Friday, October 20, 2006

Look, Up on the Airwaves

I'm not a big fan of comics, and especially not the kind featuring superheroes, but even I took less time than your average studio executive to work out that if you're going to port superhero comics over to an audio-visual medium, cinema is your absolute worst choice. For more than half a decade (well, for several decades, but there's been a glut recently), some of the finest filmmakers in the business have been trying to crack the comic book film formula. Some of their results have been financially successful, others have been well-received by critics. With the possible exception of Pixar's The Incredibles (I say possible because I'm not convinced that it's entirely accurate to describe the movie as a comic book film, not because I don't think it's excellent), none of them have even approached the distinction of good cinema, or the even more elusive honor of faithful adaptations. Most importantly, none of them have managed to replicate the intricately detailed, densely populated universes that are the hallmark of a long-running comic series.

What the comic book industry has chosen to ignore, driven by either snobbery or avarice, is that the medium best suited to their product is clearly series television. In fact, the two media share a large number of similarities which make them ideal for cross-pollination: continuous, open-ended storytelling; a mixture of standalone and multi-part stories; large casts of characters; slowly accumulating backstories and ever-complicating settings. Perhaps most importantly, whereas film is ultimately ingested in solitude, television, like comics, is a communal medium, constantly engaged in a dialogue with its audience[1]. More interesting, however, than the question of how comics can use television are the ways in which television can learn from comics--by far the more innovative and experimental field--about its own capabilities as a storytelling medium.

Which is why NBC's Heroes, the first unmitigated success of the new fall season, is at the same time a delight and a disappointment. The show's premise is simple. For some undisclosed reason, ordinary people all over the world (for which read: in the US, with one exception) are discovering that they possess superpowers. It doesn't take a great effort to imagine the standard network treatment of this premise--bring the newly-minted heroes to a recognition of their powers and to the formation of some sort of group by the end of the pilot, and then start churning out the standalone stories. Throw in some character arcs and recurring villains if you're feeling flashy, and end the season on a cliffhanger. The same approach, in other words, that we've already seen applied to every single televised version of a comic book story.

Four episodes into its first season, Heroes doesn't seem even remotely interested in going down that path. The rapidly unfolding plot is so intricate as to defy description, but it already involves a shady organization targeting heroes, a psychotic supervillain, and a Las Vegas mobster. The main cast runs into the double digits, each with their own supporting cast, emotional issues galore, and a wealth of backstory. Visually, the show borrows shamelessly from the comic book artist's toolbox, right down to episode titles artfully superimposed on walls or the hoods of cars, but it also makes excellent use of television's unique capabilities as a cinematic medium. Not since Ang Lee's Hulk has there been anything this close to an on-screen comic, and Heroes is a hell of a lot more fun.

Unfortunately, 'fun' is about as far as the show goes, quality-wise. On almost every qualitative measurement, it aspires to mediocrity. The plot is made of swiss cheese. The characters are one-note, most of them getting by on the charisma of the actors portraying them (Greg Grunberg, for instance, is playing the same lovable sad-sack created for him by J.J. Abrams in 1998). Said actors range from competent (Grunberg, Hayden Panettierre as an invincible cheerleader, Adrian Pasdar as a flying congressional nominee) to hilariously wooden (Tawny Cypress, who plays the girlfriend of one of the heroes, is stunning but tragically incapable of simulating emotion). The dialogue runs the gamut between serviceable but ugly to overwrought (especially in the all-too-copious voiceovers). For all that it is comics-derived, there's a very real sense when watching Heroes that its creators aren't heavily immersed in comics culture. They use the traditional set pieces of the superhero story, but thus far seem to have very little interest putting their own mark on these trappings or in venturing beyond cliché. Comic books are cool right now, seems to be their thought process, so let's make a show that looks like one.

