Developing Mythologies: The Post-Lost Problem

Watching the latest episode of Once Upon A Time, it finally dawned on me the real problem with the show. And I‟m not the first to say it, but I can hopefully expand on why I think the show is failing, and it‟s not through lack of ambition. There‟s a constant weight over every episode – there‟s an arc at work. Before the show premiered, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis said they have a planned 12 episode story, with an idea of what a full 22 episode first season would look like. This planning, something that‟s intimately occurred since the legacy of Lost began to mean something, has never been successful in accomplishing a good narrative.

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Two of the most notable pieces of serialized genre fiction on TV are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost. They don‟t share a lot, but one of the things they do and I think is intrinsic to their longevity is a sense of discovery and progressive world-building. It‟s a mythology that‟s prevalent and perhaps obvious in some cases, but not delved into till much further. In the case of Buffy, we don‟t even begin to learn about the Slayer mythos until season four and it doesn‟t even become even remotely directive to the shows until arguably places in Season 7. Now, Buffy was never a show about mythology. It used demons as metaphor, which makes it different to Lost. What Lost done, however, was indeed, start with a bang but not tell any other stories than who these people are in these circumstances (and who they were before).

By using existing fairy tales, Once is constantly drawing upon the viewerships own knowledge of the original stories and sometimes the Disneyified versions. As of right now, these are relatively one-note people. They are showing characters going from A to B. How Snow White met her Prince, how Jiminy Cricket became a, uh, cricket. It‟s a series of reveals informing the audience, but to no one else (Except, sometimes Henry, but he‟s another hole that I don‟t want to touch – and one that Oliver Sava did in his review of last week‟s episode over at The TV Club.)

One of the most magical things about writing for TV is to let the ability to let the characters and actors inform themselves over time. Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, has said that he expected the chemistry on his show to take double the amount of time and always hoped to achieve an sandbox of a narrative. I honestly think only good things can come out of having little vague planning. This is not the absolute truth, but when you are attempting a soap – especially one burdened with a lot of mythology – it‟s always hard to get the right actors together. For instance, if Snow White had more chemistry with Aladdin, but was bound together to her one and only Prince Charming just because that‟s how the existing story played out then we most certainly have a problem.

This isn‟t something that can‟t be fixed, however, and I actually am hoping something like this will „break‟ the show after episode 12. The series opens itself up. It needs to, it absolutely needs to do something to survive and by cutting the ties to it‟s fairy tale world in some batshit mythological fashion, it would make the series a
lot better for it. People can make their own “Happy Endings” and they don‟t need to adhere to a “destiny‟.

Destiny is what I think the fundamental issue at hand is. It wasn‟t something introduced at the beginning of Lost, or one used in the Buffyverse early on but both those series introduced elements of fate and Always Gonna Happen universe powers. If we found out in episode 12 what we found out in the pilot of Once, I think we theoretically could have had a more compelling storyarc. Right now, I‟m just hoping that the stories of the future will live up to the impressive cast‟s abilities to, like, be human and stuff. Either way, I‟ll be watching.

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Downton Abbey Season 2 – “When Will The War End?”

I caught up with the first season of Downton Abbey one night a few weeks before the second premiered. I enjoyed it quite thoroughly. It’s soapy, gorgeous and features some great one-liners. I thought it’s it’s use of historical moments to kick off momentous moments was smart; the sinking of the Titanic introduced at the beginning of the series, to the way the First World War was announced at the end makes me smirk in and of itself. It’s exciting and fun to see how these lavish people, both upstairs and downstairs in Downton, can live in the same world as the rest. The second season proves quite conclusively that other than passing mention – they can’t.

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The fun of Downton Abbey is disregard any important matters, and believe these otherwise trivial events are the most important in the world. An engagement falling through? That’s the Hellmouth opening. Buying a telephone? Death of a mother. By introducing a war, and cutting away to the war makes the Lords, Ladies and their staff far less sympathetic and, in all honestly, less essential, to their own show.

There is still frothy fun to be found in the second season – which I wouldn’t say anyone who enjoyed the first shouldn’t watch – but it’s just not as rhythmically told. The war setting introduces elements the series is uncomfortable with and manages to make the low points of the series “song” really off-kilter. John Lunn’s “Did I Make the Most of Loving You” works wonders to fill in the holes that when the story and character beats aren’t exactly fulfilling, it can still often feel like a decent album. Not a great one. Not one worth all the hubbub, but a solid 8-track collection. (With a significantly better Christmas No. 1, actually!)

