Is American television on the decline?

It’s that time of year when once again we get to see how the lowest common denominator manages to assert mass control on American popular culture. We see it regularly, of course, published in weekly ratings or even just on cable so-called news networks. But this is the time when networks announce which shows survived their fall run and will make it into the back 10 of the spring television season.

Yesterday, the NBC mid-season pick-ups, drops and forced hiatuses provide yet another point of proof-positive that those who love television are not the people blessed with Nielsen boxes (and indeed, that the Nielsen system, at least as far as television goes, is broken). The fact that Community is on indefinite hiatus while shows like Whitney and the incredibly dull celebrities-discover-distant-ancestry show Who do you think you are? continue on provides depressing further proof that the peacock network has jumped the shark. Or been eaten by it.

Here’s hoping they see the light and replace the god-awful Are you there Vodka, it’s me Chelsea (I’ve seen the pilot — it makes Whitney look clever and well done) with the remaining 11 episodes. Over the debate and conversation on the interwebz that this ‘hiatus’ has prompted, some in the industry report optimism of its return, others pessimism.

I’ve spoken before about my soft spot for NBC. This is the network that brought me SeaQuest back in the early 90s — the first show that I watched with devotion (please don’t mock me). It was also the home of Homicide: Life on the Streets, which at the time could never have been on any other network but the then-gritty and daring NBC, as well as the golden years of ER.

And we cannot forget that the peacock brought us The West Wing, which remains my favorite show of all time. The blue foldered complete box set counts among my prized possessions.

There are some positive things that can be said about NBC. It has shown commitment to Chuck, the little spy dramedy that could(n’t always deliver), and boasts the Tom Brokaw legacy and Brian Williams continuation. There’s also a smattering of other non-Community comedies that many rate highly: 30 Rock, though my loathing of Tracy Jordan often gets in the way of my enjoying it, The Office and Parks and Recreation (though neither my cup of tea).

But there’s no denying that it is a far cry from the ‘must see’ network it was back in the 90s and early aughts. Instead of trail-blazing, it’s following suit. Its spring lineup includes Smash, a Rachel-grows-up Glee answer, The Voice (answering American Idol), Fashion Star (answering Project Runway), and of course, Grimm, which is a mediocre Supernatural-meets-Buffy mash-up. Prime Suspect has gotten the ax. Instead, we’re introducing The Firm and Harry’s Law, both because we need more lawyer dramas on TV. This in addition to the limping along Law and Order SVU. Let’s not even go into the renewal of Celebrity Apprentice because, might as well kill me.

I don’t (completely) mean for this to be a snobby, condescending, liberal elite, arguably “hipster” critique of the decline of American culture, though I know that’s probably how it will come off to some. It’s really more intended to be a think on where we are versus where we’ve been, television-culture-wise.

What makes Community‘s (likely permanent) loss depressing is the fact that as a show, it has layers. It is not the deepest program on television, and in some ways I think that’s the point, and keeping with that it is a meta critique of American popular culture — particularly television — that is well done and well performed. It is something made exclusively for those who watch television not as a way to kill an hour or two while they eat their nuked tv dinner, but who do so for the cultural conversation that can and does come from it.

To put it in other terms — it is for the types of people who go to Comic Con for Comic Con, and not those who attend just to see the Twlight panel.

There was a time when there were ‘water-cool’ shows (to use an 80s turn of phrase) — where did they go? Why?

This disappointment is not about Community in and of itself. It’s not even, really, about NBC. It’s more about the system overall and the shift in the cultural landscape. The amount of mediocre and thoughtless programming on television — and within American popular culture generally — is devastating, and is evident not only in the types of programming available, but in what we as a society accept as representative of us as a people and culture. For now I’ll stick to television, but if you want any more evidence, watch 10 minutes of a Republican primary debate.

It is possible to find engaging programs, no doubt; it is even possible to find smart programs if we look for them — and not only as British imports. But the second golden age of television that we enjoyed during the aughts is clearly on its decline.

No more West Wing. No more LOST. Battlestar Galactica, the Wire, the Sopranos are also gone to DVD boxset heaven, and The Office has declined into a land of tired awkwardness, baby-obsession and the revelation that the bulk of these characters are just horrible people. Buffy is 8 years off the air and Veronica Mars is a fond memory. As a side note, there is not a single space opera/western to be found, even in Sci-Fi Network (I refuse the ridiculous rebranding).

In the Second Golden Age, television was able to be smart. Not only that, but consumers were too. Examples of what I mean —

  • Battlestar Galactica. From the outside, it is a science fiction space opera about fighting killer robots. True. But it’s really a conversation about faith (and religion) and its place in society, how power is given and received, and the nature of humanity.
  • LOST. Taking on similar themes, it adds the struggle for redemption and the very basis of what it means to be good or evil (and how there must be both). Regardless of how you feel about its finale, one cannot ever argue it wasn’t ambitious and about *something*.
  • The Wire examines socioeconomic marginalization, and the pressures and motivations behind people’s choices within a city of clear haves and have-nots.
  • In a completely different setting and method, Veronica Mars does similarly, bringing into the conversation what it means to be young, female, and marginalized, while talking about adolescence in a way that doesn’t just boil it down to commonplace stereotypes (see in contrast: Glee).
  • And Buffy did much of this too — at least the young, female, coming-of-age part — in a way that made it relevant and at the time, new (though the amount written about Buffy’s contribution is staggering and I don’t need to rehash).

