04 October 2015

SOS


by Leigh Lundin

The Prisoner
For a writer who doesn’t own a television, I’ve been watching a lot lately. Friends Steve and Sharon offered their home as an autumn retreat in exchange for house-sitting. And recently I was granted nearly unlimited access to television archives from the past decade, including difficult-to-find productions such as the 2009 update of The Prisoner.

Watching an entire miniseries or season at once offers advantages.
  • Without having to wait a week between episodes and potentially forget clues that occurred in the interim, the viewer gets the full, undiluted impact of the program.
  • Ads become a non-issue. Even with current, prime-time shows, I record episodes and watch them an hour or two later when I can skip ads.
  • Networks have a nasty habit of cancelling series, especially science fiction, but crime-related programs as well. Far too often, these series start with an over-arching plot that never gets resolved. Occasionally long-running programs sour. By having entire seasons on tap, the viewer can decide whether they wish to vest time in watching many hours of television programming that may go nowhere.
Longmire
The disadvantage is that such a viewer chatting with the water cooler set might not be au fait with the latest episode. Not just bubbly conversers, of course, because conversations continue on-line in blogs and Facebook. In this case, TV becomes a shared activity, a social glue that becomes part of our societal fabric.

It’s a choice of course, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the impact of Longmire for an hour or two, night after night for the duration.

SOS

My most serious complaint about television is what I call soap opera… well, to use the British spelling, soap opera shite. SOS is a catchall for the tacky interpersonal dramas inserted by hapless writers to pad out 47 minutes amid a dearth of ideas. While couched as characterization, SOS is a poor parody of characterization through a Bizarro ray, a devolution of unlasting relationships into superficiality, a script device that muddies everything it touches.

Perry Mason
Among the worst offenders have been legal dramas– LA Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, etc. But also consider the grand exception, the 1957 original Perry Mason series, purist plots in black and white. If the show was re-imagined today, Paul Drake would be shedding his briefs with Della Street who is having an affair with the wife of a hitman hired by Hamilton Burger who’s the father of Perry and Paul’s love child secretly married to Lieutenant Tragg, sleeping with Judge Barlow’s court reporter who’s a secret CIA operative…

To be sure, some programs are deliberately set up to explore relationships between characters, the Sherlock series offering one example and Twin Peaks another. But, as we learned, Twin Peaks followed spiraling devolution as show runners encouraged mattress mix-and-match, pajama plug-and-play. SOS relationships have less structural integrity than a politician’s promise. In another hallmark, when writers can think of nothing else, one character will be found to work for the CIA (or NSA or MI-5).

Murder One
The Minimal Maxim
The axiom regarding television dramas is that creativity decreases as the number of episodes in a series increases and, as a corollary, increases the likelihood of SOS.
Over time, most television dramas descend into SOS, but a few manage to avoid the pitfalls such as the 1993 Murder One and the recent Murder in the First. True Detective also evaded the trap by devoting each season to one story but took matters a step further by completely revising season two with a new cast, plot, location, and theme music. Only its title remained the same.

Promising Premises

The premises of Limitless, Blindspot and Quantico are auspicious although the latter two show early signs of SOS peril. Viewers can hope for the best, but I want to touch upon another program.

The Player
The Player could turn out to be very, very good or really, really bad. It’s a combination of the once brilliant Person of Interest and… remember Admiral Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market? For that alone, I’d give it a shot while wondering if something like PAM may secretly be happening. The Player's Vegas-based on-line casino gives high-rollers the opportunity to bet on the outcome of terrorism and police action, on life and death itself.

While I find the setup intriguing, the program needs to rapidly build characterization, something beyond fast cars and slow-mo fights. While star Philip Winchester has fully deployed all his first semester drama class skills, Wesley Snipes is its most interesting character. Well played, Mr. Snipes. Critics are betting against it, nearly 2-to-1, and they may be right.

Pure Escape

Escape Plan
I mentioned Person of Interest, which co-starred Jim Caviezel as quiet-spoken John Reese along with unassuming Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Caviezel appeared as a hard-ass prison warden in a 2013 movie, Escape Plan. I was unaware of it when it made its initial rounds, but I caught it in one of those 3AM BlahTV channel reruns.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to recommend a film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but, while the Escape Plan isn’t genius (50% positive rating), it takes an intelligent stab at plotting. It’s entertaining watching Stallone, who tests security by breaking out of prisons, do his jailbreak thing.