I’m not a huge advocate for the show, not in the slightest, but think it can be exceptional when working as a silly soap with little to no social commentary (Julian Fellowes’ script manages class thematics relatively well, however, even in this season where it takes significantly less precedent). The amount of time that is given to the war means that a lot of narrative threads feel undercooked, with only a couple (Bates, Countess’ of Grantham’s zingers and something about Matthew) of stories feeling fully formed. The show needs to flow, and when it doesn’t, it technically fails. This season isn’t as strong as the first and any newcomers to the series would think they are sorely missing something if this is the show that raided the awards and has momentous hype. Thankfully, there’s a reason for the storm so if you’re even teetering with the idea of checking it out, you should, but please for the love of God begin at the start.

Glee season 3 and the Trouble of TV Show Phenoms

According to preliminary TVByTheNumbers numbers, Glee has fallen a further 5% to a 3.5 (18-45) demo. It’s up from 8.12m to 8.30m in the overall, but that’s not much. Now, let’s get this out of the way – Glee will get a fourth season. The empire that the show built for the latter half of the first season carrying over to midway through the second season will be the reason, even if the numbers are not there. And, honestly, I’ll be very shocked if it goes as low as even a 2.5 this season… assuming it doesn’t go off-the-rails.

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Sure, I’m being presumptuous, but assuming the numbers keep steadily falling for the rest of the season, it’ll make Glee a particularly interesting case of the ‘Burn Bright, Burn Fast’ phenomenon that catches the TV zeitgeist every so often. Heroes*, a show that didn’t have the answers the viewers were looking for, didn’t lose many viewers over the course of the first season so the majority had enough faith to follow through the second (even with the writers strike interrupting the season) and that’s when the major flaws fell through. Being as short as it was though (11 episodes), people still had enough trust and I personally thought the writers still had a vague idea of what they were doing and the show remained fun and sort of speculative. Until the third season, anyway: the third season the audience began dropping like flies because – creatively – the show was huge mess. It didn’t have direction, the writing were clueless and Tim Kring kept moaning at everyone about it, learning the wrong lessons and mentioning how it was popular “overseas.” The show was DOA. (It’s forth season, apparently, was less of a mess but whatever – people didn’t care.)

Similar story with The OC, although I remain a fan of it. The first season (granted, never reached the rating heights of Heroes or even early season two Glee). The show “burnt” through a lot of story potential in the first season, in fact, this was considered one of the exciting things about it. The second season didn’t live up to it the expectations set and the audience began to drop. The show needed a balance of drama, romance and comedy to work and while it managed in some cases, it never felt like it was back home. Enter the third season, the darkest season, and the one where nobody began to care. It fell, and fell, and the network notes became more and more visible. Upon arriving in season four, it was, like Heroes, absolutely DOA. (Arguably, killing off a major/popular character didn’t help.)

Glee, however, is and always has been in an interesting place. I don’t quite understand it. 13 episodes of the show were filmed and and finished before even began airing. There’s a finality to that 13th episode. A finality that is almost ignored when it returns. A return that is more significant of what Glee is, and shall be remembered for however many years it’s continues on. The “phenomenon” of Glee lasted about a year. I’d argue it began with it’s April 2010 return ‘Hell-O’ and continued until some in season two where it’s huge demo began to dwindle. Actually, for a lot of the second season, the show averaged middle to low 4.0 ratings, capping it up with a 4.6 for it’s ‘New York’ finale. Not that bad.

Now, three episodes into it’s third season, we’ve already seen a steady downfall – from 4.0, to 3.7 and for the latest, a 3.5. Again, I don’t quite understand it. The ratings are falling, but the series isn’t going batshit and dreadful in-show. In these trends, it’s one of the few times the wider audience gets it right. This isn’t what is happening. The show has a writers room this year, and arguably in the three episodes that have premiered it’s had some already pretty strong stuff from all the characters and critically, episodes have been received on-par or, better than most of season two.

But there’s been no spectacle. No spectacle = no onslaught of fandom and viewers? Glee is basically back to where it started. It’s telling darkly funny and emotionally manipulative stories and seemingly because of it, it’s audience is back to where it began. (S1: 3.0~ w/ 7~ million overall). Is this Glee fandom burn out? Are people done finished with the crazy unfulfilled writing of season two? Or did people seriously just watch the show for Lea Michele singing Katy Perry songs?