Additionally, think about West Wing, which tackles these things and more (albeit quite differently) with idealism and intelligence — the writers never dumbed it down, never treated the audience like they were stupid, and it, like these others, can stand the test of time. Those behind West Wing expected their viewer to keep up — and they did. This was not a show written for the lowest common denominator, instead it was a show with ambition about ambition. It said it was okay to be intelligent, to expect more. And it encouraged a generation of people to engage in current events and politics. The number of people I know, from both sides of the ideological spectrum, who got involved in politics, the law and social issues  because of this show is astounding. Talk about a program with legs and long-term cultural impact.

I think one of the problems is that today’s producers don’t allow audiences to be smart the same way they once did. At least not on network. For instance, Homicide would never be made today — or if it was, it would be on something like FX with more sex and gore (which I think would significantly take away from the story). It certainly would never be on one of the alphabets. West Wing is probably in the same boat, even with Sorkin’s Social Network success.

At least there’s Mad Men and Game of Thrones, and we have the brain-twisting multidimensional Fringe until the end of the season (though I doubt for any longer). Sons of Anarchy, despite its flaws, does provides something a bit different, though it’s no Sopranos. There’s Breaking Bad for some, though I’ve not been able to get into it. And there is a promise of a new half season and a movie of Arrested Development. I would also argue there’s How I Met Your Mother and even, though to a lesser extent, Supernatural.

Mad Men and Game of Thrones are easy. Mad Men is nothing if not a masters thesis on culture, feminism and gender norms, and how we remember history — as a country and as individuals. Game of Thrones can easily be argued as a treatise on power and the nature of leadership. Beyond being well written, superbly produced and perfectly acted, these shows meet or exceed the level of exploration into human behavior or the human condition as the celebrated programs of the last decade. They move at the pace they need to in order to tell their story and they expect their audience to keep up and ‘get it’.

For How I Met Your Mother, here is my argument for why it belongs in the “deeper than” bloc. Though nowhere near as serious as these other offerings, it does have depth despite its design as a traditional sitcom. HIMYM‘s exploration of late-20/early-30-something struggles and expectations is extremely relevant and realistic. Its 6th run, which tackled loss of a parent, quest for personal identity, and the pressure of major real-life decisions, was an overlooked gem and one of the best bits of network television last season. It may wrap its exploration into some ridiculous gags and sitcomy situations, but in the end, there is something real beyond the laugh track. The characters change and grow, their situations are relateable, and the commentary on expectations and the path life takes is clear. It’s not actually about who the mother is, and those who think so miss the point.

Supernatural is the other one I know I need to defend here and honestly, it probably needs its own essay. It doesn’t quite reach BSG or even BtVS levels of exposition, but there is more to Supernatural than cute guys battling the monster of the week or even a dose of truly quality television horror stories. We have the ongoing good-versus-evil conversation, of course, with all the shades of grey, and all of the central characters fit the anti-hero trope so popular these days. But Supernatural, I would argue, goes beyond that and even steps more into the same territory as Community in many ways. It’s guilty pleasure for literature/American-studies majors, a television program that explores the role of popular culture and storytelling within that culture. There is internal awareness within the show itself, even beyond the two or three “meta” episodes they do every season (e.g. fan-fiction, comic con, spoofing other television programs, even finding that they’re actors in a tv show). The allegories borne out of battling monsters from stories and legends — classical gods, angels, devils, looking for God Himself — are often blatant, the messages blunt, but they’re near always dynamic. Redemption, faith, good versus evil, the value of family and the need for personal growth (reluctant though it may be) are here — as is the manner in which stories and culture can clash so violently with the real world, or help to develop and change it. In this way I argue that Supernatural is quite well in keeping with the initial intentions of its genre (harkening back to the early days of Frankenstein and Dracula — the novels).

I realize that may just seem like me reading too much into it. It is what it is.

This is not to say that today’s shows aren’t engaging and that none of them are worth watching. Good television does not have to be about something deeper any more than good comic books have to have allegorical elements. Sometimes a procedural can just be a procedural, just like an outcast superhero doesn’t need to stand for a marginalized group.

For me, shows like Castle, Suburgatory, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Revenge, and The Vampire Diaries, are all extremely entertaining. One could look at Suburgatory, as an over-exaggerated conversation about economics and superficiality in the bubble of the suburbs. Modern Family can be argued as a present day answer to All in the Family that puts stereotypes on the table as a well-meaning nudge rather than aggressive mean humor (unlike 2 Broke Girls, for instance). The others, however clever the writing or great the performances or engaging the plotlines, are entertainment. So too are the soaps that are, somewhat shockingly in my mind, still on the air (Grey’s Anatomy, I’m looking at you). And there’s nothing wrong with that. Television can and should be a great way to escape. But it can also be so much more.

All I’m saying is why does so much of network offerings have to be so stupid?

And do we really need another 2+ hours of prime-time talent competition?

Posted in Fall 2011 Season, Rumination on Genre, Television | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What should I do for #NaNoWriMo?

Realizing that I will probably have no time whatsoever for this, I figured I might as well at least have some ambitions toward it anyway. Maybe something crazy will happen and I will actually be able to write here and there. It is, after all, absurd the numbers I crank out with a solid couple hours, or even a Sunday afternoon.

But I am having a hard time deciding what to put my attention toward should I be able to. Obviously, there are some other projects happening (Weber, I’m looking and you, and it coincides). But the point of NaNoWriMo is something new. So here are some options. Help me choose.

Note: The short descriptions are just illustrative. The ideas are not meant to specifically mirror any of the associated ideas, but it’s a good way to explain the story in few words without giving too much to the Internet ether.

