One of the advantages of being an anonymous blogger is that there’s no pressure for me to go with the flow and merely reconfirm popular opinion in whatever I write. That’s not to say that I follow the Armond White approach of going against the grain just because I can, but that does mean that if I can offer an alternative perspective on something, then I’ll do so with few misgivings.
That’s the spirit of a series of posts that I’m starting entitled “Mindless Iconoclasm,” in which I express opinions about pop culture – books, TV, movies, games, music – that are, in my experience, unpopular. These won’t be articles where I simply find fifty new ways to say, “Community sucks!” every week. I intend to explain, to the best of my ability, where I’m coming from and why I feel how I feel about the particular pieces of pop culture in question. I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion here. I just want to express my own in a way that hopefully gets people thinking.
I’m going to kick things off with a look at five TV shows that I like, but don’t love as much as everyone else seems to. I watch quite a bit of TV, and I enjoy almost all of it, but there are some shows that don’t totally work for me as well as they work for other people. These aren’t shows that I hate; they’re just shows that I don’t completely adore as much as others would like me to. We’ll get started after the jump.
There’s something admirable about what Alphas does on a weekly basis. It delivers a solid, supernatural-flavoured case; it moves some elements of its mythology forward; and it provides some nice moments of development for a few of its characters. It does all of this pretty well, with few plot holes or inconsistencies. In fact, Alphas might be one of the most competently-executed shows on television (bad special effects aside, of course, but the show is on a basic cable budget).
The problem is that it’s competently executed to the point of being mechanical. Alphas might be the first show written so as to preemptively head off any criticisms from the Internet peanut gallery. The standard complaints about TV shows you might see on Internet message boards – bad plotting, thin characterizations, continuity errors – simply don’t apply to Alphas. Any potential plot hole is plugged with a bit of expository dialogue. The show pauses two or three times per episode for scenes that scream, “Character development happens now!”
It’s impossible to hate the show for doing these things. Alphas is telling a good story with interesting characters. But its execution just doesn’t feel organic. I feel as if I can see the gears turning in the writers’ room when I’m watching the show: “Alright, we haven’t revealed much about Nina yet. Let’s give her a scene for character development here. We also need to reveal something about Red Flag in this installment to keep our audience hooked. Let’s have a significant reveal there. But it can’t be too big, because we need to save something for the end of the season.” Everything about Alphas feels carefully measured and calculated.
When I’m watching Alphas, I don’t get the sense that I’m watching an unfolding story, but rather, a writers’ creation. It’s a great creation, but I find it impossible to lose myself in it. For that reason, I find myself enjoying and admiring Alphas from afar, wanting but unable to immerse myself in it entirely.
2. Happy Endings
When Happy Endings debuted earlier this year, I didn’t like it at all. It had terrible jokes, grating characters, and a ripped-directly-from-Friends runaway bride story. But over the course of its first season, it morphed into a charming little show in its own right, and it was the only “relationship sitcom” from last season to be renewed.
The thread running through the first half of last season was that Alex had left Dave at the altar, and that storyline informed a lot of the action, lending it a sort of emotional weight. But midway through the season, the writers realized, “Hey, we have six talented cast members. Let’s just let them be funny together.” So, the runaway bride plot line was more or less ignored, but brought up every once in a while as a joke, kind of like this show’s version of “We were on a break!” Making the audience laugh became the focus of the show, and though it still displayed continuity, it didn’t develop any new overarching plot lines.
Of course, the audience didn’t experience it that way, because the episodes aired completely out of order. So, to most people, the first season of Happy Endings just played like six people hanging out and doing wacky shit for half an hour every week. For that reason, they might not have noticed that the show has continued to shift away from serialization and overarching storylines in its second season. Each episode of Happy Endings is pretty much a 30-minute joke factory now. And that’s fine, because each episode is actually a good 30-minute joke factory. (30 Rock should take note of how to do this.) I laugh out loud more at Happy Endings than any other comedy on television right now. (Sorry, Parks and Recreation.)
