Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Payoff

The new season of Television has finished up their November sweeps, and is settlling in for their holiday hiatus, after having aired about a third of their episodes for the season.

So why is it that I feel so unsatisfied with so much of what I’ve seen thus far? After an exciting September full of the promise of new seasons and new shows, my interest has dwindled and waned on various fronts. For one thing (though its probably a foregone conclusion to everyone else) Surface is officially off my list. After investing seven hours of my life attempting to force myself into liking the show, I finally threw my hands in the air under the duress of extreme boredom, there was simply nothing redeeming about to peek my interest week after week. Invasion which actually had a decent episode a couple of weeks ago plummeted back to its par for the course unbearablue uneventfulness this past Wedensday. The problem with Invasion, is one which I find plauges many shows these days.

In Invasion, that characters we follow are trying to make sense of the mysterious happenings in their town after a major hurricane has hit. Certain townspeople have had “experiences,” in which they became unconscious during the storm and were found the morning after disoriented and without a recollection of what happened to them. The obvious allusion is that these people are somehow different, that they have been influenced and/or abducted by some alien life form. The episode “The Cradle” which aired two weeks ago exactly, was compelling because at long last, some real details about what might have happened to these folk was finally revealed. One of the main characters who had an experience, Mariel, goes into the pond where she was found after the hurricane and sees her own body decomposing under the water. In the meantime her husband, the bizarre shifty Sheriff Underlay, has an intriguing conversation with a disturbed young woman who also had an “experience.” The young woman, who had just killed her mother in law and denied her baby, implied that even Underlay (a suspected pod person himself) couldn’t fathom what was happening to the town, or to his wife, and that “everyone was different”. At last I felt we were getting somewhere. People had been abducted, and their bodies replaced with new ones, and there were things that the ringleader sheriff could not control himself. It seemed that at long last the show was giving us a payoff. Sadly last week’s installment was another lackluster edition, failing to truly capitalize and give any movement to the ideas spawned by the previous episode.

But Invasion isn’t the only show out there which has yet to give any real payoffs this season, even the beloved Lost, has been a little lacking. There have been some big reveals, but each answer consistently brings on more and more new questions and mysteries. I have yet to feel like a single storyline (including those from last season) has come to a satisfying and complete climax. I’m all for mystery and fun and games, but after a while it feels tiresome. As much as I like the fact that they’ve introduced a new set of characters on the island, --the tail section survivors, I can’t help but feel like its a diversion from the main plot of the island that’s already been established. I’m glad that last week’s episode finally reunited all the remaining survivors; I want to see what the heck they’re going to do now. In the first season, we got to know the main characters, as they got to know each other. They explored the island, got a the lay of the land, and strategized how to get off the island. In some ways this season has cheated because they’ve started all over again with a new set of characters that needed their own exposition. (I actually think it would have been really interesting if they had devoted a lot more time to the tail section survivors, so we could have learned about their struggles over the course of a few episodes, rather than what was smashed together into one). But whether or not one finds the new survivors interesting, we still know so little about some of the major elements on the island. Where the hell has the monster been? The Polar Bears? Why the Quaraintine and what of the references by the French Woman of the “infection” and getting sick. Speaking of the French Lady, where has she been? Where’s Desmond? What will happen if the button isn’t pushed? Who are The Others? Where is Walt? Where do the numbers come from?

Questions abound and while I understand that these “secrets” can’t or shouldn’t all be answered at once, everything still seems incredibly foggy to me. The bizarre video by the Dharma Collective shed some light on what the island might be about, but even the particulars of the film are hard to make sense of in the context of everything else. I think the episodes still exhibit solid writing, directing and acting, but the storyline is dragging, enough of Rose hanging her laundry and Charlie having a sing-a-long, I want some action!

I still watch ER, and for the most part, each episode has its own little encapsulated storylines. West Wing is at least building to a presidential election, creating suspense as to who will be the winning candidate. I still keep Threshold on the TiVo, though it only occasionally skims the territory of good solid TV, wavering on decent most of the time. The problem with that show is that they’ve spilled all their beans at once. We already know there’s an alien invasion, and we know the government has a separate secret agency to fight it. Due to the intensive nature of their work, none of the Threshold team really has anytime for a personal life, so there ins’t really much drama to be had in that arena either.

How difficult can it be to set up a situation or an issue, that will eventually come to bear with drastic consequences or results?

Ironically enough, the one TV show out there right now that I find is able to successfully execute payoffs within its story structure is Deperate Housewives. This is a show that I mocked incessantly last season, because of its ridiculous characters and materialistic attitudes; in many ways it is an extented commercial for the life of a suburban housewife. There are still things about it that drive me crazy, --I think its characters can be more cartoonish then well rounded, and I can not abide Terri Hatcher; but objectively speaking, the show is actually cleverly crafted. It is able to consistently give the audience plot payoffs, without taking an obscenely long amount of time to do it and without revealing all of its secrets and mysteries. Like any soap opera, it sets plot points into motion that may carry on for episode after episode, but unlike certan daytime soaps which drag things out to an abysmal extent (parallel universe/island on Days of Our Lives anyone?) the writers/producers on Housewives have a good sense of timing. They know how long they can keep a mystery or cliffhanger going before interest wanes, and it looses its relavence. Time and time again they’ve provided closure and “answers” to different plot lines.

