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

Tuesday (12/3/13) 1:14am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed several weeks, owing to laziness.]

Movies:   <none>
TV:   WKRP in Cincinnati [1x01-1x07], Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x06-1x08], Doctor Who, "The Day of the Doctor"
Books:  <none>

WKRP in Cincinnati [1x01-1x07]
This is the late-70s/early-80s sitcom about an AM radio station that switches its format to rock'n'roll.

Judging from my inquiries so far, nobody I know who's younger than thirty has ever seen this show.  This is odd.  It's like if nobody under thirty had ever heard Pet Sounds or something -- sure, young person, maybe you haven't listened to that song cycle all the way through, but you'd at least recognize the melody of "Wouldn't It Be Nice", or maybe you heard "God Only Knows" at the end of Boogie Nights or in the middle of Bioshock: Infinite.  It's part of the cultural landscape.

But WKRP just dropped off the face of the earth. 

And this is especially weird because, if I were talking to a TV critic, and I claimed that WKRP was the best sitcom ever made... well, they might not *agree* with me, but they wouldn't think I was crazy.  The number of sitcoms they'd cite as superior (Cheers, I Love Lucy, Seinfeld) would likely be countable on one hand.

The problem is, WKRP was a show about a radio station.  That meant that it used music.  It used a lot of music.  It used a lot of big-name music.  And the music wasn't just incidental background noise -- the show was often *about* that music.  The dialog frequently referenced the music.  This was a show produced from 1978 to 1982, before people bought DVDs (or VHSs, or betas) of their favorite TV shows -- and that meant that they never sorted out the licensing rights for selling consumers a copy of the show on beta/VHS/DVD/streaming/chip-in-your-head.

In 2007, Fox tried releasing a DVD set of the first season, and they dealt with those pesky music rights by butchering the show.  The songs that were central to the story were replaced with generic, easily-licensed music.  The dialog that directly referenced those songs was re-recorded -- or in some cases, those scenes were cut completely.  Fans hated the set, nobody bought the set, and they've never released any more of WKRP.

And so the show disappeared.  When I picked up the complete series (it fell off of a truck on the Internet), it was the first time I had seen WKRP in twenty-five years.

Holy shit.  It holds up!  Sure, it looks like it was shot for about $2.50 on a soundstage made of the most finely-crafted cardboard, but who cares about a pretty set?  Let's be honest: pretty does not make a sitcom funny.  Funny makes a sitcom funny.

WKRP is a show with funny characters.  Lesser sitcoms do not have funny characters -- instead, they have characters who say funny things.  (See: David Spade in Just Shoot Me.)  Even lesser sitcoms just settle for 'characters who say snarky things', and count on the audience being programmed to assume sarcasm must be funny.  (See: David Spade in a crappy episode of Just Shoot Me.)[1]

To have a show come out with eight sharp characters out of the gate is almost unheard of.  Firefly managed it.  Arrested Development did it.  Most don't even try (ensemble television is hard), and many, like Community, take some time to really nail down some of the characters (when that show finally 'got' Britta, it was amazing).

With WKRP, I'll concede that two of their eight -- Bailey and Venus -- are underwritten.  With Venus it's especially regrettable, because the writers are just writing him as "the black guy" and hoping that "zany" racist jokes -- jokes that would get you punched in the face in 2013, and rightly so -- will suffice.  But even with those two, you can feel the personalities of the actors overpowering the weak writing.  And with Bailey, they write a female character who starts out weak, diffident, and ignored, and who struggles to overcome that.  That's engaging, and it feels a hell of a lot more honest than shows that default to a "strong female character" who is over-the-top awesome at everything, and who lives in an alternate universe where nobody is ever sexist.

At its best, the show not only shows us sharply-drawn grotesques, but it finds something underneath that grounds the characters emotionally.  Les Nessman is not just an obsessive, incompetent newsman -- he's a guy who's banked everything on his career, to the point that if he loses his self-delusions about his success in the radio business, he might just shatter completely.  Johnny Fever is not just a bleary-eyed stoner DJ -- he's a guy who genuinely cares about his friends, but who fights getting emotionally involved at every turn, probably because he knows the radio business will send him to a new city next month, or the month after.  And the show allows for little emotional beats -- say, Johnny taking one deep breath before putting on his first rock album -- that really bring this home.