That being said, I don’t really care about what’s happening on the show, because there are no story arcs in which to invest. Very little about this show carries over from week to week, and there’s no emotional weight behind whatever does happen. Furthermore, even though the show is very funny, it’s so steeped in pop culture references that half the jokes fly over my head. These obscure references keep me at arm’s length, forming a sort of barrier to accessibility. The show isn’t alienating, but it isn’t exactly inviting either. For those reasons, I can’t get sucked into the world of Happy Endings, but I’m content to laugh from the outside looking in.
3. The Voice
Of all the shows on this list, this is only one of which I haven’t seen every episode. It’s also the only reality show on the list. Look, I’m generally not a fan of reality TV, and I don’t actively seek it out – unless the Anderson-Cooper-hosted version of The Mole somehow makes it back to my TV screen – but there’s something admirable about a singing show that actually wants to be a singing show and not just a glitzy spectacle.
Contestants like Vicci Martinez and Beverley McClellan never would have survived on a show like American Idol – remember how long Adam Lambert had to keep his sexual orientation under wraps? And a voice as unique as Dia Frampton’s would have been dismissed as not versatile enough. But The Voice isn’t constructed so as to benefit the most versatile singers; it allows contestants to play to their strengths and develop those strengths further with its unique coaching format. The Voice makes no illusions about the fact that talent is cultivated more than it is born. It might not make for a great story, but at least it’s somewhat honest.
Let’s not forget that the guy who deserved to win The Voice, Javier Colon, actually won the competition. Pretty boys with bad voices, like Lee DeWyze and Scotty McCreery, would never make it past the initial stages of the show. The Voice tries to reward talent, not just the nimble fingers of telephone-toting teenage fangirls.
So why can’t I fully embrace this show? Well, part of it is my general apathy towards reality television, but a far greater part of it is that I just can’t get behind the people at the centre of it all. Let’s face it: Carson Daly is a terrible host. Anne Hathaway and James Franco could do a better job than him. As for the judges, they aren’t terrible, but they’re not interesting either. They rarely have anything insightful to say other than “Yay! Good job!” This is a problem, seeing as the judges are supposed to act as mentors to the contestants. I’m not expecting the judges to be mean or overly critical – Simon Cowell’s shtick got old fast – but as four talented professionals in the music industry, they should have valuable advice to give to contestants after each performance. However, whatever advice is given to the contestants is relegated to clips of rehearsals and practice sessions. Adam Levine occasionally shows an ability to be incisive after a performance, but the rest of the judges – Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, and Cee Lo Green – don’t have much to say aside from vacuous praise.
The Voice is a better show than American Idol, to be sure, but it’s not one that I feel the need to tune into on a weekly basis. I’m content to watch every few weeks just to see what’s going on. I’m happy to watch some great performances from the competitors, but I’m not expecting to learn anything about the development of a performer beyond a few clips of coaching sessions.
4. Arrested Development
Arrested Development’s inclusion on this list might come as a shock to some, especially those who think that not totally loving the show is equivalent to saying, “The Dalai Lama’s cool, but he’s not the greatest guy ever or anything.” Let me be clear: I liked Arrested Development; I admired it for its wit and originality; and I’m willing to overlook the awful story arcs about Mr. F and Tobias’ hair plugs. But I never loved the show, and that’s partly for the same reason that I can’t bring myself to love Alphas or Happy Endings: I felt distant from it.
Of course, I was supposed to feel distant from the show; that was kind of the point. It was in the style of a mockumentary without talking heads; the audience was supposed to observe the characters, not root for them. Who would want to for them anyway? They’re all terrible people who do selfish, stupid, crazy things. The show used a jaunty ukulele riff as incidental music, as if to remind the audience not to take anything they did seriously.
