Archive for finale

‘Hashtag! We’re It’: 2014, A Retrospective (Part 2)

Posted in criticism, literature, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by drayfish

Hashtag 2014 with Cat by Me

2014: The Good (Or Marginally Better) Stuff

In my last post I skimmed the surface of why 2014 was such an enormous downer …to put it mildly. For a few thousand interminable words I blathered on about several of the year’s most unsettling cultural and pop cultural controversies – from Gamergate, to Bill Cosby, to the trend of police shootings of unarmed black men – and briefly explored the way in which these stories were directly forwarded by, impacted with, or responded to in social media.

It was despairing stuff. And I hadn’t even gotten to Ebola, Syria, or made any snotty remarks about Taylor Swift or Flappy Bird yet (no doubt I’ll get to them momentarily).

But now it’s time to dig up and out of the hole. Because thankfully, this need for fellowship and community – a longing symbolised by our use of the hashtag – emerged in other, far more life-affirming ways, as people felt the impulse to join together and help one another out.

Kermit Ice Bucket Challenge

IMAGE: Kermit The Frog’s Ice Bucket Challenge

There was the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for research into the motor-neuron degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Essentially a good-natured update on the email chain letter, it involved people filming themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their head, and then calling out others to do the same, raising awareness for the disease, prompting others to get involved, and inviting donations. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement as friends, celebrities, and world leaders were called out, eventually reaching the kind of pop-cultural ubiquity that results in parodies, fail videos, Presidential shout-outs, and lazy Simpsons references.

Reading Rainbow, a television show designed around sharing books with children and promoting literacy (and that contained an oddly gloating theme song about flying ‘twice as high’ as a butterfly – why not let the butterflies have that one thing?) was brought back from the dead after its cancelation in 2006. The show wasn’t re-launched on television, but was instead funded by a social media-propelled Kickstarter campaign to be turned into an app that will allow children to stream books and content directly. The Kickstarter met the one million dollar goal it had set for itself in less than a day (I believe eleven hours, actually), and had soon easily raised five million, with the additional funding going to providing free access to the service for underprivileged schools. The grateful joy with which Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton thanked the contributors was wonderfully heartening.*

Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

IMAGE: Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

That impulse to share ourselves also surfaced in less purely altruistic contexts, including the way in which we consumed our entertainments. Sure, the days of friends and family sitting around on the couch shouting at the same copy of Mariocart and wrestling for next go on the controller might be largely behind us, but the popularity of Twitch streaming and the re-emergence of appointment television like Game of Thrones meant that, rather than killing off the communal experience of pop culture, in 2014 the lounge room instead just infinitely expanded.**

It was a trend that can perhaps be seen most obviously in the popularity of last year’s surprise schlock-watch Sharknado, a SyFy original film that became a magnet for gleeful, snarky commentary over social media when it aired. This year’s Sharknado 2: The Second One doubled down on the cheesy idiocy of its premise, throwing every B and C-grade celebrity cameo at it they could manage, moving the unconvincing green screens of the whole production to New York City, and building to a climax in which a man (named Fin; I never get tired of that) surfs a shark through the funnel of a tornado while wielding a chainsaw. The resulting Twitter-nado may not have felt as organic and delirious as the first time around, but it was still proof that ironic-viewership had gone global.

Sharknado 2

IMAGE: Sharknado 2: The Second One (Syfy)

Indeed, this kind of social media word-of-mouth is inarguably the reason that some soulless, spiky-haired studio executive, having just flicked through a Venn diagram of internet memes and a budget projection for integrated advertising, green lit production on this year’s most cynical contribution to humanity’s seasonal depressive state: Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. As you can probably imagine, the result – a Reddit image that had ballooned into a tedious viral phenomena and been repackaged into a cheap, gratuitous ‘hate-watch’ spectacle – would have been equally as subtle had the Lifetime Channel just shown a two hour commercial block with the phrase ‘Viewers like you make us sick’ superimposed across the screen.

Even the tradition of after-show ‘water cooler’ critique and speculation accompanying any series that has captured the attention of the zeitgeist has now expanded into its own genre, rife with programs and podcasts that discuss programs sometimes only minutes after they’ve finished airing. Chris Hardwick (who appears to have spent this past year using his Nerdist network to stage some form of world-domination coup) now hosts Talking Dead to mull over AMC’s The Walking Dead; Kumail Nanjiani (likewise everywhere this past year) has dipped into cult television of the past with The X-Files Files (only one of the now countless new Star Wars/Buffy/Twin Peaks/Doctor Who podcasts out there currently propagating like a virulent strain of flu).

Thankfully, shows that invited this kind of devoted analysis were suddenly everywhere. There were the usual examples like Mad Men (heading into its final episodes) and House of Cards (still sneaking up on everyone with full season dumps on Netflix), but some freshmen shows like Fargo (which, as a semi-adaptation of a film, took everyone by surprise by being captivatingly bold, idiosyncratic, and thematically resonant) and True Detective (which ended all handwringing over the long-redundant ‘divide’ in quality between television and film), came out of the gates fully formed, demanding their audience’s communal attention right from their opening minutes.

true detective

IMAGE: True Detective (HBO)

True Detective in particular kept people riveted for weeks, locking them in the kind of grand pop cultural conversation arguably not seen since the early days of LOST (before everyone realised that show was just yanking their extremely long, irresolvably convoluted chain***). Audiences wildly speculated on the identity of the killer, plunged into deep-dive critiques of the show’s signature gothic splendour, and playfully mocked Mathew McConaughey’s ‘flat circle’ monologue until the dialogue,

‘Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again…’

became more a metatextual commentary on our own impulse toward de-contextualised memes than it did the hunt for the monster in the existential labyrinth of the human soul.

