Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nice things to say about..

Since my previous blogs focused on some terrible examples of television writing or, in the case of True Blood, some average plot development, I thought it would be worth highlighting some better examples. These shows work on both an episodic and seasonal level, with well written character pieces and season long plot arcs.

My favourite series of recent years, Dexter has both the ability to create 50 minute masterpieces that further single plot strands and are continually moving the season arc forward. Michael C Hall's protagonist takes the lion share of screen time and doesn't waste any of it. All four series rely on a chief antagonist- whether it is a fellow monster maniac (Ice Truck Killer, Trinity Killer) or someone closer to home (Lila, Doakes, Minguel). The battle of wits between them is usually well planned out with a climax in one of the last few episodes. Altering this formula slightly has lead to some great moments for viewers, especially the last gasp killing of Lila in Paris.

However Dexter's true strength lies in its treatment of subplots. Whilst many started as cop caricatures, including the tough 'out to prove herself' Debra, the 'weird one' Vince, the sleazy Latino Angel or the ex-SEAL with a dark past James Doakes, the small amount of screen time allows these characters to flourish into full functioning members of Dexter's Miami. Debra in particular has become a key figure and the potential revelation of Dexter's secret will be a key thread moving forward.

Another thing Dexter does better than most is that each series is self contained. Whilst some of the character development can be lost by entering beyond season one, each monster is defeated by Dexter within the twelve episodes. Such dedication to providing a resolution is paramount to rewarding an audience's faith in the show, since the writer's care enough to ensure strings are tied up by the end of the current series. That's right- no cliff hangers. Without resorting to terrible gimmicks, Dexter still manages to genuinely engage the audience. The finale of Series 4 remains one of the greatest things I have had the pleasure of watching.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer
Forget the compromised movie, and forget Dollhouse. Joss Weadon fired on all cylinders for seven seasons. Each had common story characteristics, a 'Big Bad' and common themes centered on growing up. The main character was clearly the center of character development and to track her progress from high school to adult hood is the chief joy of the story's life span. The series worked best when the villains were truly evil and unstoppable (series two: Angel, series three: Mayor Wilkins, series five: Glory, series seven: The First Evil). At it's best there were rarely bad episodes in a single series- for me, series three is the highlight, with Buffy's final year of high school setting the scene for a rich metaphorical base and excellent additions to the cast including Faith and Oz.

Like Dexter, the series uses its secondary characters well. There is no Buffy without Willow, Xander and others who came and went. Unlike Dexter, Buffy's writers grew in confidence and dedicated entire episodes to these characters with minimal interference from the protagonist. These allowed the plot to stretch beyond themes of power and responsibility and to include other roles in the friendship circle. The writer's remained incredibly loyal to their character's history and the constant references to previous episodes are a hall mark of the series. This can make the show difficult to get into but Buffy rewards repeat and concentrated viewing.

Having to sustain a central arc for 22 episodes proved difficult at times, especially in the uneven middle seasons, but the use of 'one-off' single story episodes were great. From the brilliance of the Gentlemen in season fours "Speechless" to the interesting musical episode "One More with feeling" there were numerous attempts to bend the action/drama genre by trying things that were different. There is a sense of gimmick to these episodes but they generally come off quite well and aren't prolific enough to seem like they are trying to cover for a lack of ability or planning (unlike Lost).

The best television writing supports a model. The show will be founded on a single protagonist and will tie up plot ends by the end of the series. The use of an antagonist is therefore essential to opposing and challenging the protagonist's world and causing them to react to the new threat. At it's best, both Dexter and Buffy, manage this consistently.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Finally I have figured out my frustration with True Blood. This was a rare series that I came into with very little knowledge of plot, or notion of concept, and therefore I got to watch it raw. The initial concept intrigued me enough. For the unfamiliar, vampires are real and are now 'out' and, in some cases, living in as part of mainstream society. The opening scene depicts how ingrained vampires now are. Vampires are shown to be holding normal jobs, but there are hints to the subculture aspect that 'out' vampires cause and the bigotry that goes with it. A fine opening which both drives home the homosexual allegory and defines the realistic portray of vampires the show promotes. Sadly the writers didn't maintain this disciplined approach and, personally, my interest waned as a result.

The attempt to build the 'world' is certainly noble, and such ambition should be encouraged, but the drift towards shapeshifters and fairies just didn't do it for me. Certainly any show that contains vampires is fantasy from the outset but with the blood heavy depiction of murder and violence I had the vibe of trailer trash homicide show, and a dose of realism. The rapid departure from this disappointed me as I felt they hadn't entirely spent the potential of disciplined approach to vampires. Bill's character aided this with his expository speeches about the vampire myth. The later vampire court scene and his attempts to guide a new vampire he had sired made for interesting television, though were eroded by the Grey's Anatomy style 'will they won't they' of the romantic subplot. (I'll acknowledge that this may be the whole point of the show, but the relationship jumped around so much that I ended up not caring.)

Add to this the annoying character of Tara, who seems to be in her own show, and I just struggled with the whole thing. There seemed to be this desire to have a million things going on at once with zero attempt to converge them into a climax or resolution. Perhaps not zero, as the revelation of the killer was well done, though without a decent motivation for orchestrating such a massacre. The drug scenes were fun too, as was the interaction with the hillbillies and local vampires. Ryan Kwanton's character is so dumb and wide eyed that he is the easiest character to relate to, since he is confused in his emotional response to his sister dating a vampire, but soon develops his own taste for blood. Stephen Root's brief cameo is great as well, you rarely see such restraint from him, and aids the realistic depiction of loneliness that the series does well. So there are highlights across the series to be sure, but generally I was more frustrated that my initial expectations were not maintained as the series went on.

I'll check out the second season with my expectations readjusted. Don't get me started on the use of the cliff hanger series ending though- that will be another blog for sure.