It’s important for your alien invasion to have a clear agenda

2011 July 27
by kvanaren

I’ve been catching up on the TNT series Falling Skies this week.

Although I’d been meaning to look at it for a while, I was prodded into action last week at Comic-Con, where despite my inattention and the fact I didn’t go to the Falling Skies panel, it kept cropping up in my peripheral vision. One early morning, while hiking over to the Hall H line so we could see the Spielberg Tin-Tin panel, I was handed a free Falling Skies-branded cup of coffee, which I took (of course). “What’s Falling Skies?” David asked. Later that day, we showed up in the Fulfillment Room to trade in our swag tickets for a The River-branded flashlight (mine broke immediately), only to feel jealousy toward the people holding Falling Skies tickets, who were given very nice black hoodies. “What’s Falling Skies, again?” David asked. And finally, while wandering around the exhibit hall, I craned my neck to see what was going on behind a large crowd of excited fans, only to catch a glimpse of Noah Wyle et al doing a Falling Skies signing. “Wait, *what’s* Falling Skies?” David asked.

I can hardly blame him for never quite catching an explanation, as my answers were always unmemorable and vague. “Something about an alien invasion?” I hedged, basing my entire answer on the title, a few promotional stills, and a memory of Noah Wyle looking determined and post-apocalyptic.

So post-Comic-Con, I sat down with the pilot, and quickly found myself five episodes in. It’s a genre I like, and Noah Wyle as Dr. Carter on ER has featured significantly on my TV-viewing experience, and Steven Weber makes an appearance as a heartless, pessimistic doctor. Not too hard for me to enjoy, in other words. But I think Falling Skies makes some particular choices that help propel it past “huh, aliens” and “hey, there’s not much else on TV right now” and lands it squarely in “oh, that’s kind of interesting.”

First, I like the decision to begin the narrative significantly after the aliens first arrive on earth, skipping over the early posturing and confusion and jumping straight into post-apocalyptic survival mode. It’s not an easy or necessarily obvious choice to make. Alien invasions are fun. That first moment where a geek hears a mysterious radio signal, a child points at enormous ships appearing in the sky, clips of newscasters talking over images of the ships above the Eiffel tower, the Sydney Opera House, downtown Hong Kong — these are all entertaining, familiar, and effective, and I love Independence Day as much as the next person. Still, skipping over that part has a few very useful consequences. The writers can no longer rely on those familiar crutches for the first episode, which means original storytelling and character development get a nice jump start. When the tropes of a genre like this are so well-established, the audience is always waiting to find out what will differentiate it from V, or episodes of Doctor Who, or Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline, War of the Worlds, etc. etc. Leaving out the part where everyone first freaks out that aliens have actually arrived, means getting to the interesting, post-invasion stuff faster.

(Note: This was a big problem with V, where the apparently-nice aliens clearly had an evil agenda, but the audience was stuck waiting for the fictional world to figure it out so the story could get a move on already.)

Noah Wyle: father, history professor, destroyer of aliens

When you do make the choice to skip the actual invasion, of course, the next order of business is to have something potentially interesting to say about the aftermath and your band of plucky survivors. Falling Skies doesn’t stretch much in the plucky-survivor department: gruff former military guy, hot traumatized pediatrician, religious chick, teenagers-turned-soldiers, sad children, black guy with lots of guns, bad biker dude, pregnant lady, and of course, father and former history professor Noah Wyle. His is really the only character with an unexpected trajectory, and it’s pleasing to see that he can jump immediately into the role of a gun-toting militant without first having to pass through an awkward, academics-have-no-practical-skills phase. (Another benefit of jettisoning the classic invasion opening).

Where Falling Skies does little to advance the typical formula for apocalypse survival groups, though, it does make some smart choices about its colonizing horde. The “skitters” are a classic, reptilian model Alien Overlord: always good for the initial revulsion factor but lacking in long-term appeal without further development. Thankfully, Falling Skies immediately opens a few avenues for entertaining stories, the most important of which is to question the skitters’ motives. Too often you’ll run into alien invaders with little more than a Dalek-ian desire to exterminate, and for a television story that runs over several episodes, it’s helpful to give your aliens a little something extra. In this case, the skitters have a disturbing propensity for stealing human children and attaching them to alien harnesses for frightening, as-yet-unknown purposes. There’s also a great moment where a minor character points out that although the skitters themselves have six legs, they build bipedal robots. This small detail is just the sort of thing to elevate an otherwise basic invasion story — it’s simple, suggestive without being overly obvious, and it piques curiosity without telegraphing its purpose.