Or whatever.

But for me, the best moments in television this year came in the conclusions of two beloved and irreplaceable programs, both of which took their last bow by acknowledging the intimacy and strength of community.

The Legend of Korra was a four-season television epic (a sequel to the sublime Avatar: The Last Airbender) so wondrous that Nickelodeon consistently seemed baffled to know what to do with it. For two seasons they barely advertised the series, for a third they hurried it to air with no advertising at all, burning through half the episodes in a marathon and then yanking the rest to screen ‘online’ in a bold new strategy of anti-marketing. For the fourth season they threw up their hands entirely and decided to just let the internet have at it, leaving room, no doubt, for more decade-old repeat screenings of Spongebob Squarepants.

Korra-next-to-statue

IMAGE: The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)

Thankfully the show’s audience were not as incapable of investing in grand, serialised narrative as Nickelodeon believed them to be, and the show was lovingly followed to its conclusion by a grateful fan base who got to see one of the finest evolutions of a character and universe ever rendered in ‘childrens’ programming. Over the course of its run, Korra tackled themes of bigotry, propaganda, anarchy, totalitarianism, terrorism, social upheaval, genocide, and post traumatic stress, all punctuated with dynamic action, sumptuous visuals, and a robust roster of richly drawn characters, any of whom (perhaps with the exception of Mako) could easily have headlined their own show.

I mean, Asami was a female Batman.

A FEMALE BATMAN, PEOPLE!!!

And with its final season revolving around an expansive metaphorical exploration of World War 2, with fascism and the rising threat of atomic weaponry at its core, the show built to an exceptional crescendo that, rather than simply ending with the easy resolve of a villain slain or an army destroyed, instead chose to conclude with a perfect encapsulation of the shows principle mission statement: that compassion and sympathy are our greatest tools for peace.

Not a smack down drag out (although it did deliver some sublime action also), but the willingness to extend oneself with kindness, forgiveness, and understanding – to build a community that is strengthened by diversity, and in doing so, consequentially, to cultivate peace within oneself.

cr_11032_05.jpg

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

In a very different alternate reality, The Colbert Report bid farewell in December in order for its star, real-world Stephen Colbert, to move to CBS in 2015 and take over the retiring David Letterman’s The Late Show. But once again – ironically for a show that gravitationally bound to the ego of its fake conservative pundit ‘Stephen Colbert’ – the show instead chose to celebrate community.

Alongside the show’s searing satiric wit, much of its genius can be traced to the real-world Stephen Colbert’s unique and expansive skill set. Colbert is an exceptional improvisational comedian, coming up through Second City and honing his craft for years on The Daily Show, and it has been that skill at sustaining, adapting and evolving a joke, that seemed to inform the show. The ‘Yes/And’ of long form comic narrative allowed it to go wandering to truly surreal lengths: the Sean Penn Metaphor-Off; the Late Night Ice Cream Battle with Jimmy Fallon; Cooking With Feminists; the Shred-Off with the Decemberists; his decade long argument with his mirror-self, his only ‘Formidable Opponent’; the Daft Punk debacle; and his eternal wars with Jimmy Fallon, the liberal bias of reality, and bears.

Not surprisingly then, the finale proved to be an equally epic comedic wandering toward resolution. After faking out the audience for months with allusions to the character’s inevitable demise – ‘Grimmy’ the Grim Reaper was seen lurking around the set, pointing ominously to a dwindling clock, (and one assumes swiping office supplies) – the show made the inspired decision of subverting this expectation and having Colbert – by accidentally killing Grimmy himself – ascend to a state of omnipotent godhood, allowing one of the greatest long-form satiric characters of all time to finally take his place amongst the pantheon of American folklore, ushered into eternity with Santa Claus, Unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and …Alex Trebek?

Okay.

colbert goodbye

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

But while riding into the nethersphere of iconography, Colbert’s final act, letting the mask partially slide away, was to send a heartfelt thanks to the ‘Colbert Nation’, the fans and community that were an integral part of the success of his show.

Because as this final episode, taking its last bow, elegantly acknowledged: without the Colbert Nation there would have been no Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, he would never have appeared, in character, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, delivered his blisteringly subversive speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, ran for president, or in the saga of the SuperPac (what I personally thought was his greatest achievement), had his audience raise a fund he was able to exploit for practically any insidious, disingenuous or libellous act he could imagine, unequivocally revealing just how corrupt and lawless the entire system of campaign funding and advertising still remain in politics.

The character of Stephen Colbert (‘The T is silent, bitch’) was an egomaniacal blowhard trying to remake the country into his own conservative fantasy, but that character needed – nay, required – a legion of chanting, ecstatic fans, in on the joke and feeding him with ironic adoration that masked a genuine affection.

And as Colbert stated in his climb to the stars, it sure as hell was fun.

