TV

Pilot Season Sunday

TV is a bugger. People are always talking up the hot new thing, and when they turn to me, I am left slack of jaw and glassy of eye, nothing to contribute. ‘Um, have you ever heard of this programme called Buffy?’  That’s why myself and Imogen ‘Couch Innovator’ Dale decided to invent Pilot Season Sunday: watch the first episode of a load of TV shows our friends, colleagues and assorted internet tastemakers have been pushing for the last eternity, assign each a star rating, and then decide which are worth watching more of.  These are the shows we watched: Parks & Recreation Parks & Rec has been on the to-watch list for a while now. You like Community, people will say – try this, it’s even better. This normally comes with the caveat that you have to give it time, that it doesn’t hit its stride in the first few episodes, maybe even the first season. Both sides of this now make sense to me.  I liked its moxie – it seems like a cheery and optimistic version of The Office, in both of its transatlantic incarnations – but there wasn’t much meat on its bones. No hooks to bring me back, no big laughs. Maybe I’ll try the second season next time. Pushing Daisies It’s going to be a hard climb for any TV show which starts with a dog dying. But it turns out Pushing Daisies – which I knew basically nothing about, except that I want to watch all the programmes with allusions to death in their titles – is a Venn diagram of my favourite stuff from elsewhere in TV-land: Gilmore Girls‘ too-fast, too-snappy dialogue, served with a Whedon-style genre twist and the visual style of a brilliantly quirky cartoon, the bright primary-colour palette neatly offsetting the morbid concept. Combined, á la Veronica Mars, with a neat central mystery, it couldn’t be more My Bag if it tried. Plus, there were two (non-dead) dogs in this episode, one of which was a chow and one of which may be immortal. All is forgiven. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic The internet – by which I mostly mean Tim ‘Brony’ Maytom – has been going on about this for ages. I had to know why. The numerous pony puns (‘Canterlot’) are perfectly pitched, the soft-outlined art style is pretty, and it’s a rather charming package, but I’m still not sure I understand the fanaticism. Sorry, Tim. Wonderfalls A TV curse which I recommend never catching: watching the credits. It can ruin surprise guest appearances, and figuring out which are your favourite and least favourite writers and directors on staff can colour the way you watch an episode. In this case, it was spotting the name Bryan Fuller and thinking, isn’t that the guy off’f the Pushing Daisies credits? And then it was obvious. The dialogue’s a bit less quickfire, though no less sharp, and it’s less obviously quirky and twee – no mean feat for an episode boasting a menagerie of talking animal souvenirs – but in the long term, that could mean it doesn’t grate. That is, if it had a long term – apparently it was cancelled at episode 13. Oops. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Which was a sitcom which gave me upwards of three belly laughs and a handful more chuckles. With eight seasons to consume, I can see this going into hard rotation as background watching in the flat. I think it’ll do just fine. Arrow Green Arrow has a great origin story, actually. Spoilt rich kid gets stranded on island for five years, becomes a mysterious hardened bad-ass, and returns to society to right his father’s wrongs. Its combination of Lost and Batman fits TV perfectly, and looks like it’ll lend Arrow a neat structural hook going forward. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument for something which takes an arrowhead as its symbol, but I’ll never get tired of watching a man weaponising his own life. Making connections to Batman, especially Nolan’s recent films, would be fish in a barrel, but it works. It’s a bit dumb (I’ll cheer if his British-accented vaguely-ethnic stepfather miraculously doesn’t turn out to be a villain) and the pilot was a bit reliant on nods and winks to the source material (Speedy, Diggle, Dinah, lol) but… hey, that’s superheroes, right? And that was Pilot Season Sunday. As a way of making snuggling into the sofa and watching a frankly unhealthy amount of TV seem like an Event, it’s highly recommended. Feel free to steal the format. Shows we didn’t get round to, which will no doubt make up the roster of future Pilot Season Sundays, include Girls, Misfits, Breaking Bad, Veep, and Six Feet Under. Any further suggestions are warmly welcomed.NB: These star ratings are the ones I originally gave each episode. Could’ve changed them if I was so inclined – as has been pointed out by Tom ‘Daylight‘ Huxley, Wonderfalls definitely deserved more stars than Arrow. But I opted for authenticity instead. 4 REAL, etc, etc.

Gilme Gilme More (groan)