One of Falling Skies's two-legged robots

Falling Skies is perhaps most intriguing as a television show (as opposed to a movie, or the premise for a few individual episodes), and it uses a device that gives it an edge over a show like V, which had a similar premise but clearly lacked momentum. Especially in its first few episodes, Falling Skies uses an episode structure that most resembles the narrative formulas in video games, and I say this with admiration rather than disdain. The show faces a problem any serialized drama copes with — how to portion out the big story into small pieces, and how to make each of those pieces individually entertaining — and at least in the beginning, Falling Skies solves this by employing a mission formula much like Gears of War, or Mass Effect, or any number of other games. In order to tackle the Big Bad, protagonists must first complete some related, smaller-scale tasks, and the success or failure of these missions gives the episode shape while also developing the larger story. In one episode, Noah Wyle’s character Mason leads a raid on a motorcycle shop, because the survivors need more vehicles to scout the skitters efficiently, and this task facilitates the later mission of rescuing Mason’s son from a skitter patrol. After several episodes, the individual mission formula breaks down a little, but that’s all right: at this point, it’s done its job. I credit the video game mission structure for a significant piece of what differentiates the dynamic, perpetually-moving Falling Skies from V, a show that remained astonishingly static for too long.

I’m pleased Falling Skies was renewed for a second season. It’s exciting to see a television show take a familiar genre and freshen it up just a little, and it makes very good summer TV viewing. And hey, here I am saying that promotional materials do actually work, especially when they come in the shape of a free cup of coffee.

Camp Victory

2010 September 1
by kvanaren

I try to avoid overwrought pronouncements like “this is the best thing I saw this summer!” or “this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” because really, I’d end up saying “this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” every time a new episode of Real Housewives aired. Inevitably people would start asking, “then why do you keep watching it?” and I’d have to follow myself down into some deep schadenfreude-lined tunnel of misanthropy, and though I am certainly in favor of self-knowledge, there are some things better left unexamined. All of which is to say, I try to avoid statements like that, and yet I feel drawn to give a similarly categorical declaration. Huge is the most surprising thing I saw this summer.

It would be tempting to go farther out onto a limb and say it is also the “best” or “most touching” thing I watched, but any summer with new episodes of Mad Men means “best” is probably taken, and “most touching” makes it sound like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which would be very unfair to Huge. So I’ve landed on “surprising,” and feel pretty good about that claim. The premise of the show is that a bunch of kids attend a fat camp, and somehow, it ended up being a thoughtful, character-driven study of teenager-hood, self image, family, relationships, sexuality, popularity, and fitness. Yeah, you’d be surprised, too. (Alas, I fear few of you are, as there were more viewers for Kate Plus 8 than there were viewers of Huge’s season finale on Monday night).

Alistair looking in the mirror

Alistair looking in the mirror

There have been no official announcements, but the general lack of buzz about the show makes me dubious that Huge will get renewed, so I want to make sure to take this opportunity to say: this is what classy, teen-focused TV can look like, and it’s a darn shame there isn’t more of it. Several of its characters managed to be both appealing and believably flawed, including a character named Alistair, whose like I have never before seen on TV but remember clearly from real life. Alistair is the weirdest guy in the bunch, who throws himself almost too fully into another character’s roleplaying game, refuses to shower, and whose sexuality is the subject of much debate and gossip. Indeed, his sexuality seems uncertain even to himself, and by the end of the season, we start to get the sense that it would not be enough for Alistair to call himself “gay” – he may actually be happiest with himself if he weren’t fully male. He is supportive of his friends, an enthusiastic participant in activities and games, and he completely lacks a “not cool enough” radar. I’ve never seen anyone like him on TV, and am impressed that he made it onto air, weirdness and ambiguity intact.

