Archive for 30 Rock

‘Franklin Comes Alive’: Arrested Development and Communal Delusion

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2013 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Arrested Development (from Entertainment Weekly)

Much can and has been said about the impending, miraculous return of a little show called Arrested Development – the fourth season of which is currently being filmed and is scheduled to be screened on Netflix later this year.*  Admittedly the majority of what I would offer to such a discussion consists of me descending almost immediately into gleeful, froth bag hysterics, or winding up into a rage at the idiocy of the show’s premature cancellation – but that fact notwithstanding, much can be said.  For those unfamiliar with the series, however, those perhaps looking on in curiosity as fans like myself squee with joy at every detail dribbling out of the production of the new episodes, it is probably quite difficult to comprehend how a failed sitcom could overcome such a protracted hiatus to make its Lazarus return (six years is an eternity in television, with every one of the principle actors moving on to new projects) – and even more, why at this point anyone should care this much that they have.

It is a simple truth that it is always difficult to summarise humour.  Explaining why something it funny usually results in dreary treatises of clinical description that utterly strangles any possibility of joy from comedy.  Nonetheless, when discussing a great sitcom, one often speaks of the moments that capture some truth about the series, a moment that can be seen to lift the show from hilarious to sublime.  Perhaps the first paintball episode in Community where Chang enters in a John Woo blaze; maybe the moment of unspoken forfeit when Kramer slaps down his losings on the kitchen counter in Seinfeld’s ‘The Contest’; possibly meeting Dr. ‘Space Man’ in 30 Rock’s ‘Tracy Does Conan’; or having David Duchovny go all Basic Instinct on Larry in The Larry Sanders Show episode ‘Everybody Loves Larry’In each of these instances, what is depicted on screen is so funny, and so perfectly encapsulates the sensibility of the larger text on so many different levels, that the show becomes immortalised as one of the defining works of narrative humour, and frequently they spring to mind when trying to explain that program’s charm.

For Arrested Development the show’s mercurial narrative overflows with such comparable beats, offering flashes of orchestral  comic genius that leap out from the screen: GOB theatrically crying, ‘Return from whence you came!’ before hurling a dead dove into the ocean, for example; watching Charlize Theron ‘magically’ walk on water, only to have Tobias, on fire, unable to sink in that pool moments later; the family trying to run a fundraiser to combat the scourge of the disease ‘TBA’ (literally: ‘To Be Announced’); the many lessons one can learn through pranking with a one armed man; Buster’s run-in with a ‘loose seal’; watching the nation scramble to war at the threat of WMDs, only to ultimately deflate the conflict with Henry Winkler delivering the finest line-reading of his career: ‘Those are balls…’**

But personally, when I look back at the span of this series, the moment that cemented the show into a work of comedic transcendence, that symbolises everything that this anarchically imaginative narrative can accomplish, occurs in the third to last episode of season two, ‘Meat the Veals’.  Here, at last (how did the show ever function without him?) we are introduced to another son of this eccentric family: a little man they call Franklin.

Mr. F.

But first: some history to help put this show’s miraculous return into context, and to justify its unique capacity to bring the dead to life…

As those already familiar with Arrested Development and its first three tumultuous years on air can attest, Arrested is the panacea of hope for every beloved televisual narrative that has been snuffed out before its time.  For every Firefly unjustly ripped from the air; for every Deadwood that never got to play out its final beats; for every Law and Order that was smothered in its infancy (only twenty years?!  Are you crazy NBC?!), there are precious few Futuramas and Star Treks brought back from oblivion.  But Arrested Development – thank the almighty television gods – has now proved, against all odds, to be one.