What's keeping the show afloat in spite of these failings is first and foremost its frenetic pacing--there's too much going on at any given moment for us to notice the wooden acting, the leaden dialogue, the egregious plot holes. Perhaps even more important is the sense of whimsy that permeates every second of the show--this is pop corn storytelling at its very best, and the lousy acting and embarrassing dialogue are almost required for it to properly work its magic. The result is a trashy, thoroughly enjoyable televised comic book, just self-aware enough to poke fun at its foundations through the delightful Japanese salaryman Hiro[2], who is alone among the cast in recognizing--and embracing--the genre of his own life story. Heroes is pushing the boundaries of what television is capable of and what it can demand of its audience--in every respect but quality.

It's somewhat amusing, therefore, that through an accident of scheduling, I usually end up watching the latest episode of Heroes back to back with another new show about uniquely gifted individuals swooping down to save us from an unspeakable menace. I'm speaking, of course, of Aaron Sorkin's by now not-so-triumphant return to television, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show which, among several others, has set itself the goal of discussing the capabilities, and the role, of television as an artistic medium.

The two shows make for an interesting juxtaposition since, even taking into account their very different approaches to plot, they have almost complementary strengths and weaknesses. I came across a brief review of Studio 60's latest episode yesterday morning, whose author commented that "I already feel, watching [Studio 60], like I'm watching the seventh season of a grand dame show which isn't nearly as good as it used to be, yet I have grown so close to the characters over the years that I just keep on hanging in there out of sympathy and love for them." Which strikes me as apt, and at the same time both a severe criticism of and high praise for Aaron Sorkin's abilities as a writer. What's keeping Studio 60 afloat are the technical accomplishments that the creators of Heroes expend so little energy on--dialogue, acting, characterization. Matthew Perry is a revelation as writer Matt Albie, and Sarah Paulson, for all that she's nearly bent over double by the weight of her 'sympathetic Christian character' plaque, is a delight. Nate Corddry is stealing every one of his scenes, and Amanda Peet is gamely doing her best with a plot device masquerading as a character. Only Bradley Whitford's character remains unlikable and, what's worse, underdeveloped. In the space of ten minutes in last week's episode, Whitford's Danny physically assaulted one of his employees and then publicly reprimanded an actress for being kissed by a man, and while there's obviously a story to be told about the kind of misanthrope who is only fully human around his creative partner, that's not the story the show seems to be telling. What's really weighing Studio 60 down, however, is its inability to settle on a direction, and to proceed towards its target with anything resembling grace and wit.

A canny publicity campaign created a great deal of internet buzz for the show over the summer, and the most frequently heard concern among Sorkin fans during that period was the fear that the creator of The West Wing would suggest, with his newest creation, that writing and producing a late-night sketch comedy show was as objectively important, as meaningful an accomplishment, as running a nation and leading the free world. Which, ironically enough, is actually the one hurdle the show seems to have cleared, and in fact its treatment of its setting has finally crystalized my understanding of the kind of stories Sorkin likes to tell. Alone among the seemingly endless parade of doctor, lawyer, cop, and other workplace shows, Aaron Sorkin's creations revolve around people who love their job, whose lives are their job, who are both fortunate and talented enough to be paid to do or talk about the things they love[3]. I still think Sports Night went too far in its use of hyperbole to describe the importance of making a sports news show, but even overwrought cheesiness is preferable to the tone Studio 60 is striking. Or rather, failing to strike. In spite of the fact that it obviously comes closest to Sorkin's heart, Studio 60 has yet to convey to its audience the joy of creation, the rush of accomplishment, that Sorkin's previous forays so effortlessly incorporated into their makeup. There have been a lot of complaints these past few weeks about the fact that the jokes and sketches in the show-within-the-show aren't funny. They're not, and this is serious problem, but not nearly as serious as the fact that the show-without-the-show isn't fun.