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The other thing to say about Huge’s individuality is its style, which comes off as a very different technique than the majority of ABC Family’s stilted, over-scripted, stagey and over-saturated programming. Most of the show takes place outdoors or in relatively rustic cabins, and something about Huge’s setting seems to have leaked over into its cinematography and script. Characters speak to each other with relaxed or anxious or tired or angry voices, but they lack over-dramatic intonations or long, polished speeches. Girls are just as likely to be found giggling with each other about a quiz in a magazine as they are fighting over a boy, and make it through the season with a minimum of backstabbing, cruel gossip, or frenemy building. Unlike Rich at FourFour’s now-famous piece about reality television, the characters on Huge actually are there to make friends, and the genuineness of that is refreshing.

In keeping with that persuasive conversational realism, the show often focuses on small exchanges that take place at dusk in the woods outside of camp, or two girls chatting in the cabin bathroom, or people whispering to each other in the middle of a group activity. No bright lights silhouette people against stark backgrounds, or seek out couples embracing in the semi-dark – it’s a camp, and there isn’t much light outside, and so most of your deep meaningful encounters will take place quietly, and without much illumination. There’s something so poignant about watching people whispering to each other in the woods, perched on rocks or walking with a flashlight along a path, that definitely feels more true to my experiences of camp than the slick, glossy embraces on Pretty Little Liars.

Will and Dr. Rand talk about being overweight

Will and Dr. Rand talk about being overweight

And because Huge is not about just any camp, but about a camp for overweight teenagers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with the last episode’s conversation between the camp director and the show’s main character. Wilhemina asks Dr. Rand what she was like when she was fat, and she answers, “I hated myself.” “And now you don’t?” asks Will. “Less,” says Dr. Rand. “And that’s it? That’s the big improvement? You hate yourself less?” “Yes,” she says. If you ever doubted that Huge wasn’t just a fictional version of The Biggest Loser, there’s your proof. I’d love to see you back, Huge, but if not, we’ll always have this summer.

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.

Zombie scientists!

2010 July 30
by kvanaren

One of the most fun things about spending time at a place like Comic-Con is the opportunity to watch new episodes of shows in giant rooms full of major fans. We were able to have that experience with Eureka, which was made even better with an episode that featured nerd-god Wil Wheaton and a special guest appearance by, you guessed it, Mr. Wheaton himself. Eureka was the first show I ever wrote about for the blog, and for me it will always represent summer television at its best, so it was really, really fun to watch with a lot of cheering people.

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The episode that aired last week was a funny, well-made zombie episode, featuring the poor guinea pig employees of Global Dynamics as a horde of irrationally angry zombies bent on…well, it was never really made clear, but one assumes it was BRAINS. It was a classic Eureka form, introducing the zombie transformation as a Monster of the Week and once again trapping our heroes into a tiny room while they desperately try to find a cure before the zombies break in. Wheaton did a nice job as zombie patient zero, and there was a side plot line with Henry that seemed to be going nowhere but had a nice payoff at the end. Funny, Comic-Con appropriate, and a good time for all.

Zombies!!

Zombies!!

But the big story about Eureka this season is the new organizing gimmick, which was introduced in the season premiere and which has yet to be resolved. Rather than let its main characters continue to trundle along their merry destructive ways, Eureka reset the clock for this season by sending several of its main characters into the past – back to the 1940s for the founding of Eureka, to be precise – and then let them return to the present only to discover that everything has shifted slightly. Carter is sheriff, Jo is head of Global Dynamics security, Henry is married, and in the ultimate twist of unexpected strangeness, the accident-prone lab monkey Fargo is now head of GD. It’s a familiar plot device, probably best established by Back to the Future, and it’s a fun way to play with Eureka’s penchant for turning things on their heads.

Still, it would be well within Eureka’s typical format to resolve the Bizarro-Eureka plot line in relatively short order – one episode, or maybe two episodes would be the standard length of time that something this disruptive would be allowed to continue. And yet here we are, four episodes into the season, with still no resolution on how Carter, Allison, Henry, Jo and Fargo will return to their own timeline or whether time traveling 1940s noir scientist Dr. Grant will be sent back to his own decade.

