Archive for Narrative

24 Lives: Another Day Another Dolour

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2014 by drayfish

24-Live-Another-Day-TV-Show-Images

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

It seems like every other day there’s a story in the news – always with some hyperbolic headline – about either the wonders or the dangers of wine.

One week a ‘recent study’ will say that it’s bad for you: acid reflux, heart disease, liver damage.  The next week it will be all good: it’ll help your cholesterol, your circulation, your brain function.  Sometimes it robs years off your life, others it extends your sunset days exponentially.  It stains your teeth; or it gives you better skin.  It raises you risk of stroke; it stops you getting fat.  It gives you cancer; it stops cancer.  It gives you unicorns; it gives your unicorns cancer.  Back and forth, on and on, each time backed by some half baked clinical trial and a photogenic white coat technician from the University of Overzealous Press Releases (Go UOPRs!)

They do it with coffee too.  And beer.  Sun-tanning.  Videogames.  Always some pleasure that rational thought would dictate is probably fine in moderation, but that would be a mistake to overindulge.  But it’s all part of the dance.  That fluctuation that has always been at the heart of headline journalism between ‘Hey, psst… Wanna know the ultimate secret?’ and ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!’

I bring this up because I just watched the last episode of 24.

More specifically: the finale of the latest season of 24: ‘Live Another Day’.  The series had returned from cancellation* in a truncated form (12 episodes instead of the eponymous 24), picking up the story four years after the previous season’s whimper of an ending.

And while 24 is hardly an addictive chemical substance (even if that ticking clock does trigger some kind of Pavlovian response in my brain chemistry), whenever I watch the show it reminds me of all those news reports – the way they vacillate so wildly with such predictability.  Not just because 24 itself frequently becomes the subject matter of such debates in its often cavalier depiction of torture and insensitive portrayals of other cultures.  It’s because that flip-flopping is precisely the way that I personally feel about the show; those are the wild swings of emotion and sniping voices in my head as I watch each season play out.  One week it’s ‘the greatest thing evah!’ the next it’s ‘the worst crap I’ve ever seen!’, and I can never resolve whether I think it’s a text that’s ultimately transformative or utter trash.**

But as this latest, more condensed miniseries has shown: it’s like wine.  It’s both.  And neither.

It all depends upon your taste, and what you’re using it for.

24 publicity shot

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

I remember watching the first season of 24 back in 2002.  At the time I was so enamoured with the conceit that not only could I forgive the necessary extra suspension of disbelief – the portals in spacetime Jack had to exploit to navigate LA in the time allotted him; the fact no one ever grabbed a sandwich on the fly, napped, or had a functioning bladder – I flew headlong into the adventure with rollicking abandon.

Hey, lookit!  The split screens!  The multiple angles!  The that-guy-said-it-would-take-five-minutes-and-then-it-took-five-minutes!  The ticking clocks that actually real-time clock ticked!  There was Dennis Hopper doing the crazy eyes.  There were ‘splosions – sometimes just ’cause why not?  There were outrageous, status quo shattering twists (how could Nina be the traitor?  She’s one of the cast members?!)  And there was the final, sombre sting in the tail: the needless death of Jack’s wife, just to disabuse the audience of the notion that this was all just some big, swaggering hero fantasy.

Yes, it sucks that in some ways Teri Bauer’s death could be seen as a variation on the woman-in-the-freezer trope (a sorry well that the writers would pathetically revisit again with the character of Renee Walker), but here it didn’t seem to have been done to motivate the ‘hero’, or even to further the story.  It was a sign that in this world, no one was safe.  Good people – resourceful, useful, loved people – could die; because in this narrative’s universes there are unforeseeable consequences for those who strive to do good.

It was exciting.  And it felt fresh.  It was willing to do slow burns and frenetic mayhem.  And in a network television landscape of formulaic action fare, it was like a revelation.

Then season two happened, and after starting strong – chasing a nuke through the city streets?! Yikes! – the formula that the show had traded up for started to bite into the narrative.  From that season on stories suddenly began chasing themselves into redundant side alleys just to fill up screen time: double crosses and secondary villains, agents with personal problems and loser friends/family members/ex-boyfriends that would re-enter their lives to inject predictably tedious complications into stories that already contained the potential end of western civilisation.

I know she’s become a bit of a punching bag in criticism of the show, but perhaps the worst casualty of these treading water plotlines was Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer.  In her several years of involvement it is difficult to identify a single moment in which she profitably forwarded the narrative.  During season two in particular she became like a walking farcical game of ‘good news, bad news’:

Good news!  She escaped the child abusing guy she was babysitting for.  Bad news!  She’s caught in a bear trap…

Good news!  Did we mention she’s caught in a bear trap so she’s not going anywhere?  Bad news!  Now there’s a hungry cougar lurking over her shoulder…

Good news!  She gets saved by a loner weirdo in the middle of nowhere.  Bad news!  He’s a survivalist nut job who’s going to lock her in his dungeon…

On and on and on.  Poor Elisha Cuthbert having to work overtime to sell the audience on her plight as she’s tasked with staring into the middle distance at unconvincingly mountain cat stock footage or reacting to cheap soap-opera peril.  She got some marginally better material in her later seasons when she joined CTU (she joined CTU!), and yet it still seemed she was relegated to the role of most-hapless-intern, with corny ‘Don’t tell dad his partner is my boyfriend’ nonsense she had to sell.

Similarly, as the series continued, the shock value and theatrics overall were ramped up.  Perhaps chasing the visceral jolt of the death of Jack’s wife, or the nuke blast mid season two, the show just kept piling on the carnage, dialling up the threat.

It made for compelling viewing.  At any given moment, any of the characters could be sacrificed.  Just because you had a familiar face on 24 was no guarantee you were going to make it through the next commercial break (unless you were Kiefer Sutherland, naturally).  One year, just to get things rolling at frantic pace, three of the principle characters were assassinated within the first hour.***  In another season starter a nuclear detonation went off in Los Angeles.  And those were the opening salvos.  From that point on it felt that the story could go literally anywhere.

24 was white-knuckle stuff; rambunctious and rollickingly paced.  It might meander down ultimately extraneous narrative back alleys, but there was always the sense that things could kick off at any moment.  Anyone was expendable (and almost without exception, they proved to be); everything was wired to explode.

24 nuclear explosion

IMAGE: Quietly raising the stakes, 24 (Fox)

But it became cartoonish.  Only a couple of years in and Bauer had literally died and been brought back to life multiple times.  Multiple.  More than one.

It became a show where oil barons try to blow up Los Angeles (a city with no public transport system) to convince people to buy more oil.  Where Jack’s father and brother are revealed to be villains, supplying nerve gas to Russian terrorists, because… something about ‘legacy’?  Where the central conceit of an entire season (which I enjoyed, but that everyone else seems to have panned) was a previously assassinated character coming back from the dead (with an evil-Spock beard so that you know he’s not to be trusted).  Even at what is widely considered its best, it was still barking nuts: the season that won the Emmy revolved around the President of the United States being a scheming, murderous, moustache-twirling tyrant!  The President of the United States!

…I mean, I know the obvious gag to make is ‘Nixon’, but come on.  That’s a big card to play.

On a smaller scale, it was a kind of mugging for the camera that even seeped into the production – my gods, the product placement!  When Ford was sponsoring, you knew which vehicles Jack was going to go out of his way to hotwire (which, now that I think about it, is kind of a strange feature to advertise: ‘Look at how quickly someone can steal your car!’)  Dell computers get to show you how accessible all of the country’s electronic infrastructure truly is.  This latest season, when they switched on a Sprint mobile phone (in close up of the logo) uplinking directly with the president (who, wouldn’t you know it, is also on a Sprint plan!) to find him flashing a toothy smile and declaring, ‘You’re coming through loud and clear, Jack’, I thought perhaps I had entered into some weird Home Shopping Network co-production:

‘This is great coverage, Chloe.  And at such an affordable price!  I wonder what those terrorists are using?’

‘Probably AT&T – the freedom-hating bastards.’

The show’s only restriction was to its central time conceit – but in a striking irony, it was this concession to ‘reality’ that led it so astray.

24 had trapped itself in a rigid order – 24 hours, chronological, unbroken.  And to begin with it wore this convention as a guiding principle: this is what will evoke tension, this will give immediacy and weight to the premise.  And it did.  The only thing is – like a moral code – when you lose sight of why those rules are in place, why they are necessary, they can feel too much like a chafing restraint, like some shackle arbitrarily applied.  And that’s what happened.  Whenever 24 lost sight of the purpose of those rules, it reacted to them by piling on the gore, by ramping up the peril until it reached an hysterical pitch.

For a show thematically obsessed with how poised upon the precipice of ruin the western world perpetually stands, constantly flirting with how easily anarchy can overtake order, it is fitting that their narrative seems to play out in precisely the same way.  Locked into the restrictive real-time conceit, with multiple characters to juggle and impending deadlines unavoidably ticking down, it became clear that the writers really were just making it up on the fly, desperately trying to lay down the next piece of track before the oncoming train rolled over it – a fact they later confirmed.

Presumably there were broad arcs mapped out – characters earmarked as moles; revelations to spring – but for the most part, week to week, it was a giddy, long-form improv.  There were minutes to fill, corners they wrote themselves into and from which they had to claw their way free.

And what they proved was: it’s impossible to live like that, to tell stories like that, without making mistakes.

When it works it has a thrilling immediacy; but when it doesn’t, when you let your resolve slip, it swiftly descends into nonsense.  A character will get a convenient micro-amnesia; a President can be poisoned with no lasting consequence; a nuclear bomb can detonate in Los Angeles (a nuke!) and then after literally only a couple of hours never be mentioned again.  It becomes a gruesome pantomime – skittish and flailing, illogical and desperate – where nothing matters anymore because all sense of substance and consequence is gone.

