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

Sunday (5/27/12) 7:30pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed the last three weeks, on account of constant illness.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Avatar [seasons 1 & 2], Avatar [season 3], Community [season 3], Battleground [season 1]
Books:  <none>

Avatar [seasons 1 & 2]
So I finally decided I would watch season three of Avatar: The Last Airbender (AKA "the *good* Avatar), and as a run-up to that, I'd re-watch its first two seasons.

I already talked about those first two seasons when I first watched them:  1x01-1x04; 1x05-1x20; 2x01-2x05; 2x06-2x13; 2x14-2x17; 2x18-2x20.

This time around, I plowed through the seasons so quickly that I got a better look at the big picture.

Lately I've been seeing shows like Louie and Terriers, where you're watching the *pilot* and you feel like this could be from the middle of a lesser show's fifth season, because everything you see is so nuanced and lived-in and confident.  With Avatar, on the other hand, things are more traditional: the start feels like the start.  The characters start very simple and clear.  The world has lots of details left out -- okay, the water tribe are eskimos, the fire nation is China, and we see a few bits of magic.

And the show's structure is very straightforward:  Aang arrives somewhere, the gang solves a problem, usually by fighting a baddie, the gang moves on.  You'll recall that most normal dramas (cop/doctor/lawyer) are "client-driven" stories, where some guest star walks into the office and Our Team then solves their problem.  This is sort of the inverse of that, where Our Team comes to a new client every week and solves their problem.  This is something you can do easily in animation, where you can paint in a new setting every week, and not so much in live-action, where you have to use the same standing sets every week.[1]

So we spend season one working within those parameters.  We don't restructure anything:  every time, it's the Aang gang going on an adventure, and the Zuko duo busily pursuing them.  That's not to say the show is limited -- it's still doing brilliant and necessary stuff, filling out the details of the world, exploring the show's mythology, and adding complexity to the characters (Zuko's turn in "The Blue Spirit" is breathtaking) and their relationships.  And they just get better and better at action sequences (again, "The Blue Spirit" feels like an early high-water mark).

But the *underpinnings* all stay the same, even as they're developing the world and its characters to a point where the story can't really be hemmed in by that structure any more.

And that's where season two comes in.  And you just get this feeling like the frame is opening out.  Like the show titles say, this is "Book 2:  Earth", and yes, we settle into the earth kingdom.  But also, we split up Zuko and Iroh, we add a new member to Team Aang, and eventually, even the show-structure starts pulling apart.  Once the story settles in Ba Sing Se, to put it indelicately, they start pulling some Lost shit.  Not only do the chronological stories start jigsawing together (The buried sand-boat in "The Desert"?  You'll see it again later, kids.), but the show even briefly dabbles in nonchronological storytelling.  "Tales of Ba Sing Se" sort of steps out of the timestream to give us little vignettes of characters living life in the city; and then "Appa's Lost Days" re-tells the last few weeks of the show from the point of view of a non-speaking bison.  And it all fits together.[2]

But they couldn't have gotten to that more experimental, variable storytelling without starting somewhere more traditional, and using that time to ground the characters and establish the world.

Also, they did an excellent job with ending book two at the lowest possible point, with the fire nation overtaking Ba Sing Se, Aang nearly dead, Iroh in jail, Azula effectively in charge at the fire nation, and our heroes dispatched as runaway fugitives yet again.  I suppose when you know all along that you're just going to run for three seasons, you can happily ape the Star Wars trilogy (the real one, not the prequels) for your overall story structure.

Avatar [season 3]
... and now we move on to the last season.

One of the big "squaring the circle" problems with television is "How do you keep generating new stories when you keep your characters pretty much the same?"  Audiences like it when TV characters stay consistent.  Consistency means there's a personality there for them to get invested in.  It lets them feel like they *know* the character.  And frankly, it matches up with reality -- yes, people change, but it's rare and usually incremental.  Change a person around to suit every passing episode, and people kind of tune out from that character.  (Unless we're talking about Glee, in which case audiences inexplicably keep watching.)

