Terriers and Possible Necessities

2010 November 30
by kvanaren

It’s not as though I haven’t said it before, but it bears saying again – I love Terriers. At first I thought it would be largely procedural, and then it had this fabulous multi-episode arc with Robert Lindus and the resort property. Then it returned to an episodic structure, and as the season winds up to an ending, the arc has come back with a vengeance, except from a different angle and with new, previously unexpected stakes. It’s so unusual to see a show work to balance those two pulls – inside toward episode’s frame, out toward the season – and to do it so deftly is surprising.

One of my favorite pieces on serial television is Sean O’Sullivan’s “Reconnoitering the Rim,” an article about Deadwood and third seasons of television. In it, he divides narrative into the possible, the necessary, and the possible disguised as the necessary, and describes the last category as a special problem for television. “Out of the array of possible stories and interests presented in the start-up operations of a narrative,” he writes, “some get selected and acquire the force of necessity without having ever really been necessary all along. This force of necessity accrues from the existence of a terminus, which asks that the possible acquire some sort of shape over the course of the regular production of episodes.” Or in other words: an ending looms inevitably on the horizon of any show, and its existence means that a couple of the nearly infinite potential plotlines are going to become weighty, conflict-producing devices full of momentum and vigor, and some are not. It could be any of them – a betrayal, the arrival of bank robbers, a massive fire, a skilled poker player – but at some point, one of those possibilities takes the lead and pulls the narrative forward. Once you’ve reached the end, you look back and believe that it had to be the bank robbers, but that’s only because you’ve reached an end point, and all of those possibilities had to get shut down for an ending to form and ossify.

The thing that I’ve found so amazing about Terriers is its ability to live almost entirely inside that magical, unfixed narrative place Sean O’Sullivan describes. It’s hard to know at any moment whether an episode is going to be a one-off procedural plot or is going to take a sudden left turn into some sticky multi-episode morass, and little plots that you think are complete tend to come back and haunt you; it’s a return of the possible not unlike Freud’s return of the repressed. (See, for instance, Britt’s drug dealer connection, the idea to steal Jason’s wallet, the sudden violent resurrection of Lindus’ real estate fraud, and the question of who actually killed Hank’s friend). Even the dog, that gorgeous goofy bulldog who seems like he’s going to be Hank and Britt’s sidekick in the show’s pilot, disappears into narrative conclusion before magically resurfacing as a key player for both plot and character development.

So much of this first season of Terriers, in fact, has been a dramatization of an unwillingness to declare an ending. Hank’s relationship with Gretchen, of course, is plagued by his inability to let her go, and his potential relapse looms continually on the horizon. Britt gets in trouble when guys from his criminal past show up to threaten his current domestic bliss. It seems as though Hank and Britt have dealt with Lindus, and of course that little problem comes back like a cat with eight lives left. Nothing stays buried, including Hank’s failed rape investigation, Katie’s affair, or Jason’s molest-y past. You drive a dead guy off a cliff, wipe your hands and walk away, and then sure enough, there you are two days later clambering down that cliff ‘cause you forgot something in his pocket. It’s the exact opposite of the procedural’s famous short-term memory problem.

It is a lovely meeting of content and form, then, that the show itself can never seem to decide when a character is really gone, or when an episode’s plot has actually concretized into resolution – except that with sudden explosive force, endings seem to come flying up out of nowhere to smack you in the face with their cruel finality. “Fustercluck” is the best example of this, although I think last week’s brutal final act is almost as good. This is why I will be particularly bereaved if, after the conclusion of tomorrow’s season finale, Terriers never comes back. It’s a show that seems like it could always come back, and it would return sneakily, from an unexpected direction.

The One Where I Think Up A Silly Friends-esque Title

2010 November 22
by kvanaren

It’s not my fault that Friends is what I have for sitcom nostalgia. I was born in the mid-eighties, so that rules out the glory years of Bewitched or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Cheers. Combine that with the fact that one of my babysitters used to watch it at our house surreptitiously because she wasn’t allowed to watch it at home, which will really cement the coolness of anything, and it’s not that surprising that Friends holds a place in my heart.