It becomes a meme about a bear trap and a cougar.

And it’s here that we have to mention the torture porn. Because it’s hard to not be revolted by the sometimes fetishistic way in which 24 presented the act of torture.  Not merely because it was so willing to show some quite graphic material, but because it would so frequently go there, and with so little nuance.  It became the last great hope of plot progression: We need this guy to talk and he won’t.  It’s regrettable, and we’ll show characters looking remorsefully out a window as though mourning the death of innocence – but don’t worry, because it always works, it’s reliable, and Bauer is the maestro of pain.  I’m glad that they took occasion in the last few seasons to inject a little more nuance to the presentation of torture – it didn’t always work, and can be inflicted on the innocent, but it did always seem to remain a lazy plot standby whenever the writers ran out of ideas.

24 is meant to be a show about how vigilant one must be – how stoic – to maintain order; and it’s narrative through line and structure consistently proves this true, exhibiting, even in its failure, everything wrong with slippery slopes.  If you take your eye off the big picture, start chasing momentary indulgences, the whole thing can fall apart.  Let the nutso Jack’s-a-junkie storyline slide and suddenly you’re knee deep in a he’s-got-terminal-radiation-poisoning story that has to be solved with magic.  Let the torture get you the information one time, and soon your hero is a tweaked-out rage-monster, and the idea of personal liberties and the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is rendered meaningless.

It’s a highwire balancing act – one that the show could never consistently pull off.  And that’s why viewing it became such a war in my head.  Because – to return to an already laboured analogy – 24 ultimately feels like one big contradictory argument about wine.  Endlessly fluctuating between sublimity and slop.

One season it’s like all great spy and suspense fiction, offering a sobering portrait of our contemporary paranoias; the next, it shamelessly leaps into hapless shock tactics and bombastic theatrics.  One week it’s a portrait of the thin veneer of social order that is only held in check by clandestine, morally grey, watchdogs; the next it’s a flag-waving soap-opera with a cartoonish understanding of biology, physics, and basic human behaviour.

Compulsively watchable?  Of course.  But good for you?  It was impossible to say.

And so to ‘Live Another Day’ – a subtitle that at this point probably sounds like more of a threat than a statement of resolve.  Because for me, that was what made this season was so good: not only the fact that it’s half-episode order allowed the writers to streamline their seasonal arc, but because it owned its own history of histrionics.

Firstly, the story didn’t summersault into a series of endless nonsensical doublecrosses – the one inevitable CIA traitor was so obvious from his first appearance that you didn’t have to play the tired guessing game (Benjamin Bratt plays stalwart lead and sneaky scumbag so well that the moment he sagely warned Kate not to dwell on her husband’s betrayal it was clear he was the one who’d sold her out).  There was no Russian doll of escalatingly superfluous villains – or rather, the connections seemed a little more organic this time around.

Even when the show risked feeling like just a greatest hits package, each familiar set piece had an imaginative new twist.  Jack could still hotwire a car in under three seconds and schematics of every building on the face of the Earth were once again being called up out of the ether, but this time Jack and Chloe were on their own, having to negotiate wi-fi hotspots in local pubs and scamper through the London Underground.  The signature car chases were elevated by being stalked by drone cameras and missiles.  Even the torture interrogation scene was actually just a bluff with a nice misdirect; Jack wasn’t the unhinged ‘bad cop’ for once, as it was new agent Kate (played magnificently by Chuck alumna Yvonne Strahovski) got to flip out and wave her gun around.

Sadly, the series does revisit an unfortunate trope that it would be nice if it could grow beyond: the woman Jack Bauer loves has to get murdered.  While thankfully not as distasteful as season 8’s assassination of Renee Walker (literally moments after she and Jack had slept together, just so the ‘tragedy’ really sinks in), Audrey Raines is killed in the final episode during a failed rescue attempt.  Her death acts as a revealing catalyst both for Kate’s resignation, believing that she no longer has the dispassionate resolve necessary for the job, and for one of the most revealing moments of quiet and motionlessness in the entire span of the series.  Because while her death does ‘motivate’ Jack in a sense, what it actually does is expose just how unhinged he has become.  Hearing the news that Audrey – the woman he loved from a distance – is dead, Jack collapses.  He takes out a pistol, and for a lingering, static moment seriously contemplates just blowing his own head off.

And this, finally, was the best thing about the season: that it seemed as though the writers were finally prepared to deal with the creature they had created by sacrificing themselves to an eight-year slippery slope of narrative.  Here, in this condensed season we finally got the clearest portrait of the weathered, broken patriot, Jack Bauer.

And it wasn’t pretty.

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IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

Because this Jack was terrifying at times.  And not in a ‘Yay!  Goku’s so mad he’s going Super Sayan!’ kind of way.  This Jack was deeply unsettling.  This Jack’s history genuinely seemed to weigh upon him, to twist him into a darker creature, which previous seasons had flirted with by using cheap gimmicks (he’s a drug addict now! his girlfriend died! he’s been tortured up good!) but never quite nailed down.

(Although it should be said that it’s a mark of how masterful and layered Kiefer Sutherland’s performance is that he was always able to stand at the centre of the show’s sometimes extremely silly frenzy and give it all a dignity and weight.)

In season one, Bauer was a fluffy-haired, true-believing patriot.  A loving husband and overprotective father trying to rebuild his marriage; a man who trusted his colleagues, had faith in his country, and believed in all the gooey clichés of liberty and freedom.  Over a decade later and that man is almost unrecognisable; scarred and beaten and brutalised.  He’s a pariah.  His family is lost, the country he gave his personal life to protect now labels him a traitor, and almost everyone he ever knew or cared for has died in service of a system that itself has become corrupted.

Whereas once he had personified a fantasy of cowboy righteousness the western world wanted to invest in after the shock of 9/11, now he reflects the cynicism that has overwhelmed today’s political discourse.  America is now a county known to spy on its own people.  It sends drones to bombard foreign countries.  It tortures its prisoners.  It demonises and threatens figures like Edward Snowden or PFC Bradley Manning, charging them with treason to frighten whistleblowers into silence.  ‘Live Another Day’ might eventually sully its Julian Assange-cypher by turning him into a cookie-cutter terrorist wack-job, but they never resolve the outrage that a character like he, and by extension Chloe, are reacting to.  Whether acting in the public interest or not, America has revealed itself to be a country whose rhetoric and actions do not align.

And so, when called back to service, Jack still responds, but this is not the same true believer.  He now embodies this wounded, self-loathing, and contradictory world-view.  After savagely interrogating a injured prisoner – the assassin daughter of a murderous zealot – he admits that part of him likes the torture.  The punishing of bad people.  He’s not doing it just for information, or to avert greater disasters; in part, he’s doing it for himself.  When he captures the principle antagonist Margot Al-Harazi (a woman who, despite being a mass-murdering psychotic, was seeking revenge for a US drone strike that massacred her entire family), rather than take her into custody he becomes her judge and executioner, kicking her out of a window to her death.  When he raises himself back up after hearing of Audrey’s death, when he focuses the rage and guilt that’s overwhelming him, he’s no avenging angel – he’s a maelstrom.  He wipes out an entire boat of people in an ugly, vicious rampage.  It’s not played as heroism – it’s slaughter.

In perhaps the most revealing moments of the series, when he is handing himself over to the Russians in the final scene, he seems to almost relish the thought of such punishments being inflicted upon him in rerturn.  For all the pain that his actions have wrought, for all his collateral damage, there is a peculiar note of penance as he is led off to his fate.  It’s quite a statement about Jack’s tainted moral compass that this is how he now sees himself.

He’s a monster.  And perhaps the only comforting thought is that he’s our monster.  At least for now.

At the end of the season, one of the most haunting notes was the sight of President Heller watching his daughter’s body being loaded onto Air Force One.  He notes that the one virtue of his encroaching Alzheimer’s disease is that eventually it will wipe the horror of his grief away as he forgets her death – as he forgets her altogether.  It’s a chilling pronouncement – but again, one that is tragically representative of this season’s larger themes.

For the first time it felt that 24 was remembering all of its past sins, using them to warn its viewers and itself of how easily incremental compromise can destroy an ideal.  24 hour narrative conceits are nice, but they have to be respected or they churn you up.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are grand, but if they are eroded away by surveillance states and ‘acceptable’ collateral damages and the persecution of the press then they lose all substance.  As Heller intones: forgetting your past, wiping away all that you’ve done and embracing a convenient lie might be comforting, but that just replaces reality with a hollow fantasy.  A meaningless nothingness.  Owning your actions, and the contradictions that they engender is the harder, but more consequential thing.  Because it is only by viewing the complexity of our own behaviour that any true discussion about the serious political issues facing contemporary culture can continue.

I still don’t know whether wine is good for you – I’m still not sure that 24 is a good show – but at their best I like them both a great deal.  And the way that they are spoken about and reacted to says far more about us as a culture than we are perhaps willing to admit.

24 cougar

IMAGE: ‘You want me to what?24 (Fox)

* Or from ‘resting’ or ‘hiatus’ or whatever euphemism networks use now when they cancel shows.

** All except seasons 6 and 8 – just personal opinion, but to me they were garbage front to back.

*** Okay, so only two of those people were successfully assassinated, one returns all Winter Soldiered up.  But you know what I mean.

‘Bees and Birds and Bluths, Oh My…’: Arrested Development Season 4

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by drayfish

arrested-development-season-4-full-cast

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Sick B Colony

In 2006, freshly cancelled by the Fox television network, season three of Arrested Development ended on a note of dispersal.*  With the series-long unifying through-line of father George Bluth Sr.’s criminal trial for ‘light’ treason finally resolved, the revelation that daughter Lindsay was adopted, cousin Maeby no longer biologically related, and mother Lucille running from the feds by trying to sail a theme restaurant into international waters, son Michael Bluth finally decided to let his family take care of themselves for once, dislodging he and his son from the self-imposed burden of shepherding this narcissistic flock into order.  The show seemingly let the ties that held this universe together go slack.