In its original run (2003-6) it mystified the executives at Fox who seemingly looked on in abject horror as this award-winning, critical darling, with a rabid (if small) fan-base, underperformed in the ratings.  For three seasons it skimmed along the edge of cancellation, each season’s order of episodes getting scaled back, from 22, to 18, to 13… to 0, with Fox itself eventually giving up trying to promote it completely, waiting over a month after it bothered screening the program regularly to callously dump the final four episodes in a glut all on one final night: Feb 10th, 2006, directly up against the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

Throughout this battle to stay alive, however, Arrested retained its acidic wit, even masterfully integrating the issues of the show’s gradual downscaling and flagging ratings into the subject matter of the narrative: the truncation of the studio’s episode order was referenced in the series two episode ‘Sword of Destiny’ when Michael is seen arguing on the phone with a client who has suddenly decided to reduce the amount of housing they had ordered the company to ‘build’ from 22 to 18 (‘You initially told us to design and build 22 homes, now you’re saying 18 – that doesn’t give us enough capital to complete the job anymore.  We’ve already got the blueprints drawn up and everything’); and in that same episode, the idea of moving the company to a new floor in the building is also raised – an idea perhaps referencing the show’s proposed timeslot change (moving them to a new floor in the building that ‘costs less’).

More overtly still, the brilliantly titled ‘Save Our Bluths’ (or: ‘S.O.B.s’) – an episode that had the family scrambling to save their business with a fundraiser awareness campaign – sarcastically contained every conceivable television grab-for-ratings staple possible: gratuitous celebrity guest-stars (Andy Richter played himself and his four identical brothers); extraneous 3D effects (put on your glasses now so that Gob can throw a tomato at you for no reason); a hyped-up, ultimately arbitrary ‘Which of these beloved characters will die?’ mystery (spoiler alert: it was the perfunctory extra who had only enough lines to establish herself as an unsympathetic racist); and contained several reminders of the narrative’s new primary mission statement, which sounded (as they almost certainly really were) like studio notes on the script: characters were repeatedly reminded that they had to appear more sympathetic, and have identifiable problems that could be easily resolved through a series of frivolous, ultimately heart-warming escapades.  The episode even began with the masterfully earnest Ron Howard, narrator of the series, breaking the fourth wall by reminding viewers to ‘Please, tell your friends about this show…’***

Ironically, however, for a program that exhibited this kind of acute, snarky, meta-textual self-awareness, much of the comedy within the narrative stemmed from the characters remaining blissfully, hysterically unaware of their own foibles and failings.  From oldest son GOB’s (George Oscar Bluth’s) cocktail of inferiority complexes that manifest themselves in overcompensatory pageantry (a stage magician with a penchant for travelling via Segue and wearing ‘Seven thousand dollar suits – Come  on!‘), to youngest son Buster’s sheltered, indulged life (a man in his thirties who still wants to wear matching sailor outfits with his mother, and whose dating history stretches little further than his mother’s best frenemy and a torrid affair with his Roomba).  From daughter Lindsay’s need to overcome her self-esteem issues through protesting and activism – no matter how ill-advised or contradictory (in one episode she advocated both for and against circumcision, in another for her brother’s right to ‘die’ via fake-coma), to granddaughter Maeby, a fifteen year old rebelling against her mother’s rebellion by landing a job as an enormously influential movie producer responsible for multimillion dollar budgets (her adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea, The Young Man and the Beach, surely lost nothing of the original’s pathos…)

Even central protagonist Michael, a figure who in any traditional comedy would play the straight man amidst this menagerie, is in fact a figure so distracted by his longing to be a ‘good guy’, to appear selfless and benevolent, that he is blind to his own selfishness and false sense of superiority.  …And all of this is before one even touches on a character like Tobias Funke (never-nude, graft-versus-host sufferer, cross-dressing British housekeeper, ‘analrapist’, who repeatedly prematurely blue himself).

On every level this is a show concerned with its characters’ incapacity to see the truths of themselves, revelling in their escapades a peculiar subverted narcissism that borders on the demented.  What truly set the show apart, however, was its capacity to revel in the fantasies of these characters to borderline delusional extremes.  And it is at this point, in one of the series’ most absurd imaginative allowances, that Franklin appears.

