Lettin' it all hang out

2010 August 31
by kvanaren

Although I haven’t been writing about it, I have continued to watch this season of True Blood, and been interested by some of the often contradictory complaints that it has gotten relatively boring, that there are too many new supernatural characters (were-panthers, fairies, witches), that clearly the plots won’t all be wrapped up by the end of the season, or that it’s obvious the writers are now just vamping (heh) to fill time.

It’s an odd sort of show where all of those things seem like they could be true at the same time, and yet, True Blood is a pretty odd show. It does seem unlikely that something as shapeless and undirected as Lafayette’s strangely mystical new relationship could be tied together neatly by the end of the season, just as it seems clear that the Sam’s An Angry Shapeshifter With Family Issues plotline has been stretched thin and is on repeat until the season ends. I find both of these plotlines boring, which is a shame given that Layfette used to be a highlight of Bon Temps society. Over in Mississippi, though, things have been quite fun this season. Crazed vampire villain Russell Edgington makes a pleasingly unpredictable nemesis, and he has the good grace to find his Nazi werewolf minions just as disgusting as the rest of us. Plus, how can you find a show boring when the villain slaughters a news anchor on live TV and then announces to the world that he plans to enslave all humankind? That’s just solid entertainment.

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In truth, True Blood is built to elicit all of those reactions and more, because any show with the sheer number of plotlines it insists on carrying at once is asking to be received with bewilderment, dazed acceptance, or uncharacterized resistance. It’s so strange to read that True Blood is boring, because the only possible explanation must be that there’s so much going on at once that you can’t actually see any of the individual pieces. I know it’s absurd, but these lists are sort of entertaining to try to construct:

  1. Sookie, Bill and Eric are engaged in a battle with King of Mississippi Russell Edgington, a battle which began with Russell’s desire to acquire Bill in order to get information about the Queen of Louisiana, but which now is mostly about Eric’s need to avenge the death of his family over a thousand years ago and Russell’s belief that Sookie’s fairy blood will allow him to walk in the daylight. The Queen of Louisiana was distributing V through Eric’s bar Fangtasia, and in order to get out of trouble with the vampire hierarchy, has agreed to marry King of Mississippi and The Gays, Russell.
  2. Sookie’s a fairy, which is why all the vampires think she’s so tasty. Sookie’s cousin Hadley, the Queen of Louisiana’s plaything because she’s also Queen of The Gays, has a son who is clearly also part fairy.
  3. Sam is a shapeshifter, and so are his mother and brother, who have been forced by Sam’s mother’s husband to participate in dog fights. Sam is now really, really angry.
  4. Tara had this whole crazy thing with a creepy disturbed vampire who kept her locked in a Scarlett O’Hara fantasy until Jason staked him, and now she’s back to mourning Eggs, who died when he was killed by Jason.
  5. Speaking of Jason, he’s dating a were-panther who lives in the Crystal Meth Capital of Louisiana and whose father wants her to breed with her half brother.
  6. How about a little Arlene? She’s pregnant with her serial killer ex-boyfriend’s baby and can’t seem to get rid of it, which she really wants to do even though her current boyfriend and dreamboat Terry is supportive.
  7. Lafayette has a hot new boyfriend, his mother’s nurse from the mental hospital, and together they do V and rediscover their crazy voodoo pasts.
  8. Also, Jessica’s back together with Hoyt, who lets her drink his blood even after she admits she accidentally killed a trucker that way.
  9. Let’s see, what have I forgotten? Oh yes, the Nazi werewolves. And the friendly witch in Sam’s bar. Oh, and that whole thing with Bill’s creator Lorena. And something about the high school quarterback?


Right, so how can a show that looks like that be boring? There are enough head-twisty sex scenes and serial killer demon babies to fuel twelve seasons of The Vampire Diaries (if it were allowed to have head-twisty sex scenes, that is). I think the answer to that question is much the same as the answer to one of the common criticisms I mentioned above, which is that there are now too many supernatural characters. In the Sookie Stackhouse book series, there are just as many magical beings as in True Blood, but through Sookie’s narration, you get a perpetual reminder of how that could be true. If there are vampires, she continually says, just think of how many other creatures are hiding in the woodwork, of how little of the world you must actually understand. The effect is to continue to push the point of blasé familiarity farther into the distance – yep, there are werewolves and witches and fairies. Think of what else must still be out there.