I guess, like the kids in New Directions; the show can have a moment in the limelight, it just needs to remember normalcy and a Slushie is never far off.

*I do love how the Heroes narrative can be applied to the state of NBC right now.

BBC to partner with Starz

Following the US successful of Torchwood‘s latest season, Miracle Day, the BBC have opted to begin production on more dramas with the Starz TV label.

The BBC have a history with US networks and have worked hard trying to stay in contact with the biggest US cablers, attempting to maintain a friendly relationship with the biggest premium supplier – HBO – with Ricky Gervais’ Extras notably being shown, and co-financing the historical epic Rome at the same time. Soon after, however, it became obvious that the BBC were only after certain types of programming and never striked an exclusivity deal with HBO even with their reputation for high quality dramas.

Shortly after Rome production ceased, the BBC begun working on a similar international historical soap opera; The Tudors, but this time, not with HBO as the partners: Showtime arrived and the show maintained relative popularity for the four years it was on. BBC had a certain freedom, they programmed Showtime shows such as Nurse Jackie, broadcast The Wire and won big with the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men.

This was until bSkyb came along and done everything BBC had been dodging: Sky Atlantic. Sky struck a million dollar deal to broadcast all future HBO programming and have access to their back catalogue that includes The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. They also purchased all future seasons of Mad Men. Simply put, this took away a lot of the freedom over the US TV market that they dominated in terms of availability. So the news that the BBC are now working with Starz, a new premium broadcaster, is intriguing because it might bring a newfound respect to the network of the trashy excellence of Spartacus (and outright trashiness of Torchwood). But considering their output thus far, and the Starz execs ideal of creating a dedicated niche for their shows, I can’t quite see what an original BBC/Starz co-production might look like and that’s troubling.

Breaking Bad’s ‘Open House’ and why I didn’t follow up on Torchwood…

Going into this episode I was sure I was going to end up writing about the recent trend of cable shows having something that I’ve started to call hyper-serialisation, because, well, while it’s explanatory it also sounds damn cool. I also hope it makes more sense to the average person than using The Wire as a adjective like I have done for the past few years.

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Breaking Bad’s ‘Open House’ continues the seasons focus on fleshing out the women of the cast. In fact, Marie arguably got more to do in the this episode than she has all series long. It’ reintroduce ideas that have laid dormant for a while and the show is slowly beginning to shape up the narrative for the rest of the season, or until Vince Gilligan gets bored again.

The pacing of all three episodes so far, including the intense-build of ‘Box Cutter’ is once again doing what all good books do, and as of late, most hyper-serialised shows do. It’s different to Mad Men, and it’s different to Boardwalk Empire. Those are shows about people, and almost every episode works as a small novella of their own. Breaking Bad can do fascinating stand-alone episodes like bottle episode of season three – The Fly – but it’s also a show that takes almost no time episode to episode, while also building up to an eventual shocking end. The plot, over both the series and the season, is as central to the show as individual episodes. Or chapters.  Functionally, shows like Breaking Bad and apparently Torchwood prefer to work their episodes like chapters in a book rather than entirely embracing the weeks in between each segment. I feel kind of awful putting Torchwood and Breaking Bad in the same sentence right now, but I think we will see over the course of the season that they are two attempts at doing the same thing.

Three episodes into Torchwood, I can’t even say its badness circles around to good again. It lacks the energy of 24, the Miracle Day itself has gotten severely boring and we’re constantly surrounded by nobody changing. It’s almost too ironic to say, but Torchwood: Miracle Day is completely lifeless. It’s not allowing us to see Gwen and Jack, the heart of the show, interact or even occupy much screentime. Breaking Bad is telling two opposite stories with Walt and Jesse, so although they aren’t always together, we’re invested in their lives. Well, I’m invested in them. Torchwood’s third episode, “Dead of Night”, attempts to crack it’s characters so we can throw some emotions into them for once, but all it does is make the overarching Miracle Day all the more obvious. I’ll go as far as saying giving individual Torchwood seasons a subtitle and making them so widespread is the worst possible thing a show can do for it’s characters.

To bring up the book narrative again; a chapter of characters working out their lives amidst a crisis can work. It’s only a chapter and it’s there’s always going to be forward momentum. Taking episodes out to celebrate moments of freedom for characters, as fun as they are, when there’s a mystery to be solved is incredibly awkward. If the show were just called ‘Torchwood’, like Fringe it may be able to tell stories that thematically fit into the larger narrative while digging deeper into the character. Then again, having the widespread phenomenon’s that the last two Torchwood seasons have done are almost asking for just a puzzle to be solved. They don’t allow character moments, or Russell T. Davies doesn’t know when to implement them, which may well be the case.

