Climbing Mount Get-It-Wrong

Aloha, Bloggers. Welcome to Hawaii! So…following on from the new Indiana Jones movie…from “From Hell” and “Heroes”…and from most (if not all) points comicward…

How hard is it, do you think — how hard is it really — to make half-decent crap?

Not that hard?

I agree.

But, have you noticed that hardly anyone knows how to do it anymore?

I’ve said it before, and it still is true: Gilligan’s Island, as a crap piece of entertainment, is built about a hundred times more solidly and is about a hundred times more nourishing than any episode of Friends ever made. Evidence: Gilligan’s Island rarely makes stoned people flee screaming from the room, while Friends frequently does — hey, try it at home. I mean, it’s a little bit of who’s the tallest Smurf in the village, I admit, but the effect of this difference is nonetheless readily observable: Friends makes stoners dress in black and stay in their rooms and moan about the rain, and Gilligan’s Island makes them laugh and eat Cheezies.

And I’m telling you: there’s something there. That’s a qualitative difference.

There’s an easy way to account for it. Loss of professional pride. Because Gilligan’s Island, whatever its other faults, was made by the Old Pros, most of whom after all could never seriously think of making a dollar or a dime in this game, and so must’ve been in it for some sort of love of the craft, or else been extraordinarily unhappy in their work, poor bastards…

These are people who came up from the lowest and most disregarded stratum of cultural work. Hacks, we once called them; because they were talented enough that they could’ve done something else. They could’ve written War And Peace, instead of jokes for Bob Hope’s radio shows.

Of course they probably would’ve said: screw you, I think the odds are pretty rock-solid that I’m the only person in this conversation who’s read and understood War And Peace, so what d’you think you’re telling me for? And by the way you couldn’t write a joke to save your life. And I could’ve been dead at thirty-five from black lung like Uncle Jim, instead of having dinner with Dorothy Parker next Tuesday. And anyway who told you that you got to make the rules about what people are supposed to do with their talent? If the world was ruled by snobs like you, we could’ve kissed Shakespeare, Pucchini, and Gershwin all goodbye…and so you don’t know what you’re talking about, and therefore: fish, cut bait, or get outta the goddamn boat. No one’s taking your precious War And Peace away from you…that you probably haven’t read anyway…

Hey, when you write for Gilligan’s Island you’ve gotta have your sword at the ready, you know!

But that was then; and the necessity for the ready sword has gone down some, since.

Because well-made crap is in ever-shorter supply, these days. The bits of cultural fluff once churned out just to make a buck, actually look like pretty stellar stuff compared with the junk that clogs the pipe of culture today. And I don’t say that just to be a reactionary, though I am one. Because the fact is, it’s the money that’s made the difference: New Pros get paid a lot more than Old Pros, even if they do shittier work. Speaking of Bob Hope, they say by the time he was thirty years old, he was so seasoned that if a bomb had gone off in the theatre where he was performing, he’d have used it…just rolled right on into it.

And do we have a lot of people like that, today?

Well, we do; but we’ve also got drastically unseasoned people, and they look shellshocked even when a bomb’s been nowhere near them. In fact they themselves should be bombing left and right, but somehow they’re not.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s no bad thing that our New Pros get paid better than their predecessors, and there’s no denying there’s a lot of New Pro work out there that compares favourably with just about anything you’d care to stack up alongside it. Absolutely, no question.

But was there ever an age when so much shit was hailed as such pure gold?

Tallest Smurf In The Village: it’s a fun game, let’s play it. Small things, but with observable weight. The Star Trek television spinoffs, for example.

These were not very good.

And I’m not criticizing you, any of you; I’m just saying they weren’t very good. Hey, I like lots of stuff that isn’t very good, okay? But here I’m talking about a couple of easily identifiable later-Trek traits which made them rather more akin to Space Academy (or perhaps Jason of Star Command, or even Ark II — but no, now I go too far) than to their parent trademark.

And I’m suggesting that the difference is one of New Pros.

Follow me along, and then tell me you really, really don’t think I’ve got a point. Because anybody can notice the enormous amount of telling-not-showing that goes on in the later Treks, yes even in the better episodes of the better shows…when characters launch into tortured exposition of their inner states (and they always do, you know they always do), there’s always something faintly self-congratulatory in it, as though they’re pleased with themselves for being able to interpret their own feelings, and identify their conflicts in so many words…and, well I’ve felt it even if you haven’t, when the viewer hears and interprets these expo-character moments, is it not a similar self-congratulation he or she is meant to feel? As though we have shown the teacher that we can, indeed, regurgitate the right answer onto the test paper. A bit like a laugh track for drama — but not a very good one. Hell, of course it’s not a very good one, if musical and sound direction are regularly pressganged into ineptly overselling or underselling a dramatic moment that either is or is not there to be over- or under-sold, spoken words can never do much better than worse, can they? People, after all, understand how music works; whereas writing is mostly a mystery to them. Writing’s really mostly a mystery to everybody, if you think about it — which is why the writers themselves are the only folks who set the standards for what’s a decent day’s work and what isn’t.

But, then again, that’s no excuse at all.

Because it truly pains me, on watching certain (numerous) episodes of Deep Space 9, to have to watch actors struggling so hard to let me know that these aren’t just words…! When of course that’s just what they are; they’re just words. And all they have going for them is that they’re capable of being recognized as such. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: the actor as human jukebox…

…And may I humbly submit that that’s not good enough.

