Friday, November 07, 2008

TV Roundup

I’m watching a whole bunch of shows this season, and while nothing’s totally wowing me, there’s a bunch of good stuff out there. Most of my favorite shows air on a more haphazard schedule, Mad Men just ended, Battlestar won’t resume until January and Doctor Who is just throwing out episodes whenever they feel like it. In bad news, Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse will now be airing on Fridays, which is pretty much acknowledging it’ll never be a big hit. I hope that the awful timeslot means Fox will give the show a longer leash, we shall see. Anyway, here’s the shows I’m watching now.

Life on Mars

Right now, I’m really liking the show. The premise seems better to a limited series, as with the original, or even better, a film, and after the weak second episode, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work on a week to week basis. But, since then, we’ve got a couple of really strong episodes, and an alright one last night. For me, the show’s greatest strength is the sense of place it conveys. I don’t know if it’s an accurate depiction of the 70s, but even if it’s just a depiction of the mythic 70s created in our culture, I like spending time there. I think it’d be annoying to run into a lot of the hippie mystic characters from the time in real life, but I love watching them on film. Our world may be in a paradigm shift now, but for the last eight years, things have been pretty dire, and it’s nice to look at a time when people were interested in expanding their consciousness and changing the world.

The show’s strength is the trippy interludes that happen every so often, like when Sam got dosed with LSD. Those are really interesting visually and tie in with his existential dilemma about why he’s in the 1973 and what it means for his existence. In general, Sam is a really likable, fun lead to watch. He, along with Michael Imperioli always keep things interesting, even when the show falls into rote police procedural territory. My major concern looking ahead is that the show becomes a 70s issue of the week police procedural, and after a certain point, the trippy material will slip away. After Sam runs into everyone he new from the 2000s in the 70s, what’s left for the show to do beyond just tell stories about him in the 70s? I still don’t see the show lasting more than a season or two without radically shifting its premise at some point. Still, I really like what I see, and the presence of three Wire actors in last night’s episode helped keep things rolling along.

My greatest concern beyond the simple in sustainability of the premise is the fact that each episode seems to end with Gene siding with Sam on whatever argument they had, and doing the right thing instead of the morally corrupt thing. The problem with that is if you do it every week, shouldn’t Gene just evolve morally at some point? It seems like we’re heading towards that TV problem where every initially edgy characters gets worn down into an ally, and is given something in their past that explains why they do evil things. It can be a lot more interesting to just let your characters do bad things, and explore them from there than to try to make everyone live by 2008 morality in a world that doesn’t necessarily hew to that morality. The show needs to go edgier, and go stranger, but I don’t know that a first year show having some ratings issue is going to get the latitude to do what they really need to do.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

This is a show I had essentially no expectations for. I didn’t see the theatrical movie because reviews were so dire, but I figured I’d check out the first TV episodes. It’s strange that a Star Wars TV show has gotten so little heat as this has. I guess it’s because it’s targeted at kids, but I don’t see anyone talking about this. I suppose that’s the consequence of the prequels, in the mid 90s, any piece of Star Wars material was cherished, now with so much more out there, it’s just not that special any more. But, perhaps it’s best that this show comes in with lower expectations. I don’t think it’s a great show, but it’s pretty entertaining, and occasionally touches those emotions that the classic trilogy hit so well.

The major flaw for me is the animation. It all looks like a video game cut scene, I don’t know why they chose the wooden puppet look for the characters. The stuff without people is really pretty, but the people look awful. And, there’s a lot of the same issues as the prequels have, the inexplicably retarded battle droids, and lack of really well defined characters. Anakin here is used as kind of a blank slate hero, lacking the moral ambiguity that the character should have.

But, there’s also some good stuff. I like the way they depict the clones, people who are all similar, and struggle to find ways to define themselves. They exist for a mission, but still hope to carve out an individual identity. The space battles are pretty great, and the liberal swipes from the original trilogy make for some nice action sequences. The best episode for me was the one in which Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme sneak aboard the Malevolence to destroy it from the inside. That had the fun adventure feel of the OT that the prequels rarely captured. I don’t love the show, but it’s got its moments. I just wish that I was more excited about a weekly Star Wars TV show.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Continuing a theme, I really like some things about this show, while others frustrate me. I was getting close to losing interest when they dropped the fantastic episode about John going to therapy, all the while being observed by Cameron and Sarah. That episode conveyed the difficulty he has trying to express himself and grow up while dealing with both the pressure of his future destiny, and the constant watching eyes of his mother.

But, amidst interesting character stuff, there’s a lot of random b-movie action that doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s a show focused on narrative, not characters, and that means that things can get a bit samey. How many episodes have centered around our characters hunting down some random Eastern European guy? Monday’s episode did surprise me with Cameron’s brutality, when she killed the three guys who had robbed them.

