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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (2/7/11) 9:38am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Avatar:  The Last Airbender [2x15-2x17] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Avatar:  The Last Airbender [2x15-2x17] [spoilers]
While briefly playing hooky from watching film noir, I've seen a few more episodes of Avatar"The Tales of Ba Sing Se", "Appa's Lost Days", and "Lake Laogai".

After finishing "Lake Laogai", I went back to my film noir viewing.  This was partly because I need to prepare for the upcoming noir show, but also, I wanted to write about these three episodes in particular before moving on -- because, to my mind, it's these three episodes that take the show from being a lovable, clever adventure story to something with the sort of crazed ambition I associate with LOST or BSG.

Let's be clear:  these aren't necessarily the show's best episodes (though I would make a case for "The Tales of Ba Sing Se").  I wouldn't necessarily call them the most original episodes (for reasons I'll get into in a bit).  But they are serious swing-for-the-fences stories, where they set themselves tasks that just seem flat-out impossible.  At the very least, you're thinking, "But TV shows just don't *do* that."

With "The Tales of Ba Sing Se", they step back from their breakneck chase across the Earth kingdom to... tell some quick character studies.  There's no through-line to the episode.  Katara and Toph go to a day spa.  Sokka gets one scene at an impromptu poetry slam.  Iroh sets up a picnic.  Zuko fails miserably at dating.  Even Momo, the little flying lemur, gets his own (largely wordless) adventure.

Ask yourself:  who *does* this?  Who puts the 'pause' button on a rollicking, serialized adventure to just chill and explore the characters just 'being' for an episode?  Maybe BSG, with "Unfinished Business"?  And when you think about how categorically BSG fandom *hates* that one, you start to see that this is the sort of episode you only put on if you're willing to risk failing, and failing massively.  You're basically putting all your chips on the hope that, somewhere in the serialized adventure plot, you've set up characters that are so strong, so unique, and so empathetic, that we're willing to sit back and watch these people (and a lemur) go about their daily lives.

It's not perfect.  The day-spa story certainly means well -- it's interesting to think of how our two action heroines relate to more traditional femininity -- but it's kind of obvious and clunky in action.  And you'll note that I completely forgot about Aang's zoo story in the initial description.  On the other hand, Momo's story includes a heart-tugging moment worthy of Pixar (when Momo frees the cats), and Iroh's reincorporation of the traditional 'soldier-boy' song is just shattering.

And if you don't try the crazy character-based episode, you don't get to have moments like that.

For the next episode, they use a different gambit:  "ratchet the story back <x> days and re-tell that whole stretch of time from the point of view of a character who's been absent."  I'm sure LOST didn't invent this trick, but it certainly showed it off with episodes like "Exposé" and "The Other Forty-Eight Days".  It demonstrated all the tricks you can do with it, revealing answers to mysteries (perhaps even to mysteries that you didn't even realize were mysteries) and putting existing events into a new context.  Perhaps other TV shows played with this toy before LOST did, but hell if I can remember where and when that happened.

So basically, I'm assuming that the showrunners behind Avatar have watched LOST and lifted this storytelling device from it -- only they're doing it with Appa the bison, a non-verbal character.  We're going to view the last few weeks of Avatar through the eyes of an abducted, grunting bison.

And okay, it doesn't quite work.  It winds up being something of a shaggy-dog story that relies heavily on magic and coincidence to sort itself out.  But again, it's exciting that they're *trying* this.  When a show is willing to do that, they are operating beyond *my* meager imagination, and I genuinely don't know what they're going to try next.  And it was still a cleverly-constructed episode, with Easter eggs like an explanation for where the buried sandboat came from.

Finally, there's "Lake Laogai".  There's no gimmick to how this episode is put together -- on a structural level, it's just a straight-up showdown between Aang and Long Feng, AKA the ruler of Ba Sing Se.  But what impressed me here is how genuinely creepy the bad guys are.  Up to this point, we've had mostly Fire-Nation villains, who were mostly straightforward, aggressive bullies.

Instead, this is more 1984 territory.  There's something intensely unsettling about the group of women all saying "I am Joo Dee" in unison, and it's a sort of unease that continues after you turn the TV off.  "Bad guys with massive invasion fleets" feels sort of removed from my experience... but a society designed to keep people quiet and ignorant -- that feels much more like the evil that we all contend with day-to-day.

And not only that, but they killed off a recurring character.  Jet, after being abandoned by his posse, falsely arrested, and brainwashed, finally tried to do one good thing by going up against Long Feng, and got mortally wounded for his trouble.  Granted, I doubt this show ever gets particularly dark, and even this one had a triumphantly happy ending (Appa swoops in and saves the day!), but "Lake Laogai" demonstrates that the show can be pretty damn grim when it needs to be.  It certainly wasn't a good day for Jet.

Also, I adore everything about Uncle Iroh's quest to run his own tea shop.  There's something remarkably hopeful about having a character, late in life, finally figure out what he wants to do when he grows up.

I can't imagine the rest of season two delivering on the level of these three episodes, but I suppose I can hope.  At the very least, I'm sure Avatar has some more surprises in store for me.

For next time:  noir noir noir!  I'll keep reading Dark City; I'll finish off Cry Danger and pick the next noir to watch; I'll keep rehearsing for the noir show.  I probably won't queue up another audiobook for at least a week or two -- for the moment I'm still catching up on a couple of months of  the Sound Opinions podcast.

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Date:Monday (2/7/11) 4:11pm
Who puts the 'pause' button on a rollicking, serialized adventure to just chill and explore the characters just 'being' for an episode?