GOB, it is revealed, created Franklin Delano Bluth in an effort to liven up his magic act with some light ventriloquist banter.  He was a puppet, loosely ‘inspired’ by the somewhat controversial Sesame Street character Roosevelt Franklin.  But unlike his muppet namesake, who it has been argued skirted the edge of racial sensitivity, Franklin Bluth blindly stampedes right over it.  And so, moments after his ‘birth’, Franklin is offering GOB’s mother some ‘brown sugar’ and laying down some truths ‘whitey’ apparently wasn’t ready to hear.  (…Although, as GOB admits, ‘African American-y’ wasn’t ready to hear them either.)  Soon enough, GOB and Franklin are recording duets about being both ‘brothers’ and ‘not heavy’ (Franklin with his own microphone and headphones), and crooning witless, self-penned lyrics like:

It ain’t easy being white…

It ain’t easy being brown…

All this pressure to be bright.

I got kids all over town…

Like a surreal homunculus, Franklin immediately embraced his gift of life and began seemingly acting independent of his creator.  Indeed, by the third season Franklin is so assertive that he is instrumental in helping solve a court case, and undertakes a bold new business venture that puts another (this time literal) feather in his cap…

To the outsider it might seem ludicrous that a puppet could be so imbued with life, or that anyone could fail to delineate between themselves and the inanimate object strapped to their wrist, but one of the defining attributes of GOB is that he is so starved for a kind of egomaniacal gravitas that he fully invests in this skewed anthropomorphism.  What is even more extraordinary, however, is that everyone else invests in the reality of him too.

People talk to Franklin.  They speak about him when he’s not there.  George Sr., offended by a crack that Franklin has make about his wife, Lucille, reacts by strangling the puppet – not the incompetent ventriloquist who artlessly mouthed the comment.  When Buster puts him on, Franklin lets out a swift tirade at matriarch Lucille, shouting: ‘I don’t want no part of your tight-assed country club, you freak bitch!’ – an outburst that takes Buster himself by surprise.  Even Michael, the character most disinclined to encourage GOB’s flights of fantasy, periodically acknowledges the puppet’s individuality.  While trying to get off the phone with GOB, he gives in to this bisection of personality (despite the fact that at this moment the character is literally nothing more than a voice on the line), saying: ‘No, I don’t want to talk to…  Heyyyyy, Franklin.’

Franklin becomes symbolic of all the illusory excesses at work in this family’s dynamic, every impossible longing that they project upon the world, that obscures their reality: Tobias’ acting career; GOB’s desperation to be the new David Copperfield; Lucille’s life of entitlement and excess (her stomach cannot ‘handle’ curly fries).  Franklin presents for them an imaginative focal point, a communal delusional indulgence in which they can all hubristically embolden their own fantasies.

But the moment in which all of this coalesces into the perfect nonsensical epiphany comes when GOB, desperate to please his escaped convict father, agrees to sneak him past a condo security guard in the back of a limousine.  When the guard wanders closer to inspect the cabin and offers a friendly greeting, GOB offers a nervous hello, one that is followed immediately by Franklin leaping up and shouting, ‘I ain’t your daddy!!  Hey, brother!!

The guard – who is African American – looks down at what appears to be an offensive racial stereotype perched on the blithely ignorant rich Caucasian man’s hand.  He tells GOB to pop the trunk and roll the windows down.  For a moment everything stops a beat.

In the front of the limo, the nervous GOB fidgets desperately, and the camera zooms in on his face.

In the back of the limo, the fugitive George Sr. looks terrified, and the camera zooms in.

On GOB’s hand, his expression unchanged, Franklin Delano Bluth stares unblinking.

…And the camera zooms.

Throughout the entirety of the series, Arrested Development knowingly cultivated a mild cinéma vérité aesthetic.  Ron Howard narrates the interactions of this family in a sincere, detached tone, as though describing the behaviour of snow leopards or water buffalo; boom microphones swing into view; editors insert footage and clippings that reveal salient information (the cutaway to Tobias’ ‘Analrapist’ business card remains a haunting warning against abbreviating occupational specialties).  Despite being pushed further into the background of the viewer’s attention than in a show like The Office or Parks and Recreation (where people talk directly to camera), Arrested frequently used this documentary presentation to inform and propel the narrative, sometimes to speed up the exposition, sometimes for a swift gag; but here, in this one fantastical lens shift, this style reveals something far more.