Hell, even the straight man works.  The straight man is usually dull as dirt in these ensemble scenarios.  The most common way to deal with this is to make that viewpoint character a wry, detached observer, someone who dryly skewers the other characters with snide remarks that go right over their targets' heads.  And while this works okay if you're brilliantly funny -- if you're Richard Curtis writing Edmund Blackadder or Mitch Hurwitz writing Michael Bluth, more power to you -- it's more engaging to go the opposite (and rarely-traversed) route: what if you *like* these people?  What if you want them to be happy, and so you try to get them to do stuff without hurting their feelings?  That's where they go with Andy, and it helps underscore the emotional reality of the show.  These may be kuh-razy characters, but everybody's feelings still follow round-earth logic.

I have to give this show the highest accolade I can give to characterization: I don't need jokes.  Hell, I don't even need stories.  I would be happy to just watch these characters being themselves.

And having such strong characters highlights, for me, how *forced* conflict is in most sitcoms.  Consider: in a conflict between two characters, the characters don't *need* to hate each other.  Yes, they often do, but they don't need to.  In a conflict between two characters, the characters don't *need* to want different things.  Yes, they often do, but they don't need to.  The fact is, if your characters are different enough, and well-written enough, they can like each other, and they can want the exact same end goal, but they can be so different that they see different ways to achieve that goal and will fight for their preferred method.  If the characters are sharp enough, you don't need "Ooh, they're mad at each other", and you don't need "Ooh, this one wants 'pie' and this one wants 'no pie'" -- the conflict will just happen organically, as they both run to the finish line.

One last lesson I take away from this show: if you're working in the multi-camera sitcom format, do not pretend you're in the shabbiest film ever.  Instead, pretend you're in a badass play, and there happen to be cameras running.  At first, the stagey quality of the show threw me, but as I kept watching, it grew on me more and more.

It makes the show feel *alive* and spontaneous, like an improv show.  By comparison, modern sitcoms feel like they've been run through something analogous to heavy AutoTuning: the lines start and end with proper timing, the shots make us focus on the appropriate character at every moment, the reaction shots happen when there's a pause for us to consider the last kuh-razy line -- but there's no room for, say, Venus Flytrap snickering like mad in the background while Johnny talks about sending wigs to Guatemalan refugees.  There's no room for Scum of the Earth to cause random chaos in their hotel room.  You can't have Bailey stammer uncomfortably through her show proposal -- instead you need a delivery that's more deliberately arranged to *signify* anxiety and self-doubt.

It actually goes a long way towards making the cardboard sets forgiveable, partly because it puts me in the mind of sitting in a black-box theater, and partly because it keeps me riveted on the characters, who seem geniunely lively and unpredictable.

Even as I say all this, I'm sure I'm overselling it.  A thirty-five-year-old show is hard to take on its own terms.  Not all of its jokes work, and the "aren't black people funny?" jokes are not cool at all.  And I know that the very next episode, "Love Returns", is one of the agreed-on low points of the show.  But for now, it just feels great to see a TV show knock it out of the park for a change.

To quote Zero Punctuation, "It's just damn good. Damn damn good good damn good damn damn... good."

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x06-1x08]
These are the latest episodes of ABC's weekly drama about agents who investigate superhero-related happenings in the Marvel universe.

Well, at least they were failing at the right thing for a while.  They were at least *trying* to make shows about the relationships among the cast members, instead of about "ooh, what magical technowhatsit will they use to defeat this nefarious villain who possesses POWER OVER SMALL QUANTITIES OF DAIRY?![2]"  "F.Z.Z.T." absolutely had the right idea, jettisoning the reasonably-priced-character-actor-of-the-week entirely halfway through, and focusing entirely on "Simmons is going to die; what do we do about this?"  It's all about the relationships, and suddenly I care about it very much.  And hell, we all know from prior experience that a Mutant Enemy show would feel no remorse about making the logline "Simmons catches an alien virus and then she dies."

Then "The Hub" *tries* to do the same thing, showing us Ward and Fitz, paired up on the road, and forced to come to terms with each other.  (They try to do a parallel storyline with Skye and Simmons, and it's cute, but it never really comes into focus, relationship-wise.)  Unfortunately, it plays out pretty much exactly the way you expect: Fitz does some clever things, and gains grudging respect from Ward.  Oh.  Um, okay, that was kind of what I wrote in my head when I saw the logline.