Speaking of fun (and hell), videogames too often found themselves structurally and thematically about trying to foster communities (if one can momentarily scrape aside the festering garbage of GamerGate). Even though the majority of my personal videogame highlights of the year were solitary, it is hard to deny that the games of 2014 were marked by a move toward enticing co-operative play, with multiplayer elements intruding upon traditionally solo experiences.

…Even when they probably shouldn’t.

Assassins Creed Unity

IMAGE: Assassin’s Creed: Unity (Ubisoft)

Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest in a series fundamentally concerned with being a solo assassin, working aloneone, single, solitary, lone clandestine agent, by himself, against the world, individually (have I built this up enough yet?) – decided that the next logical step in the series’ evolution was to swallow its own multiplayer component and turn the game into a four player drop-in hack and slash fest.

Because teamwork.

Admittedly, despite the game’s subtitle, the single-player option is still there (beneath all the reminders of co-op and companion apps and in-game purchases), but the game’s publishers, Ubisoft, seemed so keen for the world to try their new multiplayer feature that they rushed the game out the door before bothering to nail down a stable frame rate, put faces on some of their character models, fix whatever it is that makes you arbitrarily fall through the streets of Paris into a gaping white abyss, iron out the innumerable visual and audio pop-in delays, or check for game-crashing main menu bugs.

They also decided that every reviewer of the game should be legally prevented from reporting on those myriad problems until a day after the game had been released when it would already have been purchased by eager fans.

…Because teamwork?

But hey, cynics: that’s not because it was an unfinished, glitchy mess, victim to Ubisoft’s now unsustainable yearly-release franchise model! It’s because it’s more ‘cinematic’ that way.

…And no girls allowed.

destiny

IMAGE: Destiny (Bungie)

Bungie, the creators of Destiny, were likewise so sure that multiplayer experiences were the wave of the future that they seemed willing to gut their single player game before release, portion off content and locations for future DLC, and wholesale remove character options and plotlines, bargaining that the lure of frenetic team-based multiplayer experiences would make up for the remaining hollow shell of loot grinds and Peter Dinklage’s mono-droning that now substituted for a story. (And now no one even knows where that wizard came from!)

Then there was Titanfall. Remember Titanfall? The slick, frenetic multiplayer-only mash of parkour and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots from Respawn Entertainment, the team that built and were then screwed over by the Call of Duty franchise. Titanfall may not have been the revolution that many fans had hoped for, and like Destiny, the narrative might feel like little more than an afterthought – an insect buzz in your ear while you are concentrating on not getting shot in the face – but it has certainly already impacted multiplayer shooters, with Call of Duty already peeking over their shoulder for ‘inspiration’. Somewhere that A.I. dog from Ghosts is wiping a tear from its eye with one paw as COD ‘borrows’ Titanfall’s mech-suits, verticality, and futuristic aesthetic, and slaps a grinning Kevin Spacey on the front of the box so that no one has to pretend to be surprised when the character goes full super villain at the most arbitrary moment in the plot.

Elsewhere, Nintendo – whose Wii U console (to put it kindly) has struggled in the past couple of years with low sales almost no third-party support – managed to regain some ground in the marketplace by banking on new iterations of two of their most popular multiplayer franchises, Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart 8 – again proving that tight, competitive and mischievous gameplay can still captivate. Indie darlings like fencing multiplayer Nidhogg became impossibly addictive. And Blizzard’s unassuming but insanely addictive competitive electronic card game Hearthstone (currently conquering everything from PCs to iPads), redefined and legitimised freemium games.

…Also there was Flappy Bird.

flappy_bird-2

IMAGE: A Bird That Flaps (.GEARS Studios)

I –

I have no idea what the hell Flappy Bird was all about.

…Self-flagellation in a year of self-loathing?

But whatever it was, it too was marked by an element of pop cultural social bonding. People shared this weird little curio with its nostalgic (read: ‘ripped off from Mario Bros.’) aesthetic, frantically competing against each other to better one another’s maddeningly miniscule scores. It was argued over and defended. Trippy little time-waster? Ad revenue peddling trash? Game? Carnival skill tester? Quaint? Evil? It was an unavoidable discussion point in the endlessly evolving debate over the legitimacy and breadth of videogames. And eventually – as is the mark of anything that has contributed for good or ill to the sum total of that conversation – it was soon cloned into an oblivion of re-skinned sludge in the app store.

But the greatest examples of videogaming’s inclination toward the sharing of experiences came not at the whim of a publisher shoehorning in a co-op function, but through social media venues like Twitch and YouTube. Online personalities like PewDiePie have become sensations by inviting people to watch them play videogames (like that cousin who would ‘let’ you watch over his shoulder while he played his third run-through of Street Fighter 2); people share footage of their best speed-runs; first plays can scratch that itch to fire snide commentary at poorly-made games without having to pay for, or suffer through them, yourself.

Then there was Twitch Plays Pokemon – one of most curious social experiments to ever witness unfold, and a wild insight into unfettered groupthink.

It started when an Australian programmer designed a way in which Twitch chat could be used to life feed commands for the Gameboy game Pokemon: Red. The game could therefore be played in real-time, non-stop, to a global audience, who were themselves telling the game what its next moves should be. Soon, an audience of several thousand viewers (at times up to over 100,000) were inputting directions all at once, which the game then tried to play out.