So you keep the characters consistent.  But then, the problem is that you eventually run out of stories to tell with that certain arrangement of characters in a certain situation.  After a certain point, you start repeating yourself -- and again, that's the point where audiences get bored and tune out.

So what do you do?  Different shows handle it differently.  Most medical dramas will rotate old cast members out and new cast members in on a fairly regular basis.  The Simpsons, at the end of its first decade, veered towards surreal plots with random plot twists, where by the time you hit act three you were watching something completely unrelated to act one.  Hell, the vast majority of shows just burn out and bleed audience towards the end.

One of the better strategies for dealing with this is to keep the same characters, and keep the characters the same, but just... rearrange the chessboard.  Put all your characters in new positions, and let that lead to -- ta-da! -- new interactions, new conflicts, and new stories.  Season two of Arrested Development is a good example of this:  GOB is still in the show, and GOB is still undeniably the same GOB, but GOB is put *in charge* of the Bluth Company.  Suddenly,  everyone relates to GOB differently, and there are brand-new things to do with the character.

Season three of Avatar is a great example of rearranging things to create new dynamics.  Putting Zuko back into the good graces of the Fire Lord is perfect, as is pairing him up with Mai.  Putting Iroh in prison gives him other dynamics to play. (I loved how he carefully suggests to his jailor that she take the day off.)  And putting the gang undercover in the Fire Nation is perhaps my favorite change -- now there are lots of stories to tell about how they come to understand the people they've been questing to destroy.  And then, mid-season, we get the best chess move of all:  Zuko joins the Aang gang.  Instantly, there are all sorts of new dynamics to explore, both when Zuko first shows up (and nobody trusts him), and when he finally moves into the group.  (And meanwhile, several characters from earlier seasons join the gang as well.  Eventually, even Suki rejoins the group.)

The season also does a great job of heightening.  Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee were a good deal more dangerous than Zuko, but "Combustion Man" is, in turn, a good deal more dangerous than the lady-trio.  So we see the fights get more and more epic -- and by the time we reach the sky-consuming pyrotechnics of the last battle between Aang and Fire Lord Ozai, we can look back on that long, carefully-constructed arc that started with tentatively lifting a single fish out of the water in "The Boy in the Iceberg".

And I loved that, throughout the season, Aang wrestles with the knowledge that he has to kill the Fire Lord.  Yes, the show finds an out (aha! the magical lion told him he can strip Ozai of his fire-bending!), and yes, they're just trying to adhere to whatever Standards & Practices "no kill" rule they have set up at Nickelodeon.  But this felt like a meaningful plot-line -- Aang has been a serious pacifist up to this point.  His quasi-Buddhist monastery was serious about avoiding harm, and Aang himself sees his job as fostering and maintaining peace.  He's a vegetarian.  He lives in fear that his powers will hurt people accidentally.  So yes, killing Ozai is imperative, but killing Ozai goes against everything that Aang believes in.  I was glad the show was smart enough to address that.

Along the way, several individual episodes made a good impression.  "The Beach" was a great way to break the pattern of "Aang Gang comes to a new town and solves a problem" shows, and it was genius of them to explore how the show's badass villainesses would function among their peers in the real world.  (Hint: not well.)  It ended with a long chat around a campfire, which had on-the-nose dialog, yes, but it was the best kind of on-the-nose dialog, as it concisely gave depth and sympathy to all of the bad guys -- something that Avatar has done well all along.

"The Puppetmaster" impressed me both for creating a surprisingly dark ending -- Katara defeats the Hama, but now Katara is a bloodbender (so in that way, Hama 'wins') -- but also for exploring a logical question that I'd had about waterbending since the beginning:  people are mostly water, so a waterbender should be able to do... well, pretty horrible things to them, right?[3]  Sure, the plot was telegraphed pretty hard, but I loved seeing the dark side of waterbending.

