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

Wednesday (1/22/14) 8:44pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[missed many, many weeks, owing to laziness]

Movies:   <none>
TV:   Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x09-1x11], Rubicon [1x04-1x11], Cowboy Bebop [1x01-1x09]
Books:  <none>

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x09-1x11]
This is the ABC drama about a government team tasked with investigating strange happenings in the Marvel universe.  I wrote about its previous episodes here, here and here.

The good news is, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally pulled the trigger on a couple of the big reveals that they've been ponderously inching towards for the last eight episodes.  The bad news is, both of those reveals were anticlimactic.

I have strong opinions about mysteries in TV shows.

For starters, with TV shows, I don't care about the logistics of a mystery and its resolution.  There are a few exceptions -- the time-travel curlicues of "Blink" are delightfully clever, and "Walkabout" is a stunning example of what you can do with a mystery that the audience isn't even aware of -- but generally, I don't care about the "what" of the mystery. 

This is partly because the mysteries in TV story arcs are mostly unsolvable.  Here in the Internet Age, the audience of any TV show can collectively figure out even the most complicated puzzle within minutes.  And because of that, showrunners rarely if ever 'play fair' -- that is, they rarely give the audience all the clues they need to arrive at a solution.  So instead of a well-constructed mystery, you get an underdetermined mishmash of random, ponderous "clues" that don't actually add up to anything.  In the finale there's a ton of breathless exposition, wherein the writers desperately try to convince you that, no, really, those random hints were pointing towards this arbitrary 'solution' all along.

But even in those rare cases where a TV show actually *does* lay out a mystery in an intellectually-honest way, the mystery itself rarely grabs my attention. 

If I want puzzles, I'll play Sudoku.

There are two questions I *do* care about with mysteries, and care about very much: how does an ongoing mystery affect the characters? and how does they mystery's resolution affect the characters?  Going back to LOST, the "we have to go back" mystery from season four *resolved* with the most laughable pile of technobabble the show ever produced.  But I loved the effect that it had on the characters while it was going on.  This "unknown reason for returning" was forcing a hard, hard decision on each character, and put each of them through a melancholy assessment of where they had arrived in their lives.

(I'd cite Firefly as another example.  Serenity's resolution to "why does the Alliance want River Tam dead?" seemed kind of stupid to me, but the *ongoing* storyline led to the basic show concept, to hair's-breadth escapes, and to agonizing questions about whether it was worth the crew's while to shield this fugitive they'd never met.)

On the other end, I'd say that the excellent season-long mystery arc in Veronica Mars was more powerful in its resolution.  Yes, the twists and turns of investigating the murder of Lily Kane put Veronica through the wringer, and that dark mystery gave the season an undertow of melancholy -- but the final reveal of who killed Lily Kane and why was absolutely shattering for everybody.

Okay, let's finally get back to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The two mysteries at the forefront of the show are "how did Coulson come back from the dead?" and "who were Skye's parents?"

And I have to ask myself, what if the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had tried exploring those two questions I'm so fascinated with?

What if they had really dug into "how does this ongoing mystery affect Coulson?"  Maybe it could have really given weight to how Coulson, the ultimate company man, realizes that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been lying to him.  Maybe that hurts.  Maybe he feels confused, wondering just who the hell he even *is* now, as he goes behind his superiors' backs to get the answers he wants.  And maybe, to go further and further towards discover the truth, he has to stray further and further from the agent he thought he was.

That's a story, right?

And resolution-wise, hell, what if Coulson *had* been a robot?  Or if not that, a reveal on that same, gut-punching level?  What if Coulson had been left wondering if he was just some strange entity that happened to be wearing a Coulson skin-suit?

I feel like the writers are aware of this -- they definitely made some feints in that direction.  There were a smattering of scenes where Coulson talked *about* feeling confused or betrayed -- but they were only brief snatches of dialog, and they came very much from the "tell don't show" school of writing.[1]  And as for the resolution... it's "doctors did a fancy operation".  Aaaand that's it.  Gregg does his game best at *selling* the sense of betrayal that he was given a false memory of Tahiti, but in the end it's Ron Glass's doctor character that feels utterly horrified by the whole Lazarus gambit.

This is odd.  When your big reveal happens, it should matter to your *protagonists*, not your one-off guest stars.