Because the only thing wrong with latter-day Star Trek is that somebody didn’t take enough time to look at it and see it for what it really is. Certainly I think it likely that the actors all knew what they were doing: it’s just that the scripts didn’t support them as well as they could’ve, and why? Well, the word for this disease is cliche, the word is laziness, obviously we all know that, so there’s no point me being all mysterious about it. And though there are things in DS9 that are not horribly cliched and lazy, I think we can all admit that there’s much that is, too. Star Trek: TNG is even worse in this respect, naturally, despite Patrick Stewart’s undeniable acting skill — well, one of the problems is that his character is just not written as a particularly interesting fellow, is he? And it’s the same problem for all the characters on that show: even when they start tossing hobbies at them after a while, the hobbies don’t always stick, and where they do stick they don’t necessarily do any good. The conflicts aren’t really lived through, so much as they’re talked about…I mean, am I right?

Hey, on Voyager it’s even worse than that: characters might as well be named Bob Pseudo-Reckless and Jimmy Grow-Out-Of-It Diffident — the conflicts fail to achieve genuine conflict-y-ness, no matter what the actors do. That’s not a show, it’s a Dungeons & Dragons game, it’s a little girl’s tea party…nothing ever happens, except the actors look stiffly worried about something the viewers by rights ought to be capable of giving a shit about, but actually — deep down — can’t. Because of something that is really enormously simple: because the relationships are all inverted, the beats all come out of order, the aims don’t match the material, the tension’s defused when it should be mounting up, and mounts up when it ought to be being defused…the built-up structure of the thing is collapsed, and that’s considered to be how you get from the beginning of the story to its end. Of course that’s just a matter of getting things back-to-front — but getting things back-to-front is actually a much more natural thing to do than you might think. I’ve seen this a hundred times. I used to see it every day, back when I worked as an essay tutor: the writer mistakes his job for the reader’s job, tries to provide a reading instead of a writing, tries to meet the wrong expectation. In journalistic parlance this is known as “burying the lead”, and it comes about very simply and organically through not matching vision with forethought. It’s a common thing! The snowball mistake: the cold equations of time and trajectory, that make it so if you don’t fix the problem right away, it’ll fix you later on. The simple lesson of the stitch in time, which is that it saves nine.

Of course, that lesson’s only a valuable one if you accept the necessity of having to make those nine remedial stitches, in the event that you unfortunately miss that first one.

And of course you don’t have to accept that necessity at all. You could just as easily choose not to care.

Professional pride, see? You don’t have to have it. In fact if your motto happens to read “close enough is good enough”, professional pride’s even an encumbrance, something that gets in the way of doing work. And to be this way, it isn’t a sin — at least not much of one — but importantly neither is it a virtue.

I think we’ve been having a little conversation about this recently, in several parts: Rogue’s Reviews and Delineations and many occasional posts and comments (many of them my own), spread too far and wide to tote up here. But it’s all about the matter of identifying where that first stitch ought to have gone, the matter of seeing what is there to work with, setting the relationships in proper order, organizing the beats into patterns…of daylighting the lead. And you can almost always do this: no one who buries a lead does so on purpose, so they usually don’t do anything like a thorough job of it. Parts of it stick out like roots, and you can’t help tripping over these. And what you do then is, you don’t saw down the root so nobody else will trip over it. No. Instead you grab onto it with both hands, and you pull up the whole tree. See what went wrong. See what the difference is, between the tree and the root. Because you already know they don’t match up.

So let’s contrast the latter-day sawn-down-and-shouty mutations with Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series…no work of high art, clearly! But it was one in which conflicts became real-seeming as more than intellectual exercises, because they were attached to characters who did more than just declaim about how those conflicts made them feel, more than just flower as cherries when under the ground they were really apples…you know, not to be a dick, but I can supply examples for all of these things I’m saying here…and if much of it was in absolute terms pretty trashy and awful, just about all of it was better than the best moments of any of its descendants. Because it knew what it was out to do, if you see what I mean. It understood what material it was working with, and it had appropriate writerly expectations for that material. In other words: it knew what target it was trying to hit, and it hit it. Most importantly, say what you will about Roddenberry, but he knew what constituted a day’s work. Were Kirk, Spock, and McCoy the most fully fleshed-out three-dimensional characters to ever hit the small screen? Certainly not; but they were a little bit more than just sketches, too, and as a consequence they did manage to speak in their “own” voices, and not just read aloud from the answer key to somebody’s Science Fiction Screenwriting 101 textbook. You know…most of the time.

So…why do so many people prefer the later versions of Trek, if what I’m arguing is true, and they really are not as good?

Why would anyone ever feel any attachment to the hateful character known as Geordie LaForge, or the gaping absence of meaning referred to by those in the know as “Harry Kim”? Why would anyone, anyone, ever put up with hearing so much talk of modulating the shield harmonics, or going back through the spatial anomaly so many times, to a point before the core breach occurred? I mean how many times in a single human life can you bear to hear this ridiculous wank fall on your eardrums? For God’s sake, this coat’s got more thread in it than it does cloth! Why in God’s name would you ever choose to suffer wearing it?

Only one reason!

Because it doesn’t make you feel stupid.

People really, really, really do not like to be made to feel stupid, you see.

I’ll tell you something, Gilligan’s Island will not ever make you feel stupid. Perish the thought! You are flying far above Gilligan’s Island at every moment, and you know this. But, watching the last season of Friends certainly won’t make you feel stupid either…

So what’s the difference?

Old Pros and New Pros, and professional pride. Think of it, not only did the Howells bring along suitcases full of money on a three-hour cruise, but Ginger Grant brought along a lab coat and fake glasses so she could play psychiatrist…! And yet what’s more insulting: that she has those, or that the Friends have that god-damned apartment, and dare to comment stupidly and generically on what they observe out its so-capacious windows? What’s more toxic, the acceptance of the fact that the Skipper never ever takes off his goddamn clothes, not even to wash them or to sleep — never in fact so much as takes off his hat — he sleeps in it, for God’s sake! — or the acceptance of the fact that at some level you know you’re supposed to be yearning for Ross and Rachel to get back together, so at some level you decide you might as well give in and get on with it? Both of these shows were arguably just about the crappiest crap that ever crapped crap, but one of them did it in the catbox and the other one did it in the cookie jar, and I’ll tell you why — because the creators of Friends, unlike the creators of Gilligan’s Island, for some reason thought they were making cookies.