There’s always some interesting stuff in each episode to keep me going, but the show isn’t making it to great. It’s like Buffy pre “Surprise,” I watch it, I like it, but it doesn’t really capture my imagination. The tough thing with watching any series as it goes is you don’t have the benefit of a pre-existing critical response. I stuck with Buffy and Babylon 5 because I knew they would get better, who knows what will happen with this show? It could become a classic this season or it could just keep going along as it is. Right now, I’m liking it enough to keep watching, the quality fluctuates, but for every weak episode, there’s a solid one.

The Office

I’ve written about my mixed feelings on the US Office before. I do really like the show, but I was so emotionally invested in the original, I’ve never been able to really get into the Pam/Jim stuff in the same way. My least favorite aspect of this show is definitely Pam and Jim, I find them both unlikable, precisely because they’re so engineered to be likable. In yesterday’s episode, Jim is called smug and arrogant, but rather than engage with this criticism, it’s revealed as a lie. I think it would have been a lot more interesting to deal with the idea that Jim hating his job is reflected in how he does it, and play with his flaws. But, they choose not to engage with it, and instead we get the annoying cutesy Bluetooth stuff.

The supporting characters have always interested me more. I really like what they did with Ryan. The Holly arc was solid, but I’m getting tired of the Andy/Dwight/Angela triangle happenings. I still enjoy the show, but I don’t think anything this season has been as focused as the post-strike episodes last year.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

How the Internet has Changed Film and TV Criticism

I don’t think most people really consider the way that the internet has totally changed virtually every aspect of our lives. Future generations will never know a world where print media was the only option, where every video ever made wasn’t available to you on demand, or where you could send a message to anyone anywhere and get it to them instaneously. The internet itself is constantly evolving, and I think one day people are going to be incredibly frustrated by the fact that we’ve kept such a poor historical record of how the internet has evolved. Could you find a web page from 1998? What did that site look like? In the future, it might be impossible to find records of those sites, and it’ll be lost to history in the same way that a lot of early films are, because no one thinks that something so seemingly transient would ever be interesting as a matter of historical record.

All of this is a prelude to discussing the way that the internet has influenced the development of film and television in the late 1990s and 2000s, both on a production and on a reception level. The internet has been a great boon for television, while its influence on film has been less beneficial. The central reason for this is the nature of the internet news cycle. On the internet, something happens, is discussed and disposed of immediately for the next thing. It’s not a matter of talking about last month’s thing and feeling dated anymore, it’s a question of talking about yesterday’s story and feeling dated. For TV, where there’s a constant stream of new material, this is great, allowing for a continuous, evolving discussion centered around a single thing. For film, it’s not so good.

The vast, vast majority of internet writing about film doesn’t actually engage with films themselves. In the internet journalism cycle, the actual release of the film marks the end of our interest in it. You can find hundreds of sites that will tell you what’s in development, and repeat the same pieces of news that circulate all over, but how many actually engage with films themselves and discuss them in anything beyond a thumbs up/thumbs down type review. Those reviews are usually published as the film is released, and are targeted at people who haven’t seen the movie, and are wondering whether they should see it or not. There’s a utilitarian quality to most writing about film, it’s designed more as a product guide than an exploration of art.

In general, most internet film writing is centered around that should I see it or shouldn’t I dichotomy. All the news reporting before the film comes out, be it casting or test screening reports, is about trying to find out if the film will “rock or suck.” This usually reaches its fever pitch the week before the film comes out, when the media is saturated with articles about the film.

But what happens when a movie comes out, when people can actually see the thing? At that point, most discussion of the film totally dissipates and with very rare exceptions, it’s not written about again, outside of an occasional report on box office performance. The news cycle is designed to always be writing about new movies, you don’t want to be the guy publishing a review of W. today, that film is so two weeks ago. When it comes to awards season, I’m usually sick of reading about the film before it even gets an actual release. With There Will Be Blood, I felt like there was already a backlash/reverse backlash cycle before the movie even came out in that one theater in NYC opening weekend. I’m sure it will be the same for Benjamin Button this year.

What this writing cycle skips is actually writing about films, analyzing and exploring them as works of art. Admittedly, a lot of films don’t deserve this sort of consideration, but most movies, even bad ones, have something interesting to say about our society and the world that produced them. Most Hollywood movies reveal elements of our social value system, and the priorities of twenty-first century America.