EDIT: For those of you who cannot see the poll for some reason (I’m still figuring this all out — not sure if it’s the product of pop-up/ad blockers or something else) here are the options:

  1. Young adult spy novel. ‘Chuck’ meets ‘Veronica Mars’ meets ‘Hunger Games’ (sans dystopian philosophy)
  2. Part 2 in ‘The Guardian of Light’ trilogy — a young adult epic fantasy series (a la ‘His Dark Materials’)
  3. Sequel to the YA vampire novel I’ll never be able to market
  4. YA superhero novel
  5. Washington DC based sci-fi novel (Fringe or Adjustment Bureau but Kate style)
  6. Real world, the economy sucks, late 20s isn’t like TV, chick lit
  7. Adult spy novel Ludlum/’Spooks’ style — Middle East + Russia conspiracy
  8. Something else entirely (make suggestion in comments section)

Posted in NanoWriMo, Writing | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

‘Ringer’ and my conundrum with the CW

Since its inception, the CW (that of the non-obvious initials) has been a bit of a joke. If I remember correctly, it is what became of a merger between UPN (of the CBS family) and the WB (Warner Brothers), and has sense become identified as the land of vapid teenage girl television shows such as America’s Next Top Model, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill and similar ilk. Every now and then it lands a winner. Gilmore Girls moved over with the merger and ran for several glorious seasons as one of the network’s staple shows. Smallville also provided a strong arm to the line-up, even after it rather lost its steam post season 4. And Veronica Mars will forever, in my mind, be the pinnacle of what the network has to offer.

I don’t think of myself as a CW watcher. First of all, I’m far past the 16-year-old mark, and secondly, I tend to look for more than fashion, sex, skinny girls and pretty boys in my television programming. However, I do dabble in the network’s offerings, even these post-Veronica days. Supernatural remains one of my favorites, even though there must at some point be a limit to how many times one or both of the main characters can die (as a side note, if you’re ever looking for a drinking game guaranteed to knock you on your ass, take a shot every time Sam says ‘Dean’ or Dean says ‘Sammy’ over the course of an episode — you won’t be able to stand). I do also have to confess that The Vampire Diaries is so much of a guilty pleasure that I actually find myself watching it LIVE.

[To put that into context, I watch two other shows live: The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones (for which I got a temporary HBO subscription). So it’s a bit of a deal when it happens.]

But the CW is not the first network I think of when it comes to new programming, and I never really take new CW shows seriously when they’re being advertised. For Supernatural, I started watching it on DVD after it came in ‘used’ when I worked at a media store during grad school. The Vampire Diaries I started watching because my then-roommate enjoyed it and I got sucked in despite myself. But I don’t watch the network enough to know what’s coming and only learn about the shows from cons or from television blogs I read (like televisionary).

I started hearing about Ringer around the time of last year’s Comic-Con. As the premier date came closer, the buzz got upped and everyone (in geek circles) seemed to be talking about how exciting it was to see SMG on television again. I didn’t really share the excitement. I figured I would watch and episode at some point, but dismissed it as something that would come and go and be forgotten. I didn’t watch Buffy for SMG, and haven’t particularly liked her films since she jumped out of the BtVS. Also, from what I saw and heard, the advertising just didn’t appeal. The premise of Ringer looked murky at best, and it didn’t catch my attention. And even though I am a geek-girl and one-time Whedonite (reasons for having become a lesser fan are a whole different blog post) who likes to see Scoobies and Whedonverse alums do well, it wasn’t on my must-see new-tv list. Again. The whole CW factor. Plus, the premise just seemed off.

But my friend Patrick mentioned it off hand at one point, asking if I’d watched it. I hadn’t. And when the miserable weather of this weekend came about, I was trolling through the DVR and my internet-based resources and stumbled upon the 6 episodes that have aired.

I never intended to watch them all. It just happened that way.

Ringer follows the trails and tribulations of 6-month-sober alcoholic/drug addict/exotic dancer/screw-up Bridget (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar). Previous to the start of the show, Bridger witnessed the owner of her place of business brutally kill a fellow dancer. She was supposed to testify, but got cold feet, somehow managed to Waif-Fu herself free of the US Marshall in charge (knocking him out, handcuffing him to the shower and stealing his gun). She runs.

We see her again in the Hamptons where she reconnects with her estranged, very wealthy twin sister, Siobhan (also played by SMG). They talk. Siobhan is cryptic about where her life is. We get the sense that as perfect as it seems it is far from. They go boating. Bridget falls asleep. Then wakes up to find Siobhan gone, a bottle of pills empty — except for the large diamond wedding ring. After a hopeless attempt to rescue Siobhan, Bridget panics for a moment before she decides to take the way out. She replaces her sister, goes back to New York, and resumes Siobhan’s life, complete with the husband, best friend, and all around life that Bridget never had (and never met). None of these people know Siobhan had a twin, all they know is that their wife/friend went from being ice queen argumentative manipulating super bitch to being rather… sweet and pleasant (if a little spacy and clueless).

Obviously, chaos ensues.

  • The FBI agent prosecuting her former boss needs to find Bridget and starts investigating Bridget-as-Siobhan (Bridbhan) to try to find her sister — they do actually make it make sense within the context of the show.
  • We discover Siobhan was having an affair with her best friend’s husband — and is pregnant with his baby — so of course Bridget must pretend she is too. (It’s a handy way to keep Bridget sober, but I find it an annoying and distracting storyline because it is mentioned in EVERY episode, which begs the question how is she going to deal with this)
  • Someone wants the real Siobhan dead as much as former-employer, he-of-the-trial wants Bridget dead.
  • Oh. And the real Siobhan? Didn’t actually commit suicide. This isn’t a spoiler. They tell you this at the end of the first episode (and maybe even in the previews, though I don’t recall). So what is her game?