And then "The Well"... just loses the plot.  It's not about relationships, it's about some magical whatsit or other (the "Asgardian Berserker[3] Staff"), and they're trying to stop (*sigh*) militant Norwegian pagans (seriously, are we just generating villains via Mad Libs filled out by Stephen Fry?[4]) from getting it and using it for... stuff.

So we went from learning new things about how characters felt about each other ("F.Z.Z.T.") to reiterating what we already knew about relationships ("The Hub") to not even trying ("The Well").  That's not a good trend.

And that's a damn shame, because "F.Z.Z.T." was, if not a good episode, at least something really close to a good episode.  With it, the show turned on a dime from a weirdly-weightless "*yawn* risking my life again -- it must be Tuesday" to treating death with due respect.  Clark Gregg clears the room to talk to the doomed firefighter, and you feel like, yes, this is how it feels to have a final conversation with a dying man.  And Elizabeth Henstridge plays her plight for real: Simmons is going to die, and there is nothing she can do to stop it, and her friends have to watch it happening.

Even the cinematography helps out, giving us just brief hints of handheld footage, making it feel a little more real, making it land.

I'm not saying that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to be deathsville, but in this case, we finally feel some stakes in the show, and those real stakes bring out real characterization.  We learn more about how Fitz and Simmons feel towards each other.  We even see into Ward's state of mind a bit.  By the end, when Simmons jumps, and Fitz nabs a parachute, we understand, and it means something to us.

Why can't we get more of that?

The things that were broken in its pilot and its first few episodes are still broken now.  Their vision of "slow storyline development" is still "spend one to two minutes of each episode alluding to something vague about that storyline".  Its idea of 'developing' the "what happened when Coulson 'died'?" storyline is to have Coulson making some inquiry into his 'death' for maybe thirty seconds in each episode.  The episodic inquiries could be rearranged into any order.

But there are so many other ways -- all of them superior -- to explore a lengthy arc.  For fun, consider how Terriers might have handled this storyline.  By this point in the show, Terriers would have done several reveals about what happened to Coulson, probably making each of them an emotional gut-punch; done an episode completely *devoted* to Coulson chasing down his lost time; and, for a time, abandoned the storyline completely and made Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a show about weddings.  This is because Terriers was a show that knew no fear and thus got itself canceled.

Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plays things painfully slow and safe, confusing "a slow burn" for "lazily allowing your drink to reach room temperature".

And the show is still trapped in vagueness.  We often see the flip side of the classic B-movie expository scene -- you know, the where scientist 'A' discourses to scientist 'B' about information they both know?  In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., agent 'A' discourses to agent 'B' about information that they both know, only neither of them say word one about what it is.  'A' makes a vague allusion, 'B' nods knowingly, and they both talk around it without mentioning a proper noun.  Even when Fitz and Simmons have their biggest heart-to-heart -- some of the most direct, honest communication in the show -- the dialog has no real specifics.  It's just "I stood by you for a long time", and while that's a meaningful thing to say, it keeps their pasts woefully indeterminate.

One longs for the profligate detail of (say) The Avengers ("It's like Budapest all over again!" / "You and I remember Budapest very differently."), or any movie or show that brims over with little factoids that it doesn't even *need*.  Mal nattering on about Shadow to Saffron.  Lindsey Weir recounting the last time she talked to her grandmother.  Lister telling Rimmer what his "authentic Les Paul copy" means to him.  Television thrives on this sort of rich, lived-in detail.  With it, you've got a world.  Without it, you've got very pretty actors on very small soundstages.

The show's smaller problems continue percolating along.  Its villains are boring, boring, boring.  (Why couldn't they just roll with the inherent hilarity of "militant Norwegian pagans" instead of asking us to take it seriously?)  The conflicts with the baddies don't reflect personal conflicts.  And Skye and Ward are just not good characters, and I don't know if I should blame the writers, the actors, or everyone involved in the show.

