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

Monday (4/2/12) 3:59am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Terriers [1x01-1x04]
Books:  <none>

Terriers [1x01-1x04]
This is the most recent addition to that pantheon of "one amazing goddamn season" shows that includes Freaks and Geeks, Firefly, and (for me at least) The Middleman.  It's a modern noir about two unlicensed Pis in Ocean Beach who stumble onto a major real-estate conspiracy.

First:  yes, Terriers is as good as everyone says it is.

Why?  Well, the most obvious thing is that its pilot episode feels like something out of, say, season *five* of some lesser show.  It feels like an episode that comes out *after* the writers have had time to figure out who their protagonist really is, the rapport between the leads, and how the setting feels.  It's an episode you'd do after you had patiently built years of backstory and a created the emotional weight of an extensive shared history in all these relationships.

Terriers comes screaming out of the gate with all that.  Everything, everything, everything, has this lived-in, comfortable quality.  Of *course* Hank and Britt have been talking together during stakeouts for years now.  Of *course* Hank and his ex-wife have a decade of uneasy history behind them.  Of *course* these are all secondary characters they've known forever.

On top of that, the show already knows what the hell it's about.  In a way, the noir genre is like the zombie genre -- sure, you can get by just going through the motions of satisfying its genre tropes, but ideally, you're *using* the noir genre to say something that goes beyond its trappings.  At this point, it's interesting to compare this to the only other modern-noir TV show I can name off the top of my head, Veronica Mars (which, in a neat coincidence, was also shot in San Diego).  At its best, Veronica Mars was about Neptune, and just how divided it was, just how untouchable the rich were, and just how marginalized everyone else was, and just how messed-up that made everybody's lives.

But with Terriers, we're focused on just one guy, Hank, and how wrecked his life is.  So sure, this is nominally about together-they-fight-crime, but really, we're watching Hank Dolworth pick himself up off the ground.  And this ends up informing the whole show.  Of *course* it's set in a burnout-feeling part of San Diego, all desaturated browns and ramshackle apartments, like everything was stuck on the "faded Polaroid" setting on instagram.  Of course the jokes don't 'hit' really hard or draw attention to themselves.  Of course the fight scenes you see are not the least bit cool, but make you think "I am so glad that's not me" every time a blow lands.  It's a world where damn near everyone hates you, and for good reason, and getting your shit together is not going to be easy.

And who the hell knew Donal Logue had this in him?  I mean, I think of the guy as a sitcom star, most notably for the wacky Grounded for Life.[1]  And yes, I'm vaguely aware of the comedy The Tao of Steve, mostly via swing dancers who really, really, *really* want to get laid.  So sure, Mr. Logue nails all the jokes in Terriers, but he gets so much room to create his character beyond that.  And I honestly haven't seen a show since Friday Night Lights that's given actors so much room to just act.  You can *feel* all the points in this script where a lesser writer -- or one with less faith in the cast -- would spell things out with dialog.  But this one, time and again, just pauses.  It gives us a chance to watch an actor look away, and look back.  And then it just skips to the next beat of the discussion, because we already know what the guy's thinking.

This also throws the emphasis away from the plot -- which is still brilliantly constructed -- and onto the characters.  It's really not about the clever social engineering they'll use to rob a safe -- although it's really quite clever -- it's about, say, the moment that Hank meets his ex-wife's new fiancé, and the camera just gives that moment some time to land on everybody.

I think this also explains why the show sets up act-outs the way it does.  Most shows -- dear god, especially crime procedurals -- hit act breaks when something happens to throw the story in a new direction and ramp up the danger.  Usually it's a line of dialog that feels like it could be followed by an old-timey Wurlitzer chord.  "Captain, Jacobs has reported in.  He's... found another body."  Boom! act break.

Terriers almost never ends an act on a big plot twist.  Instead, you get a moment where, say, Hank has used a chunk of Britt's money (without permission) to make a deposit on a house.  Britt asks Hank what happens if he can't pay off his loan.  Hank replies that he'd wind up forfeiting the whole deposit.  This isn't necessarily anything to do with the plot.  The plot is about some crime or other.  But instead, the camera just lingers on Britt's reaction, little bits of self-reassurance, irritation, fear, resignation -- and then after we've watched that a bit, without any cueing from the score, we cut to black.  It's like they're saying, "Yeah, we know you'll be back after the break.  Don't worry, we've got the plot in hand.  We just want you to spend the next few minutes thinking about where this relationship is going to go."  That's what's holding things together.  That's what matters the most.

