Friday, June 4, 2010

Grand Finale

OK, I went so long without posting that now I have, like, 14 posts running around in my head. So bear with me, this could be a prolific week.

With so many potential topics, I am going to focus this week on the recent end of the 2009-2010 television series - particularly the finale episodes - before the topic gets stale. While I could go on forever covering Survivor (Parvati should have won,) The Big Bang Theory (Hi, Blossom!), 24 (which over the course of seven seasons in real time went from having so much energy that each episode felt like it passed in 30 minutes, and ended its run so sluggish and labored that each hour felt like, well, 24.)

But we're going to focus on three particular finales, which are a good microcosm of the state of television - indeed, the state of America - today: Lost, American Idol, and House.

I'll start by telling you that I stuck with Lost all the way through six seasons. I have seen every episode. I was drawn in during season one - compelled by the mystery of who these people were, where they landed, why they were there, and what was happening to them. Season two sort of Lost me a bit - the narrative seemed uneven and I wasn't sure where the story was ambling - but when Michael shot Ana Lucia and Libby, and then got Jack, Sawyer and Kate kidnapped in order to get off the Island, I got sucked back in. Finally, the third season was a total mess - it was sort of clear they couldn't continue writing a series that hinged on so many mysteries without resolving them, but they couldn't resolve them without ending the show. So when the producers announced they had struck a deal to end the show in season six, I figured they had a clear narrative arc for where they wanted to go.

It started promisingly enough. The third season finale "Through the Looking Glass" were two of the best hours of scripted television I've watched, and provided a structure to the series, propelling the narrative forward clearly. The emergence of the Others as villains and the shadowy Charles Widmore as their nemesis anchored the series - both groups wanted the Island our survivors were so desperate to leave. The backdrop of both faith (the "Jacob" subplot) and reason (the scientific wonders of the Island; the Dharma initiative) seemed to indicate that the battle had real meaning; that the stakes were high. You got the feeling that the Island was worth something, and this battle was centuries old. Getting some of the castaways off the Island only made the story more urgent - their journey back was just as urgent as their journey to leave.

Personally, I loved the season five finale. Part of me wonders how I would have felt if they had simply ended the series there, or with the season six premiere. Something very Lady or the Tiger, where we see the choices, but don't get to know how it plays out. I almost could have lived with that. Instead, though, I wound up slightly disappointed.

It's not that the sixth season, with its "Sideways" storylines, wasn't compelling. And I didn't feel cheated by the revelation that those stories took place in a kind of purgatory after the characters had died (and I'm not the least bit curious about the age they all appeared to be, or the vast differences in when each of them must have died.) Actually, I sort of liked that that choice - or rather - it was one of only a handful of choices the writers could have made and allowed both the "original" timeline and the "sideways" timeline to be "real."

No, what ticked me off is that I feel the central story itself was essentially unresolved. Charles Widmore got shot, but we never really found out why he wanted the Island so badly. We never really found out why - or how - Ben managed to "lead" the others for so long. How, if Jacob was essentially the embodiment of good, he tolerated Ben's leadership when it was executed with so much malice? We never really understood why Walt was special? Why the Others went after kids, and what happened to them? We heard about how "evil" the smoke monster was, and what awful things would happen if "it" escaped the island, but all we got were vague allusions and no real understanding of those stakes.

So, in the end, I enjoyed the show and I'm glad I watched it. And I liked the finale - mostly because I'm a sucker for reunions. Shannon and Sawyer got me misty, but Sawyer and Juliet totally had me in tears (and I TOTALLY knew, when she made that remark about going dutch in the season premiere, that it was going to wind up in the finale when they met in Sideways world – I just didn’t know what that world would be.) That’s not saying much, though, since I also still cry every time Fantine shows up at the end of Les Miserables, and I've seen that five times.

However, looking back over the complete series as a dramatic work - I'd give it a B. It was engrossing and intelligent and literate and, often, inspired. I just don’t feel like it hangs together completely, tightly, as a single narrative. The six season arc tries to tell too many stories, and the central plot throughline feels incomplete. Basically, the series posed the central questions of: (1) who are these people? (2) why have they been chosen to come to this place? (3) why is it important? In the end, in order to be great, the series must specifically, explicitly, and completely answer those questions with actions and answers that are as elaborate and specific as the questions themselves.

That said, I will say that there’s very little happening in serialized television today that even attempts to achieve the level of narrative storytelling achieved in literature or film, or which challenges its audience with topics of faith, spirituality, economics, sociology, history, or science the way Lost did. It easily surpasses, in intelligence and storytelling, most of what we’ve seen on television.

American Idol and Survivor offer a far different lesson; a cautionary tale if you will, about laziness, boredom and stupidity. About why you shouldn’t let America vote, except when you should. I’ll explain.

