Normally I’d add a big opening paragraph to this, but it’s been a busy day (i.e. I’ve been on Twitter AND Facebook), so I’ll just get to the next three lessons I learned by watching bad TV over the past 13 months.
An agenda can be a bonus, but a lot of the time your show will be better if it’s not about anything
What was the point of Camelot? As far as SoC could tell, it was yet another unnecessary retelling of a tale already well-covered elsewhere. However it was apparently a metaphor for a new way of politics; I can imagine Arthur was meant to be an Obama-type, even though I’d say the last image I’d come up with if asked to picture an iconic leader is a pasty white boy who looks like he’d cry if he had to pick up a spork, let alone Excalibur. That said, I love the thought that Joe Fiennes was playing Merlin as a cross between lovable Obi-Wan and loathsome Donald Rumsfeld, and not a bald Goth with a bad case of dysentery. Maybe I should go back and finish it after all.
SoC has nothing against using a story to relate a political idea or as a metaphor for contemporary times; historical drama and sci-fi are littered with examples of such thought-provoking tales (example right off the top of my illness-addled head; everyone go read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War immediately). One of our all-time favourite shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer – is rich with metaphorical intent. But sometimes less is more (or, in the case of Seinfeld, nothing is more).
There are mild examples of this. Boardwalk Empire is as vulnerable to the temptation to bang us over the head with “How Things Have Changed And Yet Stayed The Same” story elements as the first season of Mad Men; hopefully that will settle down soon. Connected to that, the worst moments of the otherwise exceptional Treme come when characters spout on-the-nose info-dumps about the state of post-Katrina New Orleans. That’s more forgivable; Treme exists in part to draw attention to a subject that far too many people know nothing about. Still, on a narrative level, David Simon’s preachifying can take you out of the show.
Then there are the more noticeable examples. It’s an odd coincidence that many of SoC’s least favourite shows of the year had a metaphorical agenda. Falling Skies was created by Robert Rodat, the charming fellow who ignored the existence of the non-US Allies in Saving Private Ryan, and equated the British Redcoats in the American Revolutionary War with the Nazis in his monstrous alternative history fantasy The Patriot. This alien invasion show works as a simple survival tale like The Walking Dead or Jericho, with our heroes bravely fighting back against an evil occupation force using guerrilla tactics. It also works as a pro-NRA wank fantasy for anti-government conspiracy theorists who think we’d be better off in a world which had no electricity, but conveniently still had antibiotics.
It’s absolutely no coincidence that protagonist Professor Tom Mason is an expert on military history whose dialogue is peppered with anecdotes about military campaigns, or that the show is set in Boston not far from Lexington and Concord, or that Will Patton — the head of the 2nd Massachusetts – has a teeny-tiny ponytail as if he’s wearing an Eighteenth Century Queue. Fine, so Rodat had some left-over research from The Patriot that he wanted to use, and wasn’t afraid to draw a parallel between the arrogant invading forces of the British and a disgusting race of spider-like monsters that abducts children. But the show hints at other metaphorical meanings, most notably the nostalgic yearning for a time when your mettle was tested in the fire of battle for freedom.
The show is obsessed with two things; children and ammo. The majority of the dialogue in the pilot consists of characters discussing what ammo they need, what ammo they wish they had, ammo supplies, gun comparisons, etc. It’s not just the macho guys; women and children join in though hey, they’re not in charge or anything (let’s not go too crazy here). These survivors are so committed to the cause that they exhibit no other interests. Rodat seems to pine for a life like this, and certainly it calls back to The Patriot and Mel Gibson teaching his children how to kill dastardly Redcoats. Rather that than play video games; one facetious exchange has SoC favourite Moon Bloodgood express gratitude for the EMP blackout that has removed those AWFUL video games from the equation. (SMH)
The children occupy the rest of the show’s attention. They are abducted by the evil Skitters and forced to wear Harnesses which control their minds, turning them into slaves for the mysterious Grey overlords that control these drone forces. Falling Skies spends all ten episodes agonising about this fact, which drives almost all of the action. (It also reminds me of Tom Clancy’s books; it seems that 67% of conversations between militaristic right-wingers are about how great kids are and by the way, how’s the wife? Weird.)
