Friday, December 10, 2010

I Come to Praise and Bury: On Rubicon and Terriers

It's been a dismal fall for new TV.  While a lot of returning shows have come back strong (The Good Wife, Community, to a lesser extent Dexter and How I Met Your Mother), most of the fall pilot slate was dire, and even promising and prestigious series like Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead have proven underwhelming.  Amidst this dross and disappointment, however, I still managed to find two new series to get excited and even fannish over.  Naturally, they've both been canceled.

Of those two cancellations, the one that rankles less is Rubicon's.  There are a lot of things this show did well, and in some cases these are things that no other show on TV is doing, but it wasn't good TV, and for a substantial portion of its run it was even quite bad.  A lot of this is down to bad luck--originally conceived as a modern callback to 70s conspiracy thrillers, in which Will Travers (James Badge Dale) an analyst for a government think-tank, investigates the seemingly accidental death of his mentor, Rubicon was heavily retooled shortly into its production run, and its creator, Jason Horwitch, was replaced with Henry Bromell, who shifted the show's focus from conspiracies to workplace drama.  This was entirely the right move, and the episodes that downplay Will's investigation in favor of his colleagues' actual work are among the best in the show's run, but the change came too late.  Having established its central mystery, Rubicon was yoked to a story, and a main character, that were both significantly less interesting than what was going on in their background.  I don't know if Rubicon would have been a ratings success if it had debuted as a drama about intelligence work, but it certainly would have been a stronger and more successful show.

Before I get too far into Rubicon's strengths, I should be very clear on its weaknesses, chiefly the fact that the first five episodes of the show's run are terrible: slow, moody hours in which characters lapse into Meaningful Silences so often that the whole exercise threatens to topple into self-parody.  It's common by now for cable series with relatively short seasons to start with slow episodes that set up the season-long story, then build up a head of steam and start barreling down towards an explosive season finale, and viewers will therefore often indulge a series that starts slowly, especially if it has a pedigree as impressive as Rubicon's, which comes from the producers of Mad Men and Breaking BadRubicon abuses that trust, however, and there's something almost insulting about its obvious certainty that viewers will keep tuning in for the weeks it takes Will to realize what we will have worked out simply by knowing the series's genre--that his mentor was murdered for knowing something he shouldn't have.  One of Rubicon's core goals--the only one that carries over when the show's emphasis shifts around episode 6--is to demystify its genre, make it mundane and familiar (you see this most clearly in its villains, who are hammily, mustache-twirlingly evil and yet suffer from the ordinary indignities of modern life and old age: one of them tries to reason with his spoiled daughter over her car insurance and complains that he can't smoke indoors, another pays his secretary for sex and, on a day when he isn't in the mood, lets her bully him into giving her money nonetheless), and it therefore makes sense that Will doesn't immediately leap to the conclusion of a murderous government conspiracy behind what initially seems like just a tragic train derailment.  But five whole hours of watching him discover hidden clues in gifts given just before the accident, or puzzling over codes, is not only stultifying but makes it harder and harder to believe all the other characters' insistence that Will is brilliant and intuitive.

Rubicon starts to work when it opens up its world, moving away from Will to his colleagues and to their work--synthesizing the cumulative output of dozens of intelligence agencies into a picture of what is going on in the world and where the next threat to America's safety is coming from.  These characters--Will's boss, Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), and his team Grant (Christopher Evan Welch), Miles (Dallas Roberts), and Tanya (Lauren Hodges)--are for the most part shown doing what all of us do when we go to the office: talking about their home-life, being goaded into working harder by their superiors, complaining about working late.  The difference being that these people have the safety of millions in their hands, and one of Rubicon's greatest accomplishments is to make it clear how even this vocation can sometimes be the same as any other job--tedious, difficult, and frustrating--and how, despite their best intentions, these qualities can distance the characters from the real-world implications of their work, the lives that it saves and costs, leaving them to obsesses over their relatively quotidian problems.  Grant is spending too much time away from his family, and his government work doesn't pay enough to support them in the style to which, he believes, his intelligence and education should allow them to become accustomed.  Miles spins himself into a tizzy over catastrophes that he is helpless to affect, and won't admit that his marriage has ended.  Tanya, the newest member of the team, is having trouble adjusting to the emotional rigors of the work (for example when the team is asked to determine whether intelligence about the location of a terrorist is sufficiently trustworthy to justify an air-strike in a populated area), and medicating with drugs and alcohol.  I've seen some viewers complain about Rubicon's look, the fact that the characters work in cramped, decrepit offices and use outdated technology like dial phones and IBM workstations--a far cry from the smart-screens and glass walls that have become ubiquitous in cop and spy shows--but this seems like part and parcel of the show's efforts to make intelligence work seem ordinary.  Anyone who's worked in an office, much less a government office, will know that unlike on TV, you never have the latest technology at your fingertips, and that grime and mess are what you get when a lot of people spend a lot of time working hard in a place that belongs to none of them.

