Monday, August 27, 2007

Another update on TV shows

I've spent a lot of time thinking about TV shows that I enjoy. I've decided to also spend time considering those that have disappointed me.

By far, the most disappointing thing for me on TV has been 24's fall from glory. It's always had pretty inconsistant elements (even when the A-story is gripping, there's usually been a loser of a secondary plot), but until the last two seasons it had a guiding theme that kept everything tied together. For the first four seasons the show, underneath the terrorist plot stuff, was about its hero's vulnerabilities.

In seasons 1 and 2, Jack Bauer was a capable, sometimes ruthless, CTU agent. CTU was initially an obscure government agency dedicated to counter-terrorism and threatened with budgetary dissolution, though in the latter seasons it has inexplicably become not just better funded and equipped than a private security firm but known and feared by terrorists throughout the middle east and China.

Early on, Jack's problem was that what made him so good at counter-terrorism also made him a terrible husband and father, and unable to make or sustain friendships. The first season, in retrospect, is anomalous for depicting him as both happy and outgoing. This entire season is best viewed as the origin story. It culminates with the death of Jack's wife, and from there on out the series makes good use of juxtaposing the air of menace and cruelty that Kiefer Sutherland had as a younger actor with his considerable ability to play lonely and longing as an adult.

In season 3, Jack has a running dialogue with his partner, Chase, on his notion that if you want to be a CTU agent, you just can't have a personal life. In the season finale, Chase rejects CTU and chooses to have a personal life. This leaves Jack even more lonely and depressed (seemingly because he knows his family would be alive and in tact had he made the same choice years ago).

In season 4, Jack has left CTU, hooked up with a bland woman named Audrey and is happy. When he's pulled back into fieldwork, though, he is continually forced to make (increasingly stark) decisions that, while good ones for counter-terrorism field agents, are bad for his relationship with her. At the end of the season, having seen him torture and kill, Audrey leaves him. Jack then gets the only happy ending it seems there is for him: he fakes his death and walks away from this life.

Rather than continue to follow Jack in his new underground identity (which it certainly could have done), away from counter-terrorism and the bizarrely soap operatic CTU, season five takes only a couple episodes to bring him back into the CTU fold. The next two seasons then shoehorn as many old characters and recycled plot twists as seemingly possible into their narratives (the two best non-Jack characters, David Palmer and Mandy the hot assassin, are either killed off or just absent). The action scenes, once very brutal and distinctive, have also become rote and boring.

Another significant loss is the show's ability (or maybe desire) to also make the viewer cry. Several scenes from the early years (especially, Jack's goodbye to his daughter as he pilots a plane carrying a nuclear bomb in season 2, and a teenage drug courier's confessions to his parents as he awaits the terminal symptoms of a viral bioweapon in season 3) effectively hit the heart strings.

Aside from being derivative, though, 24 has also lost its vision. Once Jack came back to CTU in season 5, once the show committed to following the conventions of previous seasons, it invalidated the more compelling narrative of the toll Jack's life takes on his psyche. Kiefer Sutherland seems like he's the only one still trying.

The absence of David Palmer, too, hurts. The two of them only appeared on-screen together once or twice in the whole series, but their cell-phone relationship had the overt affection and loyalty of Mulder and Scully's on The X-Files (even when David Palmer was recognizing that their relationship, though genuine, was fundamentally exploitive).

I think, though, that the producers and writers have recognized that they've lost their way with 24. The end of the abysmal season 6 has essentially set the clock back to the end of season 4: with Jack once again separated from the only people still alive that he loves, and going underground once again in order to keep them from being collateral damage. What would be nice is if the next season eschewed the previous seasons' catastrophic terrorist plots in favor of smaller, more emotionally resonant stories.


I've talked to a lot of people with good taste that really like Heroes. It's a good idea for a show, that there are people who have somehow developed supernatural abilities who discover slowly how they are all inextricably linked to each other. Like The X-Files and Lost, Heroes slowly develops an alternative history of the present, in which vast conspiracies and coincidences are signified by the mundane: railroad boxcars, middle aged men in bland suits, the discovery of boxed food on a deserted island, etc.

I just don't see the appeal of Heroes, though. The breadth of super powers the writers have dreamed up is pretty cool, and there are some clever, affectionate nods to the show's science fiction forbears. I don't care much for most of the characters, though, and a few of them (Mohinder, Hiro, and Isaac especially) really grate.