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True Blood is not that interested in extending that sense of mystery, or of keeping things hidden away. Its operating aesthetic, in fact, is exactly the opposite of that technique. Think of the most disgusting, bestial sex act you can imagine, it says. Now watch as we show you something even weirder, plus way more blood and moaning sound effects. Russell Edgington isn’t just going to mourn his dead lover. He’s going to carry his partially-dissolved, goopy corpse around in a clear glass urn, and chat with it about favorite paintings. It may just be possible that one reaction to True Blood is boredom, not because nothing happens, but because a complete, panoptical view eventually gets boring, even if what you’re looking at are seventeen different but equally orgiastic plotlines.

Our mothers and the team over at What Not To Wear were probably right, True Blood. Sometimes what you don’t see is much sexier than what you do.

Mad Men – Waldorf Stories

2010 August 30
by kvanaren

It was a fortuitously timed episode of Mad Men last night, as both the show and Don Draper won major awards, and we got a hefty dose of award ceremony spectacle on both counts. For the third year in a row, Mad Men won the Emmy for Best Drama, and Don Draper won a Clio for his revolutionary Glo-Coat ad. One hopes that Matthew Weiner didn’t model Don’s behavior on his own typical post-ceremony celebrations, because wow, it does not look fun to black out for a day and a half only to wake up next to a waitress named Doris who is calling you by your long-abandoned birth name. Meanwhile, Don has pitched someone else’s terrible catchphrase to the Life Cereal people, he’s forgotten to pick up his children, and it takes Peggy Olson’s increasingly amazing self-confidence to pull him back to reality.

The combination of Don’s Clio win and the Emmys is a mirror that comes from outside the episode itself – it’s hard to believe this episode could have been scheduled without some realization that it would coincide with the biggest annual television awards show, but you could watch this episode a year from now and not feel the reverberation of that echo. Even so, the idea of doubling continues to bounce around inside the episode itself, tinting the ad pitches, the flashbacks, and the verbal tics alike. Those flashbacks, a welcome return to a device I initially found annoying, make some obvious parallels between Don’s early career and the disastrous introduction to young Danny Siegel. Both men are desperate, brazen, full to the brim with dubious ideas, and ultimately benefit from the overindulgence of their superiors (although Don unequivocally steals Danny’s idea for the Life Cereal pitch, while it’s unclear whether Roger actually offered Don a job or Don just showed up in the lobby and invited himself in. Welcome aboard!). To tie down that juxtaposition even further, we get flashback Roger’s hijacked cliché, “My mother always said, be careful what you wish for, ‘cause you’ll get it. And then people get jealous and try and take it away from you,” followed by a young Don’s reply, “I don’t think that’s how that goes,” as a direct response to the episode’s opening scene. “Aspiration’s as good as perspiration,” intones a smug Danny Siegel. “That’s not how it goes,” answers Don. There’s more where that comes from, of course. Even before Don steals Danny’s stupid “cure for the common…” idea, his own pitch for Life Cereal is a drunken hackjob of his brilliant Kodak Carousel pitch from the season one finale. And just to put a little visual bullet point on all that doubling, that ad Don created for the fur company features young Betty, before her marriage to Don “saves” her from her modeling career.

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The episode’s primary obsession is credit and recognition – getting it, deserving it, being denied it, working for it, failing to be appreciative to those who helped you get it. It’s a part of every plot line, even that little conference room scene when Pete Campbell makes clear that Ken will have to report to him, and Ken gives him that look of begrudging respect. In addition to all of the multiple opportunities for “find the theme” bingo (no one appreciates Peggy’s Glo-Coat contributions! Don hasn’t thanked Roger for discovering him! Just what does that obnoxious new art director think he’s earned, anyway?), the idea is supported more subtly by the episode’s on-the-nose mirroring and the repeated return to cliché.

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Underneath the fairly simple impulse to give awards to those who earn them is the more complicated problem of where an idea comes from. While she may be furious with Don’s pitiful lapses in control, Peggy’s chiding speech is also surprisingly generous about the problem he’s created for himself. “I know I’ve gotten stuff stuck in my brain before, and you don’t know where it’s coming from.” All of the episode’s doubling is a manifestation of this anxiety; it illustrates the problem of originality and copying. Which comes first, Danny’s response to Don’s appropriated cliché, or Don’s identical response to Roger’s? Danny’s scene comes first in the episode, but Roger’s drunken cliché happens years previously. Is it copying if Don cribs that little nostalgia shtick from his own pitch? At what point is a cliché something you’ve re-appropriated as your own, and when is it still just something floating around in public consciousness? This one, at least, has the beginnings of an answer – wherever that point of re-invention may be, Danny certainly hasn’t reached it with “cure for the common chair.” “It’s an idiom…Did you know that?”