On an emotional level that’s valid, but it also smacks of anti-government paranoia; the idea that our children are being brainwashed by the dark forces who control our country, and therefore we have to fight against this oppression and save our children from indoctrination. The idea of a militia to protect against invasion from outside is one thing, but Falling Skies reeks of Tea-Party anti-government fears. Steven Spielberg was involved in this? And Graham Yost, Mark Verheiden and Melinda Hsu Taylor? It’s a right-wing wet-dream hiding behind a listless sci-fi actioner, like something Newt Gingrich would cook up. It’s even more disheartening than Dexter‘s explicitly pro-capital-punishment bullshit.
As a left-winger I’m bound to find this unsavoury, but it’s not like I think these things shouldn’t be said. Dollhouse was a show that put the viewer in a very uncomfortable position, rooting (to a certain extent) for one section of a company that enslaved people and turned them into mind-wiped prostitutes. Joss Whedon, infamous male feminist, caught a lot of flak for doing that, but the show asked a lot of difficult questions and challenged the viewer. Falling Skies isn’t asking questions; it’s fapping over a copy of Jane’s Defence Weekly and adding poorly written comments about Big Government to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page. And don’t get me started on Dexter. The only question it asks, “Which execution turned you on the most, you voyeurs?”
No, my problem with making a show that’s about something is that the message can swamp the drama. It’s impossible to watch Falling Skies without thinking the showrunners are trying to push a philosophy, and no amount of heated conversations between militaristic Will Patton or kindly, non-military-but-equally-as-bloodthirsty Noah Wyle will fix that. See also alien-invasion conspiracy theory hodge-podge The Event, a show so bound up in War on Terror symbolism that its mid-season revamp turned it into a sci-fi version of 24, not to mention one that so slavishly copied the original template that episode 20 (One Will Live, One Will Die) blatantly rips off the eighth episode of 24‘s fifth day, with an attack on a shopping mall.
Compare that to Alphas which, as this review points out, is informed by the War on Terror but survives as a lively and likeable action show without being crushed under an avalanche of obnoxious meaning. Or compare it to Game of Thrones (based on the War of the Roses but not about it), orJustified, or The Vampire Diaries, or any number of shows that have a theme but no intention of banging a message into our heads; they flourish without that burden. I guess the rule is, the less general your point, the better.
Make sure you’re making the right show
Thank you to ace writers/pop-culture thinkers @AmeliaMangan and @Ruby_Stevens for their recent Twitter conversation about NBC’s swiftly-cancelled superhero show The Cape. During the discussion one of them (I think it was Amelia but please correct me if I’m wrong) noted that a show about a cop framed for supervillainy who is taught how to be a boring superhero by the head of a nefarious circus filled with petty thieves should really have been a show about a nefarious circus filled with petty thieves especially when the head of the nefarious circus filled with petty thieves is played by KEITH DAVID COME ON! [/GOB Bluth].
It’s a very good point that I hadn’t even noticed until then. Yes, I can imagine the thought of making a show like that would be pooh-poohed after the cancellation of Carnivale and the tedium of the last season of Heroes, but the alternative — focusing on a guy with a SUPERPONCHO who mopes in an attic because he misses his annoying kid — is just perverse when you’ve managed to hire Keith David and all of his vast reserves of charisma to appear in your show.
