If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?

Spoiler: No one ruined TV, but there are lot of contemporary trends that had to start somewhere, and I still think one of them started with Abrams.

If you spend any time on the internet reading about TV (or if you just read my blog – hi mom!), then you know that Ryan McGee’s piece on televisual structure “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode” is receiving lots of attention, and not just from the likes of amateur critics like me. Important thinkers are weighing in, including Jason Mittell, one of my favorite media scholars.

Mittell’s response “No, The Sopranos Didn’t Ruin Television” is, as usual, a well thought out rebuttal. Mittell takes issue with McGee’s selection of The Sopranos as the impetus for novelistic television and suggests The Wire as a much better choice. More interesting, in my opinion, is Mittell’s assertion that many of the shows McGee cites as struggling with novelistic structure are actually plagued by much larger problems, including poor character development or bad production management.

This made me realize that perhaps I needed to re-frame my earlier post “Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model“. For example, I cited Terra Nova as an abject failure of the Abram’s model. While I still believe that it failed on a structural level, it’s important to recognize that there were other, potentially bigger, problems. Two spring to mind: too many executive producers and unlikable/unsympathetic characters. Would I have enjoyed watching the show more, despite its narrative failings, if the characters had been better? Absolutely. I would watch awesome characters battle dinosaurs sans plot any day.*

(*This reminds me of my earlier posts on New Girl. I love the characters of that show so much that I’m completely unfazed by its lack of plot. The rest of the critics seem to disagree with me.)

Another thing that Mittell said made me question my Abrams model:

…failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short.

Isn’t that exactly what I was doing? Blaming Abrams for making successful shows that others with less talent tried to imitate and couldn’t? Sort of.

First, I don’t exactly hold J.J. Abrams responsible for the sins of those who have come after him, but I do think that his continued production of shows that build off of a Lostian format in a not entirely sound way only serves to exacerbate the problem.**

(**As a reader pointed out after my first piece, a great exception here is Fringe.)

But what does Mittell mean by “successful innovators”? Narratively sound and satisfying? Popular? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m going to bet on the former. After all, lots of narratively superb shows fail (I miss you, Terriers). But the larger question is was Abrams “successful” with Lost? I would argue that he wasn’t. The narrative petered out in the end,throwing wild and random developments at the audience until it was clear that the writers were as lost as we were. While successful at propagating the Lost mythological structure due to the show’s enormous popularity, Abrams was not a “successful innovator” in the way that Mittell intends the term.

So, can we still cite Abrams and Lost as the beginning for the current trend of shows that attempt but  fail to balance a larger mythology with weekly episodic installments? I think so.

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Novelistic Television

Ryan McGee, fellow Boston freelancer and TV thinker, just posted an article over at the A.V. Club that asks a lot of the same questions I posed in my previous piece on unsatisfying TV. But we examined the issue from opposite sides. I was considering shows that try to establish a mythology while balancing an episodic feeling on network TV and McGee is concerned with the decline of such episodic inclinations on premium channels:

HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself.  Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel.

It’s a great piece. I recommend checking it out: “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode

Letting The Right One In: Identifying with ‘Enlightened’s’ Amy Jellicoe

If you’ve read my thoughts on the top ten shows of 2011, you know that I think HBO’s Enlightened is pretty good stuff. Starring recent Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Enlightened is billed as a comedy, but it’s the most heart-wrenching, cringe-worthy, rollercoaster “comedy” that I’ve ever seen. Each episode is like watching a car accident at varying speeds: dreamy slow-motion, desperate fast forward, and sometimes the pace of painful everyday life. And whose driving this out of control car? Amy Jellicoe.

Post nervous breakdown and treatment, Amy returns to rid her former life of its poison, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the world she returns to is not as responsive to her breathy assurances or laid-back attitude as she had hoped. In fact, it remains relatively intractable. Newly focused on environmentalism, activism, and sustainability, Amy chafes against her data entry job at her former employer, a company that knowingly sells toxic personal products to consumers. As she tries to change the company and her life, she encounters constant roadblocks that challenges her, and the viewer, to ask, “Can we really affect change?”

Watching Amy is painful, because, well, she’s Amy.  And she’s always Amy. Whether she was always oblivious to social cues and parameters or she has recently overlooked them as part of her new lifestyle is unknown (I suspect the latter), Amy blunders around like a brahma bull in the china shop. She is always late for work and constantly overstepping the boundaries of coworkers and loved ones in the hopes of reigniting former friendships and allies. Her genuineness drives people, and potentially viewers, away.

So how do we relate with an in-your-face character like Amy? It’s writing 101 that the audience has to identify with a character to engage with a show, book, movie etc. That doesn’t mean we have to like them. There are lots of detestable characters throughout history that have captured the attention of audiences. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. Despite his perversity, we root for him. We admire his intellect and cunning, and sympathize with him when he’s treated with disdain by the prison officials. Of course, it helps that we don’t really see all the horrible things he’s done. But what about Amy? Do we admire her despite witnessing all her awkward, oblivious interactions?

Certainly, there are admirable things about Amy. She never gives up on her journey to change her life and the lives of others, even if that means swallowing her pride. But, at least for me, admiration is pretty low on my list of emotions I associate with Amy. At the top of list are: uncomfortable and frustrating.

So if I don’t strongly admire Amy, why do I stick with her, other than the rubbernecking desire to see how the car crash ends? It’s because I recognize traits that Amy and I share. It’s tough to swallow that I, or anyone watching, has anything in common with Amy. She’s a total disaster. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to be sucked into total despair. I don’t want to admit to myself that I’ve said and done awkward things in public that probably cause others around to judge me. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to yearn for strong human connections only to be rejected. But I do. I think we all do. And that’s why we stick with Amy.

It’s hard to realize that you identify with a character because of your shared flaws, but it’s a powerful link. You might push Amy away at first, but letting her in is cathartic. You may realize something new about yourself. And isn’t enlightenment what you, me, and Amy are all looking for?

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