Which, of course, is directly attributable to the other great failing about which so many of its online viewers have been complaining, which is that Sorkin's primary objective in writing Studio 60 is to use it as a platform for his opinions about the future of television and of popular culture in general (with a secondary objective being using the show to settle scores with Hollywood enemies and aggrandize his own accomplishments). To my mind, however, the fact that Sorkin puts speeches in his characters' mouths isn't necessarily a problem--he did the same with The West Wing for four years. The real issue is that, when it comes to his own field, Sorkin has surprisingly little to say. Television should be better, it should challenge its audience and seek to raise the level of public debate rather than catering to the lowest common denominator. This is all very well and good, but what's the next step?

"There's nothing wrong with the medium, just some of the content," network president Jordan plaintively tells a young writer whose brilliant new show[4] she wishes to buy in Studio 60's most recent episode (which seems apropos of nothing, since the writer wants to make a television show--he's just planning to sell his script to HBO). Which is true, but also an oversimplification so profound as to render the discussion meaningless. The episode revolves around the coming together of opposites--secular Matt and Christian Harriet only caught fire as a writer and a performer when they started working together--and Jordan's argument is that it isn't right for those of us who seek high-brow, literate entertainment to hide behind a wall of privilege and disassociate ourselves from those consumers looking for silly entertainment, like the odious reality show she passes on.

Which is true enough, as such things go, but what Sorkin ignores is that there is no medium in which low-brow entertainment doesn't vastly outsell intelligent, quality material. The very best we can hope for from bestsellers in any field is that they be solid, hearty fun--early Beatles songs, Harry Potter, The Matrix. The problem with television is that unlike the other creative media, it doesn't give less popular but higher quality material room to grow. There is no fringe in television, no venue for independent creators, no experimental scene from which new ideas can percolate into the mainstream[5]. Jordan's right that there's nothing inherently wrong with the medium, but there's a hell of a lot wrong with the economic model governing it, and those problems are not addressed by the naive assumption that if you put good stuff on TV for long enough, America is going to get smarter.

In spite of their differences, Studio 60 and Heroes have in common a dual structure--they both operate on a story level and on a meta level, as a commentary on their medium. Both shows suffer from significant failings on both levels, but it is telling--and Aaron Sorkin would do well to draw the proper conclusions the next time he tries to talk about his medium--that Heroes--fun but soulless--is soaring, whereas Studio 60--earnest but unsophisticated--is crashing to the ground.



[1] This, by the way, is probably the reason why there are so few movie fandoms, and of those that do exist most are focussed on film series or on films derived from other media.

[2] Besides being funny, I think this choice of name perfectly illustrate my point about the writers' reliance on cliché. Yes, it's cute that a hero is named Hiro, but only to someone who isn't aware that Neal Stephenson went down this path fifteen years ago, and that he had the balls to give his character the surname Protagonist.

[3] His ability to appreciate and even celebrate obsessive affection for a single topic is probably why Sorkin's fans react with so much hurt when he lashes out at them for having a similar attitude towards his shows.

[4] Set--sigh--within the walls of an august political institution.

[5] Which is why, when television does innovate, it does so by mimicking other media--film, theatre, or even comics.

9 comments:

Niall said...

Sarah Paulson, for all that she's nearly bent over double by the weight of her 'sympathetic Christian character' plaque, is a delight.

I may well come back and comment on various other bits of your post later, but while accepting that S60 is far from perfect I just need to say: I don't really understand where the complaints about Harriet's religion are coming from. The point about Harriet is not "hey, Christians can be decent people too!", it's, "how does a decent Christian live and work in a context that constantly mocks and belittles them?" That's an interesting story worth telling, and "The Long Lead Story" in particular made big strides in the direction of telling it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The point about Harriet is not "hey, Christians can be decent people too!", it's, "how does a decent Christian live and work in a context that constantly mocks and belittles them?" That's an interesting story worth telling

It certainly is, but the show isn't telling it yet. There are a lot of fascinating questions to be asked about Harriet. How do you live and work with people who, you honestly believe, are going to burn in hell? Does she really believe that the world was created in six days? But so far the show seems to be stuck in "Hey, Christians can be nice too!" mode, and while I agree that "The Long Lead Story" made some headway towards getting out of that rut, it did so in a scene so artless that I'm of two minds whether I want to see any more.