Twitch_plays_pokemon_animated

IMAGE: Screenshots from Twitch Plays Pokemon

And the result was captivating – if utterly bonkers. Strategies were bickered over on the fly. Trolls fought against those genuinely trying to advance the game. An escalating war of moves and countermoves went on behind the scenes to try and get the action on track. Eventually a democratic voting system even had to be implemented so that the game could advance at all.

It took just over a fortnight of unbroken, erratic play for the game to be completed; but even more remarkable than the heartening fact that the project managed to advance at all, what was really surprising was the way in which it revealed, in microcosm, the way in which we human beings like to impose a communal narrative upon our daily experiences.

While the game chugged along, prompted by the live, unpredictable hive-mind breaking, advancing, and testing its boundaries, whole histories and mythologies were soon spawning organically from out of the apparent chaos. On screen, the main character and his menagerie of pocket monsters reacted in skittish, twitchy, irrational ways, but from out of this disorder, a saga began to unfold.

Each Pokemon was given a new name (often sounded out from the alphabet salad punched into the renaming feature), and imbued with distinct personalities and motivations. There were treasured artefacts, sought for and inopportunely discarded. ‘Consulting the Helix Fossil’ grew from a playful justification for the player character’s random selection of this useless tool in battle, to a divine ritual, a consultation with the true deity of this bizarre world, and a battle between gods that inflated into an eternal conflict between good and evil, anarchy and democracy. There was betrayal (‘The False Prophet’ who abandoned them all); heartbreak (the darkness of day eleven, when so many Pokemon were needlessly released as the chatlog repeatedly pressed the wrong commands); loss after loss; but in the end, impossibly, through perseverance and passion, victory was achieved and the journey through a literal chaos, finally validated.

It was a true shared mythology, equally as frivolous and convoluted as it was palpable and portentous; one conceived and made manifest in a marathon improv from contributors (even those trying to troll it into madness) devoted to a singular, communal experience.****

In new media (if you can call a media that’s now at least a decade old ‘new’) the podcast world exploded with the coming of NPR’s Serial, the first real pop culture podcast sensation. A true-crime story helmed by NPR reporter Sarah Koenig, Serial revisited and reinterrogated one real-world murder cold case over the course of multiple episodes. The result was a cultural phenomenon, a series that harkens back to the days of early radio in which families would crowd around to hear the latest instalment of their weekly shows, stirring the same kind of audience dialogue (and somewhat muddled demands to beware of ‘Spoilers’) that would usually accompany a critical darling HBO series.

Much has been made of the debate that the show has triggered about whether or not Adnan, the man convicted of killing his high-school girlfriend, was guilty. Several publications (most notably and hypocritically The Intercept this past couple of weeks*****) have criticised Koenig for showing undue bias toward Adnan and thus stirring up an army of online armchair detectives; but at its core, at least in my experience of it, Serial was never about finding some exonerating piece of evidence, or advocating on anyone’s behalf.

Sarah Koenig by Meredith Heuer

IMAGE: Sarah Koenig (Meredith Heuer)

Koenig’s twelve episode journey was a staggered documentary investigation into the layers of a presumed slam-dunk conviction that exposed, as those layers were peeled back, some troubling implications for the case and the American legal system as a whole – despite whether Adnan ‘did it’ or not. Its why Koenig anticlimactically never comes to a decision on whether she believes Adnan is ‘guilty’; why so many who followed Serial remain convinced he is a murderer and why so many others are baffled that anyone could consider him a suspect at all.

What Koenig was instead exploring was the way in which the machinations of the justice system can all too often be clouded with the frailties of human perception. How notions of ‘truth’, ‘justice’, and ‘proof’ are prey to our imperfect memories, biases, obfuscations, and self-interests. Whether Adnan was a charming psychopath or a kid screwed over by an incredibly unlucky series of events, it was the process of his trial and sentencing that was really the focus, one that, when light was thrown upon it raised a lot of troubling questions – from shifting witness testimony, questionable prosecutorial conduct, negligent representation, and untested DNA – no matter what the ultimate result.

And perhaps that is one of the best symbolic representations of the curious nature of 2014, and its tendency toward the makeshift community of the hashtag. Serial was a podcast that, by the very nature of its medium, was designed for individual people to download and listen to it privately, in their own time, to make of what they will. Instead it triggered communities. Not only the most downloaded podcast in history, it gave rise to sprawling group discussions in Reddit and forums, resulted in listening parties, handwringing speculation about ‘trial by audience’ in the press, inspired people to fund a school scholarship in memory of the victim, and to flood Twitter with a torrent of conversations punctuated with everything from ‘#freeAdnan’ to ‘#MailKimp’.

Throughout the year the hashtag became an avenue for society to voice publically some uncomfortable issues that have perpetuated for generations. In September, in order to bring awareness to the prevalence of domestic violence, thousands of women used the hashtags #whyistayed and #whyileft to discuss their decisions to remain within or escape abusive relationships. After Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations, in which she spoke hopefully about a future in which both men and women work together toward equality, the hashtag #HeforShe went viral. And in July the seemingly irresolvable conflict in Israel and Palestine had a moment of – even if only fleeting – hope when the hashtag #JewandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies was shared across the globe.

