Walkabout

2010 December 23
by kvanaren

Well, not quite. But I am going to be off for the next few weeks, exploring the beautiful and frequently internet-less expanses of New Zealand, which sadly means there will be no blog posts until well after the New Year.

With that in mind, a few of my favorite moments from this year in television:

This is of course from the Mad Men finale, although were I to embed an entire episode rather than a single image, it would be “The Suitcase,” hands down. That aside, it’s hard to deny this moment as one of the biggest jaw-droppers of the last year. What are you DOING, Don Draper?!

Competing for jaw-dropping moments, the Lost finale is undoubtedly next on the list (or probably, another contender for first place).

Oh man, did I love this season of Doctor Who. I think Amy Pond is the best companion since the reboot began five seasons ago, and despite my initial doubts, Matt Smith is unquestionably a worthy Doctor Who – scary, funny, believably ancient and childlike at the same time. While I’m concerned about TV withdrawal over the next few weeks, I’m holding out hope that I actually get to see the Doctor Who Christmas Special on Christmas. (I hear it’s rude to show up at relatives houses and immediately demand the TV be turned on, though.)

Community has been one of the bright spots on network TV this fall, and although it’s impossibly hard to choose between the zombie Halloween episode, the claymation Christmas episode, and last spring’s “Modern Warfare,” I went with the bottle episode from this fall for sheer ballsiness. Truth be told, it’s probably due in large part to my fondness for bottle episodes (see above re: “The Suitcase”).

Oh hey, speaking of bottle episodes! Every day I wake up and wish Breaking Bad were on TV right now, and a minute later remember that watching an episode is like voluntarily putting yourself through an emotional cheese grater. Last season, “The Fly” was Breaking Bad‘s height of emotional self-destruction, and I cannot wait for this show to come back.

RIP, Terriers. This scene from “Fustercluck,” when Robert Lindus dies and everything kicks into crazy overdrive, was the moment I fell head over heels.

Happy New Year, and here’s hoping next year provides many more scenes as amazing as these.

The Talking Cure

2010 December 15
by kvanaren

After putting it off for a while, I’ve just finished the first season of In Treatment, which I completed in a remarkably short period of time given that there are over forty episodes. It took a long while to get used to how different time, plot, character, space – really, everything – works on this show, but I chalk up my voracious consumption the fact that I found In Treatment compulsively (and counter-intuitively) watchable.

Paul

I say counter-intuitively for fairly obvious reasons. Compared to nearly any other show I can think of, In Treatment is willfully devoid of the sorts of things that tend to make shows addictive. Every weekday, Paul sits down with a patient and talks with them about whatever they want to talk about, and then the next day it’s another patient, and another on Wednesday and on Thursday, and on Friday he goes to see his own therapist of sorts, Gina. It takes a while to get into the rhythm, particularly in that first episode where we leap into an intense session of Paul’s therapy with Laura even though she’s already been seeing him for a year. So it’s the first episode, and Laura’s weeping and her makeup is all smudged and she’s wearing extremely sexy clothing. She begins recounting a torrid anonymous sexual encounter from the previous night and then starts complaining about David even though we have no idea who he is, and just as her world starts to form into some coherent shape, her appointment is over. Not only is her appointment over, but there are four whole episodes where the exact same thing is going to happen all over again (with Alex the traumatized Navy pilot, Sophie the traumatized teen gymnast, Jake and Amy the traumatized angry couple, and finally Paul’s session with Gina to recount all of that trauma) before we even get to return to Laura.

Laura

Aside from the show’s unusual weekly procedure, which alienates you from characters as soon as you get to know them, the whole set-up and pace of In Treatment is oddly disconcerting. The sensation that you’re staring at someone too closely and for too long is pervasive, but what other option do you have? The overwhelming majority of the show is just Paul and another person, sitting across from each other and talking. And the pace is limited by that same restriction – it is perpetually, almost wearily conversational. No plot can happen unless either Paul or his patient brings it up, and certainly at first, watching characters meander through various life stories and random memories feels like sifting through a lot of potentially unrelated material in search of a plotline, even though you don’t really know what that plot looks like. He mentioned his friend is gay – is this going to be a repressed sexuality thing? Is it a daddy issue? Are we talking about guilt? As the show returns to characters three or four weeks in, it becomes easier to see the recurring patterns, the sore points and nagging fears, but even then, it’s hard to know.

Sophie

In Treatment is constantly under threat of being derailed by an anecdote. Paul tells them frequently (often as a way of reassuring or hinting), but it’s really about the patients, who tell anecdotes about their childhoods, odd moments they had in a coffee shop, a weird association they had with a pair of shoes, a vivid social encounter, or any mundane detail of the day. Tiny stories accumulate, pulling the narrative toward sex or suicide or shame, and it feels like each therapy session is an opportunity for one story or another to suddenly lurch into dramatic, irrepressible significance. Aha, the lunchbox! It was a sign of absent maternal nurturing; no wonder you still carry it around with you!