That’s the premise in a nutshell. And it works, actually. More or less. It’s not perfect. I hate the pregnancy story. And honestly, it feels like there’s a limited space for the premise as a whole. Things are catching up to Bridget quickly, and unfortunately there’s only so much space for her to deal with it. She’s already had to fess up to one person, with not promising results.

To me, it feels a little like the first season of Damages, except not quite as smart and well thought-out. I have no idea how they would keep it going without it feeling forced and contrived (again, like Damages). Of course, from the ratings, they may not have to worry about it — though, it is the CW, so who knows.

There’s also the SMG part of it. She is decent, and getting better, but a little touch and go. The big-eyed pouty earnestness that worked well with the Whedon-style dialogue and Buffy’s strong supporting cast is a little overdone in Ringer. There’s a lot of SMG-solo screen time as Bridbhan tries to figure things out and unravel what’s happening/get herself out of difficult situations. I also have to admit that for me, there is a bit of a Leonard Nimoy/Spock curse issue here. It’s difficult to separate SMG and the vampire-slaying character that made her famous. At least for me. And it doesn’t help that she hasn’t aged much. Her hair hasn’t changed. And she also approaches Bridget/Siobhan with the same tones and same fierce over-eager need that she did Buffy. The style worked for Buffy, but it doesn’t play the same in the worldly, seen-everything, damaged-but-trying-not-to-be Bridget. Bridget’s desperation just doesn’t quite play the way it probably should.

SMG is a little better playing REAL Siobhan. Unfortunately, that character is so unlikeable (and so uninteresting, at least so far) that you just want to collect that little piece of information that her 10-minutes in the episode will offer and get back to New York and Bridbhan as fast as possible.

Ringer is also not as tightly written as I’d sometimes like. There’s a bit of feeling like they’re going by the seat of their pants, even though clearly there is some direction. And there hasn’t been a lot of payoff yet. It’s fine to take your time, but there have to be at least a few nuggets of new information/answers with each episode (see Damages).

But its issues aside, Ringer is actually worth a try. Start from the beginning and give it at least the first two episodes. And try to watch it in a format that will limit the length of commercial breaks. Pace matters here, and commercials would be detrimental.

I can see how it’s not for everyone. You do have to have a strong stomach for the Sarah Michelle Gellar pout/lip-quiver and the ability to withstand the occasional not-ironically-meant cheesy snippet of dialogue. It’s not as smart as Buffy, or as intelligent as Damages, nor is it quite as suck-you-in mystery as LOST, though it tries for components of all of these.

In the end, I’ll wait and see where it is at the end of its first 13. There should, hopefully, be some kind of big reveal that will lead into the final 10 episodes of season 1 (as it got a full pick-up). If not, I’ll probably drop it.

So good attempt. We shall see.

Posted in Drama, Fall 2011 Season, Television, the CW | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Dear @Marvel – Jean Rumors are Cruel

Ever since I stopped working at the now dearly departed Atomic Comics six years ago, I haven’t quite kept up with the rumors and escapades of the Big Two and pals. I hear snippets here and there, primarily through Ed Brubaker’s (@brubaker ) Twitter feed (by the way, Ed gets a little teasier with details after a few – FCBD ’06 after party for the win), but it’s not quite like the tidbits and rough sketches I overheard and got peeks at while working on the Atomic crew. Now, it’s all fourth of fifth hand, and usually learned via panels (or worse, reports on panels) at comic cons.

[Oh and yes, that was me shamelessly name dropping someone who will have no recollection of my existence whatsoever. I’m aware. I did it anyway.]

Point is, I used to have some measure of Comic Geek Cred, but these days it’s all I can do to stay on top of my pull list. And in the end, I’m usually months behind in any even remotely juicy gossip.

Like this:

Now, we’ve covered before the things you must know about me in terms of my comic book loyalties. You know Jean Grey/Phoenix are by far my favorite characters (followed by Cyclops, Kitty Pryde, Hope Summers, Iceman, Professor X, Cable and yes, Emma Frost). And to be fair, there are more than a few hints that Hope and Jean are somehow linked (though I do not believe Hope *IS* Jean — there is a difference between Resurrection and Reincarnation, and I’m not even sure I agree that what is happening here is the latter either). This happened in the very beginning and the imagery has one gotten more blatant. Think end of Second Coming:

That knowing smirk, just perfect in Terry Dodson’s unique style, says everything it needs to and is what pushed Hope off that vague line between “Hm, what is going on here” and “Oh Cripes, what the hell are you people doing?” and straight into “Huh. Goosebumps” territory for me. Soon after was the just completed Fear Itself run on Uncanny when Emma was in a coma and being influenced/tortured by Phoenix/Juggernaut’s psychic whatever.

Which was just awesome. Then, they fully set the stage for the latest teaser in last week’s final edition of The Uncanny X-Men where even Mr Sinister himself questions the link on his lovely little flow chart.

This “It’s Coming” teaser is likely authentic in some way, showing that the link between Hope and at least the Phoenix Force will be made much clearer. It could also be many other things, some of them good, some of them bad, some irritating, and not all of them exciting. We’re obviously going to have to wait a few months for more information to slowly leak out of the Iron Jaws of Marvel comics.

I realize that some of X-Men fandom dread the moment Jean returns. They roll their eyes and groan and complain and talk about it like this is a common every couple years occurrence. And I suppose I can see how that could be the impression — Jean is such an overwhelming presence in the books that her absence at times makes her more of a relevant character than when she is actually in the panels. Her specter floats over everything, especially for those of us who have read the comics for nearly 20 years (wow, it has almost been that long, hasn’t it…). She colors Scott’s relationship with everyone, especially Emma; haunts Wolverine (despite my wishes); and there is that constant thought that maybe she will return.