Not only had the characters invested in the ‘reality’ of Franklin – ballooning out from GOB and his duo enterprises (duets; double-acts), through the family at large (‘Heyyyyy, Franklin…‘), to the wider public (Franklin is called as a witness in a court case, and is another time handcuffed as a hostile suspect by police) – but now, in that one ingenious zoom, the documentary crew invests in him too.  This interlaced hallucination is so absorbing that it pulls others into its gravity and we watch them eschew the objective truth of this world and embrace the skewed irrationality of this deluded family, further endowing their imagination with substance.

Franklin was no longer an ill-proportioned Muppet copyright-infringement – he was suddenly a character with his own motivations and fears – one to be scrutinised with the ‘journalistic’ lens of the camera along with the other participants of this strange docu-drama.  No longer were we watching GOB with a colourful sock on his hand; this was now GOB and Franklin, together again on another mismatched buddy caper, each with goals and motivations and a rich personal history.

Franklin – much as his self-titled album of duets suggests – comes alive.

Further, by laughing at the audacity and mania of this directorial decision, we, as the audience, seal the deal: this is Franklin.  Mr. F.  Worthy addition to the Bluth family bonanza, connectively given life by the collective comic unconscious, now left staring down the lens of the camera, shivering in fear lest he be discovered for the hysterically deluded fever-dream that he is.

And when a show has the capacity to breathe life into the wholly inanimate – to give sensation and autonomy to an ill-stitched glove with no anatomical scale – it has moved beyond simple farce and satire, and waded headlong into Dr. Frankenstein’s anarchic lair, so overabundant with imaginative fervour that it can defy such a simple inconvenience as ‘cancelation’, and reanimate the old in a blaze of the new.

So I very much hope to see Franklin back in the mix come the broadcast of season four.  Hopefully, as I type these very words, his name is being etched on the filming call sheets.  So come on, internet!  Where are the real spoilers?!  I already know that Liza Minnelli is confirmed to return, and Scott Baio is back; but have we heard anything from Franklin’s representatives?  has his agent been approached?  Pay him whatever he asks for producers!  He’s worth every penny.  And those tiny tracksuits aren’t cheap…

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Fox)

* In what has recently been confirmed to be a longer run of episodes than first announced.  Glee…

** And while we’re at it: Henry Winkler merrily jumping over a shark?  Priceless.

*** Indeed, beside the live-to air episodes of 30 Rock (which I intend to speak on sometime soon) there has probably never been a more elegantly self-reflexive moment of television than this episode, with more of a statement to make about its own purpose, and the mind-bending recursive descent that can occur when that window into the text’s production is explored.

‘Tanking it’: 30 Rock, Northern Exposure and the Death Rattle of Episodic Television

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: 30 Rock (NBC)

In this, the latest and confirmed to be last season of 30 Rock, the show’s extraordinary writers have once again found a way to self-reflexively speak to the experience of guiding the journey to its end.  Already aware going in that this will be their concluding chapter, they have decided to acknowledge a familiar, if disheartening truth about episodic television: that frequently it all ends as an embarrassing, turgid mess.  Far too often a program that was once a joy, perhaps compromised by the lust for ratings and longevity, overstays its welcome, becoming little more than an unrecognisable shadow of its former glory.  Thankfully 30 Rock itself is at no risk of fading away or tipping over into drivel, but rather – as it so frequently does in its rapid-fire wit and self-aware irony – is acknowledging and gleefully riffing on this sad truism.

Loosely inspired by creator/show-runner/actor Tina Fey’s several years experience on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock was born out of television production, and has remained acutely aware of its medium’s minutia – both on and behind the screen.  It is informed at every level by a love of narrative tropes and genre convention, and with a surety that appears deceptively effortless, it mirrors these textual paradigms back in order to celebrate, malign or subvert them at any given moment.