After three years of being bound together through mutual obligation, these final moments were about freedom; ironically, for a show overburdened with self-involved characters, it was about Michael allowing himself to be selfish for once, finally deciding to put his and his son’s own happiness above everyone else’s.**  It literally ended (not counting the epilogue) with an image of the protagonist and his son riding into the sunset, limitless possibility ahead of them.

Over the intervening years, just as its name ironically implied, Arrested Development hung in a kind of suspended animation, waiting to be reborn as a new series on HBO or Showtime (both metatextually referenced in the Hail Mary ‘Save Our Bluths’ episode), or as a feature film (signalled in the series epilogue, in which Ron Howard, upon hearing the pitch for the show, observes that he cannot picture it on television, ‘But maybe a movie…’)  Its writers, directors and actors – all highly sought after – moved on to other projects, and the dream became progressively less likely.  Nonetheless, in a fervent, almost irrational passion worthy of the Bluth’s themselves, the show’s creators and their still-growing fan-base remained committed to the cause of bringing this family back together, continuing to keep hope alive.

And then, in May of this year, rising impossibly from the ashes like a phoenix (once again, self-referentially acknowledged in the title of its first new episode, ‘Flight of the Phoenix’), Arrested Development did indeed finally return.  Specifically developed for and screened upon the burgeoning content platform of Netflix as a simultaneous, fifteen episode release, the once-thought-impossible fourth season began with Ron Howard’s unnamed, omniscient narrator casually clearing his throat:

‘It was May –’

(*ahem*)

‘It was May 4th…’

It was a playful nod to the relative silence that he, these characters, and the audience that awaits them have had to endure for the several years previous, and it proved to be symbolic of the relative ease with which this communication between text and audience could be resumed – indeed, arguably enhanced – by the time apart.

Because rather than simply returning to pick up exactly where they last left off, Arrested Development chose to transform itself into something greater.  For a show that was once justifiably beloved for never taking its viewers for granted – celebrated for constantly embedding layers of subtle call-backs, searing social satire, and deep foreshadowing amidst the all the frivolity; that had already proved it could mix dadaesque absurdism into the collision of some identifiably human (if exaggerated) characters; that had consistently managed to deflate the saccharine with snark; flipped and back-flipped narrative convention and made it look effortless – Arrested Development once again proved its capacity to reshape the very fabric of comedy, to challenge what the television medium itself can ultimately achieve, and to offer what is perhaps the most transformative and culturally reflective work of literature for the twenty-first century.

When fans explored this resurgent new season, what awaited them proved to be one of the most audacious, revolutionary, and compoundingly hilarious evolutions in episodic storytelling ever conceived.  Instead of the lightning-paced episodes that had defined its first three years, in which nine characters constantly vied for screen time, all circling Michael’s ringleader straight-man, this season chose to respect the sense of familial drift with which the previous season had concluded, and concerned itself with following each of these figures individually, every episode tracking one character through a personal journey as they try (and most often fail) to satisfy some longing within themself.

By tackling this multiform narrative, choosing to recount the period of time between this family’s disbandment and the eventful night of Cinco de Cuatro through multiple viewpoints, the show devised a form of asynchronous, organically overlapping storytelling heretofore unseen in television.  Evoking the experimental narrative shifts in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the contextual point-of-view revisionism of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the tonal and referential density of Joyce’s Ulysses, Arrested Development utilised its nine characters and fifteen episodes to remake the conventional form of storytelling, tying this dislocation and cultural diffusion into the very fabric of its theme and narrative.

The show thus developed even more elaborate interlocking plotlines, with each of these character’s apparently individual storylines proving to feed directly into one other, their actions impacting upon each other’s experiences in myriad, imperceptible ways.  With each return to an already viewed scene the show expanded the ramifications of these events with new context, the comedy compounding exponentially, the narrative becoming endlessly more than the sum of its composite parts.

And alongside these larger, intricately woven plot threads, the new season also employed several adaptive metaphors that likewise operate across multiple character arcs.  This poetic colour acts as more subconscious imagistic connective tissue, dynamically refracting from episode to episode when placed into the wider context that only the organising principle of the narrator – and eventually the viewing audience – can offer, able to reason out the implications of these bonds.

Perhaps the most expansive systemic analogy utilised this season is triggered in the episodes ‘Double Crossers’ and ‘Colony Collapse’, in which Lucille goes to ‘Plan B’, ordering son GOB to meet his father in the desert to help with their border wall project.  Instead of providing assistance, however, ‘gentleman honey farmer’ GOB accidentally unleashes his newly invigorated colony of sick bees, consequentially tanking his father’s Sweat and Squeeze fundraising scam in a flurry of stings and screaming.

Soon it becomes clear why the letter B is so ubiquitous throughout this season.  From George Sr. becoming a phony guru called ‘Father B’, to Michael calling himself ‘Michael B’ while assembling his ‘B-Team’ movie production staff.  From Baby B. Buster, to GOB awakening after his new excursion into B-level Hollywood celebrity to find a message on his mirror that reads, ‘Hey Joe Withabee’; and most revealingly, Lucille becoming known by the prison moniker ‘The B Word’, or ‘Queen B’.

They are Bees – literal Bs – and with their Queen B out of action, and their communal bond dissipated, the Bluths do indeed fall apart.  And so, as George Sr. stands amidst the chaos of ‘Plan B’ wearing a beekeepers hat and blouse, hearing GOB describe the symptoms of CCD, it is clear that this is a diagnosis that the Bluth family itself shares.  George Sr.’s wall-building scheme swiftly falls apart and must be bribed undone; GOB’s marriage into the Veals and revenge scheme on Tony Wonder each go spectacularly awry; Buster tries to replace his mother with a terrifying home-made mannequin and a stint in the armed forces that proves he can make even a desk job personally hazardous; Michael’s career as a movie producer dissolves into a flurry of judgemental tantrums, petulantly tearing up the releases that he requires and kicking everyone else off the project; Tobias’ continued attempt to pursue his delusion of stardom leads him to cling to a piece of discarded Hollywood debris – a woman actually called DeBris – who he eventually leaves collapsed in a pile of garbage, while his theatrical copyright infringement proves to be chum in the water for circling lawyers; Lindsay’s attempt to reconnect with her inner, protesting liberal ends with her becoming a waspy conservative career politician; and Maeby’s search for validation from her parents leaves her adrift in a cycle of perpetual non-graduation, her natural talents of producing directed toward spruiking a product that ultimately does not exist.

Having spent three seasons growing closer together in a kind of dysfunctional but loving interdependence, the past several years are revealed to have splintered them apart again, a theme played out in the very structure of this season and its isolated character vignettes.  Gone their separate ways, often only unknowingly intruding upon each other’s lives, they are a family without cohesion and purpose – drifting, no longer able to validate themselves or each other as they journey on alone.  Just like GOB’s sickly hive, the Bluth Bs suffer their own Colony Collapse Disorder, their cross-pollinating storylines ironically failing to germinate anything productive.

arrested joe withabee

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

‘I’ll Put Up A Wall’

Just as the Bluth family were originally symbolic of the dissatisfaction lurking at the heart of the American dream – a family of entitlement, rocked by flagrant corporate embezzlement, forced to renegotiate their hollow narcissism and excess (although almost never successfully) – in this latest season they continue to reflect contemporary culture.  Consequentially, the narrative is loaded with references to the modern political and social climate, offering the most comprehensive and dense satire of the early twenty first century yet conceived.

Since the Bluths disappeared from television screens the subprime mortgage crisis has erupted, almost collapsing western civilisation into a new depression, the casual application of drone warfare and the revelations that spooled out of WikiLeaks have darkened US international relations, political discourse has degraded into partisan hysteria and fear-mongering sound bites, celebrity culture and the rise of social media have mutated our conceptions of privacy, and systematised social inequity has given rise to rallying cries like the Occupy movement.  If anything, familial and social bonds have become only more diffuse and contradictory in the intervening years, and Arrested Development loads these issues into the framework of its tale, allowing each of its characters to exhibit aspects of this social dissemination.

Buster becomes a drone pilot for Army, mistaking the brutality he is inflicting for the detachment of a videogame.  Tobias and Lindsay purchase a palatial estate on the cusp of the housing industry’s collapse, literally losing one another amongst its needless, empty square-footage.  We see members of Anonymous lurking in the shadows, trying to threaten George Michael (Mr. Maharis) away from his goal of creating the world’s best wood block musical app.  A right-wing Herman Cain substitute (Herbert Love), like his real-life counterpart, runs on a family values platform while secretly engaging in an extramarital affair, and spouts endless, hackneyed Tea Party slogans, demonising government corruption while negotiating his own lobbyist bribes.  And in a culture where demonising illegal immigration through the language of ‘invasion’ and ‘otherness’ runs rife, the hot-button issue of building a wall on the Mexican border threads through all of their tales, utilising this impulse for isolationist ‘protection’ as emblematic of the culture at large.

Feeling alienated and abandoned by their loved ones, exposed in the glare of a daunting world, this season finds the Bluth family – much like the world at large – attempting to construct new walls, both literal and figurative, to fortify themselves from harm.  Thus, in lieu of communication or change, they barricade themselves away.  George Sr. tries to swindle the US government by exploiting the hysteria of illegal immigration, offering to build a wall on the border with Mexico.  Tobias laments the universe putting up all sorts of walls between he and his dreams and tries to build his own little musical theatre haven in the Austerity Rehab Centre.  GOB flees the closeness and sincerity of marrying into the Veal’s welcoming family, a group so devoid of emotional walls that they all live together under one roof and collapse into communal hugs when they hear good news; he is likewise unprepared for the effects of being open with rival Tony Wonder, the first person with whom he finds he can share an empathetic bond (they are the ‘Same… Same…’), and immediately resorts to sabotage, again barricading himself away from a human intimacy that is all too confronting.  Not to mention poor Steve Holt (sorry: ‘STEVE HOLT!’), a son yearning for connection, relegated to the role of the ‘boss’ that is ‘on [his] ass…’  Even George Michael, struggling to assert himself and desperate to impress, stumbles into promising to build a privacy-blocking wall of electronic software, while, Maeby, heartbroken at being abandoned by her parents and run out of show business, likewise devotes herself to this ‘Fake Block’ system utterly.