And of course…they weren’t.

They were making what you make after you’ve eaten cookies.

What were the latter-day Star Treks about? They were about paranoia: about how the rot was setting in, under the wallpaper of the science-fiction utopia, and what needed to be done about it in order to maintain a useful self-delusion. Well of course they were about that! Look at the times in which they were made, the time of Neuromancer — they could hardly have been about anything else. And they were all absolutely beautiful vehicles for exploring this theme, even if that exploration would had to have been a little on the surreptitious side. Look, they even addressed those issues! More than once! However — and, I think, sadly — the relationship between investigator and investigated was turned around, turned backwards, and so what we ended up with was not an expose but a whitewash — a reason to consider the question closed, or even moot. The Old Pros would never have made this sort of mistake — they would have looked at the latter-day Star Treks and said “this set-up isn’t really like Star Trek at all, is it? It doesn’t start from the same place, and it doesn’t go to the same place.” And they would’ve made a stitch in time.

They would have noticed those tree-roots poking up from the ground.

A lot of design is actually quite near to being unconscious, in its creation — maybe somewhere north of seventy percent of it, by my best guess. The rest is craft, and disciplined attention: being able to discern what is in the design, that otherwise comes so magically pre-assembled for you. What was Friends about? It was about a bunch of people who say and do funny things because they’re basically idiots. My Dad used to watch this show, when it was first on TV — he called it “that stupid show”. He used to tape it.

But he stopped watching it, as soon as he was asked to believe they were not idiots.

Because he, too, is an Old Pro.

What does it take to scale Mount Get-It-Wrong, to make that perilous ascent from top to bottom? Well…perhaps a type of dedication, though the job certainly doesn’t take smarts: still, you have to want it, at least. Somehow, in some way. I think what you have to do is not want to feel dumb, so that then you can get that all backwards as well, and try to satisfy yourself by making everything around you so dumb that dumbness just becomes an ambience, and you don’t have to worry about it any more. Thus, you absolve the dumbness from criticism: you turn it into your basic construction material, a way of doing things, rather than what results from a way of doing things. Consider the humble television commercial, and how much energy and expertise it takes behind the scenes, to put something so basically and insultingly stupid, so damn timewasting, up on your screen! It’s a massive industry, a truly colossal marshalling of training and talent and state-of-the-art equipment, all to have a black guy in a sweater say something about what it’s like to eat at McDonald’s, that no black guy in a sweater would ever say, that’s ever been born. An astonishing level of falsity, and an astonishing outpouring of effort, in one: and far, far worse than the most unfunny joke Bob Hope ever rejected.

I asked my friend the mailman to pretend he had to come up with a pitch for a TV show. It took him eight minutes to come up with one that was, by today’s standards, exceptional. And admittedly he’s an exceptional sort of mailman, but he’s an exceptional sort of mailman, damn it…! And his show idea was crap, but it was crap that outshone a lot of shows currently on TV just by virtue of being crap: by being made as crap, with a reasonable level of diligence and a reasonable level of care. Like, eight minutes worth.

I bought him a coffee for it.

So…what’s not out of whack, in this picture?

I suppose I could’ve asked him to pitch me a comic book. Seriously, how hard could that possibly be, for our exceptional mailman, here? I could probably sit him in a room with a bunch of comics taken from whatever era of comics-making I wanted to emulate, and say “make me one of these — I’ll give you two hours.” It can be done. Okay, maybe he missed his calling, maybe he’s some sort of mini-genius…but that’s not the point!

The point is that standards are declining.

But, not the standards for what’s good and what’s bad.

The standards for what is an acceptable level of shittiness, in things that we already know to be shitty.

Or, if you like: the standards for how much minimal truth a given piece of hype must contain, in order for it to be considered swallowable.

Recently I read an online comment from someone who objected to the idea that the quality of Big Two comics had rolled downhill, by saying that in every medium you have to sift the good from the bad, and that it’s been that way throughout time. To which I’d say: okay, I’ll give you that one on technical grounds. But at the same time, that’s just hype, too: excusing the bad, because it was never meant to be good? And how time- and culture-specific is this species of forgiveness? Is there no such thing, anymore, as “inept, yet at least he works hard for his B-grade minimal return”? Workmanlike…adequate…do these words have no meaning, in this grand and high-gloss age? It’s funny the things people will excuse: a good critic will demand more from a work of high quality, hold it to a different, higher standard than something simply churned out in board-feet per hour to make a buck. A poor critic, on the other hand — getting things backwards, of course! — will hold the bad stuff (and sometimes bad and good stuff alike) to a lower standard. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to say “Spider-Man 3 was all right for what it was, just big explody entertainment, but Jimmy Corrigan sucked because it was pretentious and hard to read.”

Perhaps a comprehensible, even defensible, point of view. In a way it is like what the Good Critic says.

Only, turned around and pointed the wrong way.