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For once, it feels like Mad Men’s cultural references to the modern moment have more juice than the perpetual 1960s references, and rather than be relegated to the background, “Waldorf Stories” makes it feel as though those coinciding references to the Emmys are front and center. Who deserves the credit for a television show? How do we award originality, and where do we imagine those ideas for story and character come from? As Pete notes, Gray’s built its reputation on awards for five years. I wonder what this Clio will mean for SCDP, and, in the same breath, what three consecutive Emmys means for Mad Men.

Project Runway – Extended, extended edition

2010 August 26
by kvanaren

What happens when a previously hour-long format reality show gets changed into a bloated hour-and-a-half-long catfight? You get this season of Project Runway.

Let’s look at a breakdown of tonight’s episode:

9:00 – 9:11– discussion of the unfairness of last week’s win and elimination, picking of teams for the new challenge, description of this week’s challenge (create an entire collection), Garnier product placement, HP Touchsmart Notebooks product placement, ridiculous team meeting in which one group decides that a military and lace inspired collection is an excellent idea. Gretchen becomes the defacto leader of the menswear/camel team, the military/lace group lacks a leader, annnnnd commercial break.

9:12 – 9:14 – Commercials

9:14 – It looks like it’s the end of the commercials, but it’s just a Project Runway HP Touchsmart commercial featuring current contestants.

9:14 – 9:16 – Commercials

9:16 – 9:22 – Return to the military/lace group’s problematic planning meeting, where Peach begins to freak out. Gretchen, defacto leader of Team Luxe (ugh), notes that they’ve mutually agreed on many things. Trip to Mood, where obnoxious dancing takes place. Valerie compares designing a collection piece by piece to having diarrhea and vomiting at the same time, which does sound horrible, but which I don’t really grasp as a metaphor. Big drama over Michael Costello, who apparently can’t even construct a cowl neck

9:22 – Commercials

9:26 – 9:34 – Team Military/Lace has no idea how to suggest hairstyles. Lots of Garnier placement. “I’m going to use a tiny bit of the FiberGum putty. It just gives me a little more…control.” Tim checks in with Team Military/Lace, who reminds them that lace can easily look old, and that Casanova in particular needs to “youthen up” his look. Team Luxe is ambitious, apparently, and at the same time, their clothes are “ho hum.” After his harsh critique, Casanova wants to walk out, which means his other team members have to finish his look.

9:34 – More commercials

9:39 – 9:47  – Subtitled discussion in Spanish as Casanova has a break down, and his model is sent in to try to talk him down. Things have got to be rough when the best advice comes from his model. Michael Costello’s shirt is poorly fitted, AJ has nothing to put on his model, and Casanova manages to pick up a pair of scissors. Of course, Gretchen has ended up making pieces for nearly every look, and is now freaking out. Next morning, everyone shows up ready to work, even though Valerie describes the other team as “cray-cray.” Models show up, and are promptly pressed into sewing duty. More Garnier product placements. Tim shows up to warn everyone that it’s time to go to the runway, and a little pre-show trash talk kicks in.

9:47 – 9:50 – Annnd it’s the commercials.

9:50 – Another HP Touchsmart psych out.

9:50 – 9:52 – Return to actual commercials.

9:52 – 10:01 – We begin the runway show! We still have over half an hour of this program! Gretchen comments on the Team Military/Lace collection, which she feels has no flow. Team Luxe feels that their collection is coherent, thoughtful, understated, etc. etc. So of course, Team Military/Lace are the winners. They talk about the balance between hard and soft, and the difficulty of creating something that is both cohesive but representative of each designer. There’s so much Gretchen commentary that they actually cut back and forth between her backstage complaints and the judging of the winning team. In the Room of Regret, Team Luxe discuss runway defense strategy.

10:01 – Oh, apparently Lifetime has the How I Met Your Mother syndication rights. Oh, more commercials.

10:06 – 10:19 – All right, here comes the complaining. When asked to identify the weakest designer, Gretchen stumbles over not saying Michael Costello’s name, and then Gretchen Just. Keeps. Talking. Nina: “it doesn’t have any sex appeal, there’s no design, and the colors are…ghastly.” Gretchen is trying to do a 360 turn around by throwing Michael under the bus and claiming she actually hated the collection, and the judges aren’t buying it. Finally, everyone has to go through and claim every piece they made. Judges discussion quickly skips over the winners, and revel in the awfulness of Team Luxe. “It was hideous.” “I don’t understand, were you just bossing everyone around?” “It’s like jumping off a bridge, and it’s like, everyone’s going to drown, let’s drown together.”