And in one of the most revelatory cross-purpose conversations ever orchestrated, when Tobias’ is eliciting Lucille to join his doomed Fantastic Four knock-off, he leads her to the realisation that she feels like an ‘invisible woman’, creating ‘force field’ walls to protect herself from harm.  Indeed, it is in her audition for the part of Lucia – singing a song she wrote herself – that Lucille exposes this fear and desire for withdrawal most acutely:

‘My children despise me, my husband defies me,

It doesn’t surprise me, to hell with them all.

I’ll put up a wall.

You think I’m a villain, a villain I’ll be

My heart is in pain, I just want to flee,

from me…’

This is a family that has been emotionally broken, and while the anarchic exploits that spool from this sense of loss and abandon are hilarious, there is a sombre truth to hearing ‘The Sound of Silence’ play as GOB loses himself down a bout of self-loathing reverie, or watching Buster stammer through juice-stained lips as he realises that the security blanket of his mother is being torn from him.  And there is most certainly a shockingly revelatory bite to hearing Lucille, the family’s matriarchal centre, their Queen B, who has famously ignored self-assessment throughout her life (‘If that’s a veiled criticism about me, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it’) finally exposing her self-loathing, and a desire to wall herself away from sorrow.

The great irony of these attempts to isolate themselves, however, is that despite their boasts for autonomy, this family proves incapable of escaping each other’s influence, their storylines bouncing off each other unknowingly as a product of their inexorable gravitational pull.  Glitter-bombs are stymied, bags are switched, dead doves turn up in freezers, cheques and beehive-shaped caves and red wigs and the brotherhood of Andy Richter, all float between these tales, repeatedly thwarting their plans – literally breaking down walls – as the tale unfolds.  Although they appear to be alone, although they seek to isolate themselves utterly, as the season progressively reiterates, the one thing that can break down these fearful barriers is family.

arrested ostrich

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Head in the Sand

For all of the recurring images of Banana-Grabbers, Blue-Men, sad-sacks, and hop-ons that have become signatures of the show, the most ubiquitous recurring image this season was that of the ostrich.

In the first episode, returning from Phoenix to remake himself once again, Michael was run over by one in the wrecked Bluth penthouse; Lindsay believed that the Indian guru who placed her on her spiritual path transformed into one, and follows her face-blind lover because he owned an ostrich farm, and that couldn’t be coincidence; George Sr. was visited by what he thought was an ostrich spirit in a desert hallucination; Maeby was attending a school that had an ostrich as their team mascot (Go Ostriches!); Lucille 2 was amorously savaged by one;  in lieu of the family stair car Michael was driving a vehicle described as one (a Google street camera)***; Buster fails to read the cartoon warning of one on his juice box; and when GOB swerves to avoid an ostrich he unleashes his box of bees, sees a decorative statue of one in Tony Wonder’s storage room, and hears one speak to him at his lowest moment (at rock-bottom in the bottom of a rock) informing him that if he does not dare to open himself up to others, then the treasures within him would never come out…

Pretty deep advice for a novelty drinking bird (…or the host of Locker Hawkers, who it is revealed was actually the one speaking).

Flightless, gangly, somewhat absurd in appearance, the ostrich shares a good deal of traits with the Bluths themselves – but it is the bird’s reputation the proves to be most revealing. Proverbially, the ostrich is a creature famous for sticking its head in the sand.  When they see danger, it is said that they bury themselves underground, oblivious to the world around them and ironically still open to attack.  It is a cliché that Maeby even expresses to her mother while disguised as the shape-shifting Indian guru: ‘Pull your head out of the sand’ – advice that both Lindsay, and Maeby herself, choose to ignore.

And fittingly, this utterly erroneous myth perfectly encapsulates the behaviour of almost every member of the Bluth family this season.  Troubled by a sense of loss and bewilderment, they foolishly choose to abandon their familial bonds and indulge selfish pursuits that more often than not further obscure rather than inspire self-awareness.  They bury their heads in the sand.  Indeed if the metaphor were not overt enough, we even see that whenever an ostrich appears it being directly aligned with some kind of wisdom – observed in a vision or as a spirit, uttered by a sage or a motto.  But every time that such a message is conveyed it is ignored by the wayward Bluths, who rather than heeding its advice – opening up to one another, seeking for validation and support – instead dysfunctionally continue to push people further away, compounding their misery in a roofie circle of de-actualisation.

And the most egregious example of this self-destructive blindness occurs in the most deceptively impactful scene of the entire series…

The narrative conceit of Arrested Development’s season four is intentionally misleading.  The show initially sets itself up as something of a noir mystery, purporting to slowly answer the mystery of what happened on one dark, debauched night at Cinco de Cuatro (a celebration long ago created by the Bluth’s themselves to peevishly undercut Cinco de Mayo).  In each episode we appear to be unravelling the truth about this literally explosive evening, travelling back in time to contextualise a night where people are going to be threatened, led to question their identity and sexuality, hospitalised, morally compromised, and possibly (although let’s face it, probably not really) murdered.

But while the narrative does gradually disentangle Cinco de Cuatro’s elaborate knot, dancing across the ingeniously interwoven experience of a family that seems cosmically fated to intersect, these revelations are ultimately proved less impactful than a deceptively innocuous scene that is dually being gradually unpacked in every episode: a gathering of the entire family in one of the most familiar of the show’s locations, the Balboa Towers penthouse.

In its earliest appearances in the season, the scene is appears to be little more than a company briefing between Michael and his parents, an exchange in which he declares that he is out of the business, and out of the family, for good.  As each episode continues to build upon the one previous to it, the scope of that scene literally widens, however, the camera angles shifting to reveal that more and more characters are present when this event take place.  Lindsay and Tobias have announced they are giving their marriage another try.  GOB declares that he will be marrying Plant  …I mean, Mouth  …I mean Egg  …I mean, Ann.  Buster is workshopping his testimony for the trial.  Maeby is looking on ignored.  And significantly revealed last is George Michael – for whom, ultimately, the whole gathering is taking place.  Because, as the banner above the door reveals (‘Look at banner, Michael!’), this is a farewell party for George Michael on the eve of his moving to college.

We therefore come to see that in the midst of this fractured series, this is chronologically the last time that this family have gathered together, and they are there to celebrate the boy who originally brought them together at the beginning of the first season – the young man who was the reason that Michael decided to stick around when his father’s business had dissolved into a legal quagmire.  George Michael has grown into a young, aspiring man, and (despite the fact that everyone eventually starts thoughtlessly singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him by mistake) they are there to celebrate whatever future lies before him.

And so, Michael’s once clichéd storm out – declaring that he has had enough of his family’s selfishness; that he is leaving them all behind and taking his son with him – suddenly takes on a whole new and disheartening dimension.  Because for once his exit is in fact successful. The family does indeed implode, causing far more damage than he had foreseen.  As part of his selfish exit, Michael forces George Michael to tear up a gift just given to him by his grandparents, a gift of money that would have set him up to pursue his studies on his own terms.

Although Michael has always considered himself the most altruistic of the Bluth clan, in truth he has always skirted the edge of the rational himself.  Seemingly the uber-straight man to the panoply of madness around him, he is actually just self-deluded enough to believe that he is the only normal one in a family of spoiled egomaniacs.  In reality, he reveals himself to be just as self-involved as any of them, blind to the smothering relationship he has cultivated with his son.  For all his indignation and pomposity, Michael too has his head buried in the sand, his pride preventing him from appreciating the line that he has crossed in imposing his own issues upon his son’s life.  Consequentially, the tearing of that cheque symbolically echoes throughout the remainder of the season.

From that point on, although George Michael still tries to be the dutiful son, he finds his father’s presence and expectations a progressively choking imposition.  He wants to go by a different name than ‘George Michael’, given the pop-culture baggage that it carries, but is guilted into relenting.  Having stretched his wings in Spain he tries to reinvent himself at college as a young, sexually confident man, but ends up finding his father crashing on his top bunk, passive-aggressively convincing him to shave off his new moustache, and literally not willing to give him any space.  And most damaging of all, he tries to outgrow his childhood crush by dating someone else, only to find that his father has actively tried to steal this new girlfriend for himself.

This season ultimately proves to be about severing the final, previously most stable bond that this family has managed, in spite of itself, to maintain.  In the end, in his selfish efforts to divorce himself from his own family, Michael has managed to accidentally build the only successful wall amongst the many proposed but never brought to fruition this season: he has managed to drive a barrier between he and his son.  After a season of Michael licking the wounds of being voted out of George Michael’s dorm room in the first episode – a course of events that he still hubristically wants to believe was due to everyone else misunderstanding the ‘plan’ – the revelation that Michael was knowingly pursuing Rebel Alley behind his son’s back leads to the real emotional and literal blow that stops this rollicking, spritely story in its tracks.

