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Posts Tagged ‘tv’

Safe Haven

Over the past few months I worked my way through the five seasons of the TV show Haven. In its core structure, it’s basically Yet Another Procedural: each week there’s a mystery, the heroes investigate, the mystery is solved by the end of the episode. But the premise of this one is speculative — an FBI agent discovers weird things going on in a small Maine town — and spec-fic shows usually pair their procedural-ness with at least some degree of metaplot, which I find myself really craving these days. So I figured I would give it a shot.

And for the most part, the structure is indeed conventional. Weird Thing Happens. Audrey Parker (the FBI agent) and Nathan Wuornos (the local cop) investigate. The problem is inevitably being caused by the Troubles, a set of supernatural afflictions that plague many residents of Haven. Our heroes find the Troubled person responsible —

— and then they help that person.

I mean, every so often they do have to arrest somebody or it even ends in death. But overwhelmingly, the focus is on solving the Troubles, not punishing them. In many cases, the person responsible doesn’t realize they’re the source of that week’s weird thing; when they do know, they’re often terrified and unable to stop their Trouble from hurting people. These supernatural abilities trigger because of emotional stimuli, so week after week, you watch Audrey untangle the threads of someone’s psychology until she figures out that they need to accept the fact that a loved one is gone or reconcile with an estranged friend or admit the secret that’s eating away at them, and when they do, their Trouble lets go.

It is amazingly refreshing, after all the procedural shows I’ve seen that involve people with guns using those guns to solve their problems. (There’s a key moment late in the series when the entire Haven PD gets sent out to manage a big outburst of Troubles, and they literally get a speech from the police chief about how the people causing problems aren’t the enemy and need to be helped, not beaten down.) In fact, it’s so refreshing that I was willing to forgive the show’s other flaws. The scripts are often no better than okay, and for the first four seasons the characters are remarkably incurious about the metaplot: they accept that the Troubles show up every twenty-seven years, Audrey is somehow connected to them, etc, but it takes them forever to get around to asking why, much less making a serious effort to find the answers. (In the fifth season the show dives headfirst into the metaplot, and the results are less than satisfying.) Furthermore, if you’re looking for characters of color, you basically won’t find them here. Haven does a pretty poor job in general with secondary characters, often getting rid of them after one season; I can only think of two people who get added to the cast after the first episode that stick around instead of getting booted out of the plot.

But the character dynamics are pretty engaging, some of the episodes have a pretty clever premise . . . and it’s a show about helping people. About resolving problems through addressing their underlying causes. About how, if somebody has a Trouble but they’ve figured out ways to manage it without hurting anybody, you clap them on the back and move on to someone who’s having more difficulty. There’s a good-hearted quality to the show’s basic concept that kept me interested even when I could have been watching something with better dialogue but less compassion.

More compassion, please. We need it.

How much do I love SUPERGIRL? Let me count the ways.

You know how there are those shows that are kind of structurally or ideologically broken, but you sort of don’t care because the banter is so good?

Supergirl is kind of the opposite of that. On a script level, it’s pretty mediocre; the dialogue often clunks and the characterization can be inconsistent and the plots rarely have clever solutions. But I find myself just not caring, because it’s doing so many other things to make me happy. It is the candy-colored cheerful superhero show that I wanted The Flash to be for me, without all the problems that made me bounce out of that one.

Case in point: the first season of The Flash basically had two female characters, Iris and Caitlin. Neither of them was particularly interesting; Caitlin’s plot revolved around her dead boyfriend and Iris was a pawn, lied to for no good reason by her best friend, infantilized by her father, rarely if ever given a chance to affect the story in a meaningful way. Supergirl, by contrast, is so stuffed with women they’re coming out at the seams. This is not one of those shows with a central female character and then a bunch of dudes. You have Alex Danvers, Supergirl’s adopted sister (and if you love rock-solid sister relationships, dear god this is the show for you); Cat Grant, her prickly and influential boss; Astra, her aunt and antagonist; Allura, her mother, appearing in both flashback and computer simulation; Lucy Lane, Lois’ younger sister and Jimmy Olson’s ex, who the show is smart enough to give a role to beyond “Jimmy Olson’s ex”; the villains Livewire and Indigo and Silver Banshee, who all play a role in more than one episode; Eliza, Alex’s mother and Kara’s foster-mother, a biologist who nerds out when she meets another alien; Miranda Crane, a senator with anti-alien views; they even have the (offstage) president be a woman (and if the show’s writers weren’t thinking about Hillary Clinton, I’ll eat my laptop). These women talk to each other. They talk to each other so much that they get to have nearly every kind of relationship; they’re family and friends and rivals and co-workers and mentors and allies and enemies. (Not lovers, though — I can’t recall any lesbian relationships, at least not in the first season.)