But it’s been nearly 8 years since she died toward the end of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (New X-Men 150) in February 2004 [I am refusing to count the futuristic time period of the ‘Here Comes Tomorrow’ story with bondage Phoenix that is what I imagine to be a not-so-lucid drug hallucination and that I prefer to ignore exists]. She came up again in 2005’s 6-issue Phoenix: Endsong, though whether or not it is a part of formal continuity seems to depend on the writer at the moment.

They’ve teased Jean’s return here and there in the past. Most notably during Whedon’s run on Astonishing in the previews cover image for #4 —

Why I take Marvel’s Jean hints with salt

And not only here, but during writer’s panel after publisher’s panel at Con after Con. It’s their favorite past time, hands down, teasing Jean’s return and the re-emergence of Phoenix (not always at the same time). And fans of one ilk or another never fail to get worked up about it. Admittedly, I’m one of them. It’s almost as irritating as when they tease killing Cyclops (also not cool).

But this is why I think the important thing to remember when dealing with the “it’s coming” image is that Jean Grey is different from the Phoenix Force (and perhaps, there’s a crafty “it’s” versus “she’s” hint here). Phoenix has manifested in different characters, from the Stepford Cuckoos and Emma Frost to Rachel Summers, and most recently (probably though not confirmed), Hope. The end of Second Coming is clearly Phoenix taking some action — though to what end, we’re not sure. And I suppose it always could be Emma going a little bat-shit crazy… that may actually be a very interesting direction to do with it and we did see some hint at that possibility when she was under the influence in Fear Itself (though it would be somewhat disappointing if her insanity is all that this was).

It is equally plausible, though a billion times more irritating, that this is just a flashback tease. Or it’s a limited run tease (like Phoenix Endsong) that may or may not have any bearing on the continuity. They’ve done it before and will do it again, just to fuck with us. Because they’re Marvel and that’s what they do (again, see Astonishing X-Men Phoenix Ruse above — though Whedon would bring Jean back just to brutally kill her again, so maybe it’s for the best).

But I do think they’ve let the Hope is-she-isn’t-she question run its course. Too much longer, and they’re going to fall into the Castle problem of the tease overshadowing the story. At least, for those of us who care about the Jean/Hope/Phoenix characters and any connection therein

HOWEVER, at the same time, they do need to be careful not to rush up to the reveal. They’ve put in years building up to Hope and her return to the Prime-verse (for lack of a better term), ever since House of M. Now, they need to make good on this promise by putting some good quality time into developing Hope as a character as well as her powers and place within the X Universe.

Really, Marvel needs to realize that it’s hard to care when you only see the character through other people’s eyes and don’t get to delve too deep. We’ve only scratched the surface of her powers and her Inner whomever. Up to this point, it’s been all plot. We know that she’s probably some kind of mimic, but what does that mean? And how does she manifest Phoenix-like symptoms if she’s not occupied by Phoenix Force — which remember, isn’t in the strictest sense a mutant power (though a mutant must be quite powerful to hold/control it)? And is she the cold calculating bitch she seems convinced she is (see Schism) or is there something more?

We need the depth to go with the plot, and we need it before we sink into any kind of Phoenix storyline, especially if said storyline involves Hope (which is the logical conclusion).

Unless they are bringing back Jean. In which case – awesome. She better smack sense into Scott. And stay far, far away from Logan. (Joe, I’m looking at you, man. You already pissed of Spidey fans. Don’t take it further by hooking up Logan and Jean. Seriously. I mean it.)

Ed Brubaker has teased on his Twitter today that there is big Marvel news (Bruing? har har) that’s due to break with tomorrow’s new comics release. Maybe it’s something to do with this — Bendis did have a response — though being realistic, it’s probably Cap or DD. Regardless. I’m sure there are many more flaming bird cover art teases coming. And probably, more than a few fire-eyed characters. Guess we shall see.

Posted in Comics, Marvel, X-Men | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘P’ is for Procedural – Person of Interest

The procedural is a funny little quirk of television, and honestly, never really my favorite genre. Sure, I’ve gotten sucked into my share of Law and Order and CSI marathons, sunk into a 4 seasons on DVD obsession with Mark Harmon’s NCIS, and spent a few weeks satiating my dark side (and soliciting very odd dreams) via Criminal Minds season box sets. But still, it’s not a genre I generally keep in my weekly queue.

That is not to say I don’t understand the appeal of a know-what-you’re-gonna-get, pick it up one week and forget it the next sort of television show. I see the benefit in being able to tune in at any point and be reasonably sure you’re not missing much. Character arcs are secondary, if they exist at all. And with the exception of a re-emerging Bad Guy (see: CSI‘s Miniature Killer, or NCIS‘s Ari), the story lines are usually one-off. Now and again the show in question may be self-referential, but you never feel like you’re missing much if you don’t catch the meaning.

There are of course exceptions to the procedural rule. I generally think of them as ‘procedural-plus’. And there are degrees with which the hour-long, generally crime-based show fits into this category. On the one hand you have a show like House (still, I argue, crime-based, though the perpetrators of the week are obscure diseases that aren’t Lupus rather than bad people). In this case, you vaguely follow the doctor’s personal lives, but they’re less ways of characterizing the supporting cast and more ways of 1) showing what a dick House is and 2) helping House have his ‘ah-ha’ moment. Each episode more or less takes the same path and you can feel assured that the case will be solved in the end 99.9% of the time (and that nothing will be said about the case of the week after the fact — even if it effects a main character; see: Foreman).