And so, as the final scene of the episode (not including the epilogue) hangs in the air, George Michael having punched his father in the face, and both men left standing staring at each other, one seething with betrayal, the other numb with shame, both shocked by the new distance between them, there really does seem to be a divide where once there was unity.  Finally Michael and George Michael – like the audience itself – must acknowledge that this is a different world into which they have grown, and it is one that will require selflessness and trust if there is any hope to heal.

arrested love each other

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Love Each Other

Selectively blind to their own realities, the members of the Bluth family repeatedly miss the most important advice that the universe tries to impart to them.  Through broken walls, the preponderance of missed avian counsel, the inevitable, spectacular collapse of each of their selfish pursuits, there is a message that they keep overlooking, shouted at them from every conceivable angle, one that – like the proverbial ostriches, heads buried in the sand – they are unable to see.  Written on the tags of dead doves, gasped by a dying mailman, seared across the back of a sacrilegious magic spectacular; mumbled out as rambling romantic advice from a lecherous uncle (who means it as an excuse for promiscuity) to his befuddled nephew (who re-interprets it as a call for integrity and respect):

‘Love each other.’

It is even offered as the very last piece of dialogue in the season, in what is chronologically the final moment to which everything else has built, in the earnest sign-off of television presenter John Beard, who wishes his audience well as he bids them goodbye:

‘This is John Beard.  Remember: love each other.’

And despite the Bluth characters’ inability to cherish this instruction (even George Michael soon abandons his revelation by mistaking a threatening letter for an offer of enthusiastic lovemaking), it is here that we in the audience, with our metatextual perspective, can get the most out of the line.

Like the program Arrested Development itself, which swam in a kind of production vacuum until finding its voice again in its triumphant return on Netflix, newsreader John Beard is shown throughout this season similarly displaced.  Popping up all over the media dial in a variety of formats – naff morning talk shows, airport cable news networks, Catch-a-Predator gotcha specials, gas station update reports (seemingly geared around ‘pump’ puns) – by season’s end he eventually finds his home on Ron Howard’s burgeoning and remarkably personalised (there is a reminder to go to the doctors in the newsfeed crawl at the bottom of the screen) news network.  And it is from this new home, finally secure, that Beard stares out at us, through Howard’s television screen and though ours too, to offer his new mantra.

As has always been its style, when Arrested Development gets sincere, it does so in the most metatextual, subversive way possible – after all, this is the show that could go cornball while ‘cornballing’ it in the same second, that turns heartfelt hugs into an opportunity to ‘taste my tears’, to ‘taste the happy’ – and here, through Beard’s rote but heartfelt counsel, we have a statement as much to the fans as to the characters that keep missing its implications.

‘Love’ in the Arrested Development universe is bizarre.  It can be competitive, blind, asexual, occasionally incestuous and frequently borderline polygamous, but it is deep, and it is messy, and it is real.  For all of their fleeting fancies and fruitless passions, the Bluths do care for each other, and profoundly need each other; and over the span of these four seasons and across all of the madness of the past few years, when the Bluths could barely take care of themselves let alone nurture this bond of family, the show has been a series long meditation upon what exactly it does take to unite television’s most anarchic family.

Arrested Development began as a series about a group of marvellously oddball characters who (although oblivious to this truth) required each other to stay grounded.  As such, the primary organising factor for their past adventures at first appeared to be Michael, ‘The one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.’  But in this season he too is clearly adrift – feeling alienated by his son and so desperate to reclaim the sense of control he has lost that he spends his subplot play-acting being a Hollywood producer and trying to gather the permission to remake a film fantasy about his past.  At times it may have seemed to be Lucille, through whom the money and influence was ultimately said to be funnelled.   She could certainly scheme and manipulate her loved ones into servitude, but as a consequence eventually pushed them all away.

From a more abstract viewpoint, as the show went on it revealed that the unnamed, faceless, but ever-so-earnest narrator was something of a tenth character amongst the bunch.  The shaping of the narrative offered by Ron Howard’s detached voice – all-knowing, omnipresent, something of a proxy for writer/creator Hurwitz himself – was not just a structural crutch, he was actively trying to follow these now (seemingly) disparate plotlines and wrangle them into order, frequently undercutting and commenting upon the absurdity of these characters behaviour with a dry sincerity.  He was essentially the text itself, an amalgam of the writers, directors and their fictional universe, looking in on this strange little family and trying to puzzle it out.

But as the show has progressed, his objectivity too has gradually been brought into question – from his irritability when faced with lesser examples of television narration (he declares the Scandalmakers guy’s work, ‘Real shoddy narrating.  Just pure crap’), to his reluctance to attend Maeby’s sixteenth birthday after being invited (‘And a lot of us didn’t want to drive to Orange County’), to his spruiking the show for desperately needed ratings (‘Now that’s a clear situation with the promise of comedy.  Tell your friends about this show.’)  And now that Howard himself appears this season as a character within the narrative, a man with his own agenda and allegiances, the narrator seems compromised even further – from the way he proudly commends Rebel (apparently Howard’s illegitimate daughter) for knowing that the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop, to the way he lingers a little long on the Opie statue, noting that it must be an honour to have such an award named after you…

Instead the show is now saying that this family was held together by more than just these compromised individuals and their peculiar loves, bound in fact by something outside of the text itself.  With this fourth season, there is suddenly a new, profoundly necessary character in the mix: we the audience.  In its new viewing format Arrested Development literally requires the viewer to participate in connecting the pieces together, asking that we have the devotion and trust, throughout these unfolding episodes to make connections, to see patterns, to draw this family together – often even in spite of themselves – winding each story back into the whole that they have naively abandoned.

And so, in splintering this family apart, following their dissolve and lonely explorations of self, Hurwitz wrote a broad, interlocking, demented love note to the fans of the show, and the faith they showed in believing and hoping and begging for it to be granted more time.  By blowing open the way in which this show is now consumed, by adapting the very narrative itself so that the viewer literally has control over how this asynchronous story is absorbed, Arrested Development reveals that it was ultimately the fans, the viewers, those who dared to believe that this family could be brought back from oblivion, who kept the love for this show alive, even when its prospects looked most bleak – even, it seems, when the characters themselves had given up hope.

Where last season the show concluded on a state of freedom and abandon, this season ends with a desperate yearning for reconnection.  Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths, and Arrested Development itself, hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect.  As the strains of Lucy Schwartz’ track, ‘Boomerang’ assert over the closing credits,

Waitin’, waitin’

Heartbroken and frustrated

Hard to get around without your love.

It is a fitting note on which to end, a summation of the emotion fans felt when the show was first cancelled, and a resonant message for the characters within this narcissistic little menagerie, who will now have to shake off their self-involvement (at least temporarily) to gather back the unity they have lost.

To love each other – so that perhaps they can finally learn to love themselves.

arrested development hug

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* For my thoughts on seasons one through three see here.

** But since it was still Arrested Development – a show that always stirs the sour into the sweet – there was perhaps a bit of cowardly running away in the mix too.

*** The use of the Google maps car as an ‘ostrich’ has a lovely additional layer of metaphor due to that company’s own hypocrisy.  For, as Ron Howard’s narrator observes with a stinging bit of snark, Google – as a company that posts the address details and photographs of every address in the world without anyone’s permission – does not allow themselves to be identified freely because that name and logo ‘is their property.’

‘I’ve Made a Huge Mistake’: How Critics Failed Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2013 by drayfish

Michael Bluth and Vultures

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

After a brief wait before being able to dive into the Phoenix-like return of Arrested Development, which two weeks ago released its fourth season over the streaming service Netflix, I have now finally made my way through the labyrinthine genius of this wondrous, multifaceted behemoth, and have been scrambling to try and unpack its splendour in words.

In the next couple of days I hope to inflict my sprawling (admittedly happy-ranting) take on this unprecedented marvel, but before I even get started trying to pick apart its every nuance and ramification (spoiler alert: it does involve me droning on and on about how much I love this new gift of a season), I have decided to add to my already punishingly long treatise by speaking briefly to the mystifying backlash this season seems to have received from a selection of critics in the first few days after its release.

To those who actually did bother to watch each of the new episodes, who got to see what the show was intricately building, experienced its breadth, but nonetheless felt that the show was lacklustre: well to them I will say that although I respectfully (vehemently) disagree, at least they were diligent in their duty as critics. (…But I cannot restrain myself from suggesting that they might want to give it another watch without the press of a crushing, arbitrary review deadline hanging over them – just to give the show space to breathe a little).

However.

To all of the ‘professional’ critics that stayed up until three in the morning on the day the show went live, who watched only a handful of episodes and then hurriedly bashed out snide copy that dismissed the show as a poor shadow of its former glory in order to fish for search hits on the morning of release (I’m looking specifically at you, New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale*), they have every right – indeed, if they take their occupation seriously, the responsibility – to feel ashamed of themselves.

To those critics, who despite now having plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the whole series, still write speculation about the entire season based on only slivers of the tale, they too continue to embarrass themselves.  To take but one example, Sydney Morning Herald commentator Giles Hardy wrote his review for the whole season (in which he declared the show only ‘semi-familiar’, ‘disappointing’, and lacking the ‘reflexes’ it once sported) weeks after release – but clearly after having only viewed the first episode.  His observations about the ‘strange’ new relationship between father and son Michael and George Michael revealed that he had utterly failed to even glean the context of this one moment in the greater narrative (the nature of that ‘new’ relationship is central to the entire season’s conceit), but he was still comfortable pompously deriding the entire exercise as a failure.**

Because even though these reviewers tried to justify their flippant invective, claiming that as this new version of Arrested is still technically labelled a ‘television show’ it can thus be reviewed like any other episodic text, one-at-a-time, with no idea of its place within the larger season’s arc, in reality it is cheap excuses such as this that reveal just how negligent critics like Hale and Hardy have been in their duty.

Firstly, most obviously: this is not a regular season of television.

It was devised and written as a single, cohesive piece, filmed altogether, and released into the world simultaneously.  Hurwitz and company did not take the Netflix model lightly.  They built it into the very DNA of their storytelling and humour.  As a consequence, they have created one of the most intricate, interlocking narratives ever crafted (in all of serialised fiction, let alone the sitcom form); and have offered one of the most inspired commentaries upon comedy, narrative universe-building, and audience investment, ever put to film.