The show is overtly feminist, too. I wouldn’t call it a triumph of complexity in that regard — see above comments about the writing being not all that good — but from time to time it goes straight at the familiar issues, the way that women’s achievements get downplayed relative to men’s, the way that women are held to standards men don’t have to meet. Clark Kent is an offstage presence, only appearing briefly a couple of times (and then always in silhouette), or conversing with Kara in text messages. In this canon, Kara was supposed to be the protector for her younger cousin, but circumstances caused her to arrive on Earth years later and younger than him; the growth of Kara from feeling like she’ll never live up to Kal-El’s reputation and achievements to someone who wins his praise and respect is really satisfying.

AND LET’S TALK ABOUT THE ETHICS. As in, this show has some. You may recall that ethical failings are a big part of why I wound up noping out of The Flash; I just about punched the air when this show made a point of addressing those issues. You literally get one of the characters telling Kara that due process and human rights matter, and that running a “secret Guantanamo” (actual phrase from the dialogue) is 100% not okay. And Kara acknowledges this! And then they do something about it! I called Astra an antagonist; I chose that word instead of “villain” because her situation isn’t black-and-white, and the show is capable of acknowledging that she’s pursuing good ends via bad means. There’s another antagonist in a similar position, too. I love that kind of thing, and seeing it here makes me really happy.

It still has shortcomings on a higher-than-script level, mind you. The racial diversity is just barely better than token, and queer representation is basically absent. And while the show nods in the direction of the problems posed by having superpowered people around, it doesn’t really delve into them. But I can watch it and have fun without constantly being frustrated, which is exactly what I was hoping for. And every so often it rises above itself with some really good dialogue or a great plot development — which leaves me hopeful that season two will improve on the first.

Behind the cut there be spoilers!


Today’s media thought

I’ve been watching Elementary, and I figured out why I subconsciously keep expecting Sherlock to relapse: because his drug addiction registers on Writer Brain as Chekhov’s gun, and therefore I expect it to go off eventually. But at this point (halfway through season three), I suspect that’s the point the writers want to make. An addiction is Chekhov’s gun . . . and you have to live the rest of your life with it sitting on the mantel, begging to be fired. Whether this is a suitable analogy for addiction or not, I can’t say — I have fortunately never struggled with that myself — but I’m pretty sure that’s the thematic point they’re aiming for. Which I do find interesting.

(What do I think of Elementary as a whole? I think I would like it better if it weren’t a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, because I often find it disappointing in that regard. Their Moriarty is fabulous, but sadly underused, and their Mycroft was not just a resounding disappointment but an active detriment to the story as a whole. But where it’s doing more of its own thing, I think it’s decent. Not hugely compelling for the most part, but acceptable background entertainment.)

How to bore me in thirty seconds flat

I needed to be doing some random stuff on the computer this morning, so on a whim, I put on the first episode of Rizzoli & Isles, which is Yet Another Police Procedural, though with two female leads.

First thing I see: a bound and terrified woman, in the clutches of an unknown villain.

Which led me to ask on Twitter, What percentage of police procedurals open their pilot ep with a woman chased, crying, screaming, or dead?

Because seriously — at this point, that is the single most boring way I can think of to open your show. Also problematic and disturbing, but even if you don’t care about those things, maybe you care about it being utterly predictable. There is nothing fresh or new about having the first minute of your police procedural episode show us somebody (usually a woman) being victimized. I said on Twitter, and I meant it, that I would rather see your protagonist file papers. I might decide in hindsight that the paper-filing was also boring . . . but in the moment, I’d be sitting up and wondering, why am I seeing this? Are the papers important? Or something about how the protag is approaching them? Because it isn’t a thing I’ve seen a million times before.