Finally, "The Ember Island Players" was charming and lovely.  It was perfect to put a little breather -- a light, comic, arc-light episode -- right before their massive, four-part finale.  And it was brilliant to give everyone a quick victory lap, one last look back, before everything ended.  And good Christ, it was funny.  It goes through the roof with meta ("This is the kind of wacky time-wasting nonsense I've been missing!" says Sokka at the start), and the jokes just keep landing and landing and landing.  They keep poking fun at the show.  ("Did Jet just die?" asks Zuko.  "You know, it was really unclear," says Sokka.)  A kid assumes Zuko is cosplaying.  They keep finding ways to make the stage portrayals just horrible for the Aangsters (except for Toph, who finds her big, brutish characterization[4] to be AWESOME).  And somehow, this show just can't do a lousy action sequence -- even if they're showing a fight in a community-theater production, it's still a good fight, with stage effects that are intriguing and fun.

I'm surprised I don't see this more in TV shows -- a device that lets you look back on the show's past one last time before hurtling into its finale.  Maybe other shows will crib this from Avatar.

(Note: "The Beach", "The Avatar and the Firelord",  "Nightmares and Daydreams", and "The Ember Island Players" all get points for changing up the usual "Gang comes to town and solves a problem" structure.  Yay variety.)

So that was Avatar.  Apparently it's not popular among animé fans, who look down on it as a watered-down version of the Japanese shows that they love.  And it's not popular among mainstream TV fans, who assume it's some kind of violent kid's show and is best ignored.  Meanwhile, most TV critics defend Avatar as a great western cartoon that just happens to borrow a lot of animé elements.

Lucky for me, I get to appreciate it for what it is: a good show.  Once it found its groove, it did a great job realizing a wide cast of characters (including nuanced and conflicted villains), and it set them on a solid, ever-heightening quest to save the world, and it resolved the storyline with a massive, multi-part battle.

Well-played, guys.  I'll have to catch up on Legend of Korra one of these days.[5]

Community [season 3]
I got badly ill again this week -- fortunately, I still had one more season of Community to nurse me through it.  You can find my discussions of the first two seasons of Community here: 1x01-1x07; 1x08-1x13; 1x14-1x19; season two.

This was the season that completely won me over to the show.  I think one thing that changed this season was, I had accepted that there were a lot of things that this show just doesn't do.  While the show has continuity -- episodes have effects that last beyond the end credits -- it's not really *about* its continuity.  Most Community episodes are really self-contained, and that's okay.  The characters do proceed along arcs, but those arcs are very simple and don't lead to any radical changes.

And I learned to have a lot more respect for what the show *does*.  Sure, not every episode knocks things out of the park, but it's a show that is willing to try crazy experiments.  I mean, look, The Simpsons has had over 500 episodes to do absolutely anything they want.  Have they ever done anything as crazy as rendering almost an entire episode as a 16-bit video game?  I would argue no.  When a sitcom is willing to stretch its format to the point that you're wondering if it's even a sitcom any more, that's a show that's worth my valuable time.

I need a whole separate section for "Remedial Chaos Theory", my favorite episode of the show.  It's up for a Hugo award this year, and I frankly hope it beats out the smattering of Doctor Who episodes it's up against.  (I guess this episode functions as Community's "Blink", come to think of it.)  It's a show idea that Harmon had been kicking around for a while -- they would do a Sliding Doors thing, showing more than one way for a story to turn out.  Harmon assures us it's a common device -- "Paul Reiser has done it, for God’s sake" -- but when I watched this episode, I felt like I was watching something genuinely new.  That's such a rare feeling with television, and so breathtaking when it happens.

Maybe I'd just never seen this device taken to this *level* before.  "Remedial Chaos Theory" cycles through seven iterations of the same quick vignette, and packs that into -- what, nineteen minutes?  And it's constructed like a Swiss watch.  Think about it:  every single item and action that gets introduced in the first iteration plays a role in the subsequent ones.[1]

And the most fascinating part, to me, is how the show still works as a story.  I know, that doesn't make sense:  how can it work as a story if it's just showing you the same scene over and over?  Maybe that would work with Source Code, as one guy runs and re-runs a scenario trying to get something right, but that's not the deal here; we're just watching the scene play out different ways from different die rolls.