It was also a outlet through which many could express grief, or acknowledge loss. When cricketer Phil Hughes died after a freak bowling accident on the field the hashtag #PutOutYourBats became a communal signature of condolence. Celebrities like Robin Williams, Harold Ramis, Elaine Stritch and Philip Seymour Hoffman were remembered in outpourings of memories from their life and work. And poet Maya Angelou’s final tweet before her death in May was a fitting, elegant farewell, re-Tweeted by almost a hundred thousand fans in thanks:

Maya Angelou Final Tweet

Finally, in the last few weeks of the year, Hashtags proved themselves to be a means of expressing the very best impulses in humanity.

On the 15th December, a lone gunman held eighteen people at gunpoint in a cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place. What unfolded was a lengthy hostage standoff that the media soon began misreporting to be a ‘Muslim Extremist’ action. In particular, Rupert Murdoch’s fear-mongering, sensationalist rags, despite having absolutely no evidence with which to back up this speculation, declared it an ‘ISIS death cult attack’, trying to tap into a terror that far too many Australia’s politicians have likewise preyed upon in the past decade and a half, that ‘Muslim’ is somehow a synonym for ‘terrorist’. (Murdoch, like some kind of Twitter carrion bird, later even gleefully used the whole incident as advertising for his paper’s bloodthirsty fatuousness.

illridewithyou

IMAGE: #illridewithyou

But in spite of this prejudicial reporting and fear-mongering, the public decided to respond in a kinder, more inclusive way. Fearing that people of the Muslim faith might be harassed the next day by ignorant, angry commuters that had been stirred into a xenophobic spin, a hashtag, #illridewithyou, started up over social media. People shared their public transport timetables and details, offering to be a friendly companion for anyone riding on those trains and buses and ferries who might otherwise be feeling alone or targeted. Rather than being some territorial mark of identity, or prideful sign of exclusivity, #illridewithyou was an invitation, a promise. It offered solidarity and support in the face of prejudice and fear.

(Murdoch’s papers, of course, were swift to sneer at the whole thing as another ‘left-wing’ conspiracy of superiority – the usual nonsense – all while conveniently failing to mention either their own inflammatory misreportings or their boss’ ghoulish gloating.)

There’s no denying that this year was rough.

Atrocities went on around the world seemingly unchecked. Almost three hundred school girls and women were abducted by terrorists in Nigeria. School children were slaughtered by Taliban gunmen. Sunni extremist group ISIS seized control of much of Iraq and Syria. There were beheadings. Slaughters. An Ebola epidemic swept through West Africa. We saw new Cold War sabre rattling as Russia ignored international outrage at their invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. Multiple (multiple!) commercial airplanes went missing or were shot from the skies. Horrible racial injustice seemed not only entrenched, but was aggressively defended by many in power or in the media. A group of artists and critics were demonised and terrorised because of their gender. If the FBI is to be believed, North Korea successfully threatened an entertainment company into forgoing its freedom of expression.

Like something Shakespearean, even society’s clowns didn’t seem to be safe: Joan Collins died, Bill Cosby was disgraced, and, again, Robin Williams, a man who delivered endless delight to others, lost his own battle with crippling despair. Then, right before the holidays, everyone learned that the United States, self-described beacon of freedom and democracy, has had its CIA engaged in, and consistently lying about, a horrifying, ongoing campaign of torturing war prisoners.

And in case that didn’t haunt your dreams enough, Dick Cheney emerged from his Darth Vader egg tomb to cynically evoke 9/11 to the news media again, show no remorse for even the innocent people that have been brutally tortured – in some cases to death – and proudly declare that he’d be happy to implement such systemic violations of the Geneva convention again ‘in a minute.’

So… Merry Christmas?

Dick Cheney Still Cheering for Evil

IMAGE: Dick Cheney on Fox News (Fox News)

A lot of the time, 2014 really did suck.

But in spite of all this – sometimes as the only way of dealing with it – it also proved itself to be a time in which people sought out one another for comfort. Tried to make them laugh. Tried to remind them that despite everything going on around them, they weren’t crazy, and they weren’t alone.

This year reminded us that, sure, the internet can be a cesspool of inward looking bias, an echo chamber of hatred and misinformation and conspiracy and cruelty, but it can also be a mass of firing synapses, linking us in incomprehensible, inspiring ways. People riffing on the day’s events in 144 characters or less; swapping personal stories in comments sections; commiserating in blogs; collaborating on research in Google docs; breaking stories in Reddit; angling for social change on facebook; fighting censorship on YouTube; turning eight seconds into surrealist vaudeville on Vine; desperately hoping that MySpace is still a thing on MySpace.

We have now stretched out into the vast, wild nothingness of the internet, a space untethered from location and time; one in which we can bring with us as much or as little of ourselves as we like.

Sometimes this means that people, freed from the responsibility of identity, can act like raging, abusive, trolling lunatics, but other times, those times in which social media reveals itself to be a fount of collaboration and conversation, the hashtag can be a symbol of so much more. It signifies a space in which we can dare to get giddy about Star Wars again, or to grieve the passing of those who inspired us, or to giggle at memes that we all know are ridiculous, but that momentarily lighten our psychological load.