And this latest season continues this ingenuity, once again masterfully weaving the expectations of the show, its creators, and the audience itself into the very fabric of its fiction.  The central conceit of these recent episodes, established in the season opener, revolves around the primary characters, NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and show-runner/writer Liz Lemon (Fey), who have desperately strived for the previous six years to keep the program they produce, TGS with Tracy Jordan, on the air, now knowingly trying to destroy their own creation, and by extension, bring down NBC itself in the implosion.  The show, they realise, is now a millstone around their neck, and in order to be free they must destroy it, or it will destroy them.

The term they use is ‘tanking it’ – which essentially means throwing the game; intentionally doing badly so that you can be freed from the obligation of doing a job that you either despise or recognise is impossible.  Liz attempts to ‘tank’ her obligations as a bridesmaid, throwing a wearyingly sad hens night with elderly neighbours and a dreary clown; Jack knowingly fills NBC’s broadcast schedule with unwatchable garbage (at one point hilariously illustrated in a non sequitur commercial for one of Donaghy’s new guaranteed programming failures: a collection of old men in tank tops wandering around confused, actually entitled ‘Tank It’).

In both cases, both Jack and Liz reason that the burden of success is too high – too much responsibility, too much effort; a wearying, endless struggle that will only be met with complaint and criticism anyway – so they decide to blow it all off.  They realise that the expectation they are facing – from viewers, from executives, from the staff itself – is impossibly high, so they decide to do the inevitable: own the screw up, bring the whole production down on their own terms.  The meta-analogy being drawn to 30 Rock’s own circumstance is pointed: having announced that this will be their final, truncated year (13 episodes rather than the usual order of 22), expectation is high to see if 30 Rock, back-to-back three time winner of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy (2007-9), can do what so many other shows have failed to, and deliver material worthy of its critical (if mystifyingly not always ratings) success in its concluding run.

And with this notion of ‘Tanking it’, 30 Rock’s writers appear to be comically acknowledging that this upcoming season will present an almost impossible directive for them to fulfil.  Hopes are high and their record is stellar; so they inevitably face the most unnerving television reality: that a satisfying finale is more the exception than the rule; that a show’s final season, perhaps crippled with expectation or too far removed from its original premise, often proves to be barely a shadow of its former glory.

Indeed, it is a pattern that has sadly repeated again and again, from anarchic sitcoms to sombre dramas; from sweeping sci-fi epics to the character portraiture of primetime soap opera.

To use but a few examples, in its final, ninth season, Scrubs went from playfully snarky nonsense to become an uncomfortably mean-spirited, sullen affair, that made the fatal flaw of mistaking narcissism, aggression and incompetence for character quirkiness.  Many of the most beloved characters were moved on to be replaced with a fresh young brood of hotlings, and old recurring gags (that had probably outstayed their welcome) like JD and Turk’s bromance were awkwardly slammed up against attempts to fashion new running shtick that had little time to get traction.

Meanwhile, in its final year (weirdly also a season nine), Rosanne utterly disembowelled itself, forgoing the central premise of the entire program: a working class family getting by in a recognisable world, for nonsense indulgence: they win the lottery and go all Beverly Hillbillies on everyone.  In no time Rosanne was having Steven Segal-inspired action movie fight sequences with terrorists on a train; Rosanne’s sister Jackie was falling in love with a Moldavian prince; Dan’s mother was trying to murder her son (weirdly played for laughs); and the entire run of the show was revealed in its final moments to be a reworked fiction of the central character’s own life – thus everything that the viewer had been invested in for the past almost-decade was fabrication, a novel written by Rosanne herself that obscured some uglier truths.