Which brings me to my nex thought. Am I just another stupid American glutton who needs to be spoon fed at every turn? Can I not enjoy a mystery for mystery’s sake and come up with my own answers and interpretations? It’s possible there is some truth to that, though I enjoy debating and discussing the meaning of film’s ambiguous ending or open ended conclusion. But this is television, and with television, if you watch a show regularly, you are really devoting a lot of time to it. You are investing yourself in the characters and the storylines, and I think its only fair that every now and again the creators reward their loyal fans with a payoff now and again. Because the casual viewer who’s flipping through the channel won’t necessarily care if they see Scully and Mulder kiss, or if an alien on Star Trek from two seasons ago reappears, but the fans will. Payoffs are what create enthusiasm for a show, what garners fervor. Fans like to know they are being appreciated. I find TV is a funny give and take that way, much more so than film. I think it’s more personal.

I wrote the bulk of this blog yesterday before seeing last night’s episode of LOST. I thought last night’s episode was quite strong, --creepy, great writing, and good acting (I love the new character, Echo). Finally I felt like we were starting to get somewhere with LOST, Jack and Kate making out in the jungle was a long time coming, and at long last we learned of Kate’s “secret”. There was more revealed about the film, though it did just create a whole other set of questions. Another incident? What were they talking about? And where the heck was Walt typing from? (If it was actually Walt.) Still, great episode.


Blogger phinney said...

DH rules!

1:06 PM  
Blogger Scooter said...

I still wasn't sold on last night's Lost as being all that good. Everything was really predictable asides from Eko having the missing piece of the film. But nothing on it was all that interesting and obviously was leading to Micheal using the computer to communicate to the outside world. The only episode I thought was good this season was the Hurley-centric one, the others were mediocre at best.

As for your question, "How difficult can it be to set up a situation or an issue, that will eventually come to bear with drastic consequences or results?" look no further than Veronica Mars. Each episode is so jam packed that each one feels like for and rarely is there a lull in the action. In a season and a half, it's quickly becoming one of the best shows ever.

7:53 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I see your point about last night's lost. I really like Eko's speech and his reveal of the missing film, but you're right, it was awfully convenient that it was all going down at just the exact moment Michael was poking around the computer. I do however disagree with you on the Hurley centric episode, as much as I love that character, I thought they were reaching with the connection there between his flashback and the action on the island. I've heard Veronica Mars is terrific. But it also conflicts with Lost. ARGH!

10:40 PM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

It's not a fair fight any more. The best TV is on HBO.

I have to confess that I haven't been watching any of the shows mentioned in this post, so why bother chiming in. But here I go. Threshold is largely made by the folks who abandoned "Enterprise", so I still hold a grudge against them. I don't watch Lost or DH ... because, I don't know. Maybe a staunch resistance to going with the flow.

The only two shows I make sure I watch are Rome and The Sopranos. I also enjoy "Entourage". The Sopranos are running up to a new season, so our Canadian provider, The Movie Network, is running back-to-back shows on Wednesday night. They started at the beginning and they're working right the way through to the End As We Know It. It's been fun to get re-familiarized and pick up on the stuff you might not have noted on the first go-round. It whets the appetite for the new stuff coming soon.

"Rome" been the show of the year for me. I was ambivalent about the idea of watching it and caught the first episode mostly by accident. Hooked immediately. Starting in 52 BC, you know how the storyline is going to payoff; there's no version of Titanic where the ship doesn't sink, and there was no way that Gaius Julius Caesar was going to avoid his date with the sharp end of a knife.

There's internet chatter that this season might be the ONLY season of Rome, which raises an interesting point and gets to the crux of your most recent entry.

The American TV model attempts to create the cash cow and milk it for as long as possible. Inevitably the show jumps the shark. Somewhere further down the line the plug gets pulled (belatedly), a season finale limps over the finish line and the audience sheds a quiet tear while heaving a collective sigh of relief.

I think the British do it differently, seeming to prefer a limited run. As a result, they are more prone to go out at the top of their game ("always leave 'em wanting more"). From what you wrote in your post it seems shows like Lost or Invasion would get a richer payoff if you took away all the "filler" shows by making them only a season or two long.

Season One of Rome is done. Caesar is dead. Every character has had their storyline wonderfully and dramatically resolved. If that's the end, I am truly conflicted. On one hand, the ending, as it is, is perfect.

On the other, it was such great TV that I long for more.

7:29 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah, I think you make a good point about network TV. Any show that makes it past the first season with any measure of success will strive to become a stronghold of the network that runs it. (Usually the network demands as much) There isn't really the concept flying around that having three to four solid seasons on the air could actually be considered a huge success, especially quaility wise. I have friends who often long for something like the Office, (hence your reference to the Brits TV attitudes) which was short but sweet and went out on a high note. Shows here can get tarnished by their excessive run, becoming behemoths that will eventually have more mediocre episodes in the can then really great ones. The Sopranos is a really terrific show, with tight, strong seasons, though I would argue that even that show has suffered a bit from being watered down. While it is still very well done, I think it might have benefited from its creators original intentions of having it be four complete seasons as opposed to six. I haven't seen Rome though I've heard things about it. You do bring up an interesting concept ---if a show only ran for one season but was really terrific would it be a success? Would it be an unwanted anomaly in the format of TV? I'm curious.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

Somewhere in one of my own blogs I compared TV to post-expansion NHL. The idea being once have all those teams and channels, your Joe Schmoe players start to way out-number your superstars. More people earn a living at it, but quality suffers.

I was specifically thinking about The Office when I wrote my previous comment.

And I really liked your question about what defines success.

4:20 AM  

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