Which is why Friends Thanksgiving episodes are also what I first think of when I think about Thanksgiving television. Friends did many more of them than most other long-running shows, which tend to eschew Thanksgiving for the more dramatic Halloween and/or Christmas holiday episode. Thanksgiving also became the excuse for some of the show’s funniest set-pieces, its flashbacks, its guest stars, and its outright silliness. Some of the better moments:

Ugly naked guy:

Of the several Thanksgiving episodes, the first one is really not my favorite. I’ve got nothing against the “we got locked out of the apartment” plotline (that’s standard, and Friends uses it at least a few more times), and there’s certainly no use trying to fight the “we all want to be somewhere else, but circumstances conspire against us and we end up together on Thanksgiving” premise – that’s just a classic. No, the biggest problem with “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” is that everyone spends most of the episode in individual plotlines, and Ross’ is really stupid (he discovers that Carol’s been talking to the baby in the womb, and he gets jealous). In the end, though, they all gather around the window to watch ugly naked guy celebrate Thanksgiving.

Brad Pitt:

This is the first episode of television I remember watching and thinking as much or more about the actors than I thought about the actual show. Brad and Jen were married, and the entire episode is built around the hilarity of Brad Pitt’s character absolutely despising Rachel in high school. And sure, he’s rocking a pretty unbeatable clean-cut preppy Brad Pitt look in this episode, so Phoebe gets to be the audience stand-in and just drools over him the entire episode.

Phoebe thinks Brad Pitt is hot

Phoebe remembers a past life:

This is a ten-second joke from “The One With All the Thanksgivings,” which is a Friends flashback episode detailing the events that lead up to Monica getting skinny and accidentally cutting off Chandler’s toe. Briefly, though, while the other cast members recall their worst Thanksgivings from the past, Phoebe remembers a Thanksgiving from one of her previous lives, which features her bandaging a soldier in the Civil War.

And my favorite, the trifle:

“The One Where Ross Gets High” will always rate as my favorite Friends Thanksgiving. The stakes are not that high, and there’s no plot that really pulls any of the cast members away (in fact, one of the plotlines is that Ross and Joey desperately want to get away, and aren’t allowed). In the end, the biggest laugh lines are about something so stupid that the show almost shifts out of its usual “waaa waaa” trumpet humor and into a full-on farce. Monica’s parents don’t really like Chandler, and Ross used to lie, but none of it matters because Rachel makes an English trifle with the pages in her cookbook stuck together (lady fingers, jam, custard, lady fingers, beef cooked with peas and onions, whipped cream, and bananas). The entire episode culminates in seven people sitting around a table trying to pretend they like a disgusting dessert. It’s absurd.

The Thanksgiving episodes of Friends are hardly bottle episodes – there’s always a guest star or multiple flashbacks or something else that will ring up the episode’s cost – but nevertheless, there’s something similar about them. The Thanksgiving premise means all of the cast members spend most of the episode together in Monica’s apartment, which minimizes the potential for a stupid Joey-related side plot, and lets everyone play off of each other. And look, this was not a high-brow show. At its best, Friends managed to seem like a much sillier, stupider, higher-pitched version of recognizable scenarios from everyday gatherings (provided your everyday scenarios didn’t involve black people, gay people, or actual tragedy), and Thanksgiving reliably delivered Friends’ best version of itself.

Who’s the femme fatale in Veronica Mars?

2010 November 16
by kvanaren

I’m talking in class tomorrow about Veronica Mars (hooray!), and because it’s a class about narrative theory and we’ve covered a few different noir texts, I’ve been focusing on the explicitly noir aspects of the show and some of the basic narrative devices. In hunting around and browsing Rob Thomas’ fairly extensive offerings on his personal website, I landed on a pdf he’d uploaded of his original notes for the show, which begins as follows:

It’s pretty easy to see how all of this fits into the aesthetic and structure of the show, and I particularly like the foregrounding of the rape mystery over the Lilly Kane mystery. One of the points tomorrow will be that while Lilly’s murder represents a straight-up, classic noir device, Veronica’s rape is one of the re-writings Thomas plays with in casting his detective as female, and her trauma takes the place of a lot of post-war trauma that frequently haunts American detectives in the inter- and post-war periods.