And so, for me anyway, this year finally showed what that hashtag actually represents.

The hashtag is the best and the worst of us, all our impulses and yearning for community collapsed into metadata key. Four lines, intersecting across one another, gaining strength from that support. It represents not just some longing to shout our existence into the nether, but to be heard and to hear others. To remind ourselves that, despite the darkness, there are others out there eager to huddle closer to the light.

hashtag

* Seth McFarlane pledged one million dollars to the cause, continuing to mess with my mind by endlessly ping-ponging between heroism and villainy. Million dollars to literacy? Good. Million Ways To Die In The West? Unmitigated evil. Being the principle producer on the return of Cosmos, one of the year’s greatest joys? You are a ray of sunshine. The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover? You are a monster who must be stopped.

** Note: These are points that South Park made, albeit far more elegantly, in their two-part season finale episode. Does anybody but me care that I wrote the first draft of this before the episodes aired? No? I just sound sad and defensive? …Fair enough.

*** Someone else might want to throw Damon Lindelhof’s new show, The Leftovers, into this list of great new shows, but after LOST, the idea of another Lindelof-run mystery-bait premise about broken souls yearning to understand themselves means I’m already out.)

**** For anyone interested in reading an account of the narrative that unfolded in Twitch Plays Pokemon, you can find a grand one here.

***** Two of The Intercept’s reporters, in an act of extraordinary hypocrisy, recently published two interviews – one with the original prosecutor of the case, the other with the prosecution’s star witness – and then used these accounts to try and discredit Koenig and Serial as being disingenuous, unethical, sensationalist, and derelict in their journalistic obligations. They felt so strongly about this that they published a lengthy introduction to the interview with the prosecutor in which they declared all questions of Adnan’s guilt to be moot, and Koenig to have lied about trying to contact the prosecutor for an interview. They then proceeded to leap on to Twitter to rile up anyone who might take issue with their work and even distastefully try to use the murder victim herself as a cheap emotional ploy to avoid criticism. It was a weird little tantrum meltdown so baffling that even other reporters had to step in to question their self-aggrandising ‘trolling’.

Meanwhile, the fact that they were basing all of this solely on the accounts of two people who had every reason to paint themselves in the best possible light, that their reporting made several factual errors, that they edited a direct quote to misleadingly make it work to their own damning narrative, that it was they (not Koenig) who was creating a media spectacle out of the principle witness by revealing his name to the world and giving out personal information that was never revealed in Serial, and, astonishingly, that their own two witnesses were now openly contradicting one another’s stories (the witness having admitted that much of his court testimony was a lie – something they let pass without even a follow up question to the prosecutor), made their petulant grandstanding about Koenig’s supposed failings as a journalist all the more farcical.

Vargas-Cooper in particular even went so far as to give her own interview to The Observer, again failing to see the mind-boggling hypocrisy of trying to make herself the story while chastising Koenig for apparently doing the same, and describing those interested in the case as ‘delightful white liberals who are creaming over This American Life‘. The hubris was staggering, and one presumes an embarrassment to The Intercept.

Advertisements

‘And you were there, and you were there…’: The Dream of Community Season Four

Posted in literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2013 by drayfish

community series 4

IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)

At the end of last year I wrote about the upcoming, as-yet unseen season four of Community with a kind of mournful hope (here).  The mystifying firing of creator, showrunner, and guiding auteur Dan Harmon was looming large over the production, and fractious behind the scenes conflict with the notoriously irascible Chevy Chase had put the production under a cloud.  However, while things seemed irredeemably grim, the series had developed a tradition of repeatedly proving itself capable of exceeding dire expectations  time and again.

It was a show that lived under the perpetual shadow of cancellation and reduced budgets, but each week fought on bravely, continuing to tackle daunting narrative conceits that have bewildered multimillion-dollar films.  It had, after all, managed to repeatedly legitimise seemingly impossible shifts in theme and genre and tone: from jumps into clay animation, to exploring alternate dimensions through the delivery of a pizza; from making a pitch-perfect  Ken Burns documentary around an intractable pillow-fort conflict, to building the gravity of a Law and Order murder case around a sabotaged yam.  A tenacious, ingenious mockingbird, Community had masterfully weathered countless storms, continuing to offer television’s most consistently rewarding and rich examination of a group of beautifully broken characters who realised they needed each other to survive.

And so, having now watched season four (in which new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port faced the program’s most daunting prospect: continuing on without the voice that has defined and guided every moment of its brief span) I’d like to look back upon this final, truncated season and explore how these episodes fit into the larger structure of a show that I have spent the last few years dearly, deeply, and almost irrationally, loving.

And sadly, the most revealing way to start is by flashing forward to the end…

A dream.

We ended on a dream.  With the prospect of the show never returning for a season five, the show decided to end on an episode that took place primarily in the confines of dream, localised in the mind of the central protagonist.

Wow.