Maybe it is the money that does it: after all, people will go where there’s money to be made, and as I mentioned before, writing is not a thing that many people understand very well. So to write with a readerly intention rather than a writerly one is a mistake most people might not ever catch…especially considering that for many people, the point of it all is simply to satisfy the grazing instinct. Was this grass? If it was coloured green and grew out of the ground, it probably was, and anyway we’re here to graze, not to ask questions, so shut up. People make stuff that way these days; they don’t just take it. A recent commenter around here chided me for getting irate about Brian Bendis’ throwaway line in Dark Reign that established Canada as the home of proxy concentration camps for the American government…saying something to the effect of “Dude, it’s just comics, relax.” Well, at least he didn’t append “Peace” to the comment, so it didn’t out-and-out shatter the yardstick by which we measure drive-by passive-aggression on the Internet…just another local Maturity Cop swinging by to shine the flashlight into the car, really, nothing special…but of course the point is not that I’m failing to “relax”, it’s that the bar establishing what constitutes agitation is set so low that you can’t get under it while doing sit-ups. There is no sense but the nominal in which “From Hell” can be considered a movie about Jack The Ripper; there is no sense but the nominal in which Secret Invasion can be considered an Event, or in which TNG can be considered an SF drama that treads in the footsteps of Star Trek. I’m not even laying any judgements down, here: it simply is true that From Hell is mainly about the shocks suffered by its protagonist, from wherever those shocks may happen to emerge. It simply is true that very few events actually saw fit to eventuate themselves in Secret Invasion. It simply is true that TNG, as executed, would be just as good if it were divorced from Star-Trekkiness. With a teenage Data. An ancient Riker. A fat Troi. A tall LaForge. And a bronze starburst on everyone’s shoulder, instead of the familiar gold Starfleet symbol over their heart.

There is no sense any longer, it appears, but the nominal.

And nominally, this is good news.

But who nominates the nominal? Eh?

No one likes to feel stupid. Everyone likes to feel respected. But “respect” is a term without a simple meaning, and anyway it makes a difference in which direction it flows: uphill or downhill. It might be elicited by returning a loyalty that’s been offered. It might be demonstrated in refusing to acquiesce to feelings of loyalty, when there’s something bigger at issue. No one knows (I think) whether respect is in the seeing, or the being.

In the picking, or the choosing.

Respect is funny that way! They often say it must be earned. But I think it far more likely that, with somewhat greater frequency, it is owed.

Parse that as you please, Bloggers.

But never let yourself climb Mount Get-It-Wrong, to do it.

And may your Skipper never lose its Gilligan, on the hammock-hook overnight. Rumplestiltskin in reverse? Heck, no.

This is Rumplestiltskin straight ahead.

And may the Great Bird Of The Galaxy not, um…straw in your hair.

Because that shit would be a bitch to get out, I’m telling you.

Well, I guess you could always say it’s a new and more advanced type of wig. Dude, relax!

Now get off my lawn.

And leave me in peace.


21 responses to “Climbing Mount Get-It-Wrong

  1. Much to chew upon. First, I must answer your first question, from my own experience: “How hard is it, do you think — how hard is it really — to make half-decent crap?”

    It’s dang hard.

    Simply learning the craftsmanship to take a nifty idea or image (e.g., “Santa Claus Meets the Wolfman! It can’t miss!”) and turning it into something not painfully bad is a long, difficult process, filled with wrong turns, mistakes, and all sorts of ego-crushing fun. Thankfully, the personal reward for making something that smells at least a little bit better than a barnyard at high noon is enormous.

    (Sidebar: For all you kids who wanna be writers out there, something you should know: Ideas Are Nothing. Everybody has them. They’re cheap, plentiful, and easily made. For proof, sit down with a pen and paper for a half hour with no distractions, and jot down all the ideas that pop into your head. Easy, right? Lots of good stuff? Now remember, anyone can do that. Translating any idea into a worthwhile bit of entertainment, that’s the important part. It’s also the hard part.)

    My belief is that the shift from olde-tymey craftsmanship to modern craftsmanship is motivated not by stupidity, but from an attempt to apply different standards to material and as a byproduct of the quest for novelty. Sitcoms, comic books, movies, I think it’s all the same story. Lemme splain.

    I think part of it comes from the writers’ desire to make something not just entertaining, but artistic and true. The problem is that “truth” is very hard to handle well, and it’s exceptionally difficult to get it to blend with genre. It can be done, of course, but it’s very hard to pull off. They want to make stories that resonate with audiences, not just have them enjoyed and forgotten. They want the audiences emotionally involved.

    Now shoehorn in a desire for emotional involvement and truth with the strict structural and genre requirements of a network television sitcom, and you have a real bear of a challenge. Assuming you even have the rare talent to write both good comedy and an involving story, you have to figure out how to blend both parts into a satisfying whole. You lose some of the entertainment value of the comedy by going “serious,” but the “seriousness” doesn’t work if you don’t put enough time into it. So you often end up with a weak hybrid, like Friends.

    Part of the challenge is that plain ol’ entertainment shows have been done for so long, that to create anything new with a chance to stand out or survive, one has to strike a chord in the audience. One way is the gimmick: “Our detective is OCD!” Another is to make the audience care about the characters beyond what they normally would for the genre: “Oh, Chandler and Monica are in love!” The former is as old as the media themselves. The latter is newer.

    I think you’re underestimating the craft of current television, too. Star Trek‘s descendants are a different situation than most — the shows have restrictions placed on them, and they’re designed to cater more to “Star Trek Fans” than regular folks. What STF want out of the shows and what regular folks want from their shows don’t entirely overlap. Instead, look at primetime dramas — the Law and Order shows are pure structure and craft, for example.

    What is interesting, and lends weight to your argument, is that “retro” dramas on teevee are big hits right now. The Mentalist, The Closer, Bones, NCIS, shows like that are basically cop dramas from the seventies with updated wardrobes. Hewing to older models of drama has brought them viewers a’plenty. Hm.

  2. Wise words, Harvey…


    Star Trek itself was never as popular with self-defined “non-SF fans” as TNG was. Now that’s a bit peculiar though, ain’t it? Fans of TNG who weren’t SF fans…fans of TNG who weren’t Star Trek fans? But ask ’em and they’ll tell you: that’s exactly what they are.

    Reminiscent of the Matrix fans who “didn’t even think of it as science fiction”, but instead as Action.

    I dunno, is it possible I underrate the writers of TNG?

    Or is it something more sinister I’m underrating?