On the other end of the spectrum are shows like Bones and, in my opinion, the much better Castle. Both of these shows have a procedural core with the same basic format to each episode, but the character storylines are more congruous and relevant and episodes tend to be referential to some degree. I place Bones in the middle between the two procedural types because unlike Castle, which has a central long-running ‘question’ (who killed Beckett’s mother?), Bones is more focused on the case and who is going to have a baby with whom.

Confession: I stopped watching Bones when it became ship-driven and baby-bound. Oh. And David Boreanaz let his douche-bag flag publicly fly. Not cool, Angel. Not cool.

There are other shows on the continuity, no doubt. Many of them summer-cable offerings (The Closer, which is more Castle-style; Rizolli and Isles, which is more NCIS-style). The USA Network lineup (characters matter!) is definitely more in the Castle camp — you don’t watch things like Psych and White Collar or even Covert Affairs for the Case of the Week, you watch them for Shawn and Gus’ antics; Neal and Suit and Mrs Suit’s banter; and of course, Augie being Augie (except, his character arc episode in season 2? horribly disappointing — how can my reason for watching be given such a boring hour?). Also, my beloved In Plain Sight that I am going to miss so much after it ends this next season. You watch for Mary and Marshal and to curse Brandi for leaving Josh Melina at the alter.

However, the procedural does seem to be evolving in recent seasons. It is trying to bridge the gap between the casual television viewers who put things like NCIS and Dancing with the Stars at the top of the Neilsen ratings, and those who prefer the more involved storylines of something like LOST or Fringe. Some do well (Castle, and even maybe Fringe, which does have its Monster of the Week episodes) while others fail.

For the people who want to walk the line, there’s Person of Interest. This is not to say Person of Interest is the pinnacle of procedural evolution, but it does seem to be a rung on the ladder.

I rather avoided Person of Interest because of the procedural lean. I have Castle and my guilty pleasure summer TV and that’s enough. And this despite the fact that I, like many a geek girl, love JJ Abrams, and despite the fact that Michael Emerson was THE REASON to watch the final two seasons of LOST. I was just very wary of this show. It wasn’t advertised in a way that really caught my attention, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I wasn’t particularly keen to invest the time and try to find out.

Well. I got bored this weekend and decided to catch-up on some of the Lesser Television Offiers (in my mind) via online streaming. Because why not? The metro was closed and I didn’t have the money for the movies. It seemed like a decent idea.

And it was worth it. Not just for the show itself, but for the subtle ways it’s bending the genre.

While the Procedural-Plus shows of Castle et al tend to be “plus” because of characters and character devices, Person of Interest is a true procedural that just happens to have a continuing narrative device. It’s like a good classic mystery novel. The characters matter because the characters are the vehicle for the plot — but it’s less what will and is happening to them and more about what did. And in this case, even the Case of the Week is a vehicle for the plot. And Person of Interest is entirely plot driven.

What is the machine? How was it created? How does it work? Why does it matter? Like a classic procedural, the ‘case of the week’ is central to each episode. And through that, we get another small snippet into the wider plot of the machine. It’s slow, methodical, careful. With the twin powers of Abrams and Jonathan Nolan (who is the co-writer of many films directed by his brother, Christopher), so much of what happens is between the lines. There are clues in the background, buried in meaningless dialogue and misdirects, and a story being told behind the story. What that is though, I’m not sure. But I’m curious.

On the surface it’s a procedural; you can enjoy it as that and nothing more. But underneath, there’s a hell of a lot going on. At least, I believe this to be true. (Yet it is possible I have too much faith).

The thing is that while the character mysteries are interesting, they are secondary. But still you get the sense watching that somehow, it ties in. Maybe it’s because it’s Abrams/Nolan. Because there is this promise, however unfulfilled or however red herring, that everything does matter. Like those in LOST, PoI‘s two main characters are broken people. Caviezel’s Mr Reese is a vacant shell of a former CIA officer/hitman, a once good and loving man beaten down by the things he’s seen and done. Emerson is brilliant as the reclusive billionaire genius Mr Finch who is more Howard Hughs than Tony Stark, more Batman than Bruce Wayne. Both presumed dead, the two characters hide in plain sight while knowing that they’re always being watched, and they know this because Mr Finch is the Watcher — or at least, the man who designed it. The Machine. That Which Knows All.

It’s impossible to read that paragraph and not see the links between the two auteurs’ canon. These themes permeate everything from Felicity to LOST to Star Trek; from Momento to Dark Knight. And it does work. It’s not perfect, few shows are in the first six episodes, but it is good. There is something here and while I don’t think those watching are able to put a finger on what, those who want to take it at more than its surface can begin to get that tingling.

Thinking just in terms of each separate episode, it tosses it up. I like the added spin that you never know whether the person whose “number is up” is the victim or perpetrator, it gives a little extra spice to the procedural rhythm that is the foundation. And I am a sucker for the little action scenes they spice in as Mr Reese goes Mr Badass (though seriously, the shoot-em-in-the-knee trope is a little silly after 6 episodes straight in a row). Plus, the cat-and-mouse game with the ‘real police’ detective is engaging.

I’m not sure if they can keep it up without it becoming trite or drifting into dull territory — though I don’t see it becoming necessarily predictable (unlike, say, House or Law and Order). Nor am I sure where it is going or what the greater plan is. I cannot ever guarantee there is one. But after watching the first 6 episodes, I’m anxious to see where it goes. They will need to pick it up. If there isn’t a burst into the mythology soon, it is in danger of falling into early Fringe territory (though to be fair, that show recovered nicely). Judging from Nolan’s statements on the show’s future, we can expect some pieces to fall into place, particularly as it pertains to Mr Finch and the detective.