It’s nice to see the show try something different with its long-arc plot line, particularly when this one demonstrates a willingness to fiddle with even the most well-received pieces of the show – Jo was about to get engaged to her boyfriend when she was sent back in time, and returns to discover that they barely even like each other in the new timeline. Allison’s son Kevin, whose autism combined with flashes of inexplicable genius have made him a long-term source of mystery on the show, has been transformed into a regular, Xbox playing, mildly obnoxious teenager. Of course, the alternate timeline problem also helps Eureka delay its own inevitable will-they-or-won’t-they scenario, as Carter and Allison finally kiss back in the 40s, but Carter returns to Eureka to find that he’s still together with his ex-girlfriend Tess.

I think the long-term alternate timeline is a strong device to keep Eureka on its toes, and am pleased that the show has chosen to use the conflict it creates rather than immediately dial everything back to the norm. My only concern is that I can’t find a way to finally resolve this whole mess without a very clichéd “they can go home now, but do they want to?” situation. Still, that’s a long way off, and for now I’m happy to watch everyone flounder around in bizarro world.

I'm a Phantasma Fanatic, and other reasons I still like Huge

2010 July 29
by kvanaren

I was quite enthusiastic about the pilot of ABC Family’s Huge, and wanted to check back in with the show now that it’s five episodes into the season. The short version of what I’m about to say: it’s still a great show, and I think it’s gotten even better since the first episode.

The longer version: The first episode centered on a protagonist, which it had to do in order to hook its audience and to give the pilot a satisfying internal arc (protagonist hates Fat Camp, protagonist runs away, protagonist resolves to give camp a try). Since that initial episode, however, the show has placed much more emphasis on the surrounding characters, which has had multiple positive effects. It provides an array of emotional entry-points into the show (maybe you resonate with Amber, maybe you’re into Ian’s emo guitar stylings, maybe you’re caught up in Dr. Rand’s conflicted relationship with her father), but more importantly, it keeps the portrayal of the camp far more balanced than it would have been if Wilhelmina were our primary focus. Her continuing negativity toward what she views as the central, unspoken tenant of Camp Victory (“hate your body”) could easily become the dominant tone of the show, and it would probably have limited the story possibilities and made the show more predictable.

Will, Ian, Becca and Chloe on Huge

Will, Ian, Becca and Chloe on Huge

Instead, we get a variety of reactions to the camp: girls who desperately want to be thin in a way that probably isn’t healthy for their self-esteem, guys who want to be athletic, several people who worry about what it will be like to have new bodies, and a few who want to lose weight, but find it so difficult that they still break the camp rules. In the most recent episode, the staff meeting announcements begin with a notice from Dr. Rand about some kids who go to the nurse saying that they have a sore throat – the nurse gives them salt to gargle, and they then use it to put more salt on their food. It’s details like that anecdote, and frequent casual discussions about childhood teasing, thigh chafing, and which bras to wear to Movie Night, that makes the camp appear grounded, plausible, and potentially positive.

Because I’m me, I’m also drawn to the subtle nerdy undercurrent that has flavored a few recent episodes. In one, Becca creates a fast, complex fantasy world based on several camp locations and tries to recruit people to LARP with her (Live Action Role Play). I was astonished to then watch an entire episode of a mainstream television show in which the term LARPing is explained just once and then used frequently in nonchalant conversation. Even better, Huge has established a well-written, gently teasing Twilight analogue inside the show. It’s a book and movie called Phantasma about a girl who falls in love with a ghost: (An explanation from Chloe, a camper: “This girl comes to this new town, right, and she keeps seeing this guy everywhere, like, he keeps appearing and then reappearing and appearing and then reappearing, ‘cause he basically is everywhere, ‘cause he’s like a ghost. It’s romantic.”) in the world of the show, even the actors of Phantasma have familiarly fascinating love lives. The girls study photos of the two lead actors in magazines, dissect their body language, and thrill when the director chooses Phantasma for Movie Night. They even play a several scenes from the movie so that we can hear the dialogue while the campers carry out all of their anticipated social entanglements. The sample Phantasma dialogue is just so good, and you’ll have to imagine it complete with a melancholy piano score:

A scene from Phantasma

A scene from Phantasma

“I would do anything for you Callie. I even swore to protect you from the Ghost Tribunal. But now I realize that the best way to protect you…is to stay away from you.”

