performances, absurdly high production values for a high school competition of anything, intense emotional upheaval, glimmers of important character development quashed by a reversion to simplistic types, and all of it crammed on top of each other and accompanied by the overwhelming sense that these things just shouldn’t go together. By which I mean to say – a powerful inkling that these things should not go together, coupled with the pleasure in seeing them all jumbled into the same box anyhow.

I have absolutely no idea how Glee will able to keep it up for two more seasons. Then again, I had no idea a show like Glee could get renewed for two more seasons in the first place, and much though I may grumble, I can hardly pretend I’m displeased.

So you've woken up in a mysterious place with eight strangers and you can't get out. What do you do now?

2010 June 8
by kvanaren

Summer has already begun with new, probably doomed but possibly interesting programming, and last night’s offering was the pilot of NBC’s new show Persons Unknown. In it, strangers wake up in a creepy abandoned hotel and discover they’ve been trapped in a piece of a fake-looking isolated main street, with no idea how they got there, why they’re there, or who did this to them. When they try to leave by walking past the border of the town, they collapse and are ferried back to town by some nice men who only speak Chinese and who then cook them a lovely Chinese meal in the town’s creepy abandoned Chinese restaurant. The meal ends with fortune cookies containing various odd messages, the most notable being:

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Gotcha. So to recap: strangers stuck in a weird fake town blanketed by surveillance will now be forced to kill each other for mysterious reasons. At the moment, the fortune cookie message and the shots of surveillance footage have me leaning toward a Most Dangerous Game/Hunger Games scenario for why these people have been trapped in the middle of nowhere, but I’d love to be surprised. The several earlier iterations of this idea have had some good results and often garnered strong audience responses (starting with The Prisoner, of course, but also Lost and many others), but I have a hard time understanding why anyone would continue to make television shows with this premise when all of the other attempts have fallen victim to the same problem. Everyone likes the beginning when the whole thing is mysterious and unknown, but that grace period lasts an extremely short time (and I think that grace period gets shorter every time this premise gets re-used). At some point, either the show has to keep twisting back on itself to retain the mystery, or it has to make it appear as though some answers are forthcoming. And then that bit can only last for so long until answers have to actually be forthcoming. And then the show is over.

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What is this strange town? And how did we get here?

This premise is ideal for films, for novels, and even for miniseries, but it’s just fraught with problems for serialized television. It must be incredibly difficult to keep something like this exciting for long enough to get a show renewed, but it must be even harder to keep a mysterious island story exciting indefinitely. To be fair, it’s likely that neither of those problems are among NBC’s concerns. What they need right now is a show that’s cheap to make (mostly one large unchanging set, no big expensive celebrities on the cast – check) and will fill some time until fall when they can get the main season shows started again. Persons Unknown has not been given the programming slot, marketing push, or star power of a long-running show. From that perspective, the premise may not be such a bad idea. If you know you’ve got a limited life span, why not actually write a show with an ending?

Oh yes, someone is watching. BUT WHO?!

Oh yes, someone is watching. BUT WHO?!

Who knows if that’s the plan behind Persons Unknown, or if it has some other scheme for coping with the long-term planning problems that come packaged with the “strangers trapped in a mysterious place” plotline? For now, the problem of how you do a story like this on television is still a near-perfect mirror of the premise itself – they are both puzzles that have yet to be solved.

Breaking Bad – Half Measures

2010 June 7
by kvanaren

After finally catching up with Breaking Bad, I watched last night’s episode live and ended with my hands clapped over my jaw, which continued to hang agape for at least two minutes after the episode’s end. “Half Measures” built slowly with the realization that Jesse wanted to kill the guys who killed Combo, the meeting with Gus, various side stories with Skyler and Hank, and the final confrontation that ended with Walt taking out a guy with his car and then without a moment’s hesitation, getting out of the car and shooting another guy in the head. The whole thing happened with stunning speed, which is a testament to the care with which Breaking Bad deals with pacing. I’ve mentioned in the past that the show pays special attention to incredibly long scenes and long takes – “Half Measure” certainly took advantage of that, perhaps most obviously in the scene where Mike tells Walt about his career as a beat cop. That long, contemplative monologue form has become a signature for the show. But on occasion, Breaking Bad takes the opposite tack and knocks you over with something you didn’t even see coming. Tortuga and the exploding turtle would be one memorable example of this, but Walt and the Aztek is right up there on a list of Breaking Bad scenes that shock you at lightning speed.

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What made that scene all the more shocking, though, was one of Walt’s lines earlier in the episode, something he says as he tries to talk Jesse out of revenging Combo’s death. Walt tells Jesse he can’t kill those men because Jesse’s not a murderer. “I am not, and you are not,” Walt says. That statement is astonishing from a character who killed two men within the show’s earliest episodes and then stood by while Jesse’s girlfriend choked to death on her own vomit. But in each case, those deaths were accompanied by visibly strained consideration from Walt. Emilio’s death is particularly fraught as Walt sits on the floor and chats with him about his father’s furniture company, but our perspective on Jane’s more spontaneous death was similarly marked by long shots of Walt’s face as he contemplates his own actions. There can be no doubt that Walt is a murderer, but it’s much easier to justify it as something else when we watch him struggle with each event.

Walt comes to a decision.

Walt comes to a decision.

The deaths at the end of “Half Measures” are very, very different. For the first time, we watch Walt kill someone with no images of his reaction and almost no visual narration of his thought process. The last images we have are of Walt sitting at the dinner table after hearing the story of Tomas’ death on the news, and coming to some strong but completely inscrutable resolution. We then watch a long build up of Jesse falling off the wagon, loading his gun, trying to gather himself for the task at hand, and then walking toward his intended victims, nearly in tears. It is a Wild West showdown sequence, ripped from the moment in every western when the hero faces down the villain in the main thoroughfare, remixed into a scene from a drug war where there is no hero. All of our expectations are focused on this experience for Jesse and his image of himself as the bad guy, and then all of those expectations collapse as Walt swoops in like an angel of death. There are no shots of his face while he’s driving, just the silhouette of the car mowing down the meth dealers, and barely a second’s glimpse as he stops the car and runs to take out the surviving victim. Jesse’s horrified reaction is our reaction, and Walt shows no trace of regret. If there was any doubt before, there is no way an audience could ever look at that man now and see anything less than a murderer.

The Wild West

The Wild West

It seems trivial – you begin with a man declaring that he’s not a murderer, and you end with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But when that man is the protagonist, when the scene of the murder is so efficiently brutal, and when all of the props the show has so consistently maintained to justify that man’s actions are swiftly removed, it leaves you with your mouth agape. Mine still is, nearly a day later.