Picking and choosing singular episodes to judge isolated from the whole defeats the very purpose of this viewing experience.  Despite what these critics might claim in order to justify their laziness, it literally is like watching part of a movie, reading half a book, or listening to a couple of tracks off an album, and then scampering back over to their computer to bash out a complaint that the whole work didn’t feel ‘finished’.  The failing is not in the text – it is in the overt hypocrisy of critics who presume they can get by only doing half of their job.

Similarly, it is asinine it is to condemn the show for no longer slavishly sticking to the 22 minute, commercially-oriented-act break format to which it was once forced to abide in its days as a product of broadcast television.  To happily, blatantly condemn a text for what they fantasise it should be, or what they have unjustly presupposed in their heads – rather than actually addressing the form in which it currently presents itself – is embarrassing.  It is the most fundamental mistake that any critic can make.

And secondly: have critics really become this petulant and cynical an audience?

Have they legitimately become so arrogant and eager to voice their opinion that they cannot even be bothered to fully form one before opening their mouths?  In the desperate need to be the first person to speak – to say something before everyone else – do they really have to scramble up to the podium of hyperbole to declare something dead (literally describing it as murdered in the example of Hale) before properly experiencing what it is that they are tearing down?

I mean, no doubt it is fun to shout, ‘Hey guys: that thing you like… it sucks now’ (after all, most every adolescent wallows for a time in that kind of reactionary scepticism), but in this case, actually taking the time to watch the show immediately proves just how inept such a statement is.

Yes, the show is different – that cannot be denied.  The program itself repeatedly leaves the viewer with no illusions that this is a new format, now capable of exploring new themes, a new tone, and new depth.  The necessities of wrangling a group of very talented actors who are all now in high demand (and under other contractual obligations), the need to work at a reduced budget, and the duty to the story itself, mindful of where we left these characters several years ago, required an entirely different method of presenting this season – and creator Mitch Hurwitz, his actors and crew, have found an innovative, creatively inspired, and thematically resonant means through which to do so.

Arrested could so easily have come back as some kind of anodyne reunion special – a three episode ‘mini-movie’ rehash of the old show’s format, shamelessly serving as a taster for a proposed movie.  It could have been a lazy regurgitation of the old, shouting ‘Hey, look at us!  Getting the team back together again!  Remember these gags?  Remember back when we were funny?’

Instead it chose to answer the faith of its audience by providing a season long arc that captures the spirit of the original, but one that has grown, that actually alludes to its potential going forward, one that deepens its characters in unique and legitimised ways, and that performs what is inarguably (whether you agree that it worked or not – and I am going to argue strenuously in the coming days that I thought it worked stunningly well) the most revolutionary leap in the production and delivery of television that has ever been conceived.

By getting cancelled from broadcast television, spending years in production limbo, working around budgetary constraints and a production schedule that must have looked at times like a disassembled Lego set, Arrested Development returned on an entirely new broadcast format and has managed to evolve the whole medium of episodic narrative in heretofore unseen ways.  The Bluth family might make crappy homes (both figuratively and literally), but as this season shows, they make hilariously bulletproof experimental television.

And while this article may all just read like the predictable screed of a die-hard fan who feels that something he loves has been jilted, I do want to reiterate that my indignation does not stem from people disliking the show – they are of course free to think whatever they like.  My issue is with those critics who contemptuously believe that they have the right to fundamentally refuse to respect what a text is asking of them as a viewer, and yet still consider themselves justified in condemning it as having ‘failed’ their fantasised requirements.

The petty part of me hopes that someone is cataloguing all of the negative reviews that have been spilling out over the past two weeks.***  I will enjoy watching those nay-sayers, so eager to leap ahead of their predicted ‘I liked it when it was cool’ clichéd backlash, scrambling as the success of this season and its gathering critical acclaim leave them behind.  Because there will be a certain kind of (admittedly petty) schadenfreude in watching these critics – who claim to seek out and foster the innovative and new, who presume to eschew the predictable and stale – have their reactionary, knee-jerk responses revealed for the lazy pessimism it was.

Indeed I will be curious to see how many of them, in the build up to what I hope will be a season five (please, universe, please…) try to swing back around to the ‘Hey, I always loved it too…’ catch-cry, casually sweeping aside their own words as if they had never been spoken.

Because when those commentators can finally put their egos aside and actually finish the job they were presumably paid to do, they will no doubt find something original and utterly revolutionary awaiting them.  And for a group that likes to bleat on about how they once bravely defended Arrested Development when no one else was watching, it will surely sting for them to realise that a more savvy, evolved audience than they has left their tired conventional thinking behind.

 arrested characters thumb

 IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* Indeed, I notice that Hale’s review is nonetheless still being counted on the Arrested Development (season 4) Metacritic page, despite the fact that he himself admits to having not watched the whole season, and as of this writing, has not amended his initial, un-contextualised thoughts.

** Giles’ review, although included in their paper edition, is conspicuously absent from the Sydney Morning Herald’s online review section – one hopes indicating that perhaps even his editors knew it to be an insufficiently considered response to the season.

*** At least Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix is willing to call them out and keep their inattentive response in context, even if he only means it playfully (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-chief-rips-new-york-times-over-negative-arrested-development-review-1200489764/).

‘Before the Bang, or the Whimper …a House Party? …Wha?’: The Narrative Bubble of Mass Effect 3: ‘Citadel’

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by drayfish

or: The Yuks Before the Yuck

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3: ‘Citadel’ (Bioware)

This past week the final downloadable content for the Mass Effect trilogy, ‘Citadel’, was released, capping off a tale of galactic genocidal devastation, the tacit endorsement of war crimes inflicted upon one’s own allies, and the surrender and arbitrary death of a heroic protagonist.  And it ended (as we all surely must have suspected that it would) with a Sims-lite apartment decorator; the opportunity to chill out and lose our cash at a casino; and the option to get all dressed up pretty and host a shindig that brims over with playful hijinks…

Sure, outside those walls unfathomable monsters from beyond time and space are raining destruction down upon innumerable innocents on countless  worlds…  Sure, you, as the sole hope tasked with saving them all, know that every second of each day is being measured with all that you hold dear being pitilessly tortured, mutated and annihilated…  But never mind – it’s cool, because you can always watch a romance film with your girlfriend or upgrade the decor in your holiday house.  And yeah, okay, so the guy who gave you that luxury pad you are kitting out is currently spending his time scrambling about for scraps in a literal hole in the ground, running guerrilla raids to stay alive, his clothes reeking of the smell of burning corpses as he watches Earth reduced to ash…

But hey: that private captain’s cabin on your personal star ship that you already owned – with its aquarium, office, and en suite – wasn’t nearly enough.

You really did need a plasma screen TV.

The ever expanding practice of selling downloadable content in videogames has proved to be one of the great contradictory boons of the medium.  On the one hand it offers the potential for some publishers to cynically exploit their consuming audience by withholding material that clearly was intended to be in the initial purchase behind a secondary pay wall.  One can think of Capcom’s Azura’s Wrath, in which the actual ending of the game was withheld as ‘additional content’; the ‘Epilogue’ to the recent reboot of Prince of Persia, sold under the pretence of being extraneous despite the game hanging on a heart-wrenching cliff-hanger; or even Bioware’s own day-one DLC scandal with Mass Effect 3, in which, on the very day of the game’s release, they charged a supplementary fee to access the Prothean character Javik, the last remaining member of an extinct race, whose story offers an irreplaceable perspective on the entire trilogy’s plot, and upon whom other characters like Liara rely in order to have any narrative arc at all.  For that matter, one might even think of Bioware’s second DLC release, ‘Leviathan’, in which the audience was charged for the back story and explanation that justifies who, why, and what the series’ mysterious alien antagonists even were.

From another, more generous perspective, DLC allows developers to correct or expand upon material that they may have come to realise, after release, audiences were keen to explore further, allowing plots to organically grow in controlled narrative excursions that one would usually only see in a more long-form narrative medium like television.  Games like Skyrim (although one might argue whether a game with hundreds of hours of scripted content that literally never ends needs to offer more things to do) have continued to swell their worlds with whole new quest lines and environments; a game like Enslaved offers the chance to play as secondary characters like Pigsy, who served a supporting role in the main game, as he undertakes his own smaller adventure in prelude to his later appearance; and (to be fairer to Bioware for a moment), their addition to Dragon Age: Origins, ‘Awakening’, was set well after the events of the main game and offered the opportunity to govern a vast, previously unexplored land, with an all new cast and an entirely new quest line.

In the case of ‘Citadel’, however, it is difficult to gauge where this material sits on the logical, thematic, or even material scale by which one usually assesses such DLC.  At its heart it is additional content that many fans felt was notably missing from the core game: a chance to reconnect with beloved characters that were dismissively sidelined in the vanilla experience, and an injection of humour to break up the maudlin dirge of the larger plot.  (Although from what I have gleaned that humour sounds like it may have been a little too wacky in the midst of a literal day of reckoning…  Did I read correctly: Javik – brooding orphan of an exterminated race – stars in a Blasto movie?!)

A cynic might suggest that Bioware – noting that their preceding pieces of DLC were being met with a sliding scale of apathy (ending in the widely criticised ‘Omega’) – have decided to cash out, to cobble together one last mission with a checklist of audience requests and raise the price fifty percent to cover their losses.*  An optimist, however, would see this DLC as one last, joyful pastiche of all the elements they loved in the series that the base game simply had no time to address.