“You can’t mean that. If you loved me, then you’ll stay with me. No matter what.”

“I waited 300 years to find true love. Before you came, I had no hope that I would ever feel anything again. You changed me, Callie. And I need you to know that. Before I go.”

“Go?! Where?!”

It’s odd to say this about a show like Huge that seems to draw with broad strokes, but it’s in the details like LARPing and salt theft and Phantasma that the show really works. On that note, I’ll leave you with a little more Phantasma dialogue:

“Are you still afraid?”

“Yes, I’m afraid…of how badly I want you.”

Mad Men – Public Relations

2010 July 26
by kvanaren

Season four’s “Public Relations” opens with the question “Who is Don Draper?”, a query Don scoffs at for its cuteness and its suggestion of replying in the third person, but it’s a question that quickly becomes an obvious touchstone for the episode. The idea is particularly canny because “Who is Don Draper?” is the same question we’ve been asking all along, and by the end of last season, we had a pretty firm grasp on the answer. He’s a creative genius, a guy who works without a contract, a lothario, a liar, a neglectful father and husband – and he’s also Dick Whitman, an entirely different person. The opening line of “Public Relations” is a quick, chastising jolt. We thought we knew Don Draper, and perhaps we did, but he is not the same character we remember from last fall.

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Everything about Don is now just a little different – all of the same qualities are there, but he’s been set inside an alternate universe where he is called upon to be a single father, a public figure, a company man, a guy with his eye on the bottom line, and a guy who dates rather than seduces. Unlike the man from the first three seasons, who was entirely comfortable in his skin, this version of Don has not yet quite caught up with the times, and hasn’t yet figured out how to give promotional interviews or how to handle his ex-wife and her new husband. In that vein, one of the episode’s most telling moments was the run-up to Don’s blind date. He smoothes out the bed (something we know he’s expecting will soon be seen by his date) and then pulls on his jacket over his white shirt, which has a pack of cigarettes straining against the fabric of the front pocket. Don stands at the mirror, hunched, fiddling with his sleeves, scrunching up his shoulders, and combing his hair. Where before we have watched him effortlessly slide from one persona into another, perpetually coiffed and polished to a high sheen, Don Draper is now a guy who has to adjust himself and pluck at his clothing before it sits the way it should. He has to work at being himself. Of course, he’s been working at being Don Draper since he gave up being Dick Whitman, but before, it was invisible. Now we can see all of the seams and rough edges.

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Peggy seems to have undergone a reverse process, and I am absolutely in love with the new Peggy Olson. All of those little physical signals of discomfort and ill-fit (her hair, the dresses that managed to be both frumpy and girlish) have shifted into something much more self-assured, and Peggy can now spar with Don, joke with her illustrator about the Stan Freberg John and Marsha ad, and come up with ridiculous, back-firing promotional schemes all on her own. It’s about darn time, frankly, and Peggy’s confident stance in the office is just what’s necessary to balance a newly uncertain Don Draper.

Aside from these important and still developing character shifts, the thing I found most exciting about “Public Relations” was the commitment the show has made to all its foundational changes from the previous season. It would have been so unsatisfying to watch the show return to its regular status quo, but as I described in my post on procedurals, it’s just much easier for those blockbuster season-ending changes to quickly step backwards into familiar formula. In his interview with Alan Sepinwall, Matt Weiner talks about how important it was for him to commit to those changes, even the painful ones which required leaving behind characters like Paul Kinsey and Ken Cosgrove. Mad Men will continue to be a creatively interesting show for much longer because it’s clear that Betty and Don will not be getting back together in the near future, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is here to stay.

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So it looks like that’s Mad Men for this season: we spent three years watching it build on the outside while slowly crumbling underneath, and now after the final implosion, we get to watch it all build again. But this time, it’ll be something entirely new.

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.

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.

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:

persons unknown 1

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.

persons unknown 3

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.

Summer plans

2010 May 31
tags:
by kvanaren

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

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

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

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

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

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