25 May 2010

The Good, The Meh, The Gah: Behind the Rant

by Tyler Weaver.  Follow me on Twitter.





(this article originally appeared at marialokken.com on February 22, 2010)

The ingredients that have thus far made up the concoction I call a career can be described, in a word, as “mucho.” Drummer. Orchestral percussionist. Composer. Film composer. Filmmaker.dd in a dash of non-profit management and my newest seasoning – critic – and the pierogie that is my hyphenated mish-mash of a career takes on a distinctly saucy turn.

Since September of 2009, I have cast a critical eye on J.J. Abrams’ FRINGE and David Shore’s HOUSE for Anthony Schiavino’s Pulp Tone website. Last month, I began reviewing the new Mark Valley/Chi McBride/Jackie Earl Haley-starring series, HUMAN TARGET. They are three distinctly different shows (though not without their similarities), and reviewing them has opened up my eyes to a number things that is done well in television, and a number of ills.

Though the three television shows I review are different, and I can’t apply many of the same criteria to each review, there is one criterion to everything I review that must be present:


CHARACTERS I WANT TO WATCH


If I’m given a story with cool effects, aliens, some T&A, mind-bending twists, and cardboard characters, I’m out. (I’m looking at you, “V.”)

Character is key. These are characters that I welcome into my home each week, characters that I want to follow. I loathe hospital shows. I love HOUSE. Were it not for the amazing ensemble cast and the wonderful performances from Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard, I would be gone. “Doctor with bad beside manner solves mystery cases.” Great. But I don’t care.

FRINGE would be just another X-FILES rip-off were it not for the performances of John Noble as Walter Bishop, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, and Anna Torv (more or less) as Olivia Dunham. If I didn’t care about these people, they wouldn’t make it past a minute of my time.

The essence of great storytelling can be boiled down into one statement:

Fascinating people in difficult situations.

That’s it. It’s why the hero is defined by the antagonist – the situation must be more difficult than the protagonist can handle at the story’s beginning. The protagonist must grow through defeating their own demons, fears, etc. to overcome that which is bigger than them.

Simply because I want to watch a character doesn’t mean I have to like the character. In fact, if I don’t, I’m even more intrigued. I want to see what makes these people tick. I don’t need to like them. I just have to empathize with them.

If I’m going to stick with a show, and give up an hour of my life weekly for 10, 12, 13, 22 weeks or longer, I had better want to watch these people. Otherwise, it’s like going to a party filled with people you don’t like, just because it’s a party. Why would I waste my time?

There’s another element to my reviews – programming. Much of my complaining is leveled at the networks for their abysmal lack of balance. Because, as in life…

BALANCE IS KEY

As most U.S. network shows on the big four (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) last for 22-24 episodes, balance is crucial. Balance between what?

Balance between the done-in-one and overarching story (or mythology) episodes. They must function and inform one another. Despite having an overarching plot (House wants to be a better human), HOUSE is not a mythology-driven show. It’s a character-driven show, with a winning formula (a fascinating character in a difficult situation; in this case, a medical mystery that pushes the boundaries of his intellect), and an excellent supporting cast (more or less).

HUMAN TARGET is not a mythology-driven show, though it does have an overarching plot. In this case, it’s the slow revelation of Chance’s (Mark Valley) past, and why that past is after him. Otherwise, it again fulfills my criteria for watching: fascinating people (the lead triumvirate of Mark Valley, Chi McBride, and Jackie Earl Haley) in difficult situations – though with a healthy and fun dosage of boys-with-toys machismo and a caution-to-the-wind cavalier attitude.

FRINGE, on the other hand, is a mythology-driven show in the vein of everything else Abrams does. I’ve been particularly hard on FRINGE this season, but I’ve primarily aimed my critical switchblade towards the showrunners (for the first half – atrocious, badly-written dreck) and the network (for the second – showrunners got their mojo back, but horrifying programming decisions did nothing to garner my love).

I will confess to nearly jumping ship on FRINGE. However, the first criteria chimed in: It is filled with characters I want to watch. And I had faith that it would get better.