Either way, it is certainly true that it seeks to satisfy many of the superficial criticisms fans had directed at the game over the past year.  Another hub environment?  Check.  Romance options to pad out the paltry exchanges in game?  Done.  Some conversation with comrades that is about something – anything – other than war and death and dying?  Sure thing.**  But it stops well short of tackling the naff deus ex machina at the heart of the plot, or the lie of hope and inclusivity repeatedly espoused throughout that is abandoned with its Pyrrhic victory.  As an answer to the fundamental issues that many fans (myself included) had with the ending of the game, it seems almost belligerently peripheral.***

Consequentially, ‘Citadel’ appears to likewise sit in a weird nether space of narrative, seemingly a textbook example of the potential discordance that can emerge from mishandling the DLC model as a medium for storytelling.  It’s very existence indicates that this was an addition of character service and reflection that the story required; but in refusing to violate the nihilistic endpoint that the plot is heading toward anyway, and by ignoring the war upon which you are unwavering focussed at any other point in the game play, it becomes an irresolvably discordant aside from everything it is intended to echo.  Thus from every angle, this addition to the narrative seems to ask for an insurmountable leap in logic for the player to successfully suspend their disbelief.

It’s true to say that so far the content appears to be getting highly favourable reviews, but again, what is being praised – a surprisingly light-hearted tone, filled with a playfully naff sci-fi premise and punctuated with gags that wink-at-the-audience with fan-service – strike me as extraordinarily out of place considering that this remains a tangential diversion from the central thrust of the narrative, and the desperate, claustrophobic imminence it sought to press upon the player at every angle.  Admittedly, this is something that, in itself, might not be an issue, except that the game itself, in literally every moment outside of this DLC, breathlessly demands that the player realise: there is no time to relax, that every moment of pause means whole civilisations are being brutally wiped from existence, and that quietude and self-indulgence are now luxuries all life in the universe (let alone that universe’s saviour Shepard) can no longer afford.

Indeed, in a curious piece of tragironic (I call copyright on this word) prophesy, Joker, the ship’s pilot, earlier remarks in the body of the game that he is repulsed by the cavalier way in which the people of the Citadel are ignoring the horrors of the war effort.  As he says to Shepard, through a sarcastic snarl:

‘Hey commander, big news: the new Blasto movie is breaking opening week records; there is also a big expose on Quasar tournaments; tips on how to make your apartment look bigger; and – oh yeah – a big ass Reaper invasion.

And so, as if intentionally trying to spotlight the fundamental disparity in this plotline – in this DLC (set during an even more climactic, ominous part of the conflict) Shepard has a run-in with Blasto himself; is able to waste time in a casino gambling on Quasar; and can become the universe’s feng shui master of interior decoration.  All while the universe burns.

It would appear that this DLC asks its audience to maintain two completely contradictory states of being at once: to invest in the severity and casual horror of war omnipresently in play during the larger game-structure (in which the plot kills off characters and whole worlds in every mission; in which tales of loss and madness and hopelessness press in from every angle from antagonists, allies, newsfeeds, and overheard NPCs), while at the same time embracing this momentary oasis of frivolous, playful abandon (where – for the sake of the war effort, apparently – you are invited to relax in a hot tub, or break a record on how many pull-ups Shepard can do, or turn on a raging kegger).

Indeed, even expressly stated character agendas are conveniently, temporarily abandoned.  Many of the living squad members from the previous games, although having offered pressing, unavoidable reasons for why they absolutely could not join you in Mass Effect 3, are suddenly willing to forget those obligations and return here, for this rest-stop abstraction, before disappearing again back to their directive.  To take but one example: many players were disheartened when the character of Miranda, arguably the principle squad member of the second game, spent this final arc of the trilogy off on her own quest to find her sister, refusing to join the war effort and reboard the Normandy.  But now, arbitrarily, she is back to get dressed up and have a night out to relax – her kidnapped sister be damned.

Ultimately, if only this were a legitimate epilogue set after the events of the ending (which would, of course, clearly need to be fundamentally altered), the lighter tone and earned respite would be a perfect tonal fit.  We would be in Return of the King’s ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ territory – the stakes a little lower, the chance for character resolution and reflection more organically informing the tale.

And a narrative (even as goofy as this) about Shepard having to restate what makes him/herself so individual in the light of a nefarious doppelganger, makes a perfect kind of sense for the dénouement of a series that purported to be concerned with player choice.  Suddenly, the symbolic alternate to all your/Shepard’s choices (evil clone evile clone evil clone) would be made manifest, an opportunity to mirror back a distorted image of what might have been.  Although admittedly clichéd, it would offer a nonetheless legitimate through-the-looking-glass trope that has danced alongside sci-fi for as long as people have been growing menacing goatees and theatrically cocking their eyebrows.

One suspects that the mindset behind creating this non sequitur addition to the narrative was a product of Bioware trying to simultaneously distance themselves from their polarising ending while still embracing it – an act of gymnastic duality that results in an impossible illogical snare.  After all: they’ve already declared that they would not touch or alter the ending from this point on (at this point, given the dismissive, frequently sarcastic tone of their Community Coordinator Chris Priestly, they’ve effectively chiselled that message into stone tablets), but contradictorily, they now want to offer players an opportunity to wind down after the narrative, to immerse themselves in a static bubble that operates both within and abstracted from the endpoint they retain the right to point to as an artistic ‘vision’.****

Presumably Bioware are banking on the majority of players being widely apathetic to the ending, knowing that many (if not most) will happily play this pocket of story after their already finished game, willing themselves to overlook how ludicrously it juts out from the unwaveringly focused structure of a journey that screams linearity.  After all, it’s a premise that expects players to have either forgotten the insistency of the plot (‘Well, the Reapers are killing everyone and everything, but we’re gonna paaaaaarty‘), or to have willingly divorced themselves so utterly from the narrative that they can just embrace it as a non-canon farewell of sorts, blocking out the real conclusion to paper it over with this paradoxical but playful kiss to the audience.****

Indeed, even in their advertising in the run up to this release, Bioware were finally no longer spruiking ‘war assets’ and ‘big, universe changing choices’ – instead promising moments of quietude and peace with the characters many longed to hang out with in such a manner before the game was launched.  It was a complete 180 from their usual advertising message, but it was one that required Bioware to pretend nothing was wrong (even in the basic logic of where this mission and hub exists in the narrative), while asking the player themself to just block out that smothering, ominous knowledge that all of this joviality is merely a pantomime of solace before the apocalyptic storm that will wipe it from memory.

And personally, I apparently can’t even begin to do that anymore.  That plaintive whistling sound in my head is telling me that if ever there was a time that I could have – that I might have walled off that nihilistic conclusion as a peculiar dream and just embraced the bubble of respite offered, headcanoning my way to a muddled kind of peace – that time is now gone.

But maybe that is ultimately the message of this whole thing: maybe this is all on me.  I drank the Kool Aid and believed that the choices mattered, that the decisions made in the journey were worth respecting and that the plot deserved the investment it invited.  But if even this farewell – a mid-narrative-epilogue to a series about morality and choices – is designed to utterly dissolve the relevance of its own logistical spine, to undermine the conceit that it is wrapped within, then maybe I really was just playing the game all wrong.

In the end (or the middle, or whatever) the choices really didn’t matter; the end was a lie.  Sure, one day soon you’ll be forced to abandon all that is being cherished in this curious little siesta, but it’s okay, because none of it mattered anyway.  So why not just raise a glass and drink away the regret?

In the interests of full disclosure – and as is no doubt already clear – I freely admit that I have not played this final offering from Bioware (nor do I foresee myself doing so in future), so my comments are merely those of a mystified onlooker trying to make sense of a baffling marketing campaign that left me behind when Mass Effect 3 first concluded in an eruption of nihilistic angst exactly one year ago.  Yes, I’m the Dickensian orphan boy abandoned to the cold streets, my nose pressed against the frosted glass pane as I look in on another’s family meal.  Of course I’m riddled with jealousy that everyone still inside seems to be enjoying themselves so – laughing and lit with the glow of a comforting fire – but the larger, rational part of me is also thinking: ‘Wait a minute – this isn’t Christmas.  This is meant to be a funeral.  And that guy carving the turkey is meant to be dead…’

In any case, I remain desperately envious of those who have bought the DLC and who can enjoy it.  It sounds like there is a lot of character business in there that sounds like a good deal of fun (and I’m still not sure I’ve ever fallen so madly in love with a rag-tag team before – well, excluding Firefly, natch).  For me though, I just can’t seem to flip the switch in my brain that can justify the seismic rift this tangential mission would require of my suspension of disbelief; nor the thought of having it end only to feed back into a conclusion that undoes everything I would cherish about this sweet hiatus anyway.

But again, and I mean this sincerely, to those who can and will enjoy it: have fun. You will have all of my jealousy burning a hole in your back as you play…

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

* The critically panned ‘Omega’ was likewise increased in price – an action that perhaps led to more scrutiny lambasting its comparatively meagre runtime, derivative action, lack of character interaction, and peripheral narrative.

* Again, someone judging the work unfavourably might declare that given Mass Effect’s track record, these were all elements that the designers knew were expected in the original release, and that they simply withheld for ransom in this last hurrah.

** Although to be fair, this DLC was clearly never intended to win back those fans.

*** Without ever deigning to explain what that ‘vision’ was meant to be.

**** Indeed, it’s funny how one of those concept artworks with everyone drinking (pictured at the header of this post) seems to have been ‘inspired’ by an image I remember seeing of the crew partying in an alternate fan-made ending, here: http://fc02.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2012/075/9/7/mass_effect3_how_it_should__ve_ended_by_hellstern-d4stwab.jpg

The Adventure of the Ten-Foot Blue Dudes: or Sherlock and Faithful Adaptation

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Sherlock (BBC)

As I settled deeper into my chair, still appropriately stunned by the enormity of the television that dwarfed every other object in my friend’s apartment, again readjusting the 3D frames over the top of my regular glasses likeacoolperson, something occurred to me.  I was now two hours into Avatar, and, as those who have seen the film will attest, while the visuals remained spectacular, that initial awe was now rather wearing off; the narrative, while relatively functional, was starting to slow.  So my mind wandered.  (…Also, in truth I was probably still a little stunned by the use of the word ‘Unobtainium’ – what the hell?)  On screen the private military were blowing up a tree, there was a bunch of big dragon things flying around, and I started thinking – as I’m sure many others have at this point in the film – about Sherlock Holmes and the dialogical effect of his narrative play.