Even when Terriers hits the most hackneyed scene setup in film noir -- a criminal approaches a reformed ex-con, asking him to do "one last job" -- it just doesn't matter that it's such a cliché, because the setup is kind of a clothesline.  What they hang from that is so *detailed*:  the ex-con's girlfriend is a vet student, studying for an exam about equine dentistry.  The ex-con was breaking into a taco stand with a crowbar when Hank caught him, years ago.  The room is cheap but nice, and the criminal looks much flashier than the other two.  It's only several minutes into the scene that you realize you're watching such a played-out cliché, and you don't care.

I'm also intrigued by how it's splitting the difference between episode arcs and the season arc.  This is the big 'squaring the circle' problems with modern serialized drama:  how do you write a show where each episode has a sense of closure -- like you've watched a completed thing -- while still having the episodes sum up to some larger plot?  Veronica Mars solved this by having each episode include an A-story (case of the week) and a B-story (minor clue in the larger case).  USA shows like Burn Notice make that formula much more rigid, devoting maybe 10% of every single episode to tipping its hat towards the season arc.

It's interesting that Terriers isn't really settling into a groove as to how it balances the stories.  The pilot kicks off the season arc, but has a self-contained missing-person case.  "Dog and Pony" starts out deep in the innards of the season-long Lindus case, only to spin off into an attempt to track down an escaped convict.  "Change Partners" ignores the season plot almost completely, focusing on a case that spins off from Hank's attempt to buy his old house.  Then "Fustercluck" is almost HBO-like in being not so much an episode as "the next forty minutes of this season-long movie".  This is fascinating, and frankly a bit cocky.  It seems like they aren't just finding a formula and desperately sticking to it -- they're confident that they can reinvent the wheel every week and keep going.

Or maybe it's hubris.  Maybe it's *too* cocky to think that they can avoid a predictable A-plot/B-plot structure.  Maybe it's stupid of them to assume that a mass audience would care about the character plots, when most people just want to see a bad guy get caught after 42 minutes.  Maybe every thing that was good about this show was something that got it cancelled.

But honestly?  This is 2012.  Nearly every-damn-thing gets cancelled, regardless of quality.  Eventually, all that will ever survive are singing contests and cockroaches.

I suspect the things that made it good just made it good.

For next time:  more Terriers!  After that, who knows?

[1] ... one of those mysterious sitcoms that nobody anywhere loves, but somehow has a massive audience and runs for five (!) seasons.

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Date:Monday (4/2/12) 9:40am
I'm gonna have to watch this show. As a note, though, you've got two copies of the Donal Logue paragraph.
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Date:Monday (4/2/12) 12:35pm


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Date:Monday (4/2/12) 10:15am
Firstly, I'm glad you are enjoying Terriers as much as I told you that you would. :)

As for the Tao of Steve, the main lindy hopper (in SF) who has talked about it has one of those personalities where he doesn't really need tricks to do just fine for himself. I found it interesting just for the way that the theory tracks with dancing in general.

Tao of Steve: Be excellent, be desireless, be gone.

Dancers demonstrate excellence by putting in a lot of time and getting good
Dancers are desireless so long as they are at an event to dance not to look for a hookup.
Dancers are gone as soon as the next song comes on, and have the same experience with the next person.

While the guy in the movie did use it as a game to get attractive women, I'd actually argue that the people who are most successful in the dance scene are the ones who don't approach it that way. In my experience, those dancers have the air of desperation that mitigates the second element. (I can't speak for the blues scene, those kids don't seem to care).

This is one interesting explanation for why the dance world is so backwards compared with the real world when it comes to male/female interaction. :)
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Date:Monday (4/2/12) 12:37pm
Aha -- good points all.  I think I've heard about this film more than once among various dancers in the lindy & blues scenes, but it's wrong of me to imply that all the film's fans are aspiring PUAs. :)
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Date:Monday (4/2/12) 10:20am
Oh, and after watching FNL, I'm less bothered by these brilliant one season shows. I'd much rather have one amazing season than think about how a potentially horrible second season can completely ruin my appreciation for the show overall. :)
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Date:Monday (4/2/12) 12:38pm
Honestly, I'm always a little disappointed by S2 of Sports Night, but that's nothing compared to the Unfortunate Landry Plot.
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