Frequently considered one of the laziest, most undercooked scriptwriting conventions in television, ‘It was all a dream…’ has become a cliché for hackneyed narrative twists.  From the writers of Dallas retroactively abolishing a year’s worth of sticky narrative, to MacGyver travelling to King Arthur’s court, to Rosanne throwing the whole reality of her show under the metatextual bus for a trite farewell, while there are, of course, exceptions*, too often ‘It was all a dream…’ exists as a rote means of granting writers free license to indulge their fancies with the logistical and consequential conventions of narrative abandoned.  Romances can suddenly blossom between characters without the sacrifice of their sexual chemistry back in the ‘real’ world; central players can die while being free to over-emote again once the dreamer awakes; irrational tales can be played out with no need to clean up the resulting mess; the dream episode asks its viewers to detach themselves from their investment in the logic of the fiction, and to follow the writer on an excursion into the inconsequential vagaries of ‘What if…’

Which in this instance, given the significance of the day and episode in question – central protagonist Jeff Winger’s graduation from the community college around which the show is centred, and the potential finale of the series – is asking rather a lot.  This is the last time that these characters will be depicted relating to each other on an interpersonal level, and we are asked to spend that time lost in the transom of fantasy.

Even more unfortunately, Community’s finale not only relied heavily upon the whimsy of its absurd premise – alternate versions of the Greendale gang are imagined crossing over into the real world to prevent Jeff from abandoning his original dickish, self-involvement – it is also designed to be a half hour of uninterrupted pandering fan-service, with every second line operating as obscure call-back to gags and subplots and asides from the first three years of the show.  From Abed’s obsession with The Cape, to the fake-Dean, to the Starburns memorial,  to paintball, to the words ‘Six Seasons and a Movie’ scrawled on a background blackboard.  The show was so busy recalling all that it was, literally losing itself down a fantasy of recollection, that  it forgot to ground itself in the interactions of these characters – the glue that has defined the show from the beginning.

In the first episode of this last season, ‘History 101’, the writers made a big point of how the show was going to ‘change’.  It was the primary thesis of the episode, and voiced to be the guiding principle of the season – a mission statement that literally declared the show was going to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways.   Abed even leaned into the show’s fourth wall until the supports groaned and gave a speech about it:

‘I was trying to hang on to this moment because I was so afraid of the future.  Then I realised: all of this was once the future.  And it was completely different from all I’d known before.  And it was all happening so fast.  But in the end – or in the now, I guess – it turned out great.’

The show promised – both to characters and audience – that even though the past was great, even though the show would necessarily be different without Dan Harmon at the helm, good things can come from change, and emotionally, ideologically and textually, the show had to move on to new great things and find its own fresh groove.

And yet how did they use the season to build up this promise of a new bold vision for the show?  By spending every episode referencing what once was: the darkest timeline; the air conditioner school; a Dr. Spacetime convention; the Dean’s wardrobe obsessions…  on and on and on.

And seemingly every time they tried to expand upon the fertile but unexplored ground Harmon left tilled they underplayed the possibilities there, too…  We met Jeff’s dad – in a plot that felt like a B-story afterthought.  We had Britta and Troy get together – and proceeded to forget about their relationship for the whole season, until it was expedient to try and milk the breakup as a profound, emotional trial.  We actually remembered that Pierce now has a half-brother with whom he might cultivate a newfound familial relationship – and had him appear for only ten seconds one time, never to be spoken of again.  And we’ll still have Leonard.  And ‘Pop-Pop’ Magnitude.  And Other Annie.  And Fat Neil.  They won’t do much, or contribute anything.  But they’ll be there because…  well, whatever.  Why not, right?

Indeed, looking back on this season, the only new, ongoing concept I can point to that these episodes contributed to the canon was ‘Changnesia’, a concept and execution that has made me long to erase the whole character of Chang from the show.  …That’s right.  They turned me against the sublime lunacy of Ken Jeong because the way his arc was handled was riddled with inconsistency and wasted potential.  Beyond immediately blowing the reveal that he was faking his memory loss the whole time, truly: where did his entire storyline go?  His scheme to help the villainous Dean of City College just cut off midway through, no mention at all of how it apparently resolved, or where it was supposed to be going.

Perhaps the only real highlight of the season was the episode penned by Jim Rash (Dean Pelton), ‘Basic Human Anatomy’, a riff on Freaky Friday, in which Abed and Troy pretended to switch bodies so that Troy could avoid the uncomfortable duty of telling Britta that their relationship was over.  On the plus side (unlike every other episode this season) Community superficially sounded like itself again – the characters (with the rather unnerving exception of Britta) felt reinvigorated, and had dialogue that snapped and crackled with energy; there was a lovely absurdism rumbling away in the background of Greendale once more (the Dean channelling Jeff’s personality; the conclave of murder-mystery janitors; even the return of the anti-Die Hard waiter (damn that guy!); and there was a depth and intelligence in the spine of this script.

Having Jeff and Britta tandem unlocking the code of Troy and Abed’s regressive fantasy, talking to one character while actually tapping into the fears of the other – was admirably ingenious, and went a long way to justifying the leap asked of the premise.  Jeff’s final advice to Troy – that trying and failing is still an act of bravery – was a welcome nod to the emotional gravitas that this show once made look so effortless.  It was an episode the was worthy to stand beside those written under the guidance of Harmon (and I can offer no higher praise, given the context).