The only thing that brief clip of the victim gives us is (usually) a voyeuristic experience of their victimization. They don’t make the victim a person, an individual we get to know and care about. They rarely even give us meaningful information about the crime, except “this person died from a gunshot/strangulation/burning alive/whatever” — which is info we could easily get later in the episode, through the investigation.

There are exceptions, on a show or individual ep level. But the overwhelming pattern is: here’s some violence for violence’s sake, before we get to the actual characters and the actual story.

I decided last year that I was done with the genre of “blood, tits, and scowling.” I think I’m done with police procedurals, too. I won’t swear I’ll never watch another one, but they’ve just lost all their flavor for me, because I’ve seen so many. And because I am so very, very tired with those predictable openings.

A blast from my eleven-year-old past

I somehow managed to miss the fact that they made a Shannara TV series. But it aired on MTV (and will be getting a second season), so I decided to give it a shot.

Watching it is . . . interesting.

More precisely, watching it is like taking a trip in the Wayback Machine to my eleven-year-old brain. These were the first adult fantasy novels I ever read, purloining them off my brother’s bookshelf — my first introduction to high fantasy. I keep thinking of Benedick’s line from Much Ado About Nothing: “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale men’s souls out of their bodies?” Back then, capital letters could hale my soul out of mine. The last descendant of the King of Shannara has to use the Elfstones to help a princess take a seed from the Ellcrys to Safehold, where she’ll immerse it in the Bloodfire and renew the Forbidding that keeps Demons out of the world — yyyyyyyyeah. Nowadays that mostly sounds goofy and artificial to me, but back then, it was awesome.

The TV series doesn’t do a whole lot to restore that power. For me to care about a Destined Hero, I need to care about the characters, and neither the writing nor the acting here is good enough to really compel me. The show also has a certain look to it that I don’t have a good name for, but it’s a lesser version of the same thing that drove me straight out of Reign after a single episode; people look like they’re wearing costumes instead of clothing, and furthermore they look like they’re about to burst into the latest auto-tuned pop hit. One of the reviews I saw gave it a tepid recommendation to those looking for a “teen-friendly Game of Thrones,” and that feels apt. I have trouble telling the two female leads apart, if the camera angle doesn’t show their ears: one’s an elf, one’s a human, but they’re both generically pretty dark-haired young women wearing MTV’s idea of fantasy chic. Their hair is too clean and well-brushed, nobody ever has more than cosmetic smudges of dirt on them, and the entire thing feels like it’s made out of plastic.

Which isn’t to say it’s complete crap. I stopped reading Shannara ages ago, so I had no idea the setting is technically our world, post-magical-apocalypse. That’s an interesting twist on the epic fantasy thing, and sometimes you get the characters riding past the crumbling remnants of modern technology and architecture. I also give them points for having racially diverse elves — and most of the characters we’ve seen so far are elves. On the other hand, no points for Obvious Romani Parallel Is Obvious and Offensive: really, Brooks? We needed a clan of itinerant sexist thieves? The show intermittently entertains me, but it hasn’t yet (as of the first three eps) risen above the status of “thing I can put on on the background while I do other stuff because its plot isn’t complex enough and its performances aren’t compelling enough to really require my attention.”

I don’t much expect it to do so, either. But still: it’s interesting to revisit my eleven-year-old brain, and to muse on what she used to think.

maybe it’s better not to be “a good person”

On the way home from Captain America: Civil War (which is quite good, and should have been titled Avengers: Civil War), we got to talking about the contrast between Arrow and Flash, and the problems I had with the latter. (I say “had” because I gave up on watching it partway into this season.)

It just occurred to me that I think part of my issue with that show is the same thing Slacktivist was talking about here, riffing off this post by Mychal Denzel Smith. Specifically, this bit, quoted from Smith:

When your self-conception is centered on the idea of your own goodness, it prevents you from hearing any critique of your ideology/behavior. Thinking of yourself as “good” allows you to justify harmful words and actions, since anything you do, in your mind, is “good.”