Ilana said...

I don't know, I love the "Spiderman" movies so far--I count them on a very short list of films that I look forward to for months in advance. (And hello, Michael Chabon co-wrote the screenplay of 2!)

But then, I have absolutely no familiarity with any of the comics.

Niall said...

Ilana's reminded me of the other point I was going to make:

For all that it is comics-derived, there's a very real sense when watching Heroes that its creators aren't heavily immersed in comics culture.

I think Jeph Loeb counts as being fairly heavily immersed. :) (What I didn't realise: the art is by this guy.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know, I just knew that line was going to get me in trouble. Should have done some fact-checking.

That said, I stand by my original impression - there hasn't yet been the sense that the show is interested in going beyond the clichés of superhero comics. Whether this is in spite or because of Loeb's contribution is something that I have no way of determining, but the flatness is definitely there.

Matt said...

Heroes can be very fun, but I'm not optimistic. The writing is occasionally good but hits spectacular lows. It fails the friend test--how can I recommend it to a friend without getting embarassed when a cheerleader hit by a football player has her head twisted completely around? That makes no sense.

The trouble is a Wolverine type healing factor is not very useful for a middle America cheerleader. She could probably go for a year without using it. Instead of applying some subtlety to this problem (or just giving the healing factor to someone else) the writers have to come up with one or two thoroughly contrived reasons for her to be gruesomely injured per episode.

All that might be forgivable, but it doesn't bode well for the future of the Hiro character (by far the best part of the show so far). Making time travel work in a compelling story is one of the SF's most difficult challenges, and there's no evidence this show's writing staff is up to it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have been recommending Heroes to friends, Matt, but I've done so by telling them that it's an absolutely crap show that is a hell of a lot of fun. There's certainly a very serious concern - especially considering the medium and venue - that the show will go to pot. An earlier version of this entry likened Heroes to a shark - if it stops swimming (for which read the frenetic development of a dozen simultaneous plotlines and a hell of a lot of gee-whizz fun), it'll die.

My brother and I were commenting on how accident-prone - death-prone, I should say - Claire is. I'm choosing to believe that the writers have some idea of where they're going with her character, if only because it's a little early in the game for them to run out of story. We'll see how it goes.

Matt said...

I think their thinking started with: let's make the healing-factor character the complete opposite of Wolverine! And that's also where it stopped.

It's not that I don't think the story is going anywhere, I'm sure the requsite twists and turns are coming (I like Lost and liked Carnivale, so it's not like I'm impatient), I just am looking in vain for hope that they aren't going to be dumb.

The one thing I'll give them is that they seem to have made a deliberate decision to try to remain accessible by minimizing the "powers" aspect and grounding the early episodes in three near-mundane characters: a scientist whose only superpower is a freakish inability to understand what evolution means, a man who can occasionally fly who is brothers with someone who can but won't, and a cliche stripper who has Fight Club personality syndrome.

The other characters are more interesting, and I'm hoping that with the show getting a full season pickup and apparently finding its audience they will leave the humdrum "drama" stuff they do so poorly behind ("Am I wasting my time trying to prove my fathers work????" "Why do you care about your political career more than me, your dear brother????" "Oh nos I'm in trouble with the mob!!") and focus on the actual selling point of the show. We'll see.

Raz Greenberg said...

It's probably unfair to comment on something I haven't been able to see from start to finish, but around 20 minutes into the "Heroes" pilot, I gave up and went looking for something else. I found it to be a mix of uninteresting plot, annoying characters, and some of the stupidest dialogues I ever heard of television (there was this scene, I think, when a character with a scientific background made a comment about people using only 10% of their brain - this kind of thing really belongs in the "10 Signs You're Watching Bad Television"-type lists).

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