    The original series: if you liked it, that made you a Star Trek fan. Ipso facto, welcome to the world of nerdery. But TNG produced people who loved Star Trek…who also hate Star Trek. Can’t get behind the guy with the weird ears. Not crazy about the Organians or the salt monster. They’ve got no problem with Mr. Data, though, or Dr. Crusher’s Scottish planet space-Lasher story…Klingon opera

    Science fiction, hell. It’s a damn mystery!

  3. As you know, I think the difference between Classic Trek and Modern Trek is, at its heart, structural. Classic Trek — in live-action TV form — was a storytelling vehicle, like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but with continuing characters. However, as the fans started looking at it as an entity, and started connecting what dots there were, it became about the characters. (To be fair, Trek “pros” like David Gerrold did the same thing.)

    So when The Motion Picture arrived, it was criticized for not being sufficiently about the main characters. Its reputation improved considerably when scenes which showed Spock’s development were restored. Of course, STTMP has other faults, but at its heart it was a Classic Trek episode, which is to say it was about the guest stars — Decker, V’Ger, arguably Ilia. Even Spock is in something of a guest-star role, because it is the crew of the Enterprise which shepherds him through his growth — but that’s kind of a stretch.

    Anyway, the Trek producers from that point forward decide that yes, to please the fans, they must evermore focus on characters, and specifically the cast extended beyond the Big Three. That’s where I think you get these eight- and nine-member main casts for the Modern Trek shows, and sonofagun, someone always gets shorted on episodes. The point is that Modern Trek got away from Classic Trek’s original structure in favor of one of its own, and then proceeded to produce twenty-five seasons’ worth of TV based around those characters. It’s as if you made a series of Twilight Zone spinoffs based around characters from random episodes — say, the omnipotent kid, someone from that one group of humans fleeing to Earth, and Shatner’s terrified airplane passenger.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I stopped rooting for Ross & Rachel once Ross met that cute British woman. I thought she would have added a nice long-distance relationship to the equation, and I really didn’t like the way she was turned into a harpy.

  4. Plus, I thought Joey had better chemistry with Rachel.

    To me, Friends was about as good – and bad – as another Sherwood Schwartz creation: “The Brady Bunch.” That show, especially in its first season, had it’s “serious” and “comical” moments blended to similar effect as Friends and adopted the “hip” artifacts of its particular era.

    Personally, I’m less bothered by Friends maintaining a level of amusing competence than a show like The (American) Office, which started out pretty funny but ended up a tepid soap opera with humor too unrealistic for even Gilligan’s Island.

    I agree about Star Trek:TNG and its spin-offs. I never could get over the fact that humanity had supposedly progressed so far that rock n roll, baseball and just about everything else I love was considered too primitive to survive.

    Yet everybody spends their time in holodecks reenacting Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Party down!

    And don’t get me started on those @#$% holodecks …

  5. Speaking of Gilbert and Sullivan, I wonder how the TNG-era hobbies match up with the Studio 60 hobbies. At least Jed Bartlet watched football, a nice bourgeois sport.

  6. And let’s not be too hard on Gilligan’s Island. As a little kid, I learned all about scurvy from that one episode where they were running out of oranges.

    Friends was interesting in Season One when they were actually examining the GenX experience with some… well, more than none, anyway… acuity. Then in the second year they jettisoned all that and became just another sitcom.

  7. It’s even worse than that, actually: there is one black person in Friends’ NYC.

    It’s the guy from Hootie And The Blowfish.

    So…NOW how much would you pay? But wait…there’s LESS…

    Not that I was just out to rag on Friends and TNG, eminently raggable-on as they are…but maybe I should also take a closer look at Friends, in the structural sense? So, briefly:

    Joey is dumb, Chandler is inhibited and spazzy, everything Monica does has some pathological dimension, Ross is crippled by anxiety and a bit of a prig to boot, Rachel is a narcissist, Phoebe appears flaky but is really verging on being dissociative.

    And yet these are the viewers’ faults, too, right?

    So Joey is also lovable, when secretive Chandler finally relaxes he goes at it like nobody’s business, Monica is adventurous, Ross is sincere and sensitive, Rachel is introspective, and Phoebe is both ethical and joyful.

    The viewers’ virtues, of course.

    One or two interesting points about ways in which show-makers and show-watchers alike tend to feel their way around these implicit structures. Phoebe is given a shallow and materialistic twin (for heaven’s sake!), Ross has a pet monkey instead of a functioning human pair-bond, Rachel never suffers from cutting up all her Daddy’s credit cards (first thing she does is move into this blissful island in the sky, whose rent she contributes to by…working in a coffee shop?!), never experiences the dark side of independence…Joey is an actor, a professional faker, Chandler’s existence is absurdly defined by an aggressively-unspecified job that he goes to each day.

    More: Ross discovers that he is not misunderstood but rather inadequate (this is a therapeutic breakthrough), Phoebe comes to reveal a deep-seated passive-aggressive tendency, Rachel’s social aspirations are all constantly deflated by a certain sort of appealing ineptitude, Joey’s existence is entirely dependent on the (often all-but-accidental) goodwill of others, the absurdity of Chandler’s life is all that preserves his identity…and Monica finds she can either grow up or get what she wants, but not both.