My big question about this part of the document – Duncan Kane (Cain) is the femme fatale? Woah.

It’s not a question that can be taken too seriously beyond a hypothetical level, because these are just notes. By all accounts, the rise of Logan Echolls was not in the series’ original plan, and who knows how that and innumerable other factors may have played into what happened between this document and the production of the series. The notes replace Abel Koontz with someone named Strom Jenkins, so obviously there’s some reworking yet to do. Still, I wonder whether we should still be reading Duncan as a femme fatale, and if so, whether it’s a representation that failed to come through in the show, or whether he was actually re-conceptualized. (Or, third possibility, everyone else already thinks Duncan is the Bacall to Veronica’s Bogart and I’m just way behind the curve here.)

To be fair, I can sort of see the logic. Duncan’s attractive, he’s mysteriously connected to all of the major crime plots, he has a hidden flaw, he’s a love interest for Veronica, he’s dangerous, and he seems tragically unable to control the events surrounding him. Setting aside Teddy Dunn’s milquetoast Duncan, I could imagine a scenario where the season plays out with much more tension between Duncan and Veronica, which would significantly downplay the role Logan eventually takes in her life, and would make the question of Veronica’s paternity a more pressing issue.

From a purely structural standpoint, though, I have a hard time with Duncan in a traditional femme fatale role because something about the position seems to require a lot more enigma than Duncan ever carries, if for no other reason than that Duncan and Veronica dated long before the show begins. How mysterious and dangerously seductive can he possibly be – they went to Winter Formal together! I recognize that the epilepsy plotline and the resulting Duncan Hulk (DUNCAN SMASH!) are attempts to imbue Duncan’s familiar persona with new mystery, but it’s hard to imagine any circumstance by which he becomes more seductive as a result.

So that’s my query for the evening – should we be reading Duncan as a femme fatale, and if so, what does that make Logan Echolls?

Why do I keep watching this show??

2010 November 13
by kvanaren

Listen, sometimes I watch Private Practice. It’s pretty embarrassing – I would claim it’s even worse than something like Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Sarah Palin’s Alaska, because at least these shows have some cultural cache. People talk about them, it’s super fun to rag on them – at least you can pretend you’re trying to keep up with the conversation. There’s not much chatter about Private Practice, and so the fact that I occasionally keep up with the happenings at Oceanside Wellness is something I generally keep to myself.

Xander, no!

But last week, Private Practice actually made the internet rounds, due entirely to its Very Special Episode In Which A Cast Member Gets Raped. As television representations of rape go, it wasn’t really that bad. There was very little sentimentality, and the episode stayed surprisingly true to a realistic outcome – the victim refused to report the crime, and the rapist was set free, even though the police actually had him in custody. (Also, the rapist was Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Xander Harris, which of course led me to believe a simple demonic possession was to blame for everything.) Taken as an event inside larger project of Private Practice, the incident is of course absurd. I’ve written before about the way dialogue on the show has an uncanny way of mirroring the metanarrative. Violet, in particular, is prone to moaning things like “It seems like we’re all cursed!” and “Why do bad things keep happening to us?!” After the horrific events of…well, of every season ending on this show, it seems incredibly unlikely that a cast member would be the victim of yet another violent crime. As a single episode, though, the whole thing was startlingly plausible. “Props to you, Private Practice,” I thought. “Huh, I wonder what will happen next week?”

This week, of course, all that good representational and narrative work just went to hell. First up, the continuing rape plotline. After all my happiness that Charlotte’s rape went unreported and un-avenged (not out of a lack of empathy for Charlotte, mind, but out of respect for the political project), sure enough, just one episode later characters are poking and prodding into a possible rape and voila! Addison pulls some secret DNA tests out of a drawer. Not only that, Sheldon charges back down to the police station to demand they arrest that crazy guy they had a few nights ago, and yep! Retribution ahoy.

Turns out, the wife is the abuser! That's so wacky!

It gets even worse. The B-story this week was about a marital abuse case, except the abuser was a wife with a cancer diagnosis, and the abuse victim was her loving husband. Debate raged among the Oceanside staff – should they report the abuse? Should they leave it alone, as the husband insisted? “Would we be having this discussion if the victim was the wife?,” they wondered, and the answer was, “No, probably not. We’d totally just throw that guy in jail.” It’s supposed to be a thoughtful discussion about the gendered discourse of domestic violence, and for a second, it looks like Private Practice might pull this thing off.