Flash feels like it has defined Barry Allen as A Good Person, and therefore it cannot address anything that might call his goodness into question — like, say, the extrajudicial prison he regularly throws criminals into, keeping them in solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time without benefit of trial or any other such legal process. He is A Good Person, therefore Basement Gitmo is good. By contrast, Arrow has not defined Oliver Queen as A Good Person; instead he’s been presented as a deeply flawed person trying to become good. Corollary: the show offers up frequent critiques of his ideology and behavior, and he changes in response to them. Not always, and not perfectly — one of the points season five has been making is that he still has a lot of problems. But that’s a story the show can tell, because it hasn’t taken its protagonist’s Goodness as a given.

I complained before that telling a story where ethics matter shouldn’t require you to be working in the grimdark mode — that Flash *could* have addressed the difficult question of how to handle superpowered criminals, while still being Arrow‘s perky younger brother. Now I wonder to what extent Smith’s quote points at the source of the problem: they could never tell stories where Barry grappled with ethics and questioned his own morality, because Barry Allen is A Good Person.

Miss Fisher Gets a Clue

A while ago on Twitter I said I want to read the fanfic where Miss Scarlet (of the Clue movie) is actually Phryne Fisher (of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), undercover.

Tonight this led to us casting the entire film with people from MFMM. Please disregard how many of these characters would therefore wind up murdering one another. 😛

WADSWORTH – Jack Robinson
MISS SCARLET – Phryne Fisher
MRS. PEACOCK – Prudence Stanley
MRS. WHITE – Rosie Sanderson, nee Robinson
PROFESSOR PLUM – Dr. Macmillan, cross-dressing
MR. GREEN – Hugh Collins
COLONEL MUSTARD – Baron Henry Fisher
MR. BODDY – Murdoch Foyle
THE COOK – Mr. Butler
YVETTE – Dorothy Williams
THE COP – Neville Martin
THE CHIEF – Commissioner George Sanderson

Anybody want to write that for me? ^_^

Stop. Just — stop.

(This post theoretically contains spoilers for Castle — but only if you consider it a spoiler when I talk about something done by practically every TV show ever.)

So my husband and I have been watching Castle lately. We really like the Castle/Beckett relationship; it doesn’t make the mistake committed by so many other buddy stories that pair up a free spirit with a by-the-book type, of making the by-the-book type a humorless automaton. Beckett gives as good as she gets, in her own way. And the show does a semi-decent job of explaining why it takes them years to get together: Castle’s had a string of failed marriages; Beckett has some major hangups. But eventually they do actually sort themselves out and start a relationship —

— whereupon, of course, the show has to start playing the OH MY GOD THEY’RE GOING TO BREAK UP card.

Foz Meadows had a post recently about bad TV romance wherein she rants quite eloquently about the investment of TV writers in the “will they or won’t they” dynamic. UST gets strung out for years, with the characters sitting on the fence long after the point at which they would have either hooked up or moved on — and then when they finally hook up, the implied verb of “will they or won’t they” is “split” instead of “get together.” Because the vast majority of TV writers (or possibly just the vast majority of the execs they answer to) have no freaking clue what to do with a romantic pairing that isn’t either impending or in peril.

And as Foz points out, the obnoxious thing is: they know exactly how to write that kind of thing, because they do it all the time — with male friendships. On Castle, Ryan and Esposito don’t always agree; sometimes they’re competing with one another or at odds over some issue. But in eight seasons, the show has never once relied on baiting us with the question of whether they’ll settle down as working partners, or whether they’ll split up and start working with other people. The writers don’t need those tricks to make the characters interesting to watch. Their banter is enough, and the pleasure of watching them do things together.

Ah, you say, but they aren’t the protagonists.

To which I say: so what? Why do the central figures of every male/female buddy show ever* have to not only get romantically involved with one another, but spend almost their entire existence in romantic limbo? Why can’t we have more Mr. and Mrs. Smith-style teamups? More couples with the exact same dynamic given to male/male buddy pairs, except with bonus smooching? As Foz points out, insisting on the uncertainty model for the romances means that all kinds of other tasty narrative material — “shared interests, complex histories, mutual respect, in-jokes, magnetic antagonism, slowly kindled alliances and a dozen other things” — is now off-limits.