It's helpful here to think about non-chronological stories -- that is, stories that aren't told in chronological order.  You could have an episode that's all chopped up, with flashbacks and flashforwards, and so on -- but in addition to "story time", there's "viewer time", the actual 30 minutes that the viewer is spending in a seat.  Even when story time is going bat-crazy with its skips and doublings-back, viewer time often very strictly obeys the rules of narrative.

For example, say you've got a guy watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and say he's got a stopwatch.  He'll happily tell you that the story is crazy-out-of-order -- or that no, it goes beyond that, most of the film is out of time completely, taking place in the recesses of the protagonist's mind.  But if that guy had a chart listing the major beats of a romantic comedy, he'd see that the movie is structured just like your average rom-com.  When his stopwatch hit eight minutes, the two romantic leads would meet cute -- sure, in "story time" it's *after* the events of the main narrative, but never mind that.  When his stopwatch hit sixty minutes, he'd see the couple at their lowest point, with the memory erasure separating them with apparent permanence.  And when his stopwatch hit eighty minutes, he'd see the couple happily romping off into the snow.  Even when a narrative is structured crazily, it often plays out, in "viewer time", according to the same rules we know and love.

So you can watch how "Remedial Chaos Theory" works by seeing how things play out in viewer time.  Take the troll doll, for example.  Here's what happens over the course of the show:  Pierce mentions the present, Pierce produces the box, Troy sees and complains about the troll doll, Troy freaks out when the troll doll (surrounded by flames) seems to confront him, Pierce thinks better of the gift, Pierce throws the doll out the window.  Each of these steps occurs in a different timeline.  But they still add up to a story, and there's some lizard-like part of your brain that accepts it on that level.  Sure, the smart part of your brain knows that, when Pierce throws the box out the window, it isn't happening "after" any of those previous events, but it still *feels* like the resolution of that story.

The same goes for Britta's five abortive attempts to sing "Roxanne".  Yes, you *know* you're watching an identical event happen across multiple timelines, but it still *feels* like something that's happening over and over again -- something negative, at that -- by the end you're excited to realize that the pattern will be broken, relieved to see it happen, and happy to see the more positive developments that that leads to.

Okay, one more:  you can track the interactions between Jeff and Annie.  For the first two timelines, nothing happens between them.  Then, Annie helps treat Jeff's head injury.  Then, then the two almost kiss.  Then, they do kiss, but talk about how awkward that is.  Then, they don't interact, but both are happy.  Again, that could be a story with a beginning, middle, and end -- it just gets split out among all of these different timelines.

And this isn't just structure-nerd trainspotting.  These quasi-plots make the show have an emotional impact beyond a cool,  intellectal "ooh isn't that clever?" puzzle-box analysis.  When everyone sings and dances, it feels great, because you're seeing all of these densely-weaved plot threads reach their conclusion.  And in the broad scheme of things, you've seen the classic story structure:  things start out in an okay status quo, then things get worse until they get as bad as possible, and they finally end well.

And I haven't even touched on how the show allows us to analyze how the group works.  Most critics looked at that episode as a sort of scientific experiment, something that lets us see how the study group functions when you remove any one member, and how perceptive (and perhaps sad) it is when you realize that removing Jeff from the picture makes everyone much happier.

Okay.  That's "Remedial Chaos Theory".  Back to the rest of the season.  I admit, I favored the genre parodies over the more traditional episodes.  They lose some (but not all) of the character development and emotional stakes of the more traditional episodes, but they're really perceptive about their source material.  Hell, the Glee riff ("Regional Holiday Music") wouldn't work nearly so well if Dan Harmon didn't have such a passionate, *and detailed*, hatred of the FOX musical juggernaut.

Some of the long-term season arcs -- specifically, John Goodman's mysterious "Air Conditioning Repair Annex" and Chang's takeover of campus security -- were kinda-sorta funny, but nothing I could care about.  But the slight things they did with character arcs -- slowly ooching Troy and Britta together, or getting Annie to do things besides (to paraphrase Todd VanDerWerff) "have boobs and want Jeff" -- were very affecting.