But then I guess you can never win in these matters. A lot of folks hated Lost when it gave Ben Linus more to do, but seriously, if you cast Michael Emerson and he creates such a memorable character in such a short space of time, you’d be an idiot not to capitalise on that, and fuck the haters. As it stands, The Cape is a perverse, frustrating near-miss. As a weird Darkman-homage it has some perverse charm, but it was always more of a curio than a viable series. In years to come it may only be remembered as the punchline of a joke in Community; I hope the season 2 DVD of that great show has a feature that explains what Abed thought deserved “six seasons and a movie!”
Mind you, changing direction in mid-show has mixed results. The Event was not a great show, but it had some good ideas, and the potential to explore some interesting themes. Sadly it jumped so violently from one format (sci-fi conspiracy theory show) to another (humdrum 24-esque War-on-Terror analogue) that it only succeeded in shaking off viewers. It’s a more dramatic version of the course-correction shown by Rubicon — another show that started as a conspiracy thriller and then became a cerebral version of i in later episodes — but while AMC’s cancelled show made its transition relatively easily, The Event was drenched in the flop-sweat of a dozen panicky high-level meetings. Every show undergoes a process of discovery as it progresses, but it’s rare that a show can survive such a radical overhaul at that late stage.
Whenever you can, do more drafts
Camelot was a show so poorly conceived, written and acted that even I, a man who has watched numerous seasons of shows he hates (Dexter, Heroes) couldn’t even make it through ten episodes. Much of that was down to the realisation that there wasn’t going to be enough event to keep watching, though the promise of more superscowling from SoC acting hero Joe Fiennes and occasional Mirrenesque stripping scenes from the not-unattractive Eva Green did tempt us. But no, it was too painful to see them trying so hard to make being stuck in that morass seem worthwhile. They both deserve better.
The killing blow came early in the season, with Arthur (here imagined as a wet rag with a snivel painted on it) and Guinevere (a medieval version of the most popular girl in school) bonding and flirting on a parapet in Camelot itself. Maybe it was a result of co-creator Chris Chibnall having to find an extra 10 minutes of drama compared to the 50 minute-long episodes of Torchwood that he worked on before, but in a show already heavy with padding, this scene was murderously boring to watch. The banter was stilted and contained no pertinent information about character or plot. It was just two people chatting, charmlessly.
It was as if the concept of subtext didn’t exist in Ye Olde Britaineenneee, and the result was dead air. It wasn’t the only scene to stumble like that. An earlier moment with Arthur trudging out of his family home like a less-butch D.J. Qualls visiting a Renaissance Faire was similarly devoid of oomph. His father says goodbye to him, and that’s it. There’s no drama. It could easily have been written out, or something could have been added; some ambivalence, some mystery, a set-up for a future event. Anything. But no. The show needed, for some reason, to show that Sean Pertwee would miss his seemingly consumptive child. So he says goodbye and looks sad.
There’s just one layer there. Unfortunately for Starz and the Camelot team, viewers are becoming more sophisticated, and demand something more from their drama. They need more than just a surface that iterates something that can easily be assumed. There has to be some way to bring this alive, even if it’s just a liberal dose of “Conflict” sprinkled over the top. Of course, in lesser storytelling “Conflict” becomes nothing more than yelling, and we could have ended up with little more than Sean Pertwee telling the little scrote to go back to his room, but when done right, that scene could have come alive.
It could well be that the showrunners had no time to go back and rewrite. Certainly it seems most shows are written at such a gallop that there is no time to go back and revise the work. Plus, writing sure isn’t as easy as it seems. Nevertheless, we still get complex, layered episodes of TV every week from many other sources, where each scene works on multiple layers, calling back and forth through individual hours or full seasons, as part of a larger whole or just as a single bright moment. If some showrunners can polish their scripts, then it’s possible for anyone to give it a try. Doubtless there are a million reasons why it’s difficult to do it, but if you’re not the kind of screenwriting miracle worker who knows how to add a ton of audience-satisfying subtext and complexity in the first pass, at least one more draft should be a priority.
Part the third tomorrow, as long as I don’t decide to go on LinkedIn and Google+ as well. #SocialMediaTimeSuck