I now watch more TV shows than I have at any other point in my life. I have some idea why this happened—Hulu and Netflix Watch Instantly put a lot of TV shows on my schedule, instead of vice versa. As someone who detested television programming before HBO tore the lid off the potential of serial storytelling, this is a pretty drastic switch in habits.
But as I watch more television I become frustrated with the limits it places on itself. There’s one thing I value most in storytelling, and it’s the one thing most serial shows ignore, pretend at, or cheat: stakes. I want to believe that the actions of the characters have some consequence, and that some things will change permanently. Because if you don’t have real stakes, what’s the meaning of anything that happens?
Two shows that I used to enjoy a great deal have gotten progressively worse, while a (very dark) horse has risen high in my esteem. The two that are failing have lost all sense of stakes, or never had them to begin with. The third—the success—is all about them.
DEAD TO ME: Glee. While I understand I’m not the target audience for Glee—I get odd looks from my heterosexual male friends when I mention I am/was a fan—it was nonetheless a breath of fresh air.
If you’re not familiar, Glee is a high school drama about a glee club full of underdogs and the many forces aligned against them, told through absurd comedy and glee club-like renditions of popular songs. There’s pretty much nothing in the component pieces that would be attractive to me, but the combination was so audaciously over-the-top and cheerful that I was sucked in by the charm. Plus, Jane Lynch is the villain. Why did it take so long for someone to cast Jane Lynch as the villain?
Much of the first half of the first season was taken up with melodramatic betrayals and deceptions: The star quarterback’s cheerleader girlfriend is pregnant, but with the QB’s best friend’s kid; the glee teacher’s wife is faking a pregnancy to keep their marriage together, and wants to adopt the cheerleader’s kid to sub in as her own; the glee teacher is attracted to the guidance counselor but wants to stay loyal to his conniving wife; the cheerleading coach (Lynch) is deliberately sabotaging the glee club; and so on.
None of this is original, but Glee’s ability to wind up the tension every single episode by upping the ante to absurd heights was just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Plot holes gaped and storylines were abandoned wholesale, but I didn’t care; bizarrely, the slipshod plotting only added to the charm. By the end of that season arc, many of the secrets had been exposed and a lot of wrongs had been righted or, at least, aired. Good work all around.
But then the second part of season one began and, rather arbitrarily, almost every single thing the characters had fought for was gracelessly undone. The star QB finally ended up with the “right” girl, which they both wanted all the previous season. But then they split up for no particular reason… and only long enough to introduce a new love interest for the girl. The glee teacher and the guidance counselor get together, but separate again for… no particular reason. It’s as if everything the characters fought for didn’t matter, and we’re right back to all the same love triangles and deceptions because the writers couldn’t figure out what else to do.
That is lame as hell, people. The Onion A.V. Club took the curious tack of saying the episode was a dark and emotionally wrenching thing that a lot of peppy people don’t yet grasp, which is a curious thing to say about a show that once devoted an entire episode to “Single Ladies,” that great and timeless ballad of heartache and loss.
I get that storytelling for primetime slots is difficult. The pilot has to set up a whole season but tell a complete story, and the first season has to tell a complete story because a second season may never get made. But if you’re going to completely blow your wad in one season like that, maybe your story was better off as a mini-series.
ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK: The Office. I’ve been with this show since the beginning, and have seen the first five seasons so many times I have whole great chunks of dialogue memorized. Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms, is one of my top five favorite television characters of all time. There’s so much revolutionary comedy work being done here that the show’s humble presentation often obscures just how great it is.
Somewhere along the way the show stopped being The Office and became Jim and Pam’s Perfect Precious Little Romance. To a degree, that’s fine; the show does best when it has one or two season-long arcs to string together the episodes and make the whole thing feel less aimless.
But It bugged me when they brought in the Karen character (played by Rashida Jones) to keep Jim and Pam apart that much longer, because who doesn’t love romantic tension drawn out for-fucking-ever?