10:19 – 10:23 – Yup.

10:23 – Really, another HP commercial?!

10:23 – 10:24 – Last commercial break.

10:24 – 10:30 – Casanova wins! It comes down to Gretchen and AJ, and Gretchen is in, of course, because everyone hates her. Poor AJ goes home. Tim totally calls out Team Luxe for letting Gretchen “manipulate and bully” them, and basically tells AJ that he’s going home because Gretchen was a jerk.

If the previous Project Runway format ran about 43 of its 60 minutes for about 72% actual programming, this new version runs 61 out of 90 minutes, giving us 68%, so that feeling of incredible commercial saturation is not just your imagination! What do you actually get for those extra 18 minutes? Mostly complaining. And Garnier.

Pictures will go up tomorrow as I get them!

A Cathedral Story

2010 August 25
by kvanaren

Generally, I’m a big fan of the miniseries as a form, but I can’t quite make up my mind about Starz’s big summer attraction Pillars of the Earth. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Ken Follett, and it has all the bells and whistles I most easily succumb to in TV like this. It’s a costume drama set in the 12th century, it ostensibly follows both the growth and upheavals of several characters in a fictional English town as well as the birth of the architectural Gothic style, there’s romance, there’s a big secret about the royal lineage, there’s Ian McShane. And on the whole, I fall victim to the sweeping shots of the slowly rising cathedral, just as I am supposed to, along with anyone else who’s read David Macaulay’s Castle.

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Part of the series’ fun is its expansive timeline, which allows for the slow and often impeded production of the cathedral and its surrounding town to be clipped into a highlight reel, skittering from one monarch to the next, letting the characters’ children grow up to be sexy stonemasons and wool merchants so that they can play out a sort of Cathedral: The Next Generation while the building continues steadily in the background. It would have to be this way, of course, because to follow a 12th century cathedral from its conception to what I can only assume will be its completion absolutely necessitates this type of narrative quicktime. In one installment, the building’s original architect describes his awareness of this problem to his sons, admitting he’ll never live to see the church finished, and saying sadly that he can only hope one of his sons will carry out his work. Unfortunately, the chosen son has some modern ideas about the feasibility of using stone rather than wood for the church vaults, and without enough planning for the additional weight the walls will need to support, he causes a major collapse that kills over seventy peasants gathered to witness the consecration.

Sexy peasants - it's like a Kate Beaton comic!

Sexy peasants - it's like a Kate Beaton comic!

But hey, peasants are a dime a dozen in these stories (unless, of course, you happen to be the one peasant with a royal bloodline and an uncanny knack for carving gargoyles), and the cathedral project continues to roll along, despite constant threat of political obstacles, insufficient funding, or poor architectural planning. It’s a wonder the thing gets built at all, frankly, given that the two quarrelling brothers seem to manage to pull the whole thing to the ground one afternoon just by running around the scaffolding and knocking over the occasional bucket as they throw punches.

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The installments skip from battles and setbacks to marriages and victories with hardly a pause, and it’s worth noting that although the first installment gives some specific dates so that we can appreciate a jump in time from one decade to another, it quickly abandons this rigidity and lets the years roll by unmarked. All of this is fine, and perfectly pleasant for the swashbuckling costume drama type, but if you think about it too closely, things start to look strange. How is it, for example, that a friar who approves the cathedral plans in the beginning of the project is able to look exactly the same long into the future, when the cathedral begins to rise unsteadily over the town? It’s not just one long-lived man of the cloth, either. While the church grows in the background and the town shifts from a podunk backwater to a market destination with its own wool fair, all of the heroes and villains remain suspiciously hale and hearty for a time when surely someone would be dying from an infected tooth or malnutrition.

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This is the most frustrating thing about Pillars of the Earth. The series’ primary focus is on change – a developing town, a growing cathedral, upheaval in the monarchy, a new artistic aesthetic (now the arches are pointed!) – but the characters remain oddly static. Their unlikely but perhaps forgivable longevity is coupled with an immunity to the transformation that has taken over their world, and everyone moves through time with weird clockwork motion.

It’s easy to forget the characters’ simplicity inside the muddy peasants’ huts and stonemasons’ workrooms, and the sight of Ian McShane in a bishop’s robes flagellating himself as he apologizes to God for committing such dastardly sins is nearly enough to distract from the fact that he did the exact same thing two installments earlier. But this sort of silliness is what will keep Pillars of the Earth in the class of entertaining period piece and prevent it from ever building anything quite as impressive as its own cathedral.