    Sorry to seem like I’m using a mosquito to kill a sledgehammer, but the point is that all this crap is implicit in the show’s design, and obviously is exactly where it starts to go wrong, too: it stops being funny as soon as character development enters the picture, stops being anything like a mirror. It’s the sort of thing — happens all the time! — where after completing the first movement of some narrative, the author casts around for what ought to come next, and manages to perfectly execute a Sophomore Slump by fastening on something that doesn’t have much implicit design to it…some continuation overly symmetrical/ambitious, something with a vanishing point built into it, a gravitational attraction towards “uh-oh…I think we killed it”. In sitcoms, you then have to step back and retool, then give it up once you realize the damage is permanent and embrace a period of decadence that’s about little more than pastiches of earlier gags, only blown up to ludicrous proportions. This can be a good period for a show, too, inasmuch as it’s a period where jokes can actually be made, and occasionally even be funny if you just give up the idea that the show’s about anything at all except static gaggery. But then you can’t really wind anything up without diving into the gooey pool of nostalgia for what it used to be about in the beginning…and then usually it just all simply falls to the ground, and commences annoying you from that perspective. There’s an episode where Phoebe dates a psychiatrist, who pronounces bitter, accurate judgement on the failings of the Friends…and then of course in the end he’s rejected and excluded. This is probably as perceptive of its own theme as the thing ever got, and at the time of airing it was a pretty refreshing thing to see in a sitcom…but then what next? Eventually after all the slogging we get to the part where everybody (thankfully) just accumulates a bunch of gratuitous character tics — Ross has his music and his rage, is simply pathetic, Phoebe becomes sort of a bitch, Rachel is continually embarrassed, Monica’s identified as an ultra-control-freak, etc. etc. The show crosses its threshold of exhaustion, finds itself still awake, and gets a little giddy. But then sadly makes one last stab at connecting with its audience — the characters get older physically, but mentally they get younger, passing from early adulthood back down into the high-school mentality. It all goes a bit Family Ties. And then that’s that.

    Meanwhile, back on Gilligan’s Island…time stands appropriately still, thank God.

    It’s all a good argument for letting shows die once they’ve made their point, I think: Sean said in one of the FD Essays that the ideal length of a comic-book story is about — what was it, do I remember this right? — about twelve issues or so. For TV shows I’ll suggest that most can be done nicely and neatly in a half-dozen episodes, but if you want to keep on going you’re going to run out of useful material that the design itself provides in not much more than two seasons, maybe three at the outside…however long a “season” happens to be in your case. And following Harvey, I’d say that as hard as it is to serve two or three masters at the same time, and execute well on top of it — only the very best of the New Pros can do it! — the hardest job of all, when it comes to serialized entertainment, is reinvention. Superhero comics are actually a lot better at this reinvention than most things, more suited to it, because different creators’ runs on popular properties have always been artfully discontinuous: it’s a tradition. Mind you I question the need for any more “New Defenders” or “New Champions”…I was thinking more like Spider-Man and the Hulk, Batman and Superman…but then the Old Pros have all left superhero comics too, and they were the ones who were really gifted when it came to this careful scrutiny of a design’s intrinsic properties. Even superhero comics can’t just go on rebooting everything forever, and maybe the best of the New Pros learned a lot of lessons that the Old Pros taught…like, eventually you’ve just got to get out of this racket, if you can’t preserve your freedom to act on what’s in front of you.

    Blathering again. Will return…

  8. This is absolutely, utterly, right in every detail. It’s what I’ve been wanting to say – or *some* of what I’ve been wanting to say – about the difference between nuWho and ‘proper’ old Doctor Who…

  9. Well, there’s no question in my mind that Old Who is more “proper” than New Who! Even if my Doctor is sonorous old grinny Tom Baker — how marvellous he was! — I still recognize the perspective of those who say “proper” Who ended when Jon Pertwee left, because…well…

    How marvellous he was!

    So I find myself in an interesting position, which is that as a Doctor Who fan I think it’d be ridiculous of me not to respect the opinion of anyone who says anything like “the Doctor’s not some grinning clown!” or “for heaven’s sake, the Doctor doesn’t go around kissing his Companions!” Because that is absolutely fair, and absolutely traditional, comment…regardless of whether I agree with it or not, it’s perfectly legitimate and respectable. So…there are a lot of criticisms of the Tenth Doctor that I think are funny and acute, and of the Ninth Doctor as well (although let’s face it: rather fewer of these), but I liked Eccleston regardless — how marvellous he was! — and I liked Tennant too, although you don’t need me to tell you how marvellous he was, because the show pretty much did that for you about ten times an episode. Still, how do you dislike good old David Tennant, the “new new Doctor”? He had a lot going for him, and there were many excellent episodes. I can’t get too upset. And besides, I haven’t made up my mind 100% yet. See, I think I was saying this someplace before, part of “proper” Who is a certain amount of patronizing clunkiness, and breezy disregard for fan complaints — it’s the conventional seasoning for the really gripping, serious, damned elegant stuff. The only question is whether they’re actually getting it right! The seasoning, that is. Heck, there are even ways the Eleventh Doctor’s absurdly insulting youth could be made to work…

    But of greater concern to me — the thing I’m trying to settle on in my own mind — is whether or not the people making the new show know how to finish stuff. That’s another thing separating the Old Pros from the New, when they got to the end of the train tracks they didn’t jump off before the locomotive went over into the canyon. But many New Pros today really do not know how to finish what they start, and yet insist on “finishing” regardless, and I don’t know quite who to blame for that. It isn’t just TV, it’s novels (especially novels!), it’s movies, and of course it’s comics too. I’ll just toss out something I think you might agree with, Andrew, “Jekyll” was a fine and interesting show (uh, with one staggeringly stupid bit of pseudo-science to it, of course…but nobody’s perfect) however the people making it, I think anyway, didn’t know how the hell to polish it off. I’m just saying, I mean anyone can feel free to disagree with me, but that’s what I think about it…either they didn’t know how to, or for whatever reason they didn’t care to. And I thought they made a mistake, in that particular.

    But anyway, yeah: I completely understand your feelings about New Who (though I won’t yet call it “NuWho”, because I haven’t quite decided about it — it will probably take me one more Doctor!), but for me it’s that business of finishing: it’s dicey.

    I could go on at some length about just exactly why I need to see what the Eleventh Doctor is like before I can truly and completely decide about the Tenth…and maybe I will later on, but for now: yup, it’s a finishing thing, that I think about.

    Oh, hmm…re-reading that, I think I’m definitely going to have to expand on what I mean at some point…

    Anyway, glad you liked it! Happy to provide ammo for anyone who prefers “proper” Who, the only kind of Who to prefer!