I begun this talking about this goofy hyper/super/awesome-serialisation thing, and all I really wanted to say is, in 140 characters or less: Why are shows like Sons of Anarchy and Torchwood doing seasons that work towards a future goal rather than enjoying their current journey.

Torchwood: Miracle Day – Episode 1

After waiting to watch the UK cut, one that is apparently extended for some scenes and slightly cut for others in contrasted to the Starz cut, I thought I’ll offer up some thoughts on their first episode…Image

I’m not the biggest Whovian around, nor one who has actually seen every episode of Torchwood but after being impressed by the miniseries last year and my enthusiasm raised by Doctor Who since Moffat has taken over, I was ready to enter the one place where I feel Davies shines brightly – and how bright it did shine. The episode had to do a ton of footwork to get us caught up: the new case, the new characters and most importantly, get the gang back together, and for the most part; it succeeded.

Opening a new case, and making it feel organic to the world while explaining the who, what’s and where’s of nobody dying were accomplished surprisingly well, and albeit the pacing felt off at the beginning. The scene where Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) asks for the head to be separated really excels at how much more fun it is to see a scene like that than it is to be told. Even if we’re getting told by several swiftly cut walk-n-talk phone call sequences. It’s always dangerous to open a new series without the main character not being front and centre, so although there was a slow start, Harkness’ entrance truly made up for it.

The new cast haven’t sold me just yet, and they didn’t really work as anything other than plot machinations at this stage. They all have enough potential, charm and look attractive enough that I won’t complain about having Alexa Havins on my screen for 55 minutes a week being awesome. Not complaining about Bill Pullman as extremely charismatic murderer either.

I’m under the impression at some of the early Gwen scenes may have been missing from the US version, and I think that’s both good and bad. As with a lot of the early stuff, there was a lot of exposition and sometimes jumping away to quaint little comic-relief Wales felt off. Gwen never left an impression on me in Children of the Earth but I adore her here, and the beginning gave her enough time to establish what her life has been like since Torchwood went under and thankfully, she was perfectly happy without it (I love Amy’s need for the excitement in Who, but it would have been silly for Gwen). That said, watching her get her gun on was unbelievably cool and it allowed the show to jump ship to America instantaneously. This is not the little BBC show it once was.

Torchwood: Miracle Day – Episode 1

After waiting to watch the UK cut, one that is apparently extended for some scenes and slightly cut for others in contrasted to the Starz cut, I thought I’ll offer up some thoughts on their first episode…

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I’m not the biggest Whovian around, nor one who has actually seen every episode of Torchwood but after being impressed by the miniseries last year and my enthusiasm raised by Doctor Who since Moffat has taken over, I was ready to enter the one place where I feel Davies shines brightly – and how bright it did shine. The episode had to do a ton of footwork to get us caught up: the new case, the new characters and most importantly, get the gang back together, and for the most part; it succeeded.

Opening a new case, and making it feel organic to the world while explaining the who, what’s and where’s of nobody dying were accomplished surprisingly well, and albeit the pacing felt off at the beginning. The scene where Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) asks for the head to be separated really excels at how much more fun it is to see a scene like that than it is to be told. Even if we’re getting told by several swiftly cut walk-n-talk phone call sequences. It’s always dangerous to open a new series without the main character not being front and centre, so although there was a slow start, Harkness’ entrance truly made up for it.

The new cast haven’t sold me just yet, and they didn’t really work as anything other than plot machinations at this stage. They all have enough potential, charm and look attractive enough that I won’t complain about having Alexa Havins on my screen for 55 minutes a week being awesome. Not complaining about Bill Pullman as extremely charismatic murderer either.

I’m under the impression at some of the early Gwen scenes may have been missing from the US version, and I think that’s both good and bad. As with a lot of the early stuff, there was a lot of exposition and sometimes jumping away to quaint little comic-relief Wales felt off. Gwen never left an impression on me in Children of the Earth but I adore her here, and the beginning gave her enough time to establish what her life has been like since Torchwood went under and thankfully, she was perfectly happy without it (I love Amy’s need for the excitement in Who, but it would have been silly for Gwen). That said, watching her get her gun on was unbelievably cool and it allowed the show to jump ship to America instantaneously. This is not the little BBC show it once was.