Personal story time

2010 August 24
by kvanaren

I’ve always loved watching television, and can remember being really little and wanting desperately to know what would happen after the comparatively minor suspense of a commercial break in David the Gnome. That desire quickly upgraded to a small seizure over the possibility of not knowing what happens in the next episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, followed by one of the more obsessive relationships with Babylon 5 to ever grace a preteen psyche. Narrative absorption of any kind was the ultimate pleasure, and I had as little trouble blocking out the world with a copy of The Golden Compass as an episode of GhostWriter. (I almost missed my entrance in a drama camp performance of Carousel because I was reading back stage, and remember impatiently feeling like the chorus songs were just too long, because who would not rather be reading The Golden Compass backstage with the script flashlight than actually performing this play that we were all in?) Total absorption in books, in particular, was so dangerous that I managed to mentally skip most of Algebra 1 by blatantly reading in class.

It wasn’t until some point in college when television’s ability to capture my entire brain overtook my easy daily slide into a text, and it is especially thanks to one summer in Boston that the most basic advantages of television as a narrative medium became clear to me. The enemy of absorption is distraction, and I finally realized while trying to finish Adam Bede next to a wall actually vibrating with the impact of a reggae bass line that the simple presence of sound coming out of a speaker – my headphone speakers, not the neighbors’ blasting behemoths – made a marathon viewing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer far more attractive than poor George. I watched every single episode of Buffy that summer, thanks to equal parts fascination with the show and desperation to focus on something other than that awful, perpetual noise. Television was far more reliable than an audio book, which has none of television’s multi-layered aural aesthetic, and leaves too much empty space in the background. Music made an effective sound block, but it left my brain running in circles, always testing how much of the Constant Bass Line from Hell was slipping through. Buffy was my best friend, and once I spent time powering through many episodes a day, I began to appreciate the way the repeating rhythms of an episode format were laying bare the skeletons of plotlines, making it easier to see character development and audience suspense stretched out over the frame of a twenty-three episode season. I went to Buffy for the improved escape of multi-sensory entertainment, and almost in spite of myself, stumbled into absorption with television as television and not just a story that kept going and kept me going.

There inevitably comes a time when life interjects into one’s seven season marathon, and you have to figure out how to do things that you wish you could do quietly, like read or write, inside a space that is cluttered with bass lines and stomping and overheard conversations. At the moment I’m exploring the potentials of a noise machine. I wish I were watching TV.

Mad Men – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

2010 August 23
by kvanaren

From its first season, Mad Men has occasionally done this type of plotline. Beginning with Rachel Mencken and the Israeli tourism board, and then continuing through Pete’s support of a black-focused campaign for Admiral televisions, we’ve gotten a few glimpses into a 1960s perspective on otherness. “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” extends this into an encounter with Japanese culture, and as with the previous experiences, the methods and the results are much the same. Don and company do some research (Don read Exodus before his meeting with Israeli tourism just as he reads The Chrysanthemum and the Sword to prepare for meetings with Honda), and at the end of the day, whatever everyone’s personal inclinations may be, more tolerance means more business.

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But it’s clear that this experience with Honda is much more strained than the earlier incidents, and the pressure is coming from a few different angles. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs the business more than Don-Draper-era Sterling Cooper ever needed any individual account, so the corporate stakes are far higher, and as Roger Sterling made painfully obvious, the emotional stakes are similarly raised. Roger’s questions about the world are the same as our questions watching Mad Men – how much of this world has changed? Are we still the same people as these characters, or are the differences just superficial? And the analogy works for our perpetual questions about Mad Men’s historical specificity as well. Roger is furious that no one remembers Dr. Lyle Evans, while Matt Weiner engages in a weekly game of “name that 1960s reference.” (This week: Sally watches The Man from UNCLE, Benihana was founded in 1964, and the internet seems to be scrambling this morning to identify Dr. Lyle Evans).