I found myself thinking about Rubicon a lot when I was writing my post about Stargate: Universe, because I think that at their core the two shows are trying to do very similar things--taking an occupation, either real or imaginary, that we tend to think of as glamorous and heroic, in part because the stories that are told about it usually fall on the pulp end of the scale, and trying to make it mundane, bringing home the fact that the people who engage in that occupation are, just like the rest of us, often too preoccupied to be heroes and adventurers.  But while Universe falls into every trap laid by modern television's fascination with the dark and the transgressive, and can only defuse the heroism inherent in its story by giving us characters who are petty, self-absorbed, and unqualified for their jobs, Rubicon quite reasonably assumes that anyone working for the organization at the show's center would be smart, motivated, and willing to sacrifice quite a lot for the greater good.  It gives us those characters, and then shows us how, for all their good intentions, they fail, simply because they're human beings living in the real world, not characters in a James Bond novel.  Like Universe, Rubicon tries to emphasize its characters' ordinariness by having them speak 'naturally,' pausing to find the right word and sometimes failing to do so, but in this show, the writing and acting are both strong enough that a brief silence, or a look, can convey volumes.  In one wordless scene, Kale, who until that point had been the closest the show had come to fielding a Bond-ian super-spy, is enjoying a domestic moment, reading in bed beside his sleeping partner Walter.  Something troubles him, and for the next few minutes he silently sweeps their apartment for bugs.  Having found and disposed of the device, he gets back in bed, pauses to collect himself, and lays a hand on the still-sleeping Walter's shoulder, protective, but also seeking comfort.  In another moment, Miles is working with another analyst, Julia, with whom he'd previously flirted and gone out for a drink.  The season-long crisis is heating up and there's clearly no time for the two to discuss their fledgling relationship, but in a momentary lull Miles smiles at Julia and reaches for her hand, and all our questions about where they stand are answered.  Not all of this low-key characterization works--when the team recommends the air-strike that so troubles Tanya, Grant's journey to his superior's office to deliver that recommendation is interrupted by a symbolic and unsuccessful attempt to flick a speck of dirt off his shirt--but on the whole Rubicon manages to make its characters seem entirely human and sympathetic, and to bring across both the challenges involved in their chosen line of work, and their reasons for choosing it.

Except when it comes to Will.  Even as the office storylines, both professional and personal, get more and more interesting, Will remains mired in his investigation.  He pursues this investigation doggedly, ignoring advice, warnings, and threats.  This should make him seem heroic and principled, but instead Will comes off as stubborn, inconsiderate, and ridiculously, improbably lucky--during an FBI lockdown of his building, for example, he manages to sneak unseen into his office, which allows him to discover that a listening device placed there had been removed, and to conclude that whoever placed it there works in the building.  In some ways this is another example of how seamlessly Rubicon transplants the conspiracy story into the real world--when the hero of a standard conspiracy thriller is told by a source that to give him classified information would jeopardize their jobs or lives, they are usually throwaway characters we don't care about, but Rubicon draws these characters well enough that we can't ignore the risks they're taking.  The problem is that Will does ignore those risks, and that he himself is so closed off that while we're sympathizing with the people who put themselves on the line for him, he is hard to sympathize with.  Dale came to Rubicon fresh off what should have been a star-making turn on HBO's The Pacific, where he managed to convey his character's intelligence, humor, and passion with a single look, so the fact that Will is such an emotionless blank is clearly a choice, and one that should have worked.  Will has been emotionally shut down since the deaths of his wife and daughter (on 9/11, no less), and his investigation forces him to engage with the world--in positive ways, as when he starts a relationship with his bohemian neighbor, and less positive ones, as when he deals with the aftermath of killing an assassin in self-defense.  But there's something very arrogant and off-putting about Dale's performance.  He never really sells Will's grief for his dead loved ones, his anger at the perversion of justice happening around him, or his determination to prevent further loss of life.  It's hard not to conclude, finally, that the events of the season are nothing more than an intellectual puzzle for Will, a protracted and costly expression of his need to understand, to know, to be right and in control, and yet the show doesn't commit to that reading of the character either, leaving an empty hole at its center.