Now I'm sure one can make a case that, hey, no, this isn't the *real* reveal.  No, the *real* shocker is down the road, when we find out that, I dunno, Asgardian technology brought him back.  Oh, just you wait.  And that's fine, I suppose -- there's nothing wrong with optimism.  But this is a show that has failed to surprise me eleven times in a row now -- is it going to surprise me later?

I had similar feelings towards the reveal about Skye's origin.

For starters, it was another case where the reveal was a sort of non-reveal.  For Coulson, the answer to "how did I come back from the dead was?" was "doctors did stuff -- we're not going to say what stuff."  For Skye, the answer to "who were my parents?" was "they were random people who died with your village -- we're not going to say what people."  Obviously, these writers can pace their show however they please, but I haven't seen a television drama move this slowly since the early nineties. 

And again, I go back to my two questions: "how did the unresolved mystery affect Skye?" and "how did its resolution affect Skye?" 

With the first question... well, the show *told* us that 'finding her parents' was a motivating factor for her trying to get the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place.  But I never really *felt* that need in her character.  Look, if you grew up in the foster system, knowing you were abandoned by your parents, knowing that your latest foster parents were going to throw you out in three months, just like every foster family had, no matter what you ever did to make them happy... I mean, that's got to leave you pretty messed up.  It makes that quest to find your parents something deeper than "this would be an interesting fact to know", but something more damaged, something like, "if I find them, maybe I'll finally learn what's *wrong* with me."

As always with Skye, I'm not saying this is the direction they *should* have gone -- taking the effects of her upbringing seriously would be a hell of a downer, especially in this somewhat candy-coated superhero universe -- but it would have at least been *a* direction, which is an improvement over the ambivalent shrug that Skye is now.  And also, the two questions -- "how does the ongoing mystery affect her?" and "how does the resolution affect her?" -- are *linked*.  If the first question has a good answer, then it's easier to make the second one land.

In this case, if Skye is haunted by the mystery of her parents; if that part of her past bleeds through to her present as she refuses to trust anyone or show any vulnerability; if Skye is always just waiting for the next authority figure to betray her -- if all of that is true, then the resolution they came up with, the notion that her parents may well have sacrificed their lives to save her, and the constant moves were a desperate attempt to keep her alive -- that's something on the level of "You're a wizard, Harry!"  It cuts her away from a lifetime of misery and tells her, no, she *is* special.  On some level, Skye would get to feel an unimaginable relief that none of it was her fault -- but at the same time, she might feel even more rage at S.H.I.E.L.D., along the lines of "what's so goddamned 'special' about me that you had to ruin my life?"

But if she's just been blandly sassy all along, then the resolution doesn't get to have that impact.  As it is, the choice they made -- for her to decide "S.H.I.E.L.D. is my family" and be, er, even more devoted-er to the team -- feels kind of arbitrary, and kind of lifeless, in that she's just doubling down on an opinion she already has.

The show still has its moments.  The scene where Agent Coulson confronted Ron Glass's mysterious doctor was spellbinding.  The S.H.I.E.L.D. academy was a nice bit of world-building.[2]  The brain-surgery robot was creepy as hell.  And as many critics have pointed out, moving the action *off the plane* for once did the show a lot of good.

But those are small things going right.  The broad strokes are still very clumsy, and I can't imagine Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ever being anything more than the best action show of 1987.

Rubicon [1x04-1x08]
This is the 2010 AMC drama about a government think-tank employee who uncovers a large-scale conspiracy.

Honestly, now that I'm nearly done with the season (and therefore, sadly, with the series), I don't have much more to say about Rubicon than I did the first time.  They've moved away from "Will finds the mysterious ciphers that David left behind," and they've moved away from "Ed mysteriously knows the next thing that Will should investigate."  It's like, once the show got enough momentum going, they no longer needed those convenient devices for goosing the story forward.  At a certain point, Will had enough information to continue his investigations on his own, and meanwhile, the other characters had enough going on to sustain stories that had nothing to do with the mysterious "cloverleaf" investigation.

The actors are still very good at playing professionals who are badly fraying and barely keeping it together -- a feeling that intensifies over the course of the season, as the main storyline heightens.  And what's more, we see each character fraying in their own way -- Miles is all low-status whimpers, Grant has his puffed-up contempt, and Tanya has her jaded spiral into drug abuse.  Even Truxton Spangler (what a name) eventually drifts into a sort of privileged unease, as the mounting consequences of Will's investigation begin to disturb his comfortable position.