    And somewhere out there, someone is saying “meh, I only like the new stuff, it’s more relevant…the old stuff was boring, I saw a couple of First Doctor episodes and I thought they were really stupid, that Hartnell guy sucked, and Troughton wasn’t much better…”

    But surely this person is not a proper Who fan at all.

  10. Pingback: Linkblogging for 19/01/09 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!·

  11. Matthew, don’t worry – the *vast* majority of Doctor Who fans are nothing like Legion fans. I only know two other people (off the top of my head) who share my opinion of the new show as compared to the old…

  12. So wait…what do you want out of TV? Short, BBC-style story arcs that have proper beginnings and endings or Gilligan-style, nothing ever changes shows, or longer running pieces that focus primarily on plot and leave the characters as archetypes? It’s a bit confusing.

    Friends went off the air more than 4 years ago; TNG 13+ years ago (though Enterprise only 3). Could you use some examples from the current tube to demonstrate what you’re saying? As one commenter noted, L&O has been around for 18+ years, running almost entirely on plot, with little character depth and swapping them out periodically without pause.

    Other procedurals, like Bones and House, have tried more of a balancing act, giving the characters lives often more important than the plot, and letting the weekly mystery just be a way to explore them.

    Where do feel shows like How I Met Your Mother, or the equivalent fall? (for that matter, what’s your take on Seinfeld)

    For my part, I can’t stand those old shows like Gilligan’s precisely because I felt they were too cut off from the likes of ‘Old Pros’ such as Hope and Jack Benny. They never took risks or rolled with the punches. Gilligan, et al, instantly felt stale…perhaps because they were doing ‘family humor’ ? I was lucky to catch old Benny episodes back on whatever comedy channel pre-dated Comedy Central and thought they were great…I recognize parallels from that to things like Lucy and the Honeymooners which I think hold up better than a lot of the 70’s sitcoms (though not all). Those older shows knew they were only a few steps from vaudeville and didn’t dress it up too much, whereas later the early concepts tried to dress up the schtick, but didn’t do a very great job (it’s vaudeville on an island, vaudeville with 8 kids, etc.)

    At some point, I’m not sure when, there was a change (evolution? devolution) from that starting point of set-up/punchline in sitcoms and I think we’re the better for it. That basic element is still there, but it’s dependent a lot more on character and longer burn. Maybe it’s that the pay off was pushed farther down the road that allowed writers more creativity (whether that’s a good thing or not depending on your point of view).

  13. Excellent points, Kalyarn! And I agree with you about Benny, Hope, et. al…just to say it one more time, Gilligan’s Island was crap, dumbed-down assembly-line junk, and to compare it with Friends in order to see which show’s more nourishing is an absurd enterprise…and that’s my point, that nothing’s more absurd than the idea Gilligan’s island is some paragon of achievement compared to anything, and yet that absurdity is where we live these days. To the point where I’m grasping for “competently made” — when really “competently made” should be the baseline, the thing all shows have in common, and the standards for judging a show’s worth should be — should be, and I say this as a lover of trash culture! — whether they are any good. Basically I’m at the point of arguing whether home-made Twinkies are better for you than store-bought ones, it’s ridiculous. When all around you are the fruits of the Farmer’s Market.

    But anyway…has it only been four years or so since Friends went off the air? Seems so much longer, and yet it isn’t like Friends and TNG aren’t still there…paying for cable basically means paying for the right to watch Friends or TNG on demand, I figure. But, the point’s well-taken anyway. Glad you brought up “How I Met Your Mother”, because when you ask what I want from TV, it’s a good example: I just want the aims to fit the material, and vice versa. I’m not above eating Twinkies, I just don’t want them to be frozen Twinkies that were thawed out in the microwave, if it must be crap then I want it to be crap that gets its own crappiness right, and desirably I would like it to be a little bit better than crap. At first Seinfeld was nothing but its creators’ observational comedy dramatized into sketches, then carefully turned so that all the sketches fit together…as this, it was kinda brilliant! Later it became something a little bit different, taking that style it had created and then elaborating on it — tossing in crazier and crazier elements, and this was kinda brilliant too: an average half-hour Seinfeld episode had like, what, fifty scenes in it? And although people often said the later episodes were disappointing, I don’t think that’s an accurate word: “disappointing” was something they never were, some people just didn’t like those episodes. But they always delivered.

    HIMYM I haven’t watched too much of, actually, BUT! Barney cracks me up, and I admire the way the endless deferral that the show is built to run on is put right up there in the title. In fact if I had made that show, I wouldn’t even have a whisper of a suggestion just who it is who’s going to “meet your mother”, at all…to make a sitcom set in the present day which is all retro, one big eternal flashback, I think that’s a fantastic way to deal with the conflict between a sitcom’s typical eternal unchangingness, the formal requirement basically at the sitcom’s heart, the very “sit-” of it, and the modern necessity of having something actually happen over the course of its run. Which I don’t mean to say is in itself a bad or undesirable thing, it’s just that it isn’t automatic, it isn’t a deep formal requirement — it has to be made to work, and when it does work it makes a lot of room for that more slow-burning character-driven humour you’re talking about. But I don’t want to pontificate too much, I haven’t seen enough of the show to know if there’s also screwed-up things in there! I’ve seen enough of the Eccleston Who to know that I appreciate the way they dealt with the problems of updating the show after long absence via the device of the Time-War — making it possible to support the Rose character as very much more important than any Companion could ever have been before, and perhaps also making it inevitable that Tennant’s Doctor would have had to get far more involved in that “romance” than a lot of people would have liked, in order to resolve it…in order to truly reboot the franchise…

    Sorry, a little off-topic, but…you see, that’s why I really have to wait until I see what the Eleventh Doctor’s like. For example, what if he were to play it as a more brusque, brilliantly Hartnellesque Doctor, but trapped in a regeneration that ensured everyone he met would be likely to dismiss him? I might like that, you see…