With this blog, I aim to analyze and explore what films are really about, and why they do or don’t work. I usually do discuss what I do or don’t like, but not in a traditional review context. My goal with writing is not to tell you whether or not to see the movie, it’s to ponder what the movie means after seeing it. For me, the process of writing about a film is the final piece of the viewing experience. Writing about a work like The End of Evangelion allows for a sustained meditation on an incredibly dense work. By unpacking that work, I’m getting to the core of what Anno intended with the film. People spend years of their lives making a film, surely we can invest a bit of time to ponder it after the initial viewing experience.

The problem with this is that there is inherently a more limited audience for an in depth discussion of an individual film. Outside of massive blockbusters like The Dark Knight, most people won’t have seen a movie, and we’ve got this anti-spoilers culture that’s going to be mad if you reveal plot details. But, I love to read really in depth articles about movies that I’ve just seen, analysis that reveals not just whether a film worked, but also why.

The films that do inspire a lot of in depth internet discussion along those lines are ones that are ambiguous and leave you with a lot of questions. Mulholland Dr. was discussed extensively online, primarily in the context of people wanting to know what happened. Most people believe that cinema exists primarily as a conveyance for narrative, and as such, they’re only interested in exploring the film more if their desire for a narrative is not instantly satisfied. Mulholland Dr. plants seeds in peoples’ minds, it gives them all the basic set up for a mystery, then doesn’t tell them the answer. They want to know the key to the puzzle box, and that’s understandable. Analyzing Mulholland Dr. reveals all kinds of depths and meanings that you wouldn’t instantly get, but that’s true of most good movies, even ones that don’t leave you scratching your head for narrative meaning.

And, from the perspective of trying to make movies, just writing about movies, and trying to understand the way that they create emotional beats and feelings will help you more than any three act fill in the blank structure. You can use your own viewing experience as a kind of laboratory, pulling data out that and trying to figure out why certain images work better than others, why some scenes produce an intense emotional reaction and others don’t work at all. I think a lot of that also gets into psychiatric self analysis. I’ve narrowed down specific elements that always hit me in a strong way, and am then able to use similar narrative constructions or images in my own work.

Admittedly, I don’t have the chance to write as much on here about the movies I see as I’d like to. I’d love to be able to sit down and write 1500 words on every movie I see, but time is limited, and I wind up writing about the things that really spark my imagination and demand analysis. On the blogs I read, I’m much more interested in people who write in depth analysis of works than the sort of rote reviews of the week’s releases that are all too common.

I think the biggest problem comes down to perception. There’s this feeling that if you’re writing about last week’s release, you’re behind the times, and as such, we don’t see much writing actually about a film’s content as opposed to the circumstances of its release.

And, in general, I think the internet, along with TV on DVD, has been the biggest factor in validating TV as an art form. The internet showed conclusively that people do watch every episode of shows, that they are interested in challenging shows with heavy continuity and are willing to do the work to engage with those shows. I’m guessing that in the pre-internet days, producers would play loose with continuity because they figured nobody would notice. But, starting with shows like The X-Files, the online audience kept better track of continuity than the actual writers of the show. I think shows like Buffy or Lost are intensely aware of their online reputation, and play to that audience without considering the ‘average viewer.’

The internet isn’t a great medium for discussing film because you’ve got only a limited amount of fuel for the fire. With TV, each episode allows for discussion both of what just happened, and to ponder what happens next. Admittedly, there’s still a vast non-internet viewing audience out there, but I feel like online TV fandom has helped to foster the golden age of TV. If you judged shows by internet feedback, The Wire would have been the highest rated show of last year, barely topping Battlestar Galactica. There’s this internet watercooler that encourages viewing of quality shows, I saw so many people writing about The Wire, I just had to check it out.

And, because the show is available on DVD, I can catch up and watch the show as it’s meant to be watched, not just watch one episode, get lost and never check it out again. TV has changed from something where you just tune in for an episode, it’s become like reading a serialized novel, and DVD gives you the chance to start from the beginning.

Unfortunately, there’s often a slight delay between audience response and ratings. Everyone on the internet loves Arrested Development and is furious that it was cancelled, but none of them actually watched it when it was on. It’s only a few shows that can achieve internet dominance and ratings success, think The Sopranos.

A lot of it comes down to the decline in shared cultural objects in a fractured multi-media age. One of the amazing things about The Sopranos finale was that after it aired, it was just omnipresent in the media. It’s very rare that a work of art so great should achieve such mass success. And, once you’ve got a high level of exposure for the work, you can get deeper analysis and more discussion.

So, ironically the internet has allowed for more film and TV writing than ever before, but in fracturing the audience, it’s also taken away the shared cultural experience of watching movies at the same time. Concurrent with the rise of DVD, the theatrical experience, particularly for indie films, has largely been replaced with a Netflix viewing several months later. How can you write about a movie when so few people actually see it at the same time? I guess it ultimately comes down to just exploring a work when you find it, and maybe others will find it in their own time.