Mo Ryan pointed out the most damning dismissal of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..  Consider "The Hub" -- season one, episode seven.  In this episode, two men, one a grizzled veteran, one an enthusiastic newb, go into a dangerous situation, and hijinks ensue.  Now let's consider another Mutant Enemy show that handled similar material.  At about the same point in its run (season one, episode ten), Firefly had reached "War Stories".  In this episode, two men, one a grizzled veteran, one an enthusiastic newb, go into a dangerous situation, and... jesus, comparing these two is like watching a T. Rex stomping a puppy.  Firefly used a villain we already knew and genuinely feared.  The episode had something it was *really* about -- Wash's jealousy towards Mal's friendship with Zoë -- and that was something we'd already sensed in the show.  The episode made us genuinely worry about the guys' safety, and we genuinely *felt* their friends' anxiety after they were captured, and... I'm just going to stop there.

It's just depressing.

Doctor Who, "The Day of the Doctor"
This is the 50th anniversary special for Doctor Who, the revered BBC sci-fi show about an ancient, helpful humanoid alien who goes on time-travelling adventures.

You know what I need to do?  I need to set "The Day of the Doctor" aside, and not think about it for a month or two, and then watch it again without any hype or heightened expectations.  For the moment, I'm in an awkward position: I liked the anniversary special fine, I had a perfectly pleasant time watching it, but now everybody around me is going on about how it's the most joyous experience ever.  So many people have asked me, bright-eyed, "WASN'T THAT AWESOME?!!"  So many times, I have grinned affably and changed the subject.  Even the critics liked it, and trust me, TV critics?  They're not Stephen Moffat's biggest fans.

So for the moment, I fall back on what I so often have to say: yes, I liked it; no, I didn't like it as much as you did.

But I suspect if I get back to it in a month or so, I can look past its disappointments, stop expecting it to be better than it is, appreciate its fun moments, and not give a damn what the rest of the world thinks.

I'm definitely *impressed* by "The Day of the Doctor".  The sheer density of its references to early episodes was dizzying, and I say that even though most of those references whizzed right by me (up to now, for example, I'd been utterly oblivious to the "UNIT dating controversy").  And what's better, those constant references didn't feel gratuitous.  Deep down, the episode really *is* about the contrast between who the Doctor was before the Time War, and who the Doctor became after it.  So it makes sense to show that contrast both directly (with the War Doctor peevishly poking fun at Ten and Eleven) and indirectly (with references to everything, everywhere, all the time).

And it's a hell of a puzzle box that Moffat has constructed this time around.  In addition to all his usual twisty time-travel shenanigans (the phone call to the museum security guard, for example, was deftly paid off), he manages to neatly undo the basic premise of the Russell T Davies years without obviously contradicting continuity.  And this after finishing a story arc where the three Doctors (ten, eleven, War) all came to terms with destroying the race of Time Lords.

It has the air of a victory lap -- a breezy, fun visit to well-loved aspects of the past, giving Matt Smith one last fun extravaganza before "The Time of the Doctor" ends his run this Christmas.

But this is where we start to see my problems with the special: it's a breezy, fun, happy-good-time episode... about genocide.  And "ha ha ha ha ha genocide" is a tricky tonal variation to pull off, and I don't think Moffat is the writer to do it.  By the time we get to the core of the episode, to the decision whether to destroy the Gallifreyan race for the sake of the universe, that scene doesn't have enough weight.  Sure, it *acts* like it has emotional weight to it, but the light, frothy tone of the rest of the episode has a momentum to it, so it feels a bit like a Friends episode wherein, for some reason, Phoebe has started talking about the Holocaust.  More "huh?" than "this is the serious core of this episode".

And that brings me around to my usual problem with Moffat: while I'm always *interested* in his stories, I rarely *care* about his stories.  And I can't help thinking that these are related facts.  Moffat has a grand time running amok with time travel, creating cracks, and loops, and rifts, and paradoxes, and weird little Möbius strips, and vortices and voids.  Moffat stories tend to spiral all over the place, with the end taking place in the middle, or the beginning at the end, or the conclusion running backwards through an entire season, so that as you're watching the story start to finish, you're never seeing it in order.

And that's fine -- it creates stories that are fun to analyze -- but it runs athwart the things that make me care about a story.  To make me care about a story, give me a character I'm interested in, and a situation where I hope things turn out okay for them.  That's actually very difficult to do.  If the main character is time-travelling through their own storyline, it becomes more difficult: "I hope things will turn out okay" becomes something like "I hope things will be have had going to turn out okay".  It's also more difficult if the main character is secretly puzzling out this time-travel conundrum without letting on what's happening.