In truth it was an audacious final move to make, but rather alienating and self-destructive for a show that, until that final season, celebrated ‘realities’ not usually shown in a sitcom genre – or in some cases on television in general: domestic abuse; eating disorders; divorce; death and loss.  To be told that this repository-of-life’s-harsher-truths-made-palatable-by-humour was in fact all just an elongated  fantasy concocted by the titular character may have been a nice self-reflexive nod to Rosanne Barr’s purpose in devising the show, but it left the audience’s suspension of belief and investment in the fiction irreparably damaged in its wake.

Even in other more procedural, dramatic programs this loss of identity can erode the fabric of the show, ultimately undermining its premise, as the final season of The X-Files revealed (a series that also ended on season nine – perhaps the real lesson here is that people just shouldn’t make ninth seasons of anything… maybe that should be a rule or something).

Bafflingly, The X-Files made the fundamental misstep of presuming that it was not in fact the collision of believing Mulder and sceptic Scully – faith and mind embodied in a symbiotic duo – that was at the heart of the show, but rather the monster-of the-week premise.  In place of the two central leads – David Duchovny’s Mulder left into the nether-sphere of non-recurring peripheral characters in season eight (which totally made sense considering he had fought tirelessly and sacrificed his career to open the X-Files and keep them running), and Gillian Anderson’s Scully was benched to become the Yoda for their two replacements – the show was handed over to new agents, the T-1000 (I’m being flip, but Robert Patrick is great) and new-agey faithful Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who from that point onward did the majority of the fieldwork.  With the paradigm flipped and less compelling protagonists pushed to the fore, the show swiftly slumped and was retired, ending on a muddled clip show that fleetingly returned Mulder to try and iron out the almost decade-long Mobius strip conspiracy narrative that some viewers had barely tolerated anyway.  The truth may have still been out there, but at that point few people cared to look for it.

But for me (and I know all of my examples thus far have dated me horribly, and that this will only add to it), the best example I can think of is one of my favourite programs ever, a show that at its best was a beacon for all that the medium of episodic television was capable of producing, and at its worst was a sign of the blind, production-line mentality of serialised narrative: Northern Exposure.

If you didn’t see it, Northern Exposure was a beautiful, deceptively unassuming show about a New York doctor who is contractually obligated to work, against his will, in rural Alaska to pay off his tuition.  Superficially it was a fish out of water story with a cast of lovable eccentrics, but in actuality – at its best – it was a wondrously multifaceted text, effortlessly blending philosophy, literature, social science, absurdity, snappy dialogue, and unapologetic sweetness, all into a warm, affectionate weekly package.  I would happily posit that its third season may be one of the finest twenty four hours of any film fiction ever produced.*

However –

Its final season is abominable.  No excuses.  No take-backsies.  It’s just bad.  For me, every decision they made in that season was dead wrong.  Perhaps it was in good part a tonal shift due to the primary show-runner and producer leaving (although it was still being stewarded by David Chase – a guy who knows a thing or two about great television thank-you-very-much-TheSopranos), but the show itself turned peculiarly unpleasant.  Not just of-lesser-quality, but disagreeable – genuinely unlikable.  Beloved characters became selfish and unappealing; new tedious characters were introduced with maudlin problems that had no place in that world; the central character of the series, Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow), was written out of the show in a faux-mysticfarewell half way through the season.  He literally went on a metaphysical quest and disappeared into a netherworld vision of New York that was left intentionally – almost aggressively – nonspecific.  (…I wish to the Mighty Thor that I was making that up.)

In short, the final season (season six, not nine for once) gave its best shot at undoing everything that made the first five seasons grand.  The romance percolating throughout the years was revealed to go nowhere; the principle character, whose integration into the community was the driving force of the show’s mission statement, was lost in the vapours of who-the-hell-knows-what; and most criminally of all, the town of Cicely Alaska suddenly seemed far less magical.  And the peculiar thing was that many of these episodes were still being written by the regular series writers – people who had proved their skills repeatedly – it seemed they had simply lost their way.