Balance, unfortunately, is often not synonymous with American television programming. So far, FRINGE has suffered the most from this disease. It’s a deadly one. It’s called…

FLUFFFORFLUFF’SSAKEITUS (Fluff•for•Fluff’s•Sake•Itus)


With a mythology-driven show like FRINGE , the 22-24 episode season doesn’t work. This season proved it beyond a reasonable doubt, in no small part to the absolutely shoddy programming. Some episodes moved the main plot forward. Stop. Done-in-one freak of the week. Myth. Stop. Freak. Stop. Three week break. Myth. Freak. Freak. Freak. Four week break. Ad naseum.

This is no doubt due to Fox’s inability to effectively market the show to anyone. It wants a big hit on its hands, so it markets to everyone. Bring in people, keep long-time fans happy. Pick one. By marketing to everyone, you market to no one.

The fix I have long proposed (well, since September, anyhow) is that ALL American television should follow the Euro/British model (10-12 episode series/seasons/volumes). In the US, USA, TNT, FX, AMC, HBO, etc. etc. have found great success with this formula. It needs to be applied to all television. It’s the first step towards curing the Flufforfluff’ssakeitus that plagues network programming.

And what is the ubiquitous issue?

THE DONE-IN-ONE.

American programming is a hodge-podge between myth and done-in-one, a balance never being found.

At its best, the done-in-one can both move the story forward and be accessible. The last new episode of HOUSE, “5 to 9,” is one of the best examples of this. It didn’t necessarily move the overarching HOUSE story forward (be a nice guy, House), but it did offer a new perspective on a tried and true formula. Told from romantic foil and hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy’s perspective, it was a “day in the life of,” with the HOUSE formula sneaking in once in awhile. It was a highly effective episode (made even moreso by the fantastic performance by Lisa Edelstein as Cuddy), and is, in my mind, a template for how the done-in-one should be… done.

On the other hand, you have FRINGE. While there have been some very good done-in-ones (several in fact, especially recently) that did move the story forward ever so-slightly, it came across as merely padding to fulfill a season order. One of my last reviews (before the eight-week break) was actually dedicated to ripping apart the programming decisions of the season (which I will leave alone for now – just go have a read of the review (assault?) if you want to know more).

Bottom line – the done-in-one must contain the following: a fascinating story with a unique perspective that illuminates and expands on the mythology and forward motion presented in the episodes surrounding it. If it doesn’t, it’s filler, and I’m not pleased or interested.

THE GOOD. THE MEH. THE GAH.


That I’ve pontificated on my review process for nearly 1500 words now is surprising to me. Discussing methods is something that I’ve never been good at. In fact, I tend to avoid discussing them, simply because I don’t think about it that much. My method for critical discourse:

If it’s good, I like it. If it sucks, I don’t.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that. I suppose one could ask “why do I review shows, films, etc.?” Simple. Because I like to. I like exploring things from people who get paid to make things because it makes me a better creative on my road to getting paid to make things.

In some cases, I learn by seeing what they do right. In most cases, I learn by what they do wrong. Either way, I apply, and move on.

At the end of the day, it comes down to my biggest pet peeve. There is nothing I hate more than wasted potential. When I see it in my everyday life, I make a point to do any little thing I can to help people gain the confidence to tap into their potential. When I see television shows, films, comics, etc. that aren’t living up to their potential, I pounce. Not that it matters – I’m under no illusion that my critiques and reviews have any bearing whatsoever. It’s the thought that counts.

When I see shows that I adore – with fascinating characters in difficult situations – flounder and flop from week to week, I get riled up. When I see poor business and marketing decisions that impact the showrunners’ abilities to run their show, or realize the show’s full potential, I get riled up.

Each review is my little way of being part of a solution to an epidemic of bland television. If, in some small way, my reviews can help potential be realized, maybe through turning other people onto the show, or by giving them a different lens through which to view it – a critical one – then I’ll consider myself happy.

Otherwise, I’ll give my reviews, on my own three-point grading system (Good, Meh, GAH!), a GAH!

Until next we meet…

THE GOOD: Television that features two main pieces: Fascinating people in difficult situations.

THE MEH: When one of the two is out of balance.

THE GAH: When potential is squandered by poor storytelling, marketing, and programming.

Tyler Weaver is a filmmaker, writer, contributor to the pulptone.com website, and the founder and EIC of Multi-Hyphenate... which you're reading right now.  He's currently making new things and yaks about that and more on Twitter under the creative guise of @tylerweaver.

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