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It’s a carefully orchestrated episode of television that can begin with an uncomfortable cultural reaction that we now view as painfully old-fashioned (“your new yellow buddies”) and then shift to a topic that we still feel a hefty dose of awkwardness about, although it may not be quite at the level of Betty’s mortified 1960s reaction. “Look!” it seems to say. “We may feel superior and dissimilar to these crazy Japanese-hating pre-hippies, but you felt pretty uneasy yourself, didn’t you?” Even among a group of academics at Dickens Universe, the subject that created the most debate and emotional response was the concept of Oliver Twist as a sexualized child, an object of pedophilic lust, or a child in danger of falling outside of heterosexual relationships. This episode took an enduring cultural queasiness about the sexualized child and connected it back to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a text all about guilt and shame-based cultural values. Don managed to successfully negotiate the unfamiliar waters by demonstrating his personal sense of honor (a quality on display for the Honda executives if not for many other characters on the show), but Betty’s mortification felt like the episode’s dominating mode.

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If nothing else, this incident with Sally means that she’ll be getting some therapy which she almost certainly needs, although Betty probably should be the one going four days a week. It did feel appropriate that after Betty’s disastrous therapy experience in season one, she is far more comfortable and open in a session with a children’s therapist. Of course she is. I think at this point, even Bobby is more adult than Betty, who responds to her daughter’s self-applied haircut by slapping her across the face and calling her a Mongoloid. I’m glad that at least for now, Henry Francis is willing to be the father figure Betty obviously desires, although it’s unclear how long he would be satisfied by a wife who has no more control over her emotions than her ten-year-old daughter.

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Three cheers for Peggy, right now the least embarrassed of the bunch, as she tools around the empty sound stage on the Honda motorcycle. May we all have many similarly shameless moments.

You get some pieces from something else today, blog

2010 August 19
by kvanaren

If episodic storytelling is characterized by perpetual endings and re-beginnings, it is perhaps curious that endings are a dominant source of anxiety around serial storytelling, a narrative defined by continually delayed resolution. Does it end, or is canceled with little warning? Does it end on its own terms, or is it forced to finish when still in full swing? Does it end “well,” or does the final conclusion fail to answer all of the remaining questions? For some shows, these questions are given the power to validate or invalidate entire viewing experiences. I’m thinking here in particular about shows like Lost, of course, where so much pressure was placed on the show’s finale to justify what was often a frustrating viewing experience. It’s true for other shows similarly centered on plot, including mysteries or soap operas, where the resolution has the burden of presenting a solved puzzle or a love triangle made square. But it’s also true for shows more driven by character development, like Friday Night Lights or Gilmore Girls, where the final episodes are needed to bring a character to a stable conclusion or gesture toward a character’s continuing future.

It makes sense that a serialized story pushes viewers away from a standard week-to-week viewing pattern, as continuing plotlines create desire for the next installment and make it pleasurable to view several episodes at once. Maybe a viewer will opt out of a show for a few weeks and then catch up all at once on DVR or hulu, or maybe he or she will wait until a season is completed and watch it all on DVD. More than just establishing a desire for multiple episodes at a time, though, the ability to view television outside of weekly installment structure allows viewers to hold off altogether until they can be sure that a show has ended. When season six of Lost appears on DVD, there will be nothing between you and a legal, uninterrupted, start-to-finish viewing experience. Aside from the promise of continuous narrative, alternate viewing technologies allow audiences to watch completed shows with a determinate length, as well as know in advance the circumstances of their endings. A viewer sitting down with Deadwood right now can choose to learn that its abrupt cancellation will likely lead to a frustrating resolution, or that despite its beginning appearance as a show centered on high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer will continue long enough for its characters to grow out of their awkward teenage years. The presence or absence of these two simple pieces of knowledge – how long a story will be, and how it will end – make serialized television stressful and potentially frustrating in the moment, and profoundly satisfying in retrospect. This, in large part, is why television serialization continues to be a topic of interest for television creators and viewers. It is the form of narrative that best strains the gap between traditional television viewing and alternate methods (how long will it be?), and it reflects viewers’ anxieties away from the fiction and onto the creation process (how will it end?).

As a way of coping with the inevitable worry and potential dissatisfaction that comes from unknown endings, serialized television shows have also retained a much stronger episode structure than earlier forms of long-term storytelling, like the serialized novel. Without the benefit of a known end point, serial television shows often provide a strong impression of the episode as a whole unit, either by coupling the long-arc stories with episodic plotlines in shows like The X-Files or House, or by establishing the episode as a unit that is whole outside of, or in spite of, incomplete plot. Shows like Mad Men or The Wire work with thematic or aesthetic motifs to displace any anxiety about large-scale endings onto episodes that are meant to be complete and satisfying as individual pieces as well as seamless parts of a longer story. This, too, is a reason for our continued consideration of serialized television as a form – its strong episode structure, even in shows that play with the limits of how porous an episode’s boundaries can be, make it a different and more complicated type of serialization than simple long-form storytelling. Even in the most serialized shows, the divisions are still more powerful than the continuous line.