I can say this: for at least the next few weeks, my curiosity is peaked. And I would not frown at a full-season pick-up. It’s more ambitious than it seems at first blush, and I want to see it get a fair shake.

Posted in Drama, Fall 2011 Season, Rumination on Genre, Television | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

X-Men Schism and Regenesis

If we’re going to talk about comics, there are a few things you should know going in. Seriously. This is just so you’re prepared for what’s to come.

First. I’m a loyal Marvel girl. Always have been, always will be. I’ve dabbled in DC, experimented with smaller publishers, and cursed Marvel for their price rises, dozen-title crossover epics, shifting delivery schedules, and doing bad by good titles and characters. Sometimes I vowed I would never buy another book. But by the next week I was ready to pick up all the X-titles that came out and then some. In the end, I stand by the House that Stan Built.

Second. This is primarily because of X-Men. It started in fourth grade when we all started watching the cartoon and began playing on the playground. My best friend Anika was Jubilee. Jory was Beast. John Michael was Cyclops. And Cherie was Rogue. They tried to convince me to take on Storm, but I knew even then that Jean Grey was The Shit, and this was even before they televised the Phoenix Saga in ’94 (plus I had a little bit of a crush on John Michael — we all kinda did — shh don’t tell, 10-year-old me is beat red by the thought).

Third. Though not really related to the confession above, Jean and Scott are forever. I know this to be true. Frankly, Wolverine and Emma can suck it. And all these alternate universes they keep creating just so Jean and Logan can get together? They’re just not right. Best line from Schism, “You always scared her.” I like that. It goes back to who the Wolverine character is ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO BE before he got extremely popular and comics… weren’t anymore (thus Marvel decided they would make ol’ Wolvie the leader of the X-Men — See X-Men 3 for the most gratuitous example). Yes. I’m bitter. I’m an X-Men purist. Well. When it suits me, anyway.

Fourth. Contrary to “3” I do rather like the whole Scott and Emma relationship, especially when it’s done well. It can really be quite interesting, the push and pull that goes on. Just so long as she knows that when it’s time to Return, it’s time to move aside. I don’t think she does though. And part of me never will really forgive Scott (or, for that matter, Grant Morrison) for betraying Jean in the first place.

Fifth. Also among those things I know to be true, and we touch on this a bit in “3”, but Wolverine is NOT leader of the X-Men. No ifs ands or butts about it, and I would really appreciate the PTB at Marvel stop trying to make him such. I realize he’s popular. But you’re just destroying the character by trying to force him into this round hole you want him to fit into. Wolverine getting on a high horse, complaining about hurting kids and then deciding to go back to the mansion to teach? Really? And that’s believable within the whole rest of continuity how exactly?

Which I guess brings us the Schism and Regenesis and all that’s wrapped up around it.

Let me start by saying I love what they’ve been doing with Scott. I know that many people, even those in the comic book store I now frequent, believe him irredeemable. I don’t think that’s the case, honestly; I think it’s a progression of the character. In the end, and it actually rather bugs me that it didn’t come up anywhere in the books themselves, this is exactly what Xavier taught him to do. It’s a mentality rooted in believing the best of people, but in the end, doing what you have to do. Were there missteps? Yes. Undoubtedly. But we’re talking about a guy who has been fighting for his life since childhood himself, who put on a uniform and started defending his people when he was still a kid. People seem to forget that. How dare Logan give him shit for this? If anyone knows, if anyone understands the position that Hope’s kids were in, wouldn’t it be Scott? And why can’t Marvel give poor Cyclops a one-shot or a limited series to explain his side? They certainly afford Wolverine the space. *annoyed*

This series has done some great things, I think. It’s adding something new into the X-Men Universe, allowing them to move on from Xavier (albeit while moving back toward him), and promoting character development on a massive scale. The whole Rogue and Magneto relationship that I absolutely LOVE. And one of the best scenes when Scott seems to realize exactly the place he’s in — with Emma and Magneto behind him. I think it did all this with a solid story that tied together pieces that have been emerging since the Messiah Complex — and indeed, House of M. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the X-Men now, even though I can’t guarantee how long I’ll read Wolverine and the X-Men outside of crossovers, even IF Kitty Pride and Bobby are back at the mansion.

But I do think there were some missteps. Little decisions that were made that could have moved the series from good to great. First, the entire fact that Wolverine is the one who goes back to the school and not Scott just nauseates me. Something so symbolic should not be in Wolverine’s hands. Scott should’ve had what one of my friends would call a “Come to Moses” moment and not necessarily repented, not necessarily separated himself from the whole experience, but at least realized he should pull himself back.

Barring that, Emma should have left. They almost let her. But they didn’t. And if they had, that would have been such an amazing show of guts. I’d love to have seen that story.

Now yes, I’m a Jean girl, but remember #4. I like the Scott-Emma relationship for what it is. I think, especially toward the end of Second Coming, it was becoming clear that Emma might actually be a better fit for Scott (at least the Scott without Jean, if that makes any sense). But I think in Emma we have a case where the character has moved beyond where the writers want to keep her. She actually has evolved. And she’s evolving away from Scott. I always interpreted Emma’s moves toward Scott as initially rooted in her hatred for Jean, but then it evolved to a love of what he represented for her. Change. Growth. Possibility. Betterment. I think he let her see herself for who he wanted her to be. And though she tries to keep up appearances as the ice queen, there are little breaks in it (especially in Gillan’s hands — I like him as a writer, but Emma is not his strongest). The character she is now is not going to be happy with Scott as much as she wants to be. She should be teaching, growing, and getting out of the place she’s put herself.