Lest I be accused of having a myopic vision of the early years, I should point out that even in the great seasons (the years still produced by the original show-runners), there were flaws.  Indeed, there’s an episode in the second season, ‘War and Peace’, that infuriates me, that (like the final season), I actively have to obliterate from my head-canon of the show.  It is an episode that tries to be so postmodern and self-aware that it utterly fractures the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and the fiction collapses in on itself.  In the narrative, in a microcosm of the cold war and its chest-thumping escalation theatrics, belligerent American capitalist Maurice becomes involved in a pistol duel with stubborn soviet Russian Nikolai – but at the point of calling ‘Draw!’, the characters step out of the scenario entirely.  Members of the onlooking crowd speak of themselves as fictional beings within a television narrative act-structure; they reference the nonsense mechanics of the tropes that they are impossibly locked within; and then ultimately abandon the conclusion, actively un-resolving their way out of an arbitrary conflict.**  …Bah!  I hate it!  It burns!

(…And yes, I do appreciate the seeming contradiction in chastising Northern for leaving a crack in the fourth wall when a show such as 30 Rock busts through it like the Kool-Aid Jug in every second line – but 30 Rock has always embraced its plasticine ‘reality’, while in every other episode Northern went to great pains to carve out a cohesive, ordered world that the viewer could invest in, and which in this moment is irreparably abandoned.)

In spite of the many flaws that mar Northern Exposure, however, my abiding love for the show remains nonetheless.  Despite entirely derailing itself in its farewell year – like so many shows before it and since – I will defend to the death (not really; I am an abject coward and ‘death’ is pretty harsh) the worth and artistic merit of that show.  When it shines brightest it is truly glorious to behold, and looked at from the right angle you can barely see the dints.

I’ve not seen the end of 30 Rock (currently scheduled to screen January 31st, 2013) – no one has yet, save perhaps the makers themselves – but I feel fairly certain that the concerns that have plagued innumerable other programs (whether knowingly or not) at this final point of their life cycle need not be applied here.  As they have already proved repeatedly in the past, the ingenious writers, producers and performers of this sparklingly witty show are all presciently aware of the pitfalls and challenges they face heading into this concluding phase of their narrative; and thankfully, as always, have proved themselves adroit critics of their own creative act, playfully mocking themselves before they ever actually risk becoming the butt of the joke.

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IMAGE: Northern Exposure (CBS)

*A season that culminated in the Peabody Award winning ‘Cicely’ – one of two such awards the show received along with its smattering of Emmys.

** You can watch the scene in all its metafictional fourth wall breakingafication here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6_BtlJ7yc

Medal of Honor: Post Titler

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Medal of Honor: Warfighter (EA)

Medal of Honor: Warfighter has received quite a lot of flak for being repetitive, uninspired, short, and buggy to the point of unplayablility at launch without a hefty patch. It’s been mocked for its almost fetishistic obsession with the breaching of doors – despite how inconsequentially aesthetic this mechanic is – and for the creepy little soul-stealing she-demon NPC daughter character that haunts the uncanny valley of those computer animated cutscenes.

But what struck me – having scarcely seen the game in action – what I think it really deserves to be called out for, is that name:

Warfighter.

Was that meant to be a joke? War. Fighter. I imagine the writer’s room for that decision:

‘So we need to brainstorm some titles… We’ve got the Medal of Honor part. That’s in the can. But what about the subtitle? Anyone got anything? Come on, let’s think outside the box. Yes? You. Tom.’

‘Well, in the game you’re fighting…’

‘Good. Good work, Tom. I like it. Fighting. Lots of fighting. Follow that thought through…’

‘And you’re in a war.

‘Great point also, Gerry. You are. You’re in a war.

‘And you’re fighting…

‘Yep. I heard you before, Tom. See? I already wrote it on the whiteboard.’

Medal of Honor: Stare Into the Abyss and the Abyss Stares Back at You.’

(* sound of a throat being cleared *)

‘…Glenn, what did I tell you about that stuff? Now, go for a walk while the rest of us sort this out.’

I mean, to end on Warfighter – the most a trite collision of immediate, obligatory noun and verb that one could possibly apply – does that mean we now have sequels like Medal of Honor: Gunshooter, and Medal of Honor: Soldierbattling to come? Each one more superfluous and hackneyed than the one preceding?