A Grave Woman

2010 August 18
by kvanaren

It’s always nice when a new work of fiction includes a whole outline of its premise right in the first episode, and even better when that little précis makes you want to keep watching rather than making you feel bored. Take it away, Laura Linney’s character from The Big C:

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I could do chemo, but I’d just be buying more time, and it’d mean a lot of people taking care of me. It’s just not my thing. You know what makes me feel better though, if I’m being honest? It makes me feel better to think that we’re all dying. All of us. And when you have a kid, you expect that you’ll die before they do. Even though you try not to think about it, at least, you hope to god you do. So if I think about it that way, hey! I’m living the dream! I’m here all year! Performing at Stage 4! Oh, come on. Come on, you’ve gotta give it up for me a little bit. It’s kinda funny – death comedy. I’m warning you that this laughter might turn into tears in a second. Yep, there it goes.

On the page as well as on screen, this reads as much like a theatrical monologue as anything I’ve seen on television, and the impression is enhanced by the empty-stage-like darkened background, the metafictional content that gives it the sense of a soliloquy, and the fact that Linney is addressing all of this to a neighbor’s dog. Really, what better representative could there be for a stage audience than a dog – he’s a participant in tone, emotion, and a supplier of large watching eyes, but also a necessarily mute body.

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Aside from its overt staginess, the kernel here is obviously the concept of a “death comedy,” and that already omnipresent and unstable tragedy/comedy mask. You couldn’t do a show like this without a truly impressive lead actress, and Laura Linney is certainly up to the task. This soliloquy is the strongest part of The Big C’s pilot, and it’s because she sells that stupid pun about performing at “Stage 4” as convincingly as a pun about end-stage cancer should be played. I love a good, punny, achingly awful death, and vastly prefer it to the beatification process inherent in rosier portrayals like Tuesdays with Morrie or Stepmom (*sniff* oh Susan Sarandon!). My favorite death scene in Romeo and Juliet was always Mercutio, with that classic line, “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” There’s just something about a pun that’s so appropriate for death scenes; it’s a humor with all of the effort and none of the joy, a joke that seems to admit its insufficiency even in the moment of execution.

This scene also functions as a comprehensive warning for the show’s intentions, which are clearly laid out as being potentially offensive to those who find death startlingly unfunny, and probably depressing for those who prefer their comedy unsullied by reminders of mortality. If this soliloquy is where The Big C will be for its tenure, then I am certainly on board, but I worry about everything outside of this darkened stage space. The main character’s host of incompetent, childish companions – her clueless husband, her antisocial brother, her rude son, her rude student, her rude neighbor – threaten to pull this sad, funny, delicate act out of tune, and drag the conceit toward an out and out tearjerker, or worse, rosiness. For now, while there’s still space for wry puns and simple anger at the world, it’s lovely.

Mad Men – The Rejected

2010 August 17
by kvanaren

This was the funniest episode of Mad Men I can remember, and a lot of it has to do with Peggy Olson. Of course, because it’s Mad Men and because things are not going well for Don Draper, it was also quite sad, and especially painful for poor Allison, who was absolutely right to chuck that knickknack at his head.

Don’s status as a character is balancing between two statements. “I don’t say this easily,” says Allison as she storms out of his office, “but you are not a good person.” So much of the series is based on the questions surrounding that judgment, testing what pushes these characters toward being good or bad people, and at feeling around for what point they become irrevocably one or the other. Don’s many sins have been thoroughly documented on the show, as have his many causes for sadness and anger. At what point do we have to throw up our hands and pronounce this to be an irredeemably awful person? Or, as Don so fervently hopes in his spirited denunciation of Faye Miller’s report for Pond’s Cold Cream, “you can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.” I can turn this around, he says, and indeed, his whole life is based on the experience of waking up one morning as a completely different person. Let’s hope he manages to do it soon, because right now, he’s so lost that he can’t even finish his pitiful letter of excuse to Allison. “Right now my life is very…”