Alex

With all of this evidence mounting against In Treatment’s compulsive watchability, it looks as though I have to resort to the obvious answer, which is that voyeurism is indeed engaging. It is hard to deny the sheer transgressive pleasure of a show built entirely on gaining unobserved entry into a person’s most private self, but I’d like to believe it’s something more. Until I figure out exactly what that might be, I’m sticking with the second most obvious answer, which is that In Treatment is an academic’s wet dream. There’s a reason English departments still read Freud when no one else does, and there’s a reason so many major theoretical movements in the past several decades have distinct psychoanalytical bents. We like analysis, and we especially like close reading, which is exactly what Paul does every hour of the week. It’s funny, he’ll note, that you use the same words to describe your mother as you do this random stranger you met on the train. Isn’t it odd, how you pause every time before saying the word “best”? He’s just sitting there gathering enough verbal evidence until he can persuasively argue his thesis on why you quit your job. It’s so satisfying and populated by the possibility of a correct answer.

Er, that’s what I’m telling myself. No analysis, please.

How I Met Your Autodiegetic Televisual Narrator

2010 December 7
tags:
by kvanaren

I am about to give a show with which I am particularly displeased this week a lot more attention than I’d like to give it, but I suppose sometimes that’s the nature of the game.

Last night’s episode of How I Met Your Mother was really, really bad. It let the characters be more misogynistic, simplistic, and self-involved than unusual, but it also highlighted an aspect of the show that is narratologically fascinating. Just in case you haven’t watched (and based on last night’s episode, I wouldn’t blame you), the premise is that an older version of one of the show’s main characters, Ted Mosby, is retelling stories from his youth for the enlightenment of his teenaged children. The main sections of an episode are these past-tense stories, narrated in a typical sitcom style, with occasional interventions from future-Ted in the form of a voiceover. Usually there’s an introduction (“Kids, in the winter of 2010…”), and sometimes a call back to a joke or plot point from a previous episode (“You may remember the goat from…”), but future-Ted isn’t often overly meddlesome as narrators go.

It’s mostly because of the show’s longevity, I think, that this strange storytelling technique no longer seems exciting or complex, but in the beginning it was a big deal. When will Ted actually catch up with the show’s title? How do occasional hints about characters’ futures change the way time on the show moves? I think, though, that even now, when the shine has worn off, there are some even more interesting questions that I’m probably only thinking about because I’ve been TAing a Narrative and Narrative Theory class. Much though I hate to give current, depressing How I Met Your Mother more credit than it deserves, they’re worth asking.

There aren’t very many examples of protagonists who narrate their own shows at the moment, although voiceover is relatively common. There’s Dexter, and Burn Notice, and I suppose we could probably count the voiceover segments at the beginnings and ends of Grey’s Anatomy. The voiceovers on Desperate Housewives or Gossip Girl are first person, but aren’t autodiegetic (from the viewpoint of the protagonist). Glee plays with voiceover, but it gets handed from character to character and is never sustained for very long. I’m sure there are other examples I’m missing (remind me of them, please!), but for the most part, voiceover from a protagonist seems so cheesy and simplistic right now that either it has to be supported by hefty generic convention (Dexter, Burn Notice, Veronica Mars, all of the Star Treks) or revel in its own sentimentality (Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City) or both (In Plain Sight).

This was not always the case, as anyone who’s seen The Waltons or The Wonder Years well remembers, but television and any visual narrative form has a particularly hard time standing up to the device’s inherent goopiness. There is rarely any concern about the veracity or reliability of a first person narrator on TV, because the images are right there in front of you, confirming the truth of anything a voiceover tells you. Meredith Grey wonders about the stability of surgeons outside work, and there they all are, knocking back shots and bemoaning their personal lives. When Dexter feels paranoid that someone’s chasing him, we know it’s because someone actually is chasing him, because we saw the car in the rearview mirror! This is not the case in primarily verbal forms. When a narrator in a novel says, “I saw a ghost appear before me,” the absence of an image of a guy covered in white powder and shaking his chains makes it much easier to question whether a ghost is actually there. My favorite example of a particularly recalcitrant narrator will always be in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, where Lucy Snow is so reluctant to narrate her own story that she consistently lies to her reader to preserve her own privacy. It would be really hard for a voiceover to create that level of uncertainty about the reality of what’s taking place, because the visuals always appear trustworthy.

Which brings me back to How I Met Your Mother. Future-Ted Mosby is telling this story for his children, but unlike almost any other first person narrator I can think of on television, his memory’s not always great, and he tends to edit for the sake of censorship. For the most part, Ted stays out of his own way, narratorially speaking, but last night, Ted couldn’t remember the motivation for a fight between Lily and Barney. As he told the story, he would revise his account of who said what, and the visuals then changed to fit the new version. At one point, Barney balances a beer bottle in mid air, which makes no sense whatsoever until Ted remembers that at this point Lily was pregnant, and is then able to add her large belly as the support for Barney’s levitating drink.

This kind of overt reference to future-Ted’s fallibility doesn’t happen that often, but there are small reminders along the way. The most consistent example of this happens whenever future-Ted tells a story about his college years, and giant sandwiches act as visual stand-ins for drug paraphernalia.

As has become obvious over the last six seasons, future-Ted’s narratorial influence extends much farther than most TV narrators, going beyond the voiceover and including the order in which a story is told, which events are left in and which omitted for later (the goat), as well as what that story actually looks like. Scrubs used to be a little like this, particularly in some of the later seasons when JD’s surreal imagination was no longer indistinguishable from the rest of the show.

Even when I’m angry at How I Met Your Mother, I still like this central conceit for the show. I like the idea of a televisual narrator with abilities and influence that goes beyond the voiceover and has a more consistent, personified, flexible impact on the story.