In the season's final two episodes, Will's investigation dovetails with the team's pursuit of a terrorist named Kateb, who is planning an attack on US soil.  There are some very bold choices in these episodes--doubly so, as they both frustrate viewers' expectations from this kind of story, and clearly demonstrate the writers' belief that, despite its terrible ratings, Rubicon would be granted a second season.  Even if the renewal had happened, I'm not sure I would have said that the season ends well--reintroducing Will into the office storyline allows him to take over it, and overshadow the more developed characters, and the season doesn't so much end as stop--so for all the praise I've heaped on Rubicon, I can't offer it any but the most qualified recommendation.  I'd like it to be watched, and not just by television writers eager to embrace the fashion for 'realism' who maybe need a few pointers in how to do it well.  There are characters here, like Kale, Grant, Miles, and Tanya, who I would have loved to spend more time with and that I'd like other people to get to know (if only because the actors, Howard and Roberts in particular, deserve recognition for their work).  I can't feel too sorry for Rubicon as it aired, but I do regret the show that might have been, the workplace drama about people with an unusual, challenging, important job who are not always the superheroes they need to be to do it well.

Terriers, on the other hand, is a show whose cancellation leaves me full of regret.  Its single season is one of the most perfectly-formed seasons of television I've ever seen, and it quickly became one of the highlights of my TV-watching week.  Which makes it a little embarrassing that I have so little to say about it.  The show's ardent fans--particularly the writers at the AV Club, who have been lobbying for its renewal and greeted the news of its cancellation with wailing and gnashing of teeth--have expended a lot of effort trying to understand just why a show this good should have so thoroughly failed to find an audience.  It's not as if the story, which follows unlicensed private investigators Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) as they tramp around the Southern California town of Ocean Beach, solving, and sometimes committing, petty crimes and getting in way over their heads when they stumble upon a shady real estate deal that leaves several people dead, is particularly highbrow, and unlike Rubicon Terriers courts its viewers, dropping them into the action of the season-long mystery in its pilot, interspersing that investigation with well-crafted and engaging standalone stories over the course of the season, and delivering plenty of laughs, most of them rooted in the rapport between Hank and Britt, who are as deeply devoted to yanking each other's chains as they are to looking out for one another.

There's no reason why Terriers shouldn't have been at least a modest success, and attempts to figure out why it instead became one of the new season's lowest-rated shows have concentrated on the show's title and what was apparently a confusing publicity campaign that led some potential viewers to conclude that this was a show about dog-fighting.  To my mind, however, the problem is much simpler--Terriers has no hook.  For just about every series that I love, and quite a few that I don't care for, I could come up with a single sentence that encapsulates what the show does well and why it's worth watching: The Good Wife has the best female characters on TV; Dexter actually gets how to maintain a moral distance from a sympathetic character's immoral actions; Glee has Sue Sylvester.  If I had to come up with a one-sentence pitch for Terriers, the best I could do would be: it's really good.  Which is as true as it is unpersuasive.  When TWoP recapped the series pilot, they likened Terriers to Veronica Mars, which I think gets at the heart of why this show is unsellable.  If Veronica Mars is Southern California-set noir with a twist--that the main character is a teenager girl and the show's action takes place in a high school--Terriers is Veronica Mars without that twist, just plain old Southern California-set noir.  My reaction to the pilot, meanwhile, was that it was well done but familiar, and though I'm glad I stuck with the show I think that this was an accurate assessment.  There was never anything new or original about Terriers, no standout quality to the show.  It was simply very good in almost every respect--the stories, both standalone and season-long, the characters, the dialogue--and though this is both admirable and, sadly, unusual, it's also very hard to sell.