Ask anyone about what an episode of Gilmore Girls consists of and they’ll tell you about the noise. The constant, sped-up dialogue, written and delivered unrealistically. That’s the caricature of the programme’s character, and it’s the draw, largely, for watching it. But Gilmore Girls knows when to be silent. It tends to be best when operating in the absence of that unmistakable dialogue, the cold vacuum of the void all the more remarkable for that noise. Silence is what separates Gilmore Girls from what it might immediately appear to be: teen romantic drama, family soap opera* … generic. Other examples of the former (I’m thinking your OC‘s, your 90210‘s) often use a similar pop-cultural, constantly-quipping voice but, apart from not actually doing the noise element nearly as well as Gilmore Girls, they don’t often know how to stop. Everything is on full, all of the time: pregnancies and break-ups and abortions get thrown at you one after the other. The premise of Gilmore Girls is founded on this kind of drama (girl has baby at 16, gets kicked out by parents), but the programme itself sits for the most part in a quiet idyll. (In fact, the biggest changes in this mould tend to be the most understated: Lorelai ditching her own wedding early on just doesn’t feel as big and important as small-town politics.) Terrifying. How it isn’t a family soap-opera is trickier to navigate, if only because I have less direct examples or experience with the genre I’m thinking of. It certainly is – like almost all the TV shows I love – about family. Examining three generations of the Gilmore family, it is one of the more straight-forward examples of this phenomenon. More Simpsons than, say, Firefly (Whedon’s stuff being, after all, always about carving your own family out of what is available). But, it’s got a touch of that, too. A well-serviced supporting cast, often the most accessible emotional route, providing the surrogate family. As I got a little choked up watching the finale of Season 3, it was this synthesised family that broke me: the tears of the local café owner. This was the reaction to an event – graduation – that will, when it happens in my own life later on today, likely provoke little emotion from me. But, I’m getting noisy. The point was silence. I’ve just reached the end of Season Three. It is uncharacteristically noisy in terms of plot points. One character got kicked out of school and ran away (again), one character’s getting married, an inn burnt down, a minor character died, there’s a big family feud… This is not the stuff of quiet old Gilmore Girls. Thing is, even when the lips don’t stop moving for a second of that forty-something minutes, the plot almost always stays restrained. Those genres I talked about earlier? You get the impression it knows them, and doesn’t want to be them, and so won’t surrender to cliché. But, I’m okay for the breaking of their key rule. For a few reasons: it’s those dying moments before Uni, before everything has to shift. So it makes sense that everything would feel accelerated. For me, that resonates because of its timing: everyone makes discoveries at Uni – alcohol, drugs, drum & bass, promiscuous sex. I discovered Gilmore Girls. That I’m still only on Season Three says a lot about my viewing habits, probably. But it’s also fitting. I’m just finishing Uni; Rory’s just finishing school. On screen, a graduation; a couple of week later, I graduate; for weeks after, I graduate again and again, my image passed around the extended family, on screen. Everything changes. It felt like a finale that the show could, almost, bow out on. Everything comes full circle, in the time-honoured tradition, while everything’s exactly as messy and unresolved as ever. Everything’s changing and for once on Gilmore Girls, everything’s changing. You just feel those changes more because of the contrast. It’s that use of noise and silence I talked about. *Watch the credits sequence, look at the cover of the first season DVD, both of which seem to be dedicated to convincing you this is a warm and cheesy afternoon family movie.

LOST: The Killing Joke

Did you ever hear the one about the 100 hour funeral? Lost has always worked like a well-formed joke. At its centre, amongst all the stuff it catches flak for – the dips into melodrama, the mess of sci-fi ideas and apparently unconnected weirdness – has been an understanding of how a joke, that most basic shape of narrative, works. You set up some expectations, hold them for as long as you can, then knock them down. If you don’t want to know the punchline, stop reading now. Go and watch all of Lost and then come back. I won’t be diving too deeply into spoiler territory, but avoiding discussion of important moments would rob this post-mortem of any actual insight. Faith. Misdirection. These were the meat, the themes of Lost, and of the experience of watching it. The audience were the survivors on the Island, splitting into those with faith (those who stuck around till the end) and those without. The writers were the mischievous spirits behind the curtain slowly feeding us the mystery. The thing about Lost is, as it pulled back that curtain – as it did repeatedly, in circles of slowly increasing size – we saw that whoever it was that appeared to have all the answers, was only slightly less clueless than we currently were. In the end, even God doesn’t really know what’s going on, is just trying to do his job. And that’s the issue with the finale, where the writers stand naked before us and say, weakly, ta-da! There were no answers, really. Well, there were answers, here and there, and one Big Answer to one of those Big Life Questions, but that’s not what we queued and paid our admission for. That’s the thing about a joke. It all depends on pay-off: traditionally speaking, the journey doesn’t matter as much as that punchline. And you laugh. Or you don’t. As a storyteller, Lost was one of those rambly comedians, strolling around the stage and trying to tell you about everything. And it’s too much and it’s ill-paced and you laugh here and there but it seems a bit messy. Except, afterwards, sitting in a bar with your friends you realise that that mess was crafted and honed, was on purpose. …I’ve written and deleted several deviations from the theme now, on how Lost was like one of those escape-the-room puzzle games (each little clue opens up a new wealth of possibilities), or how it’s ironic that a show that opens with a plane-crash ended up being more about the journey than the destination, or how Lost was like an astronaut (it comes back but it’s never the same). It’s probably telling that I’m struggling to stick to one metaphor explaining how I felt about Lost. It’s a leviathan, a huge creaking rattling monster. Which, I guess, is natural for anything stretching over so many hours, so many years of my life, the work of so many different people.I’ll allow myself one deviation: Lost worked a little like pop music. It’s silly, and it’s the kind of thing people look funny at me for loving. But, at its best, it delivered a shock of basal-emotion that bypassed all the correct channels. Or it worked by bending a familiar form: whether soap-opera or sci-fi. The Lady Gaga of TV, if you will, meshing weird ideas and strong iconography into something that bent back on its ancestry. The earnest stuff didn’t always work so well: in the same way I don’t tend to respond to pop ballads as well as clever-clever-post-modernism-you-can-dance-to*. At times Lost stepped out of itself a bit and said, look, you don’t know if we know what we’re doing. And we don’t, in the way you think. And that was what a lot of the series itself was about. But then, in other ways, they knew perfectly what they were doing: how to wait the perfect amount of time before pulling the trigger and unleashing that trap door underneath your brain, most notably. How to tell a story visually, too. How to be funny. When they broke those rules, it was painful because you’d developed so much faith in this deified storyteller… This hasn’t ended up anywhere near where it began, and I think that’s fitting. Whooosh. *For this reason I will never be one of those journalists who makes their name coining emergent genres.