In fact, one of my favorite things about the season was how they finished off Jeff's main storyline.  This was a slow thing, but they deliberately took Jeff from "Jeff is just setting up a study group to get to Britta", to "Jeff doesn't mind the study group", to "Jeff is friends with the study group", to, by the season finale, "Jeff loves the study group and is willing to make sacrifices for them."  It's the simplest possible storyline, but they make it feel earned, and they make me care about it.  And more importantly, it makes the finale feel like the end of something, like it's paying off what they set up with the very concept of the show.

I guess Dan Harmon could see the writing on the wall with "Introduction to Finality".  By the end of the episode, I feel like even Jeff is happily a part of this group of friends, and in that way, the story that Community had for us is basically over.  Then we get a montage over (finally!) the full version of the show's theme, and it reassures us that these people are going to be more-or-less okay.  When the hashtag "#sixseasonsandamovie" appears, that feels more like cute optimism than a necessity.

And indeed it was the end, for Harmon at least, who got fired from his own show.  It feels very similar to what happened with Moonlighting, another wildly experimental take on a traditional format, and one also fraught with production problems that finally led to the showrunner's dismissal.  People always talk about how Moonlighting got bad "when David and Maddie got together", and they always conveniently forget that that's *also* when they fired Glenn Gordon Caron.  Now people talk about how "the Moonlighting curse" means that you shouldn't let your romantic leads have sex -- but really, people should take "the Moonlighting curse" to mean you should never fire a showrunner from an idiosyncratic comedy with a very particular vision.[6]

That said, I dearly hope that David Guarascio and Moses Port can somehow succeed at making one last decent baker's dozen of Community episodes.  Sure, they've done more traditional work up to this point, but hell, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko had done what? Family Guy? before getting their shot at Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Wouldn't it be great if Mr. Guarascio and Mr. Port had spent all these years soldiering away at Just Shoot Me and the like, secretly wishing they'd get a chance to do something bizarre and dangerous like Community?

I know, I know.  They were picked because they're docile.  They were picked because they'll make a happy, normal, under-budget show for NBC.  Community will get barely enough episodes for syndication, and it'll get cancelled.

Until then, I can happily imagine the timeline where they, too, get fired for being too damn crazy.

Battleground [season 1]
This is the hulu mockumentary about the team working a Wisconsin senatorial campaign.  Full disclosure: the central cast includes Jordan T. Maxwell, a good friend of mine from the Austin-improv scene.

To answer the big question quickly: yes, I liked it.  No, I didn't *love* it, I wasn't blown away by it, and face it, any show is going to suffer when compared to the murderer's row of television I've watched lately (Terriers, season three of Avatar, season three of Community).  But it's a solid infield double that does what it sets out to do, and I would have watched it through even if I knew no one in the cast.[7]

Mostly, I'm just intrigued to see a show like this show up at all.  Live-action TV shows have a curious set of constraints limiting what they can take on.  You want a milieu that can generate lots of stories, but you want to be able to generate those stories without having to use a lot of different sets.  Ideally, you want just a few 'standing sets', and a situation that allows for all your new stories to just 'walk in the door'.  This is changing a bit, with more regional shooting-on-location and especially with constant advances in CGI -- it's remarkable to see how most CGI usage in TV these days is not for, say, making crazy spaceships'n'explosions, but for, say, making the backgrounds in Boardwalk Empire -- but by and large, shows stick to the same "stories walk in through the door" scenarios.

This is why nearly all dramas are cop/doctor/lawyer shows.  Stories can easily walk into the precinct/hospital/courtroom.

So honestly, a campaign HQ has been a logical setting for a TV show for a long time.  And true, some shows have touched on political campaigns -- The West Wing and The Wire come to mind most immediately -- but nobody's made a show that's about a campaign team.  I'm guessing that, up to this point, the audience of political nerds just hasn't been large enough to support such a TV show.  But now we have so much market fragmentation that a show like Battleground can exist.