So what did win me over to Terriers?  Mainly, I think, it was the characters.  Logue has made a career out of playing amiable (and sometimes not so amiable) slackers, mostly in comedies, and it's a shock and a thrill to find him digging beneath the surface of that type to create Hank, a well-intentioned, principled man who somehow manages to destroy everything good in his life.  A former cop whose alcoholism cost him his job and his marriage, Hank initially seems to be disaffected and cynical.  In the pilot, an old drinking buddy hires him to find his missing daughter, which leads Hank and Britt to a real estate developer, and eventually to the friend's death.  Enraged, Hank vows to uncover the developer's shady deal and bring him down, which seems to set up a very familiar noir story about an antihero who rediscovers his love of justice.  What the rest of the season reveals is that Hank is proud, self-righteous, and often blinded by his prejudice against the rich and powerful.  All of these flaws lead him to misread situations, bite off more than he can chew, and to vastly overestimate the amount of control he can exercise over the world around him.  Hank is often admirable and heroic, but that heroism comes at a price that he somehow never ends up paying himself, but takes a terrible toll on the people around him.  What's most interesting about this portrait is that it leaves us, like Hank, looking at the damage he's caused and wondering where the wrong turn was.  Every step that Hank takes makes sense at the time, and each is motivated by a desire for justice, and yet they often lead to terrible destruction.  It's a wonderfully slippery take on a character that initially seems so simple, and I would have loved to spend more time puzzling it out.

Britt is a great deal more straightforward.  A former burglar turned straight under Hank's influence (and that of his girlfriend Katie (Laura Allen), whose own attitude towards Britt's criminal past is sometimes disturbingly ambivalent), Britt starts the season as Hank's sidekick and spends it coming into his own, developing his PI skills and his understanding of Hank's limitations and fatal flaws.  Despite his criminal past, Britt is sweet, lovable, and always ready with a joke, and Raymond-James could have coasted on these qualities.  Instead he imbues Britt with intelligence and a bit of a dark side.  He doesn't downplay Britt's lack of maturity, his recognition that he's done terrible things, or his capacity to do them in the future.  Still, Britt is most interesting when he's playing opposite other characters.  He and Katie are deeply in love, but the relationship has reached the point where it needs to either get a lot more serious or collapse under its own weight, and one of the season's central questions is which way it will fall.  There's a lot standing in Britt and Katie's path--he's not quite ready for serious commitment, and she may not be able (or willing) to act as the calm moral center of his tumultuous life--but also a lot to be gained, and the uncertainty of their fate quickly becomes as nail-bitingly tense as the season's central mystery and Hank's journey towards both salvation and damnation.  Britt's partnership with Hank, meanwhile, is the one entirely positive force in his life, and for Hank it is the one relationship where he is doing good rather than damage (for now).  It's the crux of the characters' lives and of the show.  With typical thoughtfulness (and demonstrating the sort of subtlety that probably got them canceled) Terriers's writers avoid the most common trope of partnership-based shows.  Britt and Hank are not the most important people in each other's lives.  There are people that they love more than each other and relationships that matter more to them than their partnership (I do not, for example, think that they make a particularly slashable couple, though I'm sure there are those who disagree).  But that partnership is what makes all those other relationships possible, and when they falter--when Hank burns his last bridge with his ex-wife, or when Britt and Katie flame out--it's there to support them.

Unlike Rubicon, Terriers ends well--there are some false notes in the resolution of the central mystery, but not many, and the season's storylines are tied up so well, and yet in a way that leaves an opening for further adventures, that one can only assume that the show's writers were preparing both for the possibility of renewal and cancellation (the show's final scene, in particular, seems to gesture at the two possibilities).  Which is yet another example of how this show shot itself in the foot by being too clever, too low-key--I'm sorry that Terriers is dead, but the season ends at such a perfect stopping point that even my sorrow is muted.  On the other hand, this means that I can recommend it without reservation--you will absolutely fall in love with Hank, Britt, and their world, but you won't be left too heartbroken when their story ends and it sinks in that there will be no more of them.

8 comments:

didichanoch said...

I mostly agree on both shows. I probably would have talked more about the awesomeness that is Howard as Kale Ingram. And I place more of the blame on the writers than on Dale when it comes to Will. Dumbest smart guy EVER, and that's on the writers.