Indeed, it reminds me of a joke in 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon, hounded by the fear that writers are a relic of the past – an occupation no longer necessary in a world that glorifies ‘unscripted’ reality television and mindless special effect pyrotechnics – stumbles across a poster for an upcoming film that reads:

Transformers 5: Planet of the Earth.

Written by No One.*

She sees a placeholder name – words without context or meaning. A vague gesture toward sense that leaves the goalposts so wide anything could fall within its purview.

But there really is no excuse for such vagary. When you look at the titles of texts that have endured, there is rarely such artless phoning-in of the titles. Even in the world of videogames, where franchises are (most often very wrongly) accused of being thoughtlessly cranked out, there is frequently great consideration placed in the names with which these experiences are published.

In Assassin’s Creed you get that lovely collision of the antisocial and dangerous ‘Assassin’, with the notion of order and adherence to stricture in ‘Creed’ – a thematic conflict that plays out in every level of the text, from the battle between the Assassins and Templars, to the player’s own experimentation and exploration within the mechanics of the game/animus. Further to that, subtitles like ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘Revelations’ allude to shake ups in the formula (albeit minor in ‘Revelations’), proving a good deal of depth in their meaning.

Grand Theft Auto is another ingenious descriptor. Despite each iteration of the game shifting beyond the narrow parameters of this one criminal act, the title nonetheless captures that sense of social abandon built into every level of the experience: you can steal a freedom of transport. It’s subversive; it’s reckless; it’s about escape and escapism – an antisocial defiance through which culture and civic order will be examined.

The Uncharted series, Mass Effect , Gears of War, Deus Ex – hell, I would say even Skylanders – every one of these franchises seems to have put thought into their titles than Medal of Honor has this time around. Each uses their name to reflect some fundamental element of the experience that the game is hoping to evoke, whether it be exploration; consequence; the gritty grunt work of battle; the collision of man, fate, and machine; or, uh… living on a land …um… in the sky. …Or something.

And yet: Warfighter.

Where you play the muddled, buggy experience of fighting wars.

Having already whinged about this lack of creativity elsewhere**, I was informed (to my complete astonishment) that ‘Warfighter’ (although not recognised by my Word program) is in fact a real term that the US Department of Defence (DOD) use to describe military service personnel.  Although in my (extremely pathetic) defense, the term is apparently used by the DOD precisely because it is the most generic, all-inclusive, nonspecific, gender-neutral title that can be applied. It is designed to reference everyone in a blanket definition, rather than single out any specific operative or experience.

So maybe I’m being unkind. Maybe that was the point of Medal of Honor: Warfighter: to let the player know, right before the load screen had even flashed into view, that this was just another generic shooter. There will be levels with heat blasted sand. There will be turrets. There will be obligatory vehicle sections. Stuff will blow up every thirty seconds or so. There will be ham-fisted nods to current political unrest, and rote acknowledgement of the real life sacrifice of actual soldiers sandwiched between staccato onslaughts of headshots and kill streaks. There will be bad guys menacing innocents in ways that make it easy for you to gun them down without qualm. A squad mate or two will die a tediously scripted death so that you feeeeeeeeel something, damnit! War is hell…  But not really, because we’ve got nothing new to say about it.

The makers of the game seem to have embraced the broad meaning of the word, but not bothered to subvert it with genuine individuality – which is a shame, since it sounds like there was room there to explore something new within such a wide purview.

Medal of Honor: Warfighter.

The name feels redundant, because you’ve played it all already, a hundred times before.

IMAGE: 30 Rock (NBC)

*  From the episode ‘Plan B’ from series five.  Tracy is on the run, so everyone starts considering what their back-up occupation will be – and Liz realises she doesn’t have one.  (It also has a pretty hilarious hallway walk-and-talk with Aaron Sorkin.)

** http://whatculture.com/gaming/medal-of-honor-warfighter-whats-in-a-name.php

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