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

Monday (4/9/12) 5:54pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Terriers [1x05-1x11]
Books:  <none>

Terriers [1x05-1x11]
This week, I watched the bulk of the one-and-only season of Terriers, which follows two unlicensed PIs as they stumble across a massive San Diego real-estate conspiracy.

I do feel like I need to call this show on something it's doing poorly:  it's not that good at minor characters.  Yes Ben Zeitlin is perfect at exuding privileged evil, there are a lot of underdeveloped, one-note personalities in this show.  Most notably, Mark Gustafson just never impressed me much.  He started out as the stereotypical "angry black cop", as seen in the sergeant's office of any 80s action movie, and the script just doesn't develop him beyond that.  Worse, they stick him with a quirk -- the smokeless cigarette -- that kind of screams "this is what we're doing instead of real characterization".

Other minor characters fare a bit better.  The "squatters" -- the Ocean Beach version of the Lone Gunmen, I suppose -- are kind of cute with their dialog that sounds like random selections from wikipedia, but the scripts never really serve them beyond that.  Even with Gretchen, a lot of the time I can't see much of a character beyond just "somebody who's had it with Hank".  They like to define supporting characters purely by their attitude towards the leads; I prefer supporting characters to be people with their own lives and ideas that happen to intersect with the leads' efforts.

And I'm not holding Terriers up to an impossible standard here, either.  Exhibit A here is Slings and Arrows, where even if you see a character for just three lines, the show deploys those three lines with the skill and economy of Al Hirschfeld.  I feel like, even in this agonizingly small number of episodes, the show should be filling out Ocean Beach with a strong 'back bench' of supporting characters.

At the same time, the show has continued to impress me with how it handles its season arc.  Like I said before, it never settles into a pattern -- it keeps using every technique that showrunners have developed for dealing with a season-long plot.  It even gave us a finale of sorts for the series arc about halfway through the season, with Dalworth publicizing the soil-sample report and ending the resort development.

And then it did something that irked me at the time, but seems brilliant in retrospect:  it stepped away from the season arc completely.  Instead, it went deep into the relationship plots, and basically acted like the lurking conspiracy was in the past.  That made its reappearance in "Asunder" a hell of a lot more affecting (and scary -- the hotel standoff between Zeitlin and Ross is a goddamn nail-biter), and gives the overall season a great sense of variation.

But what impresses me most is how *cocky* that move is.  "Yeah?  You're watching a modern noir?  It's about private detectives?  And you've got this interesting season arc to follow?  Well, guess what?  We're yanking all that out.  Now, this show is primarily about weddings.  And you know what?  Even though we're on a crime show, we're good enough at writing about weddings to keep you paying attention."

It didn't bat a thousand -- I thought Dalworth's dirt-digging on Jason Adler was pretty predictable, for example -- but you've got to marvel at a show that even *tries* that.

Finally, I really dug how they dealt with Hank's sister, Steph.  It was, again, ballsy of the show to hint at her appearance from the very beginning ("the carton of milk was empty -- am I going senile?").  But mainly I liked that they had some respect for mental illness.  It's interesting for me to contrast this with, say, Firefly, which has the exact same setup -- an older brother caring for his brilliant-but-mentally-ill younger sister -- but Terriers is aiming for simple, lived-in reality as opposed to crazy sci-fi adventure.  So Steph doesn't do the usual TV-drama-crazy-person thing, where the crazy person is basically just saying true and perceptive things in the form of high-school poetry.  Instead, it feels much more true to life, with long periods of (socially-awkward) lucidity, and then that off-kilter dialog that hints at batshit hallucinations.  It gets the dynamic right, with Hank showing the right amounts of optimism, anxiety, and heartbreak, and with the characters falling into convincing sibling conversational rhythms when the meds seem to be working.

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

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