However, this welcome return to a more polished script and dialogue could not disguise the extreme logical and thematic jumps that the narrative asked of its characters and audience in order to try and achieve its intended emotional denouement.  Trying to manufacture strain in a peripheral romance Z-plot (even to the point of bending space-time: they were dating for a year?), and leaving Britta to be resignedly cypher-dumped by Abed were jumps that completely disrupted the suspension of disbelief, and rather undermined her character.

Rash’s script did try to paper over this rift in Britta’s behaviour by having her firstly, numb with surprise, and secondly, coming to understand that she had ‘always’ been aware that what drew her to Troy – his innocence and immaturity – was what would ultimately doom their relationship (and to her immense credit I feel Gillian Jacobs tried to sell it that way in her delivery).  But ultimately this is meeting the show way more than half way, because the framework for such a realisation was not established at all, merely regurgitated in a glut of exposition.  Simply put: the rest of the season didn’t support this premise enough for it to work.  It was a lively, imaginative script, but the story it tried to tell had not been nurtured, or really even established enough by the season-running plot to land as it should.

Ultimately, though, the episode that I found really weirdly irked me the most was the penultimate episode, ‘Heroic Origins’.  Effectively ‘part one’ of the season finale’s ‘Greatest-Hits’-remember-when-athon, the audience was invited to explore how each of the characters unknowingly influenced one anothers’ lives before they had even met, once again using this as a thin pretext to call-back on all the gags that couldn’t be crammed into the finale…

Remember Troy’s keg-flip?  Remember how Annie freaked out and ran through a glass door?  Remember how the Dean once said ‘I hope this doesn’t awaken something in me…’  Yes?  You remember it all clearly and don’t need to be reminded in such a shameless way?  Well too bad, because here you get to see it all.  Even to the inanity of discovering where Magnitude got his catchphrase, or where Annie’s Boobs the monkey originally came from.

The episode was, as it declared itself to be, an ‘Origins’ story, an excuse to flash back on everyone in the year before they decided to come to Greendale – comical dental-gear, letter jackets, Obama t-shirts and all.  And wouldn’t you know it, the story reveals that each of these characters all unknowingly influenced each others’ existence in profound, life-altering ways: Jeff’s life choices impacted upon Britta; Shirley was an influence on Abed; Annie made a difference to Troy; Pierce was… apparently already being written out of the show.  Round and round in a neat ouroboros.

Indeed, the episode eventually declares that their friendship was inevitable, that they were all bound together by some unknowable causal web, an interdependence from which they could not disentangle themselves, even if they tried…

Except you know what?  To hell with that.

To hell with suggesting that these seven misfits were always bound to be thrust together no matter what – that they have no free will, and that the universe knew what was best for them, bringing them together no matter how hard they fought against it.

For its first three years of life, the most precious, spectacular thing about Community (for me, anyway) was the revelation that no, these people did not, and do not, have to be friends.  Nothing is forcing them.  The universe isn’t holding a gun to their heads.  At any moment, any one of them could get up from that table, walk out the door, and never come back.  Indeed, that premise – that realisation that what they have is transitory; that it needs to be cherished and protected – has been the driving force of a good number of episodes in which it truly did seem that the group might implode: that Pierce was leaving; that Jeff had screwed them all over; that Abed might just be too alien to be accepted…

And what was always most important about that concept, what was reiterated again and again in every narrative that mattered, was that their friendship was based upon a choice: a profound, beautiful, messy, and scary choice.

They agree to try.

They choose to fight for something impossible and special; to believe that there is something worthwhile in struggling to remain friends, even in spite of all their disparate life experiences, even in the face of all their internal squabbles, their fears of exposure and rejection.  They agree to do the difficult, complicated thing, and keep coming back to that table; to keep sitting down in that shared space and allowing themselves to be open with each other.

To become a community.

…But no.  ‘Too bad; it was fate’ works too, right?  Really captures the poetry of it all.

And now, after fighting so impossibly long to stay on the air, it’s over.  (Probably.)  And we got a season that by any other program’s standard would be solid, but by this one’s heritage was anodyne.  There was one standout episode (I would have loved to see a Rash script in an earlier season), but the rest of the season, despite spruiking change, regressed into trading on nostalgia with nothing new to say.

So, instead of celebrating what was most unique and central to the show, the showrunners this year chose to overload the episodes with rehashed reminiscence.  We sure were great once, they seem to be saying.  Remember that joke we said that one time?  Remember how we laughed?  But in spending all that time looking in the rear view mirror they forgot where and why they were driving the car in the first place.

How such a majestic, quirky, loveable show could be turned into something so conventional (not bad, I should add, just bland), has, as this rant no doubt makes clear, made me quite sad.  Despite the exceptional work of its extraordinary actors (with the possible exception of Chase, who really did seem to be phoning it in this year) and the devotion of its talented staff, I guess ultimately I will have to accept that, for me at least, Community ended in season three.

While there were moments that fleetingly reignited the spark of its greatness, by abandoning its most precious truth for a needless self-referential illusion, this final season revealed itself to be just well-produced fan-fiction that has perhaps overstayed its welcome; the metatexual fever dream of a dying series watching its own life flash before its eyes.

Community cast

IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)

* As a random aside, I would gladly offer Batman The Animated Series’ ‘Over the Edge’, and Angel’s  ‘Awakening’ as fine examples of how one can use a dream to great effect.

‘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.

northernexposure1583

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

%d bloggers like this: