Tuesday, March 18, 2008

At Season's End

Strictly speaking, the concept of a television season is obsolete. Between US- and UK-based content producers, cable and network channels, and the belated realization of network executives that the two weeks on/four weeks off model that worked so well for formula television is the kiss of death for serialized shows like Lost and 24, it's possible to find first-air scripted television pretty much year round. But concentrating strictly on US-based shows (and ignoring Scrubs, which presumably is coming back one of these months, and which I was more or less ready to bid farewell to anyway), right now might be a good time to reflect on the three shows I accumulated this year--Pushing Daisies, Chuck, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Looking back, it strikes me that all three shows have similar strengths and weaknesses--most blatantly, on the latter count, a tendency to sacrifice plot for the sake of character and atmosphere.

A few weeks ago, Niall Harrison suggested that The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the 'best new show of the 07/08 tv season.' I disagreed then and still do, not only because Sarah Connor is not without its problems but because that title so obviously belongs to Pushing Daisies, and all the more so for that accomplishment's being so improbable. When the Pushing Daisies pilot was leaked online last summer, I shared in what was very nearly a uniform reaction: how beautiful, how funny, how refreshing--and how unsustainable. It seemed impossible for the show not to be overwhelmed by and ultimately buried under its stylized sensibility, for its writers not to lose themselves and their characters under an avalanche of cuteness. Every time I sat down to watch a new episode, I told myself that now, finally, I would see the show lose the thread, and every time the credits rolled I discovered not only that the show's heart was still beating but that Pushing Daisies had wormed its way even further into mine.

The secret to this success is both simple and rare--Pushing Daisies is smart. Smart enough to develop its supporting characters--Olive and Emerson, as well as Chuck's aunts Lily and Vivian--into fully fledged people who interact with one another away from the two leads, and with whom Ned and Chuck can have fully realized relationships, thus preventing the show from becoming a romantic melodrama entirely focused on the impossible romance between the two. Smart enough to realize, as Chuck so beautifully puts it early in the season, that not being able to touch each other is only one of her and Ned's problems as they try to make their relationship work, and to explore those mundane challenges to it. Smart enough to sustain the delicate tightrope walk that is maintaining balance between the show's comedic tone and its macabre and often tragic subject matter, as well as a corresponding balance between stylized decor and screwball comedy-tinged dialogue and the characters' humanity.

It's that last one that is, I think, at the root of Pushing Daisies's success. Its characters never stop being human, and they feel the blows the show's writers rain on them--Ned's loneliness, Chuck's twin desires for home and escape, Olive's unrequited love for Ned, the aunts' grief--keenly. The show's comedic tone, however, prevents it from sinking into non-stop angst and despair, and miraculously, it does so without undercutting the very real pain the characters are feeling. With bleakness off the menu, the show's writers are free to explore the ways in which people live after suffering terrible misfortunes--Lily and Vivian going back and forth between listless grief and a new lease on life; Chuck and Olive tentatively coming to accept and respect each others' feelings for Ned, and Chuck making peace with Ned's responsibility for her father's death. If the show's pilot suggested that Pushing Daisies would sweep all unpleasantness under the rug, its subsequent episodes have repeatedly examined that unpleasantness with the same unflinching, and even affectionate, attitude with which Ned gazes at mauled corpses, and, again and again, revealed it to be something with which its characters can cope.

As one might expect from a show with such a heavy emphasis on the development of its main characters and their relationships, Pushing Daisies is not a series to be watched for its episodic plots. Though I've been pleasantly surprised by how well the show's procedural aspect hangs together--the mysteries which drive individual episodes are neither obvious, nor are they so tinged with the show's zaniness that they become completely irrational--it's quite clear that plotting is nothing but the framework on which character development and atmosphere can be mounted. This is very much in keeping with the show's mandate and focus, however, and therefore not a fatal flaw. For a series like Chuck, however, the laziness and occasional senselessness of its plots very often threatens to capsize the entire enterprise.

Chuck is the new series I'm least invested in. It can be entertaining and charming, but only when breakneck pacing or a particular hefty helping of character interaction manage to conceal the fact that its plots consistently rely on characters--protagonists and antagonists--being painfully stupid and ignorant of every spy movie or television series ever made. There's the potential for Chuck to be wry parody of the spy genre, and on occasions, when Chuck himself is allowed to be a spy and not just a source of information, it does seem that this is the tone the writers want to strike. Unfortunately, Chuck seems too infatuated with its premise, and repeatedly makes the fatal mistake of taking itself too seriously. Again and again it falls into the trap of telling us that Chuck, Sarah and Casey are saving the world, when what's really showing up on screen is a bunch of silly, ridiculously pretty people enacting every spy cliché in the book and frequently failing to use even half their brains. A show like Alias, which Chuck is very obviously emulating, could get away with this contradiction through a combination of melodrama and sheer chutzpah, but Chuck's writers haven't achieved anything near that show's heady, near-surrealist plotting.

Which is a shame, because I'm quite fond of nearly all of Chuck's characters, and of the show's benevolent treatment of them. I like Chuck's strong bond with his sister, and her loving relationship with her boyfriend--who started out literally a one-note joke and has grown into a compelling, yet no less funny, character--and I've enjoyed the continuing exploration of Chuck's life prior to his absorbing a boatload of super-secret knowledge. Chuck's premise was that the title character had no life, was stuck in a rut with little hope of escape until a freak accident granted him special powers, and with them responsibilities and access to a secret underworld populated by only a privileged few. In the episodes following the pilot, however, we've seen that instead of Sarah and Casey pulling Chuck into their world, Chuck absorbs them into his, in the process shining a light on the very real and very meaningful relationships and rituals that make it so much fuller and more worthwhile than theirs.

The first season has shown us Chuck's friendship with Morgan and their shared history and customs, the relationships and foibles of his coworkers, and mostly his exuberant affection for the geeky lifestyle that, according to the pilot, was a trap holding him in place, and in the show itself has been treated with a wry affection. Chuck shines not when it delivers spy antics and choreographed fight scenes, but when the title character is interacting with his friends and family, and as he slowly draws his two handlers into it (with differing degrees of success--Adam Baldwin's Casey has quickly become one of the show's biggest draws, but until the show's writers start treating Sarah with the same humor that has made Casey so appealing, not to mention stop having her parade around in her underwear, she will continue to be the show's weakest link).

Unlike both Chuck and Pushing Daisies, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is very much not a comedy. And yet it wears its grim, high-stakes premise lightly. The godawful and tedious voiceovers notwithstanding, Sarah Connor has turned out to be a thoughtful, at times almost low-key show. Whether or not you agree with Niall that it is the best new show on TV, I don't think there's any denying that it's the best new SF show on the small screen, and one of only a few series that actually try to do SFnal things with an SFnal premise--to wonder about the effects of technology and the meaning of what it is to be human in the face of those effects. The question that drives the series--how to survive, not just physically but emotionally and morally, in the face of an implacable and unspeakable future, and whether there is any point in fighting what's fated--is an inherently SFnal one, and over the course of the show's first season it has been addressed with gravity and grace through the actions and choices of the show's main and supporting cast.

Like Battlestar Galactica, Sarah Connor pits machines, uniform in their attitudes and aims, against a choatic, unruly mass of humans. Unlike Galactica, however, Sarah Connor doesn't revel in the depravity that often comes hand in hand with free will, nor does it resort to depicting humans who oppose Sarah's cause or her leadership. All of the show's characters are against the apocalypse, and most of them recognize that Sarah is in charge of preventing it. And yet they each go their own way. John sneaks out of the house without a fake ID, Charley makes contact with Sarah after being visited by the evil terminator, Cameron keeps a piece of the terminator she killed, Derek openly questions Sarah's choices (and one might argue that his friendly overtures toward John are on some level an attempt to weaken her hold on him by playing the cool uncle). Even Agent Ellison defies his colleagues and superiors by pursuing the Sarah Connor case and the perplexing evidence he finds in her wake. None of them are evil or disloyal (not even, I strongly believe, Cameron)--they're just people, and getting people to fall in line is like herding cats, or some other task that not even Sarah Connor can manage perfectly. It's an observation that has been made before in SF, most recently in both Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, but Sarah Connor's iteration is quieter and more subtle than either one of them.

There's more to enjoy in Sarah Connor than just this interesting exploration of an SFnal question. The characters are proving, one by one, to be a delight. I'm still not 100% sold on Sarah, though she's grown on me with every episode, and I still don't think the show always strikes the right balance between future leader of humanity and whiny teenager when it comes to John, but Cameron gets weirder, cooler, more alien and more fascinating with every passing episode, Ellison is noble and steadfast, and after only a few appearances Derek has quickly become my favorite character, both earnest and manipulative, fiercely loyal to his cause and yet quick to question his alleged leaders, lethal and vulnerable. It's a shame, therefore, that the show's plotting is so very, very bad.

Much like Pushing Daisies, Sarah Connor uses its episodic plots to further the exploration of its characters and its themes. Single episode plots are made to work through the idiocy of the characters (Sarah finds out that a mobster has bought the supercomputer she fears will become Skynet, so she calls him on his cellphone wanting to buy it. Shockingly, this results not in simple business transaction but in the mobster blackmailing Sarah and threatening John's life) or through flat-out contravention of reality (a person with O- blood can't transfuse someone who is AB+; my own personal pet pieve, the insistence that game-playing machines are a stepping stone to human-like machine intelligence). Even worse, the overarching plotline is driven by coincidence (of the half-dozen pictures Sarah finds in the safehouse, Tarissa Dyson can name the programmer who will build Skynet; the terminator Cameron kills just happens to have been orchestrating the creation of another Skynet component) and feels haphazard and disjointed. For a show whose premise is plot-oriented, this is an untenable failure. As interesting as the characters are, if the shows' writers continue to allow them to blithely stumble into the causes of the apocalypse (all of which, conveniently, are located in southern California) they will inevitably come to seem stupid and less human, and the show will falter.

On top of a tendency to prioritize character over plot, what all three of these shows have in common is a level of ambivalence towards the kind of story they want to tell. Pushing Daisies uses this uncertainty to great effect. It teases the viewers by building up expectations of one kind of a story--a mannered comedy/procedural--and delivering a powerful character drama. Chuck and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, meanwhile, are hampered by it. The former needs to redefine itself, commit itself to its comedic strengths and stop taking itself so seriously. The latter needs to pump more blood into its storytelling apparatus, and deliver a good plot alongside its excellent character work. Happily, it's already been confirmed that Pushing Daisies and Chuck will be coming back next fall, and strongly rumored that Sarah Connor will be doing the same, so hopefully we'll get a chance to see all three of these promising shows get even better.


Anonymous said...

As always, I absolutely love your TV show reviews and I think you manage to be spot-on with strengths and weaknesses, and articulate things I can't- and I completely agree with you about Daisies and Chuck (haven't watched SCC)

One random thing, though- CAN'T an O- person give a transfusion to an AB+ person? I sort of thought that was the entire point of the universal donor concept. Heaven knows my local bloodbank seems to think so.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Sorry, I didn't make myself clear there - in the episode, it's stated that Sarah, who is O-, can't transfuse Derek, who is AB+. It's honestly not that big a deal as far as the episode's plot is concerned, but I'm annoyed by its being such a silly mistake, and so easily correctable.

Mark Jones said...

Well...except that if Sarah is truly Blood Type O and John is Blood Type AB, Sarah cannot be his biological mother. Just can't happen. Which makes this easily avoidable mistake even stupider.

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