But wait, this abuse debate isn’t quite as even-handed as it seems. As it happens, the wife isn’t just some evil abuser – a tumor on her ovary is secreting testosterone and that’s what’s causing her violence and uncontrollable outbursts. The doctors try to surgically remove the tumor, but it doesn’t work, and the couple has to deal with what to do next. Rather than sending the wife to hospice where her rage can be managed and her husband won’t get hurt, obviously the happy, abusive wife gets sent home with her devoted spouse. Because despite that discussion we all had just a few minutes ago, we know that wives don’t hit their husbands unless they have some physical cause, and even then, their husbands should just deal with it.

For a second, I worried that Private Practice might be reforming, but I needn’t have worried. One decent Very Special episode does not a decent show make.

Socialist chauffeurs, evil footmen, and telephones

2010 November 8
by kvanaren

My fondness for costume drama of the Anglophone variety is well established and thoroughly documented, so it will come as no surprise when I say that I’ve really loved ITV’s new Julian Fellowes miniseries Downton Abbey. It does a lovely job of hitting all the right notes – ancient family with an imperious and intelligent eldest daughter and a proto-feminist youngest daughter, full cast of sassy servants ranging from loyal butler to socialist chauffeur to evil, meddling footman, and Maggie Smith. I mean, c’mon. You’ve got to have Maggie Smith.

The series also has a crucial element that’s been so successful in miniseries of this type in the past. The Crawley family, of Downton Abbey, are being pulled in opposite historical directions. On one side, the family estate is entailed, which means that Lady Mary, the eldest daughter, cannot inherit her own mother’s fortune or her family’s property. Unless the entail can be broken, Downton will go to a distant cousin and the daughters will all be kicked out of their family home, unless, of course, somebody manages to marry the cousin. (And really, what’s older than that story?) At the same time, history pulls inexorably in the other direction, and by the end of the series, Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated by the Black Hand and the Empire is about to come crashing down. Even worse, they’ve had a telephone installed. I know.

It’s a well-worn formula, going back to BBC’s Cranford from a few years back (the railroad, heavens!), back to The Forsyte Saga miniseries from 2002 and 1967 (modern architecture!), and then of course the original The Forsyte Saga novels from the 1900’s through the 20’s, and eventually you make it all the way to Middlemarch. Family history becomes national history. It’s a handy formula because it works so well, especially in retrospect, when our favorite characters can be written onto the right side of history and families can become surprisingly representative spreads of a period’s ideological perspectives. Didn’t every well-off family have a chauffeur who reads Marx and a daughter who shows up for the local women’s enfranchisement rally?

Feminists do it in teal pantaloons

So it may not be terribly innovative, but Downton Abbey is well-executed and worthy entry in a generally enjoyable genre. I wonder about the footman Thomas, though. He’s the series’ villain and is loosely in cahoots with the ill-mannered ladies’ maid, and most trouble stems from their resentful scheming. Thomas frequently makes uncaring, impolite remarks about the family members, and his commentary is usually met with shocked faces in the servants’ quarters. The response is not just an effort to crack down on disrespectful employees. When Thomas says something rude and the maids gasp, they ask how he can be so unfeeling and heartless, and Thomas’s answer makes more sense than I think we’d like it to. “I’m sorry, of course I am,” he says, “but why should we have to live through that? They’re just our employers, they’re not our flesh and blood.”

Evil footmen do it wearing waistcoats

This aspect of family history is pure nostalgia. We like the telephone, but we also wish we still lived in a social system where employees were like family members and people who felt otherwise were villainous troublemakers. Downton Abbey is appealing because we can have our past both ways. We can have the votes for women and the technological innovation, but we also get to forget about the less pleasant changes and teeter on the edge of World War I without ever quite reaching it. After all, the phone is installed at Downton for an unspoken reason – when war reaches England, it will be necessary to communicate quickly, and also impossible to have a telephone put in a private residence once the country is at war. The series ends with the dramatic announcement that England is at war with Germany, and surely the second series will have to cope with this crisis, but for the moment, the trials of Downton Abbey are of an older, less threatening kind. Until the very last moment, the estate remains untouched by violent, destructive, tragic events of history, and that evil footman is leaving anyhow. What’s not to like?