For a show with such a premise, there's never any particular sense of awe or surprise. Indeed, the only character who isn't fairly nonchalant about discovering a superpower is the super villain, Sylar (who, incidentally, had a supporting role as a prissy CTU analyst in 24's third season). Sylar's actually depicted as being terrified of what he learns about himself, but also capable of empathizing with other people who struggle to understand their new identities. He's, by far, the best part of the show.

Unfortunately, this is also the sort of show where the super villain thinks nothing of viciously slaughtering minor or walk-on characters but, when he has the drop on a series regular, opts to leave then locked in a room or finds some other pretext for not slicing off the top of their heads and removing their brain (I'm about 2/3 of the way through the first season, and things would improve mightily if Sylar would just fucking get rid of Mohinder).

It's also the sort of show where the not-at-all-subtle theme of embracing that which makes you different is espoused by toned, athletic performers (sometimes wearing designer stubble) who are dressed as if for an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot.


I have also, apparently, missed whatever it is that makes people like Weeds.

This show is about a suburban widow who begins selling pot to support her kids and pay her mortgage. It's a comedy, and sometimes it is pretty funny. Unfortunately, though, it's also got some of what made American Beauty so insufferable. On the one hand, it seems to want to speak to some sense of privileged suburban disaffection while also sneering at the suburbs.

The show's opening credit sequence is emblematic of this confusion. A well-known folk song (whose title and originator I do not know) satirizes the alleged uniformity of the suburban American life. The song describes its setting as exclusively white-collar, well-educated and wealthy amid sequences of identically dressed joggers and chain-coffee shop patrons. During my first year of college, this would have seemed a very incisive critique.

It seems we're being invited to share that critique of suburban monotony. The only character the audience is invited to identify with, Nancy, the widowed pot dealer, maintains an ironic distance from her surroundings. Her smug, appalled (and, again, sometimes funny) reactions to the lifestyles and politics of her community speak to liberal sensibilities and establish that we can't possibly identify (much less like) with anyone but her.

While the audience identifies with Nancy, we're never invited to critique her sense of entitlement to the same lifestyle. Indeed, it's not until late in the second season that someone actually asks why she doesn't just move somewhere else and get a (legal) job.

Nancy has friends in her subdivision, but she's only close to the African-American family from whom she buys her pot. The matriarch of this family, a kind-of pot kingpin, dispenses sassy, pithy maxims to Nancy, truths we're to understand Nancy and her neighbors are just too white and sheltered to get on their own. It may sound awesome, but it's actually pretty embarrassing.

The other disconnect is that the community where Nancy lives is characterized by anything but predictable conformity. Teenagers and their white-collar professional parents each surreptitiously buy pot from Nancy (the latter group actually invests in her expanding enterprise). We also see secret affairs (both hetero and homo) and get to know a pothead city council member (played by Kevin Nealon, who's pretty funny) and a business executive who quits his job and buys a motorcycle with the salary he draws managing his young daughter's plus-size modeling career.

If the of the opening credit sequence is supposed to set the tone and context, then all these white-collar fuck-ups should be considered subversive. Consciously or not, they're rejecting the trappings of their suburban setting, just like Nancy. (And it's not just a conceit of the show: the suburb I grew up in had as many malcontents and agitators as traditional, church-going professionals.)

There's no squaring the two opposing sensibilities, that of the credit sequence and the show's content. I don't think I'm tying too much of the show's politics to it's opening credit sequence, but I never got an indication that we're supposed to see it as ironic.

The show is actually pretty easy to watch, these things just don't sit well with me afterwards. Perhaps someone who has payed closer attention to it can make an argument in its favor.


For the first time, I'm disappointed by Friday Night Lights. The first season comes out on DVD in a couple days, and, awesomely, it's priced cheap for a full season of a great TV show. That low price comes at a cost, though: NBC has opted not to license any Explosions in the Sky music for the DVD set. To a large degree, this will probably be okay. Each episode has used some Explosions in the Sky knock-off music, and it's certainly competent. But there are some individual sequences where the use of the band's music just seems inimitable.

It remains a great show, and probably still effective without the licensed music. If anyone wants to see the show with the original music, though, I have it the season burned to data DVDs and you're free to make your own copies. You'd have to watch it on your computer (which is how I, for one, watch most of my TV), but I bet it's worth it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey bryan,

I just found out something awesome and I will share it with you. Some DVD players will play .avi files natively. Meaning you can just dump the lot of episodes on a disk and watch them on your tv with no conversion. This is especially great for shows shot on 16:9, the wide screen plays out so much better on a TV. My DVD player is a Phillips I got for $70 or so six months ago.