It bugged me more that they then simply dismissed Karen for the finale, after making some late (and rather lame) stabs at turning this blameless character into a bitch. It bugged me that after moving Pam to NYC, they brought up and then disappeared a character who might have designs on her because no one can mess with Jim and Pam’s Perfect Precious Little Romance.
And then, this season, several episodes go by where every plot line is about Jim and Pam or one of the other budding couples. Will Andy and Erin get together? Will Michael succeed on his blind date? How are Kelly and Ryan doing?
A better question: Who the hell cares? It’s sad when a storyline that’s actually kind of interesting—Dunder Mifflin’s buy-out by Sabre, a company owned by a loud and boisterous captain of industry played by Kathy Bates—is dismissed after a few episodes so we can get back to seeing how long Erin and Andy can send mixed signals.
But, looking back, this is nothing new. The Office, for all its comedic innovation, has been very shy about really owning up to the consequences of anything. Remember way back when Michael had to lay someone off on Halloween, and spent the whole episode deciding which named, likeable character would get the ax? And it ended up being some random guy who’d never had a line of dialogue (nor who, I think, had ever appeared in the show before)?
Or when the Charles character was introduced, and for several episodes he was absolutely right about Michael’s terrible behavior? And then in the last episode or two they painted Charles as a kiss-ass and easily dismissable? (The show has often had that weird, topsy-turvy viewpoint: that Michael is terrible and abusive, but when someone actually calls him on it we’re meant to feel bad for Michael and to hate the person who called him out.)
Or the incredibly lame resolution to the “Michael Scott gets fired” storyline? Or the episode where Pam thinks something Jim said to her dad finally split her parents up, but it turns out Jim was just super romantic and oh my gosh aren’t they so perfect?
I don’t turn on NBC for fan fiction, and it’s getting harder to ignore The Office’s many sins. The writing staff is far too fond of the reset button, and the more outlandish their storylines get, the more lame the methods they use to back off from the consequences of them. The next few episodes may be my last ones.
ON THE RISE: Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Yes, really.
When asked how I can enjoy a show that, for its first few episodes anyway, seemed content to be a brain-dead mash-up of 300 and Gladiator, I say one thing: Spartacus is like the WWE if it was rated NC-17 and didn’t have to pander to stupid rednecks.
It’s all there: the competition, the shifting power dynamics, the tension between owners and fighters, the sex and the bloodlust. The fun thing about Spartacus is the finality of so much of it; by the very nature of so many of the main characters being gladiators or schemers, they body count remains constant and dramatic. Sympathetic (and not so sympathetic) characters die or are killed on a regular basis, and not always at the end of a drawn-out episode to the sound of gravitas-wringing music. They just die, sometimes by surprise, because that’s the life. No one is ever made to feel comfortable, and that is exactly as it should be.
But more than that, the team of writers pull off something pretty difficult: they interest us in a wide range of characters and make almost all of them, at one point or another, sympathetic. Their allegiances are constantly in flux. Spartacus’s shift from defiant slave to loyal gladiator to rebel is organic, and so consequently is his relationship with his fellow gladiators and his lanista Batiatus. It’s a show about trust—or allegiance, to take a more militant/WWE tone—and the ways it contrasts trust in the gladiator pits with trust in posh Roman villas looks effortless. It’s all about who rules who and why, and what ruling and being ruled means depending on where you are.
And by god, what the characters do matters. By the end of the first season it’s clear that the second season has to be completely different; it’s not much of a spoiler to say Spartacus rises up and, with the help of his fellow gladiators, kills off almost every villainous character in the cast. There’s no going back from that, and I admire the hell out of ballsy storytelling like that.
Aside from all that, it’s just plain bloody fun. There’s way too much sex and blood and macho posturing for the show to be high art, but who cares? Spartacus: Blood and Sand is the most flat-out entertaining show I’ve seen in some time.