What is your take?

10 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Leigh, I love your updating of Perry Mason. I'll be watching my TV Guide to see when it's coming on :)

Louis A. Willis said...

Leigh,
You must buy a television so you can write more columns like this one.

I didn’t catch the first episode of The Player, but I did tape (is that the right word for saving it on a DVR) the second episode. I tried watching Quantico, but decided it wasn’t worth my time because it just didn’t engage my interest. I have not decided about Blindspot yet. It’ll take a couple more episodes for me to decide if it’ll become a habit. I miss Person of Interest. It was one of my favorite shows.

Leigh Lundin said...

Thanks, Paul. In the 70s update, writers couldn't resist Paul Drake Jr getting it on with big-hair witnesses, but the original series was well done.

Louis, I was thinking about you yesterday! I spoke with a young woman (late 20s) who spoke of 'taping'. However, it's hard to imagine teens still using the word, but who knows?

By the way, I saw that Person of Interest is being renewed for a 5th and likely final season.

Vicki Kennedy said...

Leigh,
I laughed and cringed at your modern version of Perry Mason. I think your description of many shows as SOS is spot on.
The new TV season so far has not impressed me. Some shows seem to think if you throw in some sex and violence that will suffice for a plot and good characters. When Person of Interest first came out I liked it, but soon grew bored. I don’t care for Quantico or Blindspot. I realize it would be hard to deliver a fresh script every season for 26 episodes or so, but most shows quickly fall into a predictable scenario week after week. I think I can count the shows I like on two hands very easily. Actually if you count the ones I truly enjoy 5-7 fingers will suffice. TV is mostly a big waste of time in my opinion. I’m back to reading more books.

Leigh Lundin said...

Vicki, reading and writing make for a quieter household. It was thanks to you that I started watching Longmire. The main character often reminds me of my dad.

A Broad Abroad said...

Along with Paul M and Vikki K, I think the updated Perry Mason synopsis was a hoot.

Some shows make you wonder what producers imagine the IQ of their target market to be. Then again, when you see what audiences will put up with, it's no wonder. For me, among other things, it beggars belief when an audience appears willing to accept a long-established character suddenly being played by a new actor. Worse still, I read that 'Dallas' had an entire season explained away as a dream after a key actor who’d left decided to rejoin the show.

In similar vein – remember, when you see a mind-numbingly crappy advert, some advertising agency showed the finished product to the client saying "Here’s what we've done with your millions.” and the client said “ Wow, keep up the good work."

In movies and TV shows, we are the clients. If we keep accepting and watching, they’ll keep dishing it up.

SOS = Save Our Sanity.

Leigh Lundin said...

ABA, you're saying we get the shows we deserve, which is a sad commentary. I think of dreams as cheating, a form of deus ex machina. That proved to be the flaw of my beloved/hated Twin Peaks– when the writers were surprised by a second season, they scrambled to make sense of the first– and fell back on dream sequences and the supernatural. It's not fair to viewers.

Save our sanity… yes!

A Broad Abroad said...

When I taught, woe betide anyone who ended an essay by saying it was all a dream! A lazy way out - cheating, indeed.

Dixon Hill said...

Your SOS comments are dead on.

As for chalking an entire work up to having been a dream, the only two times I actually enjoyed that ending was:

(A) The original ending of the film Brazil in which we realize much of what we've seen was the "neural escape" of the main character, who had slipped into catatonia while being tortured during interrogation. I thought this worked particularly well, because it left viewers questioning, "At what point did I stop seeing reality, and begin seeing things that only took place in his mind?" Lots of discussion and debate over beer w/ friends, when that one ended.

(B) A certain SciFi work (the title escapes me) possibly written by Bradbury, in which a man has gone to a psychiatrist concerning his accidental ability to change the world in ways he didn't quite intend. In the end, we discover he is actually lying on the street of a town destroyed by nuclear weapons.

In both cases, enough clues were available up-front that I didn't feel the "it was a dream" ending was some form of cheating. Instead, it provided food for thought in both cases, and thus I found it more than palatable. In general, however, I do have to agree that this idea for an ending is little better than no idea at all.

--Dix

Leigh Lundin said...

That's an excellent point and good examples, Dixon. I've seen another SF film that at some point you begin to realize it's a dream. THere's also something a little comforting in the landscape of torture that one might escape the evils of the situation.