I’ll have you know I come from a long line of proud von Mannschafts

2010 November 2
by kvanaren

I’d like to talk for a minute about what the heck happened on Castle last night. I like procedurals, and I like Castle, but something about that show makes me go back and forth on whether it is the most conventional, cheerful, laid back of procedurals on the air now or whether it’s performing some much deeper wackiness.

The issue with last night’s episode in particular is one not of type but of quantity. Like most procedurals, Castle likes to capitalize on an audience appreciation for the weirdness quotient by exploring alternate cultures and underground human behaviors. A few weeks ago there was a steampunk episode, and there have also been porn and dominatrix episodes, garden-variety serial killers and crazed Wall Street bankers, murders at weddings, murders at book parties, etc. etc. etc. Last night was no different, and started out with what looked like a dead police officer but was revealed to be a dead man dressed in a tear-away cop uniform. “Oh sure,” I thought, “a male stripper episode. Gotcha.”

Except, last night’s episode also went on to be a Sons of Anarchy-esque biker gang episode, a Jersey Shore episode with one character doing a nice Snooki impression, and a cougar episode, and in the end, it all tied together with a classic the-butler-did-it type ending as the lawyer was revealed to be the one responsible for it all. I give you -

The victim stripper, performing at his final bachelorette party:

His co-worker at The Package Store:

His cougar girlfriend, in her oddly monochrome, sterile, backlit room:

His biker gang rival, who appears to be out for revenge:

And not-quite-Snooki, who was a victim of male stripper’s cougar girlfriend’s evil lawyer’s real estate fraud:

So what’s going on here? Is Castle just particularly schizophrenic in this episode, or is there some underlying consciousness about the bizarre procedural fetish-ization of obscure, frequently sexual subcultures? I doubt it’s the case, but a stripper name as silly as Hans von Mannschaft does make one wonder.

Lovely close-ups of braaaaiiiins

2010 November 1
by kvanaren

I do not do well with scary movies. I jump, I watch through my fingers, I glibly explain why the scary music is ineffective as a way to stave off my own terror. For this reason, AMC’s new The Walking Dead is tricky for me, because I’m happy to think about a new AMC show and I love a good comic book adaptation. And yet, even a single shuffling corpse in the background, head cocked in that perpetual posture of blank inhumanity, affectless face reading nothing as the hands reach out to grasp your braaaaaiiiiiiins… *shudder*. I’m a wimp.

In spite of that stirring vote of confidence, it’s clear that the pilot of The Walking Dead is pretty stellar, and even the hokey, unnecessary in medias res opening was somewhat mediated by the lack of return to the opening scene. I think the worst part of those sequences in an Alias or Chuck episode is the moment when you realize you’ve come back to where you started, and you have to re-live that pseudo-suspenseful cold open once again. The Walking Dead barely gestured at its own device, eschewing the obvious “two weeks earlier” captions and hardly even hinting at the opening scene later on in the episode.

The genre does put me in an uncomfortable place, though, and so I find myself resorting to a critical lens as a coping mechanism (because I am, as previously noted, a giant wimp). Which is why, all through the pilot, I found myself thinking, “Well, those are some lovely and effective close-ups.”

It’s such a classic trope of this genre, and it’s so effective, but I feel like this pilot uses the horror movie close-up particularly thoughtfully. The walking among the corpses shot is a great example – we all know that there’s going to be a much more zoomed-out shot with the protagonist framed inside the dizzying rows of bodies, but before we get that, we have to watch as a pair of feet slowly inch past one individual corpse after another. We know there are hundreds of bodies, we understand the trope, but by denying us that full distance shot for so long, we have to sit there and think about each body and wonder just how many more there may be.

I hope The Walking Dead continues to be successful and is on for a long time, because I have a feeling only extended contact is going to help me inure myself to the genre. And it doesn’t hurt that it looks pretty darn good in the process.