Plus it would have made a fascinating arc for Cyclops.

There’s still hope, but I’m not holding my breath. Not until Jean manifests through Hope or some such nonsense and kicks Slim’s ass, anyway.

Though the way Marvel’s been heading, they’ll just bring Jean back to hook her up with Logan. If that happens, I’m out. For reals this time. I swear…

Posted in Comics, Marvel, X-Men | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brought to you by the letter ‘P’

In my estimation, there aren’t really very many new dramas premiering this year. Most of the hour-long time slots are held by veteran shows like House, Greys Anatomy, Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, etc. And many of the new dramas won’t be making an appearance until later in the season — either after baseball, or following the completion of those damn reality competition shows that I promise here and now I will never waste space with (there are more than enough blogs that cover that nonsense).

To be fair, there are a few on the CW — Hart of Dixie, Secret Circle and Ringer — but I’ve not yet been bored enough to venture in. Yes, it’s a bit of judgement, but the reviews have not been particularly positive and honestly, I have a limited amount of time. I’d like to give everything a fair shake, but I just don’t have the chance.

That said, here are initial reviews for the three new network dramas I have watched thus far, all beginning with the letter ‘P’, incidentally.

The Playboy Club. Admittedly, I turned to this in wariness. I like historically-rooted anything and thought it might be an interesting take on something, and even if it wasn’t my cup of tea at least it was worth a shot. Right? So I ignored Gloria Steinem’s recommendation and put it on the On Demand last night. I have to say. I didn’t make it all the way through. The predictability quotient was high. There was no intrigue. No what is going on, what is going to happen suspense. The writing was sloppy. The acting uninspired. Lead Actor was trying way too hard to channel a likeable version of Don Drapper (down to vocal imitation) and doing a poor job at it. And that was just distracting. As much as I want to support Whedon alumns, especially dear Simon, it’s just not possible here. Negative stars. And it won’t be around long.

Prime Suspect. Let’s be honest. This is about as opposite from Playboy Club as one can possibly get. Gritty. Dark. The main character isn’t exactly likeable and doesn’t care to be. She’s in a shit position as a woman who doesn’t want to play the sex kitten working in the man’s world of NYC Homicide. And I love it. It’s like a show that focuses on Kay Howard from Homicide: Life on the Streets. NBC’s Prime Suspect isn’t ITV’s, and Maria Bellow isn’t Helen Mirren. But in my eyes, it is a great adaptation and actually addresses important issues (sexism in the workplace, for instance) that are usually overlooked this day and age. That said, I’m worried it’s going to devolve into a procedural and the grittiness I love isn’t going to become more dimensional. The great thing about the original Prime Suspect was the way the stories moved and the characters changed — even if they didn’t change too much. It’s the same thing that made Homicide great, and I worry that this version just doesn’t have that. I’m also concerned that it won’t have the viewership. NBC isn’t exactly strong right now; The Office is growing weaker; and while The Mentalist probably doesn’t have the most amazing viewership, it does have the Grey’s Anatomy lead-in and has been a solid performer for ABC. I don’t expect Prime Suspect to get a pick up past 13 episodes, and will be a little surprised, I’m sad to admit, if it makes it with all the original buy on air. I hope I’m surprised. Maybe. Possibly. Fingers crossed. But I doubt it.On the other hand… please start watching. Oh. And Netflix the original Prime Suspect. It’s worth it.

Pan Am. This is much better than the Playboy Club, not that it would be difficult, but it’s certainly not Mad Men. Thing is, I don’t think they’re trying to be. It has a much more innocent feel to it, like remembering the halcyon days of the 60s. While Playboy Club doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing and Mad Men is clearly a critique of the time, Pan Am is more interested in capturing the drama and ritz of the period. It promises a lot of creatively placing one or more characters into the Great Events (like that NBC mini-series the 60s did, if anyone remembers that), and doing it with a more wide-eyed wonderment. I like the little spy side story and wonder where it will go, and the French character intrigues me. There’s a lot they could do there. Plus, the sister act could be interesting, depending on what they do to develop the relationship there. I’m not quite sure what Christina Ricci’s character is doing and what her role will be. I’m afraid she’s going to represent the counter-culture voice. She is clearly the MPDG character (who everyone is going to love but no one can possibly understand, she does things when she wants as she wants and darn the consequences!). And I’m not sure how I feel. But still. Worth a look.

Verdicts:

Playboy Club. If you want smart television, stay far, far away. It won’t be around for much longer anyway, so you’re really not missing anything. Watch, instead, the Mad Men episode ‘Hands and Knees’ from season 4 and supplement with Gloria Steinem’s ‘I was a Playboy Bunny’ essay. Trust me. Your braincells will thank you.

Prime Suspect. I love this show. It’s interesting, different, and has promise. But I wish it was on a different network. I’ve said before I love NBC — it and I go way back to the days of SeaQuest DSV — but I worry that it’s losing its way and is less in the position to take a chance. I’ll watch it til the end, and it’s definitely one I’ll download now and again from iTunes if I’m traveling.

Pan Am. It’s worth a shot if you like innocent drama and halcyon historical plays. I like this show, and I will continue to watch. However, unlike Prime Suspect, I don’t think it warrants the occasional iTunes buy.

Posted in Drama, Fall 2011 Season, Television | Tagged , , ,