    Anyway, back to cases. It’s hard for me to say much about Law & Order except that I really, really don’t like it: I feel its longevity, coupled with its, uh, lack of humanity, makes it like the Gilligan’s Island of the Dragnet world…I think at a certain point that brew just got toxic, but no one noticed because it basically tasted the same. But I guess it was made from the beginning to simply go on and on, so long as it had an assistant DA figure whose idealism was capable of conflicting with his character enough to go on intriguing the audience. Kind of a tall order, actually! Because nothing really happens on that show, character-wise. But if you’ve got any Moriartys or Waterstons lying around, I suppose you could make it work…the spin-offs I can’t bear, but the impression I get is that in SVU at least there’s a tiny bit more attention paid to character development, and maybe that’s a principle associated with ensemble casts — why have ’em if you can’t use them to create more complex character interplay?

    I’m enjoying The Mentalist, despite my uncertainty about how far they can take the main character’s bereaved-superman thing before they break it…and a little worried that some uncertainty about real and fake might be injected into the show to its detriment. But The Mentalist is basically a comic book, so it has that way of hooking me…Life is something I think is very well-crafted, it always seems extraordinarily intentional to me, and look! Totally avoided the Sophomore Slump. I miss Raines like nobody’s business, and 30 Rock’s as good as any sitcom I’ve ever seen, its only fault being it just isn’t long enough to do everything it could do in a single episode.

    A good example of a show that vexes me is Monk, because it just misfires — because most of the time the “mystery” part of the show is underwritten. I remember one episode in which Monk’s on a plane and starts unreasonably suspecting two other passengers of murder — almost perfect, except that they showed the murder at the start of the episode! To this day I don’t understand how that choice could have been made — an “ending” mistake, only (maybe uniquely?) situated in the first five minutes of the episode.

    Oh my God, way off topic…

    Does any of that add up to anything?

    I may have to come back and try to be more clear…

  14. Well I dunno. (Hello Plok, back from the beach with good morale.) People seem to be drawing broad conclusions about the state of professionalism from very specific instances.

    Lemme talk Who, Old and New. I want to know just … (1) What were they trying to do? (2) What did they wind up doing? (3) And in each of these, what remains, to which respect is owed? If I don’t know what y’all think is the case here, I’m floundering.

    In Old Who they were trying to entertain me, in all honesty, by enacting the premise e.g. that you could be secretly possessed by an evil genius from an antimatter universe.They said so, one of them did – he said, “We had to make it complex enough to interest the children, and simple enough to interest the adults.”

    What they wound up doing was to leave beloved memories of professional actors manfully pantomiming their way through such an utterly artificial premise, on a minor BBC budget, with straight faces. It was an acid test. It was the Jackass of acting. It had a marked resemblance to the phoney but erudite language-and-literature team game, My Word of the period. And that was simple enough to amuse the adults. Meanwhile, it was carried out with the straight-faced conviction that space and time and telepathy and antimatter were intrinsically exciting, and added up to a real story. And that was sense-of-wonderish enough for kids like me.

    (And if you don’t believe they were serious about the second part, just take in a run of Sapphire and Steel, where they would mount a haunted house time-travel mystery of some sophistication, with a vacant London apartment, some spots of light on a wall and a bag of goop as their only props.)

    What is there in all this, that’s so worthy of respect that we’re asking whether New Who is crucially letting the side down?

    Well M’Lud, I have argued that there was a purity of intention, to play it dead straight for us kids, as SF, and not snicker over our heads. If there hadn’t been, Douglas Adams would have had nothing to satirize later.

    So I don’t agree that the “patronizing clunkiness” is something that you’re supposed to get right. The patclunk is something for the audience to generate if that’s how all the earnest running round the sets strikes them. What you need to get right – as in a good spy mystery – is for the actors to be reacting appropriately to a situation which is initially mysterious but will be revealed to be a coherent composition of SF furniture in the end. It’s the mastery of acting in thin air, with no substantial context to make sense of it. (And if I may say so, the Brits and Canadians have always been very good at this, while the Americans have tended dutifully to set up the rationale beforehand. A few sports like Wild Palms aside.)

    It’s less clear to me what New Who is trying to do. Steven Moffat captures the old conjuring trick very nicely – The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace deliver that WTF factor with clever plotting that must have been a lot of fun to play. Otherwise, there has been a touch of nostalgic patclunk in the setups – but gee, the premise is that the Doctor can drop in anywhere, and everybody has so much tech and history behind them that the problems are almost metaphysical. Given that, the New Who almost has to be like the Old. We audience just have to accept that things work as we’re told they do.

    The new improved dialogue and characterization are improvements, I’d say. What we used to have there, honestly, has been almost all discerned post facto by fans! Plus the few brilliantly quirky moments we remember. In future, Eccleston and Tennant (& Co) will be seen as where they ceased merely working with props and concepts, and made it actually dramatic.

    Now what do you need for professionalism – the kind that writes good crap at least? I reckon it’s lean, risk-happy creative teams, not burdened with major budgets, long development cycles and market cautiousness. Insofar as we’ve had wildcard successes like Dexter and Galactica lately, I think it’s because the writers and producers have learned lessons about how to do more with less production overhead, and get thirteen episodes out the door before you lose momentum.

    Finally – I’ve never seen a whole episode of Friends, but you confirm my worst fears. It’s Chekov where it tells you when to laugh, is that right?

  15. “Matthew, don’t worry – the *vast* majority of Doctor Who fans are nothing like Legion fans. I only know two other people (off the top of my head) who share my opinion of the new show as compared to the old…”

    -Make that three, Andrew.

    The new series makes me howl with laughter at its expense. My wife wants to create a 2-sided T-Shirt with Tennant’s face on one side and “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” on the other with his start and end date beneath.

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