Archive for category British television
Once upon a time, I looked at genre–the process of sorting storytelling into type–as a necessary evil of use primarily for marketing, and for organizing large bookstores, and for slapping rocket ship or detective logos on the spines of library books. I didn’t need genre labels. My taste was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and omnivorous. I bragged I would read anything. I didn’t need genre labels. If it was good, then I wanted to read it
I’ve changed. I no longer view choosing-by-genre designations as narrow-minded and provincial. I remain open-minded in my tastes, but the older I get, the more I feel the need to match what I read or watch to my mood.
This turning point came a couple years ago during a vacation. By the time we’d made it from the airport to the hotel, had dinner and settled into our room, I was tired, physically and mentally. Didn’t feel like reading. Nothing on the hotel TV. My husband was looking at his iPad, so I looked at mine.
I stumbled upon a cozy mystery, Death in Paradise.
It hit the spot. Episodic TV mysteries like this one tickle the brain, but don’t tax it too much. We are given a beautiful locale and clever writing. Relationships between the regulars–the detectives and their allies–lean more toward humor than angst. We understand the murder victim to be a short-timer; we don’t get attached.
Unlike life, the people in mysteries live by the rules. Our detectives may be flawed characters, they may make mistakes, but they will do their job to the best of their ability. We can trust them.
I meander through genres, stopping to visit as I wish. Each offers something. When I’m hungry for new ideas, new ways about thinking about humanity and the future, science fiction is the go-to. It could be the fanciful solar system of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, or the less fanciful but still stunning one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. I love certain kinds of fantasy, but sometimes Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is too active for me, and I want something more sedate. In a sense, every author is sui generis, and I like that too.
When I finish something, I am thrown into a bit of emotional crisis. What to read next? What to watch next? I scroll through my digital and paper libraries, sometimes spending as much time picking something as I would choosing a new sofa. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing, and have to abandon it. Sometimes I pick just right, and match my mood perfectly.
Conflict is the heart of any story, and the driver of all plots within the story. Conflict–which many of us like to avoid in our daily lives–is what we eagerly seek out in fiction, both as writers and as consumers. Conflict can be anything from a tear in the fabric of space-time that threatens to swallow up all of reality (Dr. Who) to over-done women carrying a grudge over how someone dissed someone else (Real Housewives of Wherever, Shahs of Sunset*).
In the case of the latter, I become impatient. I want to tell the self-involved dummies to get over themselves and pay attention to what matters in life. In the case of the former, I also become impatient, because a conflict that’s too big can also become tedious. Dr. Who fell into this for a while. I mean, come on. You know reality isn’t going to go up in a puff of smoke. What would happen to the show, then? So why keep making that the arc of the season? Can’t we just have some fun adventure?
Conflict is a matter of scale. The Doctor is a Time Lord able to travel through space and time in the Tardis. He has his wits and a magic screwdriver. The most satisfying of the stories are neither to big nor too small for his persona. My favorite this season so far is “The Rings of Akhaten,” where a child is saved from sacrifice. That was lovely. On the other end of the spectrum, I became so very weary last season of the tedious and portentous story lines of the Doctor’s death, and the whole mess with Amy Pond, River Song, and Rory. I simply didn’t buy any of it.
Conflict is also a matter of perspective and depth. Generic makes my eyes glaze over. The oft-repeated advice to the writer, “Begin with a character with a problem…” makes my mind go numb. I need to begin with something specific, be it large or small. More accurately, two or three things come together, and then two or three things are added, and so forth. In the masterpiece that is Mad Men, we spend most of the first season collecting and arranging these specific pieces, i.e. characters in a quite specific time and place. I remember being unimpressed with the first episode I watched, in which Peggy starts work, Joan struts around like an office queen bee, and Don drinks and smokes and screws around. It seemed a bland period piece, until toward the end of the first season, when the real characters emerge from the carefully crafted images that era demanded. From that point on, the series has been driven seamlessly by character conflict. Twist and turn goes the plot, but it manages to both shock and be inevitable.
Conflict is a matter of quality. Does exploration of this fictional conflict somehow enlighten and inform me on the subject of the human condition? Does it seem real? If not, I see it as a waste of time. This is my general gripe against recent literary fiction, that it seems to be about nothing. (And not in the Seinfeld sense, the show the that pretended to be about nothing but in fact was about everything.) Quality conflict moves me. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me want to talk about it to others who have watched or read it. It is highly subjective. What matters to some, doesn’t to others.
While avoiding conflict in life whenever possible, I indulge my addiction with several doses daily of the fictional variety. I’m reading two books now, The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Cyroburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. On the TV front, I am watching Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation, Community, Mr. Selfridge, and EastEnders. I haven’t seen a movie in months, but I have seen three stage plays in recent weeks, two of which were excellent and which I will name here: The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter, and The Parisian Woman, by Beau Willimon. I’m finding Mr. Selfridge a bit conflict-lite, a bit contrived, but I’m soldiering on with it anyway. EastEnders is a British soap opera. Many of its conflicts are stupid, but it is fun to make fun of.
I love being addicted to conflict and to have so many opportunities to get all drugged up with it every day. I love the conflict with self and family in the Hopkinson novel and the Hunter play. I love the disparate social and political commentary of Bujold, Parks & Rec, and Community. I love the very different kinds of heroism shown in Dr. Who, in Bujold, and in Game of Thrones. I love the anthropological and psychological dissection of the Willimon play and of Mad Men.