The fact that Arrested Development focused on unlikable people who weren’t to be taken seriously could work wonders, as long as the show could make what those characters were doing seem endlessly fascinating. In its greatest moments, Arrested Development could do just that. The devious machinations of George and Lucille provided the show with a fountain of hilarity and compelling plot lines, for example. But when the show concentrated on its less interesting characters or stories, like Tobias’ failure to comprehend his sexual orientation, everything would grind to a halt. Then, the show’s greatest asset – that it was about watching awful people from a distance, like a voyeur – would become a liability. When I wasn’t fascinated by what these terrible people were doing, I found them irritating. They weren’t people whom I could root for, after all.
Now, this is all subjective, of course. There are many Arrested Development superfans who found Tobias’ stories hilarious and who still laugh at lines like “I just blue myself.” I often find myself wishing that I could be one of those people. Heck, when I think back to the insanity of Maggie Lizer or White Power Bill, I am one of those people. But Arrested Development needed to be a show that was firing on all cylinders all the time, because when it faltered, when it wasn’t compelling or funny, it didn’t have characters that I wanted to hang out with. And that’s shame, because when Arrested Development was at its best, it was one of the greatest television shows ever conceived, which made its weaker the moments all the more disappointing.
Seeing as Homeland is my favourite drama that I’m currently watching, it might seem odd that I’m placing it on this list. If anything, I want to praise it as much as the critics are praising it. It boasts a fascinating plot, compelling characters, and a stellar cast. Right now, Damian Lewis is delivering a performance that should garner an Emmy nomination, if not an outright win. But I have trouble saying, “I think Homeland is the greatest drama on television,” and there are a few reasons why.
Clearly, Homeland’s most apparent problem lies with an aspect of the Brody family drama. Morgan Saylor is doing a fine job as Dana, the Brody’s teenage daughter. Unfortunately, the character is the worst rebellious, moody teenage stereotype possible. (She talks back to her mother! She smokes pot!) In a show where everyone else seems like a fully realized person, she sticks out like a two-dimensional thumb. Homeland fails to get at the heart of Dana’s rebellious nature, beyond the notion that “teens will be teens.” Sure, she’s angry at her mother for jumping into bed with Mike, but I don’t understand why her acting out has to manifest itself in such stereotypical teenage behaviour, and it smacks of laziness on the part of the writers.
The other major problem with Homeland is a more subtle one. Homeland is a thriller, which means that it needs to keep offering twists and turns in every episode, but it’s also a fascinating character study. The two genres don’t need to be at odds with each other. Indeed, one of Homeland’s strengths is that it’s not just one kind of show. However, its central conceit – that we don’t know whether or not Nicholas Brody has been turned – is inherently unsustainable. Homeland wants us to care about the Brodys’ family drama, but it also wants us to keep guessing about whether their patriarch is a terrorist. It’s hard to invest in Nicholas Brody’s reconnection with his family if we don’t know whether or not he’s being sincere. Thus, Homeland’s twin aims – to be both a character drama and a psychological thriller – come into conflict with each other. This problem permeates many corners of the show: the audience doesn’t know what it can accept as the truth. Nicholas Brody could be lying to his family. Saul or Estes could be moles. Nothing Carrie says can be trusted, because of her psychological condition.
It’s entirely possible that the show’s creators wanted the audience to feel this way as a means of illustrating the depth of paranoia in post-9/11 America. But the fact that there’s no anchor of truth to which the audience can hold on is disorienting. There’s no sense getting invested in something that could turn out not to be true three episodes down the road.
That being said, so far, Homeland has played fair. It hasn’t thrown in any unbelievable revelations or plot twists that belie earlier characterization. But the potential to do so exists, as evidenced by last week’s revelation that Nicholas Brody knows how to contact associates of Abu Nazir. So I keep holding my breath, waiting for the show to stop making sense. Thus, when I watch Homeland, I’m fascinated by the psychological drama and the thought-provoking examination of post-9/11 American society. But I watch from a distance – which seems to be the theme for this article – afraid to believe anything this show tells me lest it turn out not to be true.
I want to perfectly clear: none of these shows are shows that I dislike. If anything, they’re shows that I wish I liked more. But hopefully, you now have a sense of why I can’t fully embrace them, as much as I might want to.