Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rescue Me: The Second Season

I finished watching this today and it's pretty undeniable that this is a well put together, compulsively viewable series. However, it's one of those things that doesn't have the after viewing appeal of a truly great series, like a Buffy or Six Feet Under. The best works are ones that live on in your head after the episode and demand analysis and discussion. I enjoyed all the episodes of the show, but I never felt a compulsive need to see more. It's certainly a good series, but it never quite makes it to great.

My big issue with the show is that I've seen so much longform TV, I'm starting to get immune to the tricks that every show seems to use, and one of the primary ones is to heap catastrophe after catastrophe on its main characters. The end of this season is emotionally engaging, but feels a bit excessive, having one person get what they want would have provided some contrast, and made what the others go through even more painful. If you just keep making things bad for your characters, there's nowhere to go. Nate in Six Feet Under went through some awful, awful shit, but this was mixed up with some triumphs for the other characters, and an awareness in the character of his bad fate. Using the flaws inherent in long form storytelling to a show's advantage is always a good move, but here, we never make that leap. Instead, the characters remain trapped in patterns of crap and never really look back or forward to reflect on it. It's not that there's no history, it's more that things are forgotten easily once the next plot comes along.

The final episode is a multi-layered assault on everyone in the cast. The most obvious being the inexplicable death of Tommy's son in the penultimate episode. The writers had put themselves in a corner by having Janet and Tommy back together in a happy marriage. I liked the idea that they're both unashamedly using drugs to make the marriage work, and I think there's a lot of dramatic potential in exploring the conflict there. That's why the choice to have their son randomly die doesn't really work, rather than let the characters face the consequences of what they're doing, an outside force comes in and disrupts everything.

This season used a lot of three storytelling devices designed to cheat a story into being special. The child's death is one. This story uses our conception of what it would be like to lose your child rather than any actualy work done on the relationship between Tommy and Connor to get our sympathy. It's a cheap device because they don't have to earn it, all the drama is inherent in the action. It becomes a cure all to throw chaos into the status quo they'd built over the course of the season and an easy way to spin Tommy's arc in a different direction. Does it work at being dramatic? Yes, but that doesn't really excuse it.

Another cheap storytelling trick is the use of a newly discovered sibling. How many sitcoms have had the roguish brother comes to town, and he's gone straight, but just needs to borrow a little money to get his new plan off the ground storyline? Maggie's bit has some of that, but the bigger offender is the Father Murphy storyline. Clearly they wanted to do a story about a pedophile priest, and make us care about the character. Rather than earning a relationship through character development, they do the cheap trick of having Tommy magically have a long lost half brother. This is the same as the return of the old childhood friend, it's a way to circumvent actual storytelling work and instead let the storyline coast on audience assumptions. We accept Tommy caring about the character because of the familial relationship, and I'll admit that the resolution of the storyline is affecting. Yet, it's so exploitative it's hard to endorse it as quality work.

Yet another cheap trick is the pregnancy storyline. Why do shows think it's a good idea to make a character pregnant? That's the ultimate sign that a character has nowhere left to go and the writers decided, hey, why not? See the last two seasons of The X-Files. The pregnancy here isn't as bad as that, but the whole thing with Sheila still felt rather manipulative. I suppose she was meant to be manipulating Tommy through the pregnancy, but it seemed like a hollow way to extend their relationship, and then it disappeared at a time convinient to the plot.

I was about to ponder, why does Sheila stay with her girlfriend despite how bad she's being treated, and discuss this as a plot flaw. But, I think it's intentional and Sheila is the type of person who's totally dependent on her significant other for support. She cannot be alone and she's drawn to very strong people who will direct her life. She loves Tommy more, but stays with Debbie because she is a surrogate. One of the rawest, most powerful scenes is Sheila's tearful crying to Tommy in the street. That's earned emotion. I find the character very frustrating, but there are people like that, so it works.

Anyway, on a more positive note, Tommy does go on a fascinating journey this season. I love his surface cynicism about AA, and the way he actually does accept what they're saying. The scene with Johnny where he's holding the drink is really tense and I like that they didn't go the sensational route of having him go right back to drinking.

Elsewhere, the episode provides more dark times. I think they left a bit too much to the finale, which gave it a car pileup type feel, where you keep getting slammed with plot points and no time to absorb them. Laura's exit felt very abrupt, I would have liked to see more hints of her unhappiness earlier in the season. After the 'twat' incident, she seemed to gain the acceptance of the guys, and it strikes me as cowardly for her to disappear without even saying goodbye. The conflict is always there, but it wasn't played on the surface for a while. To me, it felt like the actress all of a sudden said she wanted off the show and they had to hastily write her out. Again, it makes for an emotional scene, with Franco's crying, but it feels a bit manipulative because it's so quick.

The Lou/Danni plot is also full of issues. Watching this, I immediately thought "she's using him." Then, for a few episodes I was wondering "Is she using him?" Then it was confirmed in the finale. I don't know if the best way to do a plot twist is to make it so obvious the audience questions whether you'll actually go that route. It would have been more interesting, if a bit unrealistic, to have them actually try to have a relationship, and see if Lou could get past her history. Instead we get a scorched Earth approach, clearing all the plot threads out of the way.

I think the show works for the same reason that Garth Ennis' stuff does. It's all about exploring this hyper-masculine world of people who are very tough on the surface, but have feelings underneath. In Preacher, Ennis uses the same ridiculous humor that Leary indulges in, masking the actual melodramatic underpinnings of the narrative. This is a soap opera, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the gruff surface can mean that the frequent use of stock plots is not as obvious.

The show raises the question, how is it possible to do an ongoing drama series without resorting to layering pain on the characters week after week? It's obviously not easy. I feel like this show needs to let the characters have some more good times and mix in some up stuff with some of the bad stuff. Because bad stuff happens every week, the season finale needs to put things on a ridiculously bad level to stand out. If you let the characters have some good times, the hurt stiings even more.

Even though I criticize the show, I still really enjoyed it. Ongoing stories have the advantage of character familiarity. I like these people and want to know what happens to them, that can outweigh the sometimes cliched plotting. When I lose interest in a show is when it becomes so over the top that any sense of reality in the characters is gone. That hasn't happened here, and I'm hoping that season three will refine things and resolve the issues present here.

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