It’s a lot going on. I’ve had a bit of a problem lately in that I cannot help visualizing Peter Dinklage as Miles Vorkosigan, even though I know darned well Miles is not a little person. The wit, swagger, and toughness of the two characters of Tyrion and Miles bear comparison, somehow.
One more interesting note about fictional conflict: Even when I have real conflict in my life (and no one can avoid it completely) I still need the approximate same daily dose of the fictional variety. The difference is, during rough times, I focus on the resolution. Fiction does such a better job of resolution than real life does.
*I am treating Reality TV as fiction. Please tell me it is.
Photo: Speculative Martha
About ninety percent of my reading is in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Back in the eighties and nineties, the split was more like fifty-fifty between Spec Fic and “other.” And it’s more than that. I can say that ninety percent of the literature I revere is in science fiction and fantasy, and only ten percent in other fields.
Revere is a strong word, but it is the word that comes to mind. I like a lot of things, and I admire talent in a lot of genres, but it is science fiction and fantasy that hits me in the gut and sets my brain on fire, that makes me wonder “…how the hell did he/she come up with this?”.
While moaning about the demise of The Hour, and re-watching season four of Mad Men, I realized something perhaps a bit odd: My percentages for genre in television would be exactly opposite. Ninety percent of what I revere in television is not science fiction or fantasy. The list goes on and stretches back for decades.
Revered in Comedy: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, M*A*S*H, Keeping Up Appearances, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Revered in Drama: Breaking Bad, The Hour, Sopranos, Mad Men.
In the drama category, a case could be made that mainstream TV gives me a lot of what I love in SF literature, my number one draw to SF, which is that I am transported to a different time and/or place in which everything is different from what I know. Or, almost different.
I have been to Albuquerque, but met no one while there who was involved in cooking or selling crystal meth. The shots of the desert in that show take my breath away, so starkly beautiful in Breaking Bad.
I have also been to the nineteen-sixties, but I did it as a teenager, not as an adult at a Manhattan ad agency. The time travel aspect of Mad Men is a bit sf-nal.
Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be about home, whatever its genre, whatever its locale. Comedy transports me in a different way, and it is much more difficult for me to pin down what makes me laugh. Why did I laugh at the mother-in-law/hippo joke in Reginald Perrin every time? What was so funny about Mystery Science Theater? That concept should not have worked, but it did. And all, somehow, are about home. Remember, the characters in MST3000 return to live together in an apartment in Wisconsin at the end of the series.
I don’t notice genre as much in television. Sure, there’s the SyFy channel, but the genres do tend to bleed together more. Community gets a Hugo nomination. People not otherwise interested in fantasy watch Game of Thrones. No one seems to care quite as much about genre in TV as they do in literature. And perhaps literature is the key word here. Some books are supposed to be good for you. Books that are good for you are called literature. If you actually like books that are good for you, well, you must be an intellectual! And if you read that sci-fi stuff, you clearly are not.
On the other hand, television is not good for you, no matter what. I’ve been hearing that from the time I was old enough to operate the channel selector. (We did not have remotes in those days.) It is assumed that, if you are watching television, you are wasting time. Distinctions matter less. Oh sure, there can be the occasional PBS documentary, but when you’re knocking around a broadcast lineup that includes Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, My Secret Addiction, and dozens of others, watching Dr. Who, or Buffy, or Star Trek Next Generation doesn’t seem all that bad.
My point in all this is that television is more than not-always-that-bad. It is often good. It is is occasionally, in recent years in particular, as brilliant as any writing done in any genre and any form in all of time.
Photo: Library of Congress
Every character was fascinating. Every bit of dialogue needed to be heard. Not one moment of screen time was wasted. The Hour spun stunning interwoven tales of ambition, corruption, intrigue, romance, and grief–one big arc for each season. It was most beautiful to look at: rich, deep, and dark in color, but never muddy or dim. The visual composition was impeccable. Television doesn’t get any better.
Since its recent cancellation, I have been muttering about the criminality of taking something this good off the air before its planned run is over. The creators had planned three of these six-show seasons; now, it’s ending at two. The BBC stated, ” We love the show, but have to make hard choices to bring new shows through.”
What they bring through in its place might well be more popular, but it is unlikely to be anywhere near as good.
And it ended on something of a season cliffhanger, as we don’t know for sure if Freddie survives his injuries, although it is a pretty sure bet that he does. I can’t imagine the writers killing him off; he’s too central a character.
Sad, sad, sad.
On the other hand, I would rather have a show taken off too soon than to stay on too long. Those that stay on too long are like a favorite restaurant that changes ownership, like a Mexican place my husband and I went to years ago. We went one evening, and the name had changed. Same menu, and no change in decor. We even recognized most of the employees. The manager assured us everything was exactly the same. But when our meals arrived, I wanted to stand and shout, “NO! This is not the same food! You have used canned refried beans! Did you not think we could tell the difference!??”
House was canned refried beans at the end. So was the American version of The Office (although I did not watch it all the way till the end). I could name many others, and so could you. And that canned taste lingers. Sadly, a tinny taste will taint my memory of the entire series. The early best efforts are poisoned by mediocrity at the end.
Ending a series is an art. Some of my favorite final episodes were of Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under, although the latter certainly had its wobbly moments toward the end of its run. I’m looking forward to a good ending for Breaking Bad, for Mad Men, and for The Good Wife, when they’re done. Every great series deserves a great ending. I wish The Hour could have had theirs.