No seriously.  That last hour does kind of drag.

It was because of the glasses.  Because I had to keep jostling them up my nose, hearing them ‘tink’ against my regular lenses.  I got thinking about the mechanics of the whole process: about how these marvellous images get made.

From what little I understand, the filmmakers use two separate but fixed cameras that mimic the binocular process of human sight, capturing two images from two different angles, which, when projected almost simultaneously, are then processed in the mind to construct the appearance of a three-dimensional image.  Two viewpoints; two separate angles; two perspectives that, when read together, appear to fill in the gap between them and unify the contradiction into a cohesive whole: a ‘real’ world image.  Now, obviously two-visions-becoming-one is the larger, inane metaphor of James Cameron’s movie – human and alien seeing each other’s viewpoint; uniting; working together; making out, doing that weird stuff with their tails – but that’s too obvious and boring.  (And I’m not sure the film’s cartoonishly villainous humans with their greed and brutality can really be considered a legitimate opposing viewpoint…)  So instead, I want to draw a much flimsier analogy by using this premise to explore the world of England’s greatest detective, and the narrative structure that is so central to his success, exploring why the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson remain thoroughly engaging, and continue to speak to new audiences one generation after the next.

Sherlock Holmes has had quite the resurgence in popularity of late.  Between the exceptional  BBC reimagining Sherlock (which I will get to drooling over momentarily), the curiously anachronistic Sherlock Holmes blockbusters starring Robert Downey Jr., and even a forthcoming American adaptation for CBS called Elementary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character is arguably risking cultural oversaturation.  Indeed, even the recently concluded series House was an overt homage to the asocial, drug-addled investigator – this time merely transplanted from the methodically-observant detective genre to a medical drama.  And although personally I baulk at the parallel, many in the past have likened the long-running Doctor Who and whatever intrepid companion is momentarily along for the ride, to the Baker street detective and his faithful scribe.*

For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to put aside the impending American remake (‘No,’ I hear purists cry, ‘but I’ve always pictured Lucy Liu as Watson!’)  Similarly I will ignore the infectiously charming Robert Downey Jr. (who, despite being fantastic, is nonetheless in a peculiarly muddled film that seems to want to convince its audience that Holmes is a genius because he can beat the crap out of people).  Instead, I intend to spend the following paragraphs raving with froth-bag affection for Sherlock, a series of made-for-television films on the BBC that – to my eye at least – perfectly capture the tone and heart of Doyle’s original text.*

There are many attributes that bind these two versions of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries – original Doyle fictions and modern television adaptation – so perfectly.  In both we see a narrative structure that thrives on its immediacy and artifice of reality, that is playfully self-referential, and that remains fundamentally tied to the collaboration of two distinct personalities, two broken souls who need each other in order to exist and thrive.

Firstly, there is the decision (now being emulated by the American adaptation) to contemporise these stories.  The creators of Sherlock decided that the only way to capture the spirit of the original tales was to set them in the modern day.  This was a choice that some thought to be a violation of the original texts (‘Sherlock Holmes using Google Maps? WTF!?’), but in actuality it is as faithful as the creators could possibly be to the source material.

In the original texts, the intent was always to allow the reader to believe that Holmes might actually be out there, a real person, actually assisting the police in their inquiries.  The stories were set in the (then) modern day, in London’s own streets.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intentionally wrote his stories as if they were genuine account of recent incidents; he gave dates for these events; spoke of ‘reports’ published in newspapers; alluded to famous figures whose names (for the sake of decency, naturally) needed to be obscured; and he whispered that certain details of the crimes, about which only Watson and Holmes were aware, had even been hushed up by the press.  Indeed, part of the reason that the ‘death’ of Sherlock Holmes was so disturbing was that many of the people reading these adventures each month in the Strand magazine had wholly invested in the suspension of disbelief Doyle invited.  To help intensify the fiction he perpetuated the mythology that Holmes was real, that he was actually out solving cases while the reader slept, and that would be there, next month, with another rollicking adventure to share with the world.

Part of the genius of the new television version is that Holmes likewise operates in a modern setting.  He – like the original – operates with all of the cutting edge sciences and technologies available to him: he scans the transom of the world wide web; he dances across the keypads of blackberries and mobile phones; he speaks of his brain as a computer hard-drive that requires defragging.  He might not have many friends on his facebook page, nor have any purpose for it, but he at least knows what the site is.  He is familiar with, and operates inside, a wholly contemporary world.

Secondly, Doyle famously employs the construct of the witness narrator.  Watson, the second half of this duo, is Holmes’ observer, not only aiding him in his investigations but later writing them down and preserving them for we, the readers.  In a detective fiction this limited viewpoint is, of course, a delaying tactic, central to the slow reveal of the mystery: as audience we have to await elucidation along with Watson; we too have to go along with his tangents and misdirections, waiting for Holmes to explain the clue that will set is all right.

Were the story told through Holmes’ eyes, Doyle could not hold off from telling the reader what each clue he spots means at the moment he spies it (although curiously Doyle did write some very late stories through Holmes’ viewpoint – they’re not his best); through Watson’s vision however, Holmes can point out a peculiar floor covering, a brand of cigarettes, a seemingly trivial idiosyncrasy, all without naming precisely why these details should be kept in mind until he is ready to disgorge the whole sequence of events in his concluding revelatory purge.

Watson is therefore constantly referring to his own act of writing and publishing these stories: he notes that he has changed ‘real’ names to avoid scandal; he speaks of writing particular adventures in order to correct the public record and respond to rumours in the press; indeed, Holmes is a celebrity in these stories precisely because of Watson’s publication, and in response to this scrutiny he offers pissy critiques of Watson’s writing style and tendency for exaggeration – arguing that his friend gets a little carried away in his praise.

This self-referentiality is something that Sherlock has built into its foundations also.  Watson is now a blogger.***  Holmes’ adventures are typed up and posted on the web (rather than in the pages of The Strand magazine as they were under Doyle’s direction), where Holmes finds he has quite a devoted following.  Indeed, in the second series, this audience has even elevated to the state of tabloid fandom – with Holmes something of a London celebrity by the final episode.

And just as was true in the original stories, Watson (in the marvellous Martin Freeman) is not merely a hapless servant, swept along in Holmes’ wake like a leaf; he is critical of his friend, willing to paint both his strengths and his failings.  In both the original texts and the show it is revealed that Holmes has a particularly obsessive personality that can even slip into substance addiction (in the original text he’s a cocaine addict; in the new show he is wallpapered with nicotine patches).  We get to see that he is unaware of simple trivia such as the detail that the earth circles the sun; and is not mindful of the truth that human beings have feelings, and might get insulted by his robotic detachment.

But perhaps most significantly, this version of the text – unlike so many before – has finally presented Watson as more than some witless lackey, stumbling around artlessly befuddled, waiting for Holmes to clue him in.  Here – as he was in the original tales – he is an essential counterpoint to his companion, a crucial balance to his experience, one that Holmes finds he genuinely needs to prosper.

Holmes (played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch), is an asexual emotional vampire, lost in a maelstrom of arrogance and intellectual detachment; but in Watson, a selfless, compassionate soldier who is stirred by human empathy, he finds a partner, someone who can compliment and strengthen the aspects of his personality he knows to be lacking.  Meanwhile Watson, driven by an urge to help others both medically and heroically, but shattered by his experience at war, lacks the strength to re-enter the world on his own until he finds the ingenious but socially maladjusted Holmes.  They are more than room and work mates, they are two halves of the same broken soul.  Thus, they present the perfect bromance, opposites attracting in a non-sexual way (a joke that the show itself plays up with Watson’s repeated assertion to everyone they meet that they are just roommates), the rational and emotional working in cohesion at last.  Together, the one guides the other, providing purpose, perspective and drive.

And it’s through their intersecting perspectives that these stories, both in fiction and on our television screens, come to life.  This evolution of the story, from flat, second-hand mystery to complex, multifaceted character-based murder plot, is entirely dependent upon the roles that Holmes and Watson play within their texts – not as a detective and snivelling servant, but rather as a voices of opposition comingling with one another – two parallel, but alternate points of view that bring the whole experience into focus.

Holmes with his cold clinical rationality, and Watson with his empathetic longing to help others,  alone are unsuccessful, but together are an inviolable force of will.  United they challenge the singular viewpoint of the events presented by pointing out contradictions, poking at the seams and exploring each unresolved tangent from multiple angles until their two visions align and the mystery is solved.

Two conflicting narratives, from two divergent viewpoints are finally unified into a third, cohesive whole.  And as a direct consequence of this duality – bringing cohesion through contradiction, synthesising at least two contrary viewpoints – the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson seem to rise up and out of the pages and screens before us; we look into them, like 3D lenses, watching rounded, complex characters with lives and experiences as multifaceted as our own step into the world fully formed.

…Well, certainly with more dimension than anything offered in Avatar.  I mean, what was going on with that crazy scar-faced General in the robot suit?  What the hell was that all about?

* In recent years this likeness has been furthered because of Stephen Moffat’s integral association and guiding vision for both Sherlock and Doctor Who.

** I do want it noted for the record that I have restrained myself from mentioning Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century.  Those who know that cartoon just punched the air in nostalgic glee; to those who don’t recognise the name: go on with your life happily unburdened.  The short version is: Watson was robot; Sherlock was a clone; I was… confused.  But, hey: flying cars and bowler hats?  What’s not to love? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyGAc-OLAiQ)

*** Indeed you can even read his blog here.

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