It wasn’t entirely off-limits in Castle because the show let those things build between Castle and Beckett, during the period of time where they were sorting out their nonsense. But of course now we need Tension — we need Doubt in the Relationship — so all of a sudden they’re barely talking to one another. Bye-bye, in-jokes. Farewell, alliance. All those shared interests and complex histories? Irrelevant now. Because BY GOD we need the audience to be asking themselves “will they or won’t they?”

Even though the audience knows the goddamned answer.

Stop. Just stop. We know what’s going to happen with Castle and Beckett, and in the meantime, everything I like about their relationship has been squandered for the sake of that fake uncertainty. Quit it. Let the two of them behave like functional adults, and trust that the rest of the story is interesting even if that question has been answered.


*Exception that proves the rule: Will and Grace, because Will was gay. Though for all I know, the show spent its time pretending they weren’t going to wind up being best friends/oh my god maybe they’ll stop being friends.

a thing I would love to watch

We had our usual Oscar party the other night, and at one point during all the interviewing (which I mostly don’t listen to, because I’m there to enjoy the fashion), I caught Faye Dunaway saying something about how Brie Larson is an amazing actress.

And it got me thinking: I would love to watch something that involves one or more actors sitting around discussing clips from different performances, talking about what makes them so awesome. What little touches of timing or intonation really bring the character to life, what techniques are being used, etc — basically, the kind of thing I sometimes get up to with fellow writers, when we let our professional squee flags fly and really dig into the craft aspects of our job. I genuinely don’t know what a craft-based appreciation of acting would look like, what kinds of things an actor notices and admires while the rest of us are just sitting there going, “that was a really great scene.” Tony Zhou’s “Every Frame a Painting” series gets into this from the standpoint of cinematography and directing, but not acting; I’d love to get that angle as well.

Can anybody recommend examples of this? A YouTube series, a commentary track on a DVD, anything like that.

a career I do not want had a recent piece about George R.R. Martin’s announcement that the sixth book in his series will not be published before the next season of Game of Thrones airs. That means the show’s storyline will officially outpace the novels’; we find out what happens next from HBO, not Martin.

Reading that piece, it occurred to me that I do not want Martin’s career.

His piles of money? Sure. But not, I think, at the cost of everything that has come with it. I could be perfectly happy with a much smaller quantity of money, and the thought of living under the kind of stress he faces is massively unappealing. I think it’s clear, from everything he’s said and the way the series has progressed, that he’s the victim of his own success: so many people are invested in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the resulting pressure is grinding the life out of it for him.

For anybody who makes their living creatively, that’s kind of a horrifying thought. And I honestly feel bad for him with this HBO situation. I mean, he’s made plenty of statements about how HBO is telling their own version of the story, and it doesn’t affect his own, etc etc, and yes, fans will still care about the “real” end of the tale — but it has to feel like somebody else got there before him. Maybe that will make it easier for him to move forward; who knows? It could take some of the pressure off him. But he’s no longer leading the pack, and I have to imagine that stings. I know I wouldn’t want to be in that position myself.

I thought about something else, too. When the TV series started airing, book fans were incredibly disciplined about not spoiling things for people who came to the story via the show. This was, in part, a selfish act: I had a friend who hadn’t read the books, and I couldn’t wait to be there when she reacted to certain major events. Spoiling would have ruined the fun. But it was also courteous — and although I’m not optimistic, I’d like to hope that people watching the show will extend the same courtesy to anyone who is sticking with the books alone. Certainly I will; any posts I make about events on the show will be hidden behind a cut-tag. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I didn’t like A Dance with Dragons much at all and I feel the series has been rolling downhill with increasing speed . . . but I still hope that Martin pulls up out of that dive (to mix my metaphors), and anybody who prefers to go the text route should have that chance.

And I wish Martin the best in finishing off The Winds of Winter, and however many more there may be.