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On the flip side of the coin, we have Peggy, who responds to the news of Pete’s impending fatherhood (err…re-impending?) by diving into some welcome counter culture, the first extended portrait we’ve gotten since Don’s days with Midge in the first season. Nudged along by the lesbian photo editor from Life, Peggy gets to stand next to a guy walking by wearing a bear head, get high and watch anti-Catholic art cinema, and be the snappy wit she has long wanted to be. (“He doesn’t own your vagina!” “No, but he’s renting it!” is one of the funniest lines of dialogue we’ve ever gotten from Peggy.) It’s a relief to get these occasional glimpses of other worlds. We remember how insular and controlled it feels at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, even in this newer and scrappier incarnation of Sterling Cooper. We can also better contextualize the choice that Peggy is trying to make, highlighted by the opposition created at the end of the episode. On one side of the glass, Peggy and her new bohemian friends, on the other, Pete and the good ol’ boys. The other side of the glass may not seem appealing – a guy who left her pregnant, a boss who sleeps with secretaries. But it also represents professional success, mentorship, and the telltale engagement ring she surreptitiously slips on during the focus group. If Don is balancing between his past and his future, so too is Peggy. The difference is that our metaphor for Don’s choice is an unfinished sentence that makes us wonder whether he even knows enough about his life to pick one option over another. Peggy’s metaphor is a glass door, which lets her see both options clearly and which only requires that she pick a side.

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The last thing I’d like to say about this episode is just a praise of its undeniably infectious swagger, which began with that disastrous, hilarious conference call (“Oh my god, there’s some kind of fire”) and ended with a moment between an elderly husband and wife that swerved from saccharine to comic at the last possible moment (“We’ll discuss it inside”). Its peak, and the moment that made me laugh out loud and then rewind, was this hysterical bit of physical comedy from Peggy.

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There are all sorts of things you can say here – more about Don’s roll as Peggy’s mentor, a little bit on Peggy perpetually looking through glass, maybe something about the drinking. When it comes right down to it, this scene was ultimately a moment of levity in a show that can really use a little fun now and again. It won’t last, because it never does. But every once in a while there’s a guy with a bear on his head, or Peggy peaking over your office wall, and thank goodness.

Kill the Protagonist

2010 August 12
by kvanaren

As I’ve kept painting (almost done so much trim gahh) and continued to watch Northern Exposure, I’ve reached a place where the show begins to change. Many shows – probably all shows – cope with production challenges that limit or change something about the show’s fiction, particularly related to cast members. Without enough money or an ideal location, you could probably still tell the same story, but it would be less impressive or have a different overall effect. But when you’re lacking a cast member who plays a previously introduced character, there’s not much you can do to overwrite that absence.

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In its beginning premise, Northern Exposure is about a Jewish doctor who owes the debt for his medical education to the state of Alaska, and instead of letting him pay it off with a check, the state forces him to spend several years working out in the Alaskan wilderness. He arrives angry and frustrated by his unwilling servitude, and much of the first season is spent watching Dr. Fleischman learn to appreciate Alaska in spite of himself. It’s a charming, familiar, predictable story, and after it completes most of Joel’s Alaskan education, Northern Exposure is free to explore other characters and ideas.

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Unfortunately, the actor who plays Dr. Fleischman began to have contract disputes as Northern Exposure’s popularity grew, and by season four, Rob Morrow was occasionally threatening to leave the show unless he received a better contract. It’s certainly not a new or surprising story, but what I love so much about the Northern Exposure version is the way the show responds to this changing pressure from Morrow. Other characters are introduced to take the focus away from Dr. Fleischman, his role in the town becomes much less pronounced, and there are all sorts of subtle moves away from Joel as the show’s protagonist. Even better, though, Northern Exposure then goes out of its way to make Joel Fleischman a tortured, unpleasant, uncomfortable pill. In one episode, he discovers that the state of Alaska is forcing him to extend his promised four years of service to five years, and he spends the entire episode railing against the town full of now-beloved characters for being hicks and uneducated slobs. The show continues to capitalize on Joel’s Yankee snobbishness throughout the first three seasons, but it always does so with generosity and an opportunity for character development. When Joel’s contract with Alaska is extended and he goes off the deep end, I kept expecting a cheesy “awww” moment when he looks around at all the people he’s been friends with for three years and admits that it won’t be so bad to hang around for awhile longer. The moment never comes, and we’re left with a protagonist who despises his own fiction.

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Not every episode is quite so explicit, but Joel’s priggishness never returns to its mellow, odd-man-out quality of the previous seasons. He complains bitterly about mosquitoes. He’s whiny to the point of childishness when a lack of patients leads to boredom. I haven’t seen past season four yet, but I know that eventually he gets entirely replaced by other doctors, and I’m just fascinated by the vicious fictional revenge Northern Exposure inflicts on Dr. Fleischman for the crimes of his actor.