As for Terriers, I think there was a problem with the name of the show. And an even bigger problem with the fact that the pilot was so tonally different than the rest of the show. We stopped watching early on, and only came back on the basis of a strong recommendation from a reliable friend. And were so glad we did.

communicator said...

I have only heard good things about Terriers, and you make both of these sound just the kind of show I would like a lot. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I must try to find time to watch them retrospectively. It's always hard to know how much of yourself to give out to a show that is gone before it's even had a chance.

Niall Alexander said...

I'm all for falling for Hank and Britt - Hank in particular. I really enjoyed Donal Logue in the first season of True Blood; that ol' Cajun magic kept me coming back for a weekly beating long after Alan Ball had admitted this wasn't the show for me. I'm mourning Terriers without even having seen an episode... but that's what the holidays are for, surely: catching up with old friends, and perhaps making a few new ones, even if they're not so long for this world.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Didi:

I probably would have talked more about the awesomeness that is Howard as Kale Ingram

Yes, it was a wrench leaving that out, but I couldn't find an appropriate segue, so thanks for bringing it up. I agree that the problems with Will are more in the writing than in the acting, but I also wonder whether Dale was the right actor for the job. He's good at soulfulness, but there are actors who manage to convey emotion through a mask of emotionlessness, and he didn't. Maybe that's because the writers didn't give Will the center that Dale needed to hang on to, or maybe that's his fault - I'm just not sure.

I'm also not sure I'd say that the Terriers pilot is tonally different from the rest of the show, but it does set up the two main characters as relatively simple types which the rest of the season goes on to explore, finally showing them to be much more complicated people. Which is what good fiction should do, of course, but only makes the show harder to pitch to a potential audience.

Alison:

It's always hard to know how much of yourself to give out to a show that is gone before it's even had a chance

Yes. I comfort myself with the knowledge that my viewing habits have no effect on whether a show lives or dies, so the only one being affected is me, and with the fact that I already watch too much TV, so missing a great show is not such a terrible loss.

Niall:

I think you're confused - Raymond-James was on the first season of True Blood, not Logue. He's good enough on Terriers that I almost want to watch that show to see more of him. Almost, but not quite.

Niall Alexander said...

I'm an idiot.

Oh, and a very wise decision, that. Truly I don't know why I keep putting myself through True Blood, year on year. Leftover affection for Six Feet Under, maybe?

Someone put out of my misery before March rolls around and - oh God! - there's still more...

ibmiller said...

Have started watching the show, backwards, on Hulu, and am thrilled to have done so. The acting, particularly the two leads, Hank's sister, and Katie, are extremely powerful, the writing extremely good (no surprise given Tim "flashback episode and (sadly) predictor of show demise" Minear's involvement). All in all, a wonderful antidote to my stubborn loyalty to Castle and Chuck (both purely because of the actors). I'm actually not too sad it's finished, though - I'm a big fan of the UK practice of making miniseries (like State of Play or House of Cards), and appreciate the skill of writers wrapping up a complicated storyline as Terriers did (though the final shot was a bit annoying). Too often I think the US ambition to keep a series going really drives the concept, actors, and scripts into the ground (I think Veronica Mars, for all the brilliance of the dialogue and acting in the second and third seasons, should have ended at season one). I think the directing talent was also really strong (and was surprised there was no mention of Rian Johnson in your review - though, admittedly, his touch wasn't very heavy on the one episode he directed) - avoiding the hyperfrenetic editing and handheld style of today - relying instead on fluid but much more willing to sit on shots - especially in the witty use of silence as act breaks for commercials.

Thanks for the recommendation!

David P. said...

Didn't take long for it to come to Netflix. It's at least easier for abandoned shows to be seen at all. With your recommendation I'll have to check it out.

Alexander said...

Just finished watching Terriers. Pretty great show. There were a couple of false notes on the Britt-Katie relationship I thought, hitting the cliches of infidelity, ambiguity paternity, etc, but apart from that I can't think of much to find fault with. It did a lot of interesting stuff with the characters, with the mix of episodic and serial elements, and with a real tone of moral ambiguity in how a lot of the larger issues were handled. I also really enjoyed the ability of the show to move from a mostly low key character drama to a nail-biting thriller with dead bodies piling up when the plot called for it, in a way that felt like a sudden escalation and yet still organic to the show as a whole.

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