Generally, it feels like a show that knew what it was about from the get-go, so instead of watching a show flail around, desperate to figure out what works[3], we watch a world that's slowly expanding.  We see more and more of the conspirators working with Spangler.  We see the characters cross paths with new secondary characters.  And throughout all this, we see the story steadily raise the stakes, as Will gets a clearer and clearer picture of what's really going on, and as the threats to both Will and Katherine get stronger and stronger -- now they're being bugged; now they're being surveilled by private-security contractors; now they're being threatened; now HOLY CRAP SOMEONE'S TRYING TO KILL HIM.[4]

Even Katherine Rhumor's story starts to gel with the rest of the show, as she finally crosses paths with Will, and it becomes obvious that she's just looking at the same conspiracy from a different angle.

All in all, Rubicon is a very solid, three-star show.  It's not one of the greats of all time, though I can't really put my finger on where it falls short.  Maybe Will is a bit too bland?  Maybe thematically, it doesn't feel like it's *about* anything much bigger than "working in intelligence is really, really hard"?  Maybe the actual conspiracy turns out to be a bit bland?  In a way, the reasons don't matter, because I personally have no problem with a solid three-star show.  If I'm entertained, and I'm watching something that's different from what I've seen before, then my time has not been wasted.  And this tense, deliberate world of very smart people, every one of them desperate to figure out who they can trust, deserved a much bigger audience than it got.

Cowboy Bebop [1x01-1x09]
This is the late-90s animé series about a crew of bounty hunters in the year 2071.

Let's start by getting the superlatives out of the way: yes, this is one of the greatest animé series of all time.  Many critics have that opinion; I agree with that opinion.  Its animation is breathtaking, its character designs are impeccable, and its soundtrack effortlessly shifts gears between jazz, and rock, and classical, and electronica, and a half-dozen other genres.[5]  Let's get that out of the way and move on.

Mind you, I don't mean to dismiss these qualities -- it's just that there's not a lot I can add to that conversation.  The show has more style in any random frame than most shows have in their entire run, right?  Right.

I'm amused that my brain often feels geared wrong for the show.  I'm used to sitcoms running 20 minutes and dramas running 40, so I'm always caught up short by the end of an episode.  I'm not used to the Japanese habit of using 'pillow shots', fractured flashback sequences, and moments of quiet reflection to make an episode often feel more poetic than narrative[6], so I often feel a bit like that moment right after Wile E. Coyote has walks off a cliff but right before he's worked out what just happened -- just this momentary, confused, "wait, where did the plot go?"

But these are not bad things.  These are just moments when I'm amused at myself, and happy to be watching something different.

I find myself kind of ignoring the larger story arcs.  Yes, at some point I may get the whole story about what happened to Spike and Jet -- how Spike got booted out of his crime syndicate, and how Jet got booted out of the police force -- but I don't feel compelled to pay it much attention.  Instead, I just treat Cowboy Bebop as a collection of bite-sized stories.  Plot isn't really its strong suit -- which is actually fairly frequent in televised sci-fi.  An episode of the original Star Trek or Twilight Zone typically had only a few things happening in it.  It's a common thing, with sci-fi, to let the plot be sparse, and to fill up the remaining space with speculation, philosophizing, emotions -- with all the *reactions* to something that's just a little bit beyond human experience.

Also, there is a hyperintelligent Corgi.  Also also, Edward could hack circles around Skye any day of any week.

For next time, I'll finish off Rubicon and the first half of Cowboy Bebop, and keep slowly chipping my way through A Clash of Kings.

[1] In those first eight episodes, what does Coulson actually *do* differently because of the concerns raised by his secret investigation?  Yes, he *talks* about these feelings, but how do they impact the story?
[2] ... although the club in the boiler room was kind of hilarious.  The most gifted college students in the world can create any room they want, and they choose to construct... a bland L. A. nightclub?  Wha... why?  Who would *do* that to themselves?
[3] See: season one of Parks and Recreation or season one of Community.
[4] I'll find it kind of hilarious and wonderful if that winds up being the only fistfight in this entire spy story.
[5] ... and yes, all of that music was written by
one woman and performed by her band.
[6] I hear that Enlightened was another show that was quite good at this.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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