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February 17th, 2005


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04:50 pm - The TV things
Had a few examples recently of exactly how American networks like to muck
about in something good and diminish its impact for the rest of us.

First there's this week's episode of Scrubs. The refreshing thing about Scrubs is that it's a hospital comedy that has, through the grace of God and the temerity of its cast and crew, stayed out of "traditional" sitcom territory, opting instead for a dry but funny show devoid of laugh track and any other trappings of bland, "safe" fare.

This week's episode featured one character's daydream of what life in the hospital would be like "if it were a sitcom." After the first commercial break the show came back -- with an all-too-brightly lit artificial set (only one set, mind you, for budget reasons) and cheesy interstitial wipes and incidental music, "Friends"-like hairdos and skimpy outfits for the female leads, broad jokes and broader reaction shots to the jokes, plus a "crazy" talent show subplot, random celebrity cameo from Clay Aiken (who, of course, had to sing a number at the Talent Show) and a canned laugh track which laughed, "oooohed" at the right spots, and even applauded the entrances of audience favorites like the hospital janitor.

In short, it was everything Scrubs usually wasn't. And it was brilliant. Meta-parody is hard to pull off but they managed to do it just well. In my view, at least. Other fans of the show have complained (vociferously, of course, this being the Internet and all) that it was unfunny and tiresome and what the heck was Clay Yecch Aiken doing on my beloved show?!

But, d00dz, that was the point.

I saw this episode as The Big F-You from the show's creative forces to the network suits at NBC who have tried to "suggest" changes to the show, to water it down, make it more "accessible" or mainstream -- in short, change it into the tepid, annoying sitcom shown in the daydream. Ever notice the annoying and obnoxious laugh track which often punctuates the network promos for the show? The suits are trying to sell the show as the WACKY SITCOM WHERE ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, LISTEN TO 'EM LAFF! and I betcha there's been a pitched battle over the laugh tracks in those promos.

Know what worries me the most, though? If the network suits saw that part and said "Hey! That's what we've been looking for all along! You guys finally got it!" Then I would cry.

Anyway. It was nice to see and I enjoyed the episode.

Then there's Firefly.

I shall start with a little conversation I had with a good friend the other night:

Miss Bar: To me it's like... it's OK to like Buffy and Angel and Firefly and whatever, right? But Joss Whedon is not, like, this generation's Mozart or anything. So give it a rest with "Ooh, Joss wrote this episode!" and "Joss this" and "Joss that".
Miss Bar: He's a geek with daddy issues who happens to have a flair for creating quirky television shows. Ta da.
Mr Spatch: ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
Mr Spatch: (mozart was a geek with daddy issues too.)

I agree with her point, though. Mr. Whedon is a very good creative force but he ain't the Second Coming of, uh, Paddy Chayevsky. (Work with me here, folks.) In fact, I've tended not to watch stuff he's done because I have developed and cultivated a certain dislike to his too-cutesy, painfully self-aware dialogue. People in his shows are always too witty for their situations. There's always a pop culture riff to be had when necessary. As the entire geek culture is built on quoting (thanks, Kevin) it's no wonder he's attracted such a following. Doesn't mean I have to like his dialogue.

Which is why the original two-hour Firefly pilot, "Senerity," was such a pleasant surprise to me. I got the entire series run from a generous friend last night and really enjoyed the original pilot. I really dug the Space Western concept (nothing new, of course, but shown here as a literal representation, as opposed to Wagon Train in Space) and not because of the mix of styles, but because it really worked as a western. Our Captain was maybe a bit too tacit for his own good, being all cold and detached, but it worked. At least for a two-hour presentation. For a full series run, however, you know he'd have to develop and change.

What I liked the most, though, was the fact that the dialogue wasn't rollickingly witty and annoyingly so. It was a good, serious Western drama. The production values were high. It could've been an HBO or Showtime series, even if there was no English cursing (but a lot in Chinese to get around the censors.)

But it wasn't what the network was looking for. Sounds like they wanted Western Buffy in Space. So when Whedon & Co showed them the Senerity pilot, they asked for something funnier. And more action-packed. So Joss and Tim Minnear (who'd helped Bryan Fuller on the similarly short-lived Wonderfalls) took one weekend to write a script for the episode that'd end up being the series pilot. I watched it, too, right after "Serenity"... and was rather disappointed.

The too-witty dialogue was back. The Captain was a bit more of a brawling goof. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a wacky laff riot farce, but it wasn't as serious as the pilot I had really liked. Perhaps watching them back-to-back really made those differences clear.

I still liked what I saw, overall, and I've got quite a few episodes to go over the course of the next few weeks. But I guess I was kinda hoping for more of what I originally saw.

So that's more TV fun. And I didn't even mention The Apprentice.

(17 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:littlegirltoast
Date:February 17th, 2005 10:24 pm (UTC)
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There is one episode, and I'm pretty sure you'll know it when you see it, that is pretty indisputably one of the top five hours of television in history.

Shame the russians never got anything picked up, eh?
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:February 19th, 2005 08:00 am (UTC)
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I'm seriously rationing my episodes for fear of getting too much good too soon. One every other night or so ought to do it. I'm already humming the theme around the cats, who look quite disconcerted by it all.
[User Picture]
From:littlegirltoast
Date:February 20th, 2005 02:31 pm (UTC)
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Out of Gas is the one I mean.