Battleground doesn't feel like it's swinging for the fences.  It just wants to show us a solid little story about this very specific milieu.  It doesn't deliver many surprises.  If you meet a character that's likeable, that character will stay likeable for the rest of the show.  If you meet a character that's unlikeable, that character will stay unlikeable for the rest of the show.  If a plot element gets foregrounded early in an episode, it'll most likely get paid off towards the end of that same episode, and most likely in the way that you'd expect.

But it gives you a view of what a political campaign is like.  I was most interested in just how childish the dirty tricks in a campaign can get.  Not only do we see the team arrive one day to see the headquarters' locks glued shut, but the campaign manager has seen this happen so many times that he's not even surprised -- he just quickly asks for nail-polish remover.  I was also intrigued to see how modern campaigs have changed to account for the Internet.  I hadn't known about the technique of releasing an über-offensive campaign ad online, in hopes that the other side would complain about it and thus get it some free airplay in any subsequent news story about the ad.

And also, 'predictable' doesn't necessarily mean 'bad'.  Sure, when the campaign manager has an early phone conversation with his wife -- one that implies he doesn't make much time for her -- you know you're going to see a confrontation over the "passionate careerist just cares too much" cliché.  But when the scene comes, it's well-acted and engaging.

And Jordan gets to have a field day as the candidate's unruly stepson.  In a way, he's kind of on his own show: he's usually got his own comic subplot going on, with a much sillier tone than the main story.  This is a good thing -- without Jordan Dogberrying through the show, Battleground might just be unrelentingly earnest, which could get a bit cloying.

So we'll see if they get another season from hulu.  If they do, I hope they can zero in a bit on Cole, K. J., and Lindsey -- even at the end of the season, I didn't feel like I knew them all that well.  I wonder if more traditional TV shows -- ones where you are (say) writing episode five while releasing episode one -- have something of an advantage when it comes to finding a character.  Perhaps there's a sort of feedback loop, where you start seeing the character take shape in someone's performance, you start writing to that, and eventually you home in on what you want.

But it's a good little show, and one I'd recommend to my more political-wonk-minded friends.

For next time:  the murderer's row continues, with season four of Friday Night Lights.  Meanwhile, I'm very slowly making my way through the A Clash of Kings audiobook.

[1] There are very few counter-examples.  I know there's one throwaway line where Britta mentions that she thought the apartment number was 304, not 303.  This dialog does not affect through the timelines -- instead, it's a *very* obscure inside joke.  "Remedial Chaos Theory" was supposed to be episode 3 of season 3, giving it production code "303".  They needed to give the apartment a number, so they just said, "Eh, we'll make it 303."  Then, editing for the episode started taking for-e-ver -- to the point that they delayed the episode a week.  Now it was episode four of season three, so:  "304".  The apartment number stayed the same.  Apparently, this was a joke Gillian Jacobs came up with on-set.  Ah, Community:  where the ad-libs are even more byzantine than the scripts.

[2] This is why live-action dramas default to cop/doctor/lawyer, while cartoons get to go all over the place.

[2] This time around, I noticed the panthers from "The Tale of Momo" popping up in the city abduction scene at the end of "Appa's Lost Days" -- well played, writers.

[3] It seems like superhero writers often ignore how these spooky-action-at-a-distance powers could operate on human bodies.  One of my favorite bits of Rising Stars includes a character who is telekinetic, but can only move, say, a marble a half-inch.  She gets recruited by the CIA.  Recall that your jugular is about three millimeters wide.  The rest is an exercise for the reader.

[4] Inside joke alert: in season one, they were already planning to bring in an earthbender named "Toph" in the second season.  But for the longest time, they figured Toph would be a big, burly guy.

[5] One tiny complaint: I felt weird whenever they sexualized any of the leads.  For example, whenever we saw Katara through Aang's temporarily-replaced-by-hearts eyes -- all pretty and male-gaze-ified and such -- I felt weird about it, because she's all of fourteen or fifteen in this show.  C'mon, Avatar, lookin' sexy is for grown-ups.

[6] For its part, Community got past its Jeff/Britta "will they or won't they?" question fairly quickly, and was better because of it.

[7] If I'd hated it, I wouldn't have bothered writing it up, as I would have felt awful trashing my friend's TV show.

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