Well, I'd say both Star Trek and Doctor Who do this regularly. "Data's Day" is a notable example from ST:TNG. You could argue, I guess, that TNG isn't usually heavily serialized. But Deep Space Nine, which of all the Treks is the one with the strongest plot arcs, quite often takes a break from intergalactic war and terrorists among us to focus on seemingly unrelated character pieces or humorous one-offs.

And then new series Doctor Who had Love and Monsters, focusing on what ordinary people in the Whoniverse see of the Doctor (not much). Generally they'll average one episode a season in which the Doctor hardly appears, and ditto one for the companion.

And then there's Buffy, where a whole series finale focused on the characters' dreams.

Of course, what all these series have in common are longstanding, fanatically loyal fanbases who can be relied upon to watch anything the writers throw at them (though they may whine a lot on the internet if they don't like what they see). So I agree in general with your premise that you have to really trust that the pull of the characters and their universe is there. But I think mainly this kind of episode is most typical in the kind of anthology-with-season-long-plot-arcs show you got in the 90s-early 00s, which is now not so common. Sadly.
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Date:Thursday (2/10/11) 3:10pm
Really good points! -- "Lower Decks" might be another good ST:TNG example.  I don't know if I personally would cite "Restless" there, only because it exists outside the main run of episodes instead of interrupting it.  But it's a great example of the same principle, and there are plenty of examples of Buffy stepping back mid-arc for a character ep.  ("The Body" comes to mind.)

It's interesting to think about how these heavily serialized television can gain something by rummaging through the toolbox of 90s anthology-ish shows -- that those shows had useful techniques that we've lost track of now.

I would argue that we have plenty of lightly-serialized anthology shows these days (maybe half of them are on USA). But most of those are 'comfort food' sorts of shows, and they shy away from variety or oddness. They could experiment the way the riskier dramas from the 90s did, but I think most of the experimentation these days is going on in a smattering of serialized dramas or single-camera comedies -- and "'Til Death", I suppose.
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Date:Friday (2/25/11) 1:27am
Returning very belatedly to this conversation because I had additional thoughts, having just watched a bit of "White Collar."

You're right, "Restless" isn't the best example there. But Buffy, like other 90s shows, was definitely a lot more willing to take chances with both arcs and individual episode formats. Which is understandable, because of course the vast majority of scripted shows these days just can't expect to have anything like the run length of their predecessors: you can't be taking three seasons to really get your feet under you (a la DS9), you can't even take three episodes if you don't want to be cancelled.

In some ways, I think what we're seeing now is a lot of shows that are just tremendously competent. The people writing them seem to be incredibly well-schooled in how to structure an episode or an arc, how to write fun, banter-filled dialogue, how to make the most of whatever budget they've got. See especially the USA-type shows.

But for the most part, as you say: most of those are 'comfort food' sorts of shows. They are really not in the business of making artistic breakthroughs, and they're also not...usually...here to Say Something Big. There's no argument being made, you're not really encouraged to identify with characters too closely - just to like having them on your screen, doing their little hypercompetent dance.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you - I think it's one of the frustrating things about shows that are trying to say something, lately, that the writers don't seem to get that dark and edgy doesn't necessarily equal good art, or to understand the mindset of the person who comes home after a long day at work and would rather not watch characters screaming at each other and contemplating suicide. Just because you want some amount of comfort doesn't mean that you want to be pandered or condescended to. Shows that get that seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.
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Date:Friday (2/25/11) 1:28am
But shows that do take chances and have something substantive to say tend to stick in people's memories. So yeah on this: how these heavily serialized television can gain something by rummaging through the toolbox of 90s anthology-ish shows. I've been rewatching DS9, and it's just remarkably obvious when RDM comes on the show as a writer, how much he borrowed from that show in creating BSG, both in terms of plotlines and in overall focus. Of course, DS9 has the kind of funky old Trek aesthetic and direction, so it's nowhere near as stylish or punchy as BSG: when people are in danger they just sort of stand around talking and looking a bit anxious in a "Imminent death? Must be a Wednesday," kind of way, while the camera doesn't do much of anything. The acting is a bit stagy, the costumes are hideous, and people have silly rubber foreheads. But by God, when the writing is on, it's on</i>. And it's there to say something.

I was struck by this while watching White Collar, because this makes (at least) two shows I've seen borrowing from the very same bit of Due South - the Victoria arc, which is
hinted at for several episodes and then comes to a head in the last three episodes of the first season. Dexter's second season borrows heavily from the Victoria arc, and even out-and-out steals (or does an homage to, depending on how you see it) one of the climactic moments, with the hero and his dark lady meeting for a dramatic confrontation in a underwater zoo/aquarium, with the weird sparkles of light and big sinuous shapes moving on the other side of the glass. And White Collar seems to have some influences, too. And then, of course, there's the plot element of the "dead mentor that only the hero can see" character, which is incredibly widespread by now. I'm pretty sure Due South did that first.

And yet, you know, for all that it's indisputably Saying Something in almost every episode, a la Buffy, Due South is often extremely slipshod in structure. It relies heavily on cliche, and the tone varies wildly from episode to episode in a way I don't know if I've ever seen in another show, from nigh-Shakespearean drama to Looney Tunes-esque silliness. So really, mining it for good ideas and leaving some of the facepalmy bits, or episodes where the writers were clearly just phoning it in? Is pretty reasonable.

most of the experimentation these days is going on in a smattering of serialized dramas or single-camera comedies -- and "'Til Death", I suppose.

And the pay channels, too. But yeah, I think the form really has to keep changing.

And OMGWTFBBQ, on the "Til Death" article. I...don't even know what to do with that.
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Date:Monday (4/25/11) 3:01pm
Lovely & well-considered points all. :)

And OMGWTFBBQ, on the "Til Death" article. I...don't even know what to do with that.

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