I was engrossed by both shows right from the outset, mesmerized by the slow elimination that resulted in a “last man standing.” It’s a compelling device – dating all the way back to the Ten Little Indians nursery rhyme (and, later, a novel and play of the same name by Agatha Christie.) The inevitable winnowing of the field, coupled with the survival mechanisms of the players, makes for compelling television. The difference has been in the deployment. Survivor exists, ostensibly, to create good television. On that level it succeeds; it may not be intelligent television, though there are plenty of lessons about using social skills and managing group psychology that can be observed.

American Idol, however, exists, ostensibly, to find a great musician or musical performer. It’s track record hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been great. Two of nine winners are verifiable stars, though only one has shown real staying power (Carrie Underwood). Two other finalists (Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson) have gone on to achieve stardom, though, I’d wager to only call Daughtry a musician, while Jennifer Hudson (complete with Oscar and film career) is an actress who sings. Other than that, we’ve gotten lot of folks with recording contracts but no real commercial success, and a bunch of musical theater singers who probably would have found their way to Broadway somehow.

This season was BOOOOOORING. The show’s been on too long and the casting formula (the rocker, the sensitive ballad guy, the rebel chick, the kooky girl, the theater queen (male or female), the quirky re-mixer/beat-boxer/accordion player) has grown predictable – and predictably limiting. And letting America vote has resulted in three seasons in a row where the unexciting lite-rock contestant has beaten a more interesting musician (and this is from someone who preferred Cook to Archuleta and Lee to Crystal.) So next year, when your office has a pool to pick the winner, figure out which contestant is strong enough to make the top 6 and boring enough to be heard in your dentist’s office or your mother’s car, and you’ve got your winner.

It’s hard to find a great pop star on the television – kind of like going fishing in a tree: the medium is all wrong. Yes, great musicians need to be great performers, but they need to be great musicians, first. They need to bring to the table a voice that comes from self-awareness and life experience and creative expression. Many of those people aren’t under 26 (I know, now the age limit is 29), and aren’t necessarily going to get cast on a tv show where America votes for the winner. Listen to the early albums of Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, and think about how they’d fare on the show. Would Kara have told Carole King that she’s got a lovely voice but she should really try something younger and more modern, and enough with the introspection and the yearning already? Would Randy have told Billy Joel that the piano stuff is a’ight, but maybe get out from behind the piano and show some range?

Which brings me to the judges. Does anyone care anymore? Randy hasn’t offered a single bit of constructive criticism in nine seasons. He’s supposed to be an industry executive, for crying out loud! Kara is a songwriter who works in A&R. Does these people have nothing to offer? How about saying – “Folks – this show is basically the biggest rotating cover band in the world. When you remake a song that someone else, somewhere, has already done – ask yourself, ‘Why am I singing this song? How does it showcase my voice and my voice? What am I adding to it?’ Think about songs that have been successfully remade and ask yourself why. “I Will Always Love You” became a power ballad; “Total Eclipse of the Heart” became a dance track. Think about how current musicians sample existing works into their music. Why are specific songs chosen? What does the sampling achieve?”

I won’t even comment on Ellen, because I had such high hopes for her humor and the ability to see armchair opinion played out on the show. Instead we got tired, retread commentary. Which, of course, qualifies her to start her open record label. You know, I once judged a Miss America state pageant (Miss New Hampshire, 1995), but spending four hours judging women in bathing suits doesn’t make me heterosexual. (Actually, I’ve spent 37 years judging women in bathing suits, it’s just that I’ve only gotten paid for 4 hours of it.)

But if American Idol is an example of weak judging, and why America shouldn’t vote, Survivor is an example of why it should. Coming off of two progressively more interesting seasons in Tocantins and Samoa, the most recent chapter, Heroes vs. Villains was appointment television. 20 of Survivor’s best contestants battling it out for a second (and, in some cases, third) chance at the big prize.

I won’t recap the whole season, since I’ve commented on it plenty – but the folks America responded most strongly two were back in what was easily the best season of Survivor since its inaugural run 10 years ago. Some folks left their personalities at home (Candace, Amanda); others their prowess (Colby). But plenty of folks came to play, earning a respect (Jerri) and redemption (Coach) or the humility (JT) that eluded them the first time around. And, fittingly, Russell – who should have won last season, proving that sometimes America makes a better decision than the jury (but that’s not the game – the game is convincing a jury of your peers) – made the show compelling, week after week after week. He may not be able to convince the jury, but he’s earned his back-to-back fan favorite prizes.

So, what’s the lesson in all this. Sometimes, when America votes you get stuff like George Bush – which we regretted too late; others you get stuff like Obama (which it seems to be regretting too prematurely.) And sometimes America gets a great story with a crappy third act (Mike Bloomberg, anyone?)

Still, we keep tuning in…

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer Hudson also has an Grammy and other numerous music awards, some research would be nice. next time you write a blog.