It's telling, I think, that the best story Moffat has written for Doctor Who ("Blink," obviously) features a protagonist (Sally Sparrow) who experiences the story in normal, chronological order, who has a clear goal (don't get nabbed by the Angels), and who always lets the audience in on what she's thinking.  If we saw that story in cuisinarted order, and if she were smirking to herself about her clever and unexpressed plans, it would be a harder sell.

So that's my general issue with Moffat.[5]  And it applies here: the games distance me emotionally from the action, and even when he steps back from all that for a genuinely emotional scene, he just doesn't have a knack for making me empathize.

That left "The Day of the Doctor" as yet another very clever puzzle box that I respected more than cared about.  Moffat has made me say, "Huh, that's clever" many times.  I doubt he will ever make me cry.

And the frustrating thing is, this breezy, frothy, emotional weightlessness goes beyond just this episode.  After the actions of "The Day of the Doctor", the last seven seasons we've watched have become, in a way, bullshit.  The whole point of the show's reboot, on some level, was that the Doctor carried the guilt of annihilating his people.  Maybe his journeys were a way of atoning for that.  And maybe the show, for all its whimsy and silliness, had something honest to say about starting over.

Well, now, nope, it was all just a wacky misunderstanding!  This is a world in which the worst things never happen... and so I have that much less reason to care about it.

The ending also bugged me because it included so much hand-waving it was unpredictable.

To ratchet back for a moment, "Blink" is also, as far as I can tell, unique among Moffat's Who stories in that it sets up only two simple rules: (1) the Angels move when you're unobserved, and (2) if they catch you, they throw you back in time.  The rest of the episode observes those rules very rigorously.  As time goes on, I feel like Moffat more and more often throws in extra rules as he sees fit, and for a conclusion, throws up his hands and says, "AND THEN THIS HAPPENS BECAUSE MAGICK."  He's certainly within his rights to do that, but it makes me much less likely to 'play along' -- I'm not going to try to puzzle out the ending to a Moffat story if I know at any moment it could go all "UNICORNS APPEAR, EVERYONE LIVES".

To be fair, Moffat had obviously set up the "pictures that can contain people" trick and paid it off wonderfully with the aforementioned museum guard.  But nabbing all of Gallifrey into a planet also required: (1) Nine and Ten forget this happened because of reasons; (2) all the Daleks shoot each other rather improbably; (3) you can capture a whole planet provided you have enough TARDISes; (4) suddenly, all those Doctors crossing the same timeline is just fine now, even though it's dire trouble elsewhere in canon.

I hate nitpicking like this.  (This may surprise many readers, who've certainly seen me do my share of nitpicking.)  I wanted to love that ending unabashedly.  I still think it's astoundingly clever, finding a way to retcon out the event that Russell T Davies put at the center of the reboot without undoing continuity -- it's the writerly equivalent of yanking a ten-square-yard tablecloth out from under a two-hundred-piece place setting without even nudging a pastry fork.  And it somehow, miraculously, allowed for a happy ending for "The Day of the Doctor", even as it went headlong into the saddest event of his life.

But as clever as it was, it just felt... cheap.

All that said, when I come back to "The Day of the Doctor" in a month or two, I'll have a much better time.  I'll expect the action to be clever but kind of emotionally vacuous.  I'll look for all the delightful nods to previous Who.  I'll pretty much ignore Clara.

And y'know?  I think I'll have a pretty good time.

Side note: that quick cameo from Tom Baker blew me away.  What have I been doing with my life that's been so goddamn important that I've only found time to watch one Tom Baker serial? 

For next time, I'll watch more of WKRP, continue frittering away time on Zero Punctuation, and chip my way through a bit more of A Clash of Kings.

[1] And this is also true for the comedic elements of dramatic shows -- Skye on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a funny character, nor a character who says funny things, but a character who says *snarky* things that we're supposed to *assume* are funny.
[2] Bad example.  Misfits did utterly badass things with a character who had this power.
[3] Sooo many Clerks jokes while watching this.
[4] Wait.  Actually, no, that's a brilliant idea.  Showrunners, GET STEPHEN FRY TO FILL OUT MAD LIBS.  STORYTELLING GENIUS WILL SURELY FOLLOW.
[5] ... along with
his penchant for assuming women are only decent and grown-up if they settle down and have kids.

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