I gave the DVD set to a friend as a birthday present, and then proceeded within the week to borrow every disc from him in turn and watch them voraciously. Even when he was out, I pestered his girlfriend. That show was dope.
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:March 7th, 2005 09:11 am (UTC)
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PS: You were so right about Out of Gas. What an excellent episode all around Wow.
[User Picture]
From:littlegirltoast
Date:March 7th, 2005 12:12 pm (UTC)
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yeah, even if a person doesn't like the series I think they need to watch it just to get the neccessary background info to watch THAT episode, which I don't think one can not appreciate.
[User Picture]
From:joenotcharles
Date:February 17th, 2005 10:59 pm (UTC)
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I haven't really followed Scrubs - I liked the few episodes I saw, back when it was beginning, but since then every time I flip past it I see Heather Graham or Hillary Duff, and it looks like the lovable-loser guy is dating the guest star, and I think, "Eww - didn't take long for success to go to their head," and turn it off.

Have I been wrong?
[User Picture]
From:luckimunki
Date:February 18th, 2005 12:27 am (UTC)
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If you can get past the annoying frequency of the guest starlets dating J.D., it's an excellent show on every level. And sometimes they have a guest star that isn't just eye candy (see Brendan Fraser's several-episode stint... although I do consider Fraser eye candy, he can act, too).
[User Picture]
From:luckimunki
Date:February 18th, 2005 12:30 am (UTC)
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It occurs to me that their random guest stars is a way of boosting ratings and mass appeal, because otherwise a show that intelligent would never stay on the air.
[User Picture]
From:quodlibetic
Date:February 18th, 2005 05:22 am (UTC)
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The final episode with Fraser hit me like a Mack truck. First time in a long time that I cried over a television show.
[User Picture]
From:luckimunki
Date:February 18th, 2005 05:24 am (UTC)
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I cried, too. But that doesn't mean anything, because I recently cried over an episode of "Teen Titans."
[User Picture]
From:giantfightbot
Date:February 17th, 2005 11:43 pm (UTC)
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Firefly is the only Joss Whedon show that I can actually stand, which is weird. I never could get into Buffy or Angel since they seemed too cutesy. That and the constant urge I had to pound half the cast with a shovel.
[User Picture]
From:luckimunki
Date:February 18th, 2005 12:29 am (UTC)
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I loved Buffy until it got melodramatic. The thing with that show was that it was always intended to be tongue in cheek, and when they started getting subplot after subplot after evil-going-to-destroy-the-world-and-oh-my-god-buffy-is-dead-but-no-she's-not plots (the same thing that ruined the last half of X-Files, btw), I got tired of it and basically stuck around for the scenes featuring Spike. Firefly rocked on a whole other level, but I was cool with it being occasionally goofy. Nobody wants to watch a show about mopes in space. They have to be mopes in space with attitude.

By the way, I too was blown away by the Scrubs sitcom parody.
[User Picture]
From:lillibet
Date:February 18th, 2005 03:59 pm (UTC)
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I could have written your first paragraph word for word. I usually ascribe the change to them losing the metaphor--the show was a brilliant metaphor for adolescent angst (to quote dpolicar, "When you're a 17 year old girl who loses her virginity to an older guy who then doesn't return your phone calls, it seems like he's turned into a monster and the world is about to end...only in Buffy's case, he did and it is."). While the later seasons had some fantastic individual episodes (even Season 4 had "Hush"), once they left high school the central metaphor was gone and the show got caught up in its own details. If not for Spike (a/k/a The Man Who Has Chemistry with a Door), I'm not sure I would have made it to the end. The same thing was happening to Smallville (which has a basically identical central metaphor) last season, but they seem to have returned to their roots a bit this year.

Firefly felt totally different to me and I loved it from the start, but my start was in a different place than anyone else I know. We were downloading in London, so we started with the original pilot that was floating around on the net. Most of my friends had to start with The Train Job and couldn't really get into the show until Out of Gas, when they finally started to get a clue about who these characters were. We own the DVD now and I was somewhat disappointed that the pilot on there isn't the one we originally saw--instead of the scenes from the Battle of Serenity, there was just Zoe telling Simon about it and, frankly, I can imagine much more horrifying battlefield scenes than any TV budget can show me. I'm holding my thumbs for Serenity-the-movie to be a critically acclaimed box office hit.

Random piece of trivia I've been dying to share: David Krumholtz, who plays the hot math dude on Numb3rs, is playing "Mr. Universe" in Serenity.
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:February 19th, 2005 07:55 am (UTC)
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I would have liked to have seen the expository scene in the pilot rather than the battle, too. It looked like a waste of budget and, frankly, I can't remember any time when I saw Zoe and Simon just talking by themselves. Seeing their characters interact would've been much more interesting. (And cheaper.)

After watching Bushwhacked I'm glad to see that perhaps the Whedon dialogue I dislike was tamped down a bit. Damn, that's a good thing, because I'm really enjoying the character mix and the Western themes done right.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 18th, 2005 03:41 am (UTC)

Keith

(Link)
Ogg like Firefly.

I enjoyed the DVDs very much. I think the characters are the strongest thing in the series. They're actually interesting on their own, even without the witty snarky dialog.
From:dcart
Date:February 18th, 2005 03:50 pm (UTC)
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I thought Firefly was easily the best first season of TV that Whedon's ever done. I am a fan of Buffy and Angel, but dislike some of the same things you dislike about it. I think those shows were at their best when they focused on the the relationships between the characters (not the romantic relationships) and in the fighting scenes. The only cutesy stuff I enjoyed were the riffs on Angel being so well groomed and vain for a supposed brooding vampire guy.

"Serenity" was one of the high points of the show, but there are two or three other episodes that I'd put in my personal top 20 hours of series of TV. I think that one of the reasons why the series worked so well for me is that it really took the western genre seriously. They treated it with respect. It wasn't just a gimmick. There are some great nods to classic westerns here and there, too.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the series when you've viewed the whole thing.

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