Archive for X-Files

Twin Peaks: Flame Wars Walk With Me

Posted in criticism, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2017 by drayfish

Twin Peaks log lady

My log has something to tell you.

My log knows the ways of popular culture.  Of the fans that brighten the flame.  My log has seen television revivals come and go.  My log has a Twitter account.

Behind all memes are reasons.  Reasons can explain the absurd.

Twin Peaks will return.  It is a miracle.  But it will open a gateway.

My log knows what is to come.

Can you hear it?

I will translate.

On the first week David Lynch will be a genius.  It is wondrous, the people will cry.  Articles will scatter like dandelion seeds.  ‘THIS is why Twin Peaks had to return’, they will say.  ‘Lynch and Frost teach modern television creators how to do it.’  Much shade will be thrown at the most recent season of The Walking Dead.

On the second week, columnists and critics will agree that the show is taking its time.  But this is universe building, they will argue.  Perhaps the weirdness is not quite so quirky, some will suggest.  It is still better than everything else on television.  Listicles filled with spoilers counting the ’10 Best Things About the New Twin Peaks‘ will clog websites everywhere.  People will already tire of their workmate’s references to ‘damn fine’ black coffee.

In week three there will be disparaging chatter about some of the returning actors, and whether or not they should have come back.  Magazines will create spreads of the female cast members, rating them alongside photographs taken twenty years ago.  Copy-editors will ask who has ‘let herself go the most?’  The male cast will be referred to as ‘distinguished’.  Humanity will continue to die a little inside.

In week four conspiracy theories abound.  What does that salt shaker mean?!  Enough with the owls!  Memes will fly wildly on Twitter.  One line, taken out of context in episode two, will have become so ubiquitous and overused in daily conversation that your aunt will facebook you to ask what it means.  A Guardian newspaper columnist will list reasons why this new series is exactly what Twin Peaks was once all about.

Week five will leave viewers wondering aloud whether the long pauses and abstract dialogue are intentional.  People will haunt comments sections of articles loudly proclaiming that they ‘Don’t care!’ about this series.  That they ‘heard’ it wasn’t that good in the first place.  That they are only writing this in every comments section, on every review that they find, because they are ‘SO UNINTERESTED!  SERIOUSLY!’  Critics begin to wonder whether Twin Peaks has shown its age.  In the wake of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, does Twin Peaks still have ‘it‘ anymore?  A Guardian newspaper columnist will list reasons why this new series is the complete opposite of what Twin Peaks was once all about.

Twin Peaks Damn fine coffee

In week six the online anger will rise.  ‘Why don’t we KNOW anything yet?!  Where are the answers?!  We waited twenty years for THIS!?!?’ they will furiously type, despite having only binge-watched the series a month ago.  Reviewers cataloguing episode summaries on websites like the AV Club will wonder why the screenwriters are concentrating on the peripheral characters.  Think pieces about why they are actually important, even though they appear completely irrelevant to anything, will emerge.  Some will sound nearly convincing.  #Where’sAnnie?

In week seven the ‘fans’ will become apoplectic.  A beloved character and actor from the original series that they have not thought about for a decade has been treated unfairly!  Boycotts are threatened.  #HAVETOSPEAKUPHEARINGISGONE.  Capitalising on this anger, an organised conservative moral outrage group will petition Showtime to cancel the show.  They will demand an investigation into whether something screened in a previous episode was too disturbing for broadcast.  The FCC will issue non-committal statement about looking into the matter.

On the eighth week Saturday Night Live will do a sketch claiming that Twin Peaks is actually about Donald Trump.  The White House is now the Red Room.  Jeff Sessions is the Man From Another Place.  Paul Ryan is an uptight nerd possessed by darkness.  Steve Bannon is Bob.  Ivanka, a vague beauty queen with no defined personality is ogled like a trophy to distract everyone from the evil goings on barely obscured behind the scenes.  Alec Baldwin will play Trump as a dim-witted Log in an unconvincing toupee, carried around by Vladimir Putin in a dress.

My log is not amused.

Week nine will bring with it hand-wringing think pieces.  ‘Lynch might just be a weird old man with singular antiquated beliefs’, they will suggest.  Is he celebrating, or mocking what he thinks is ‘weird’?!  Maybe Blue Velvet wasn’t that good after all.

Week ten there will be a controversy.  Perhaps Denise Bryson, the transgender character played by David Duchovny, will be presented in an arguably unflattering light.  Perhaps someone will rethink the use of the word ‘dwarf’ on national television.  A critic will write an article titled ‘Twin Peaks Is Not A Safe Space.’  It will be unclear if this is meant to be satirical.  #CancelTP

In week eleven people will have moved on to the return of Game of Thrones.  Can you believe that Khaleesi did that thing that she did?  It was about time!  Critics will praise Game of Thrones in inverse proportion to their criticism of Twin Peaks.  ‘David Lynch withholds too much!’  They will gnash their teeth.  Game of Thrones will cut a dude’s head off and show you some rude bits.  That’s how you tell a story!

In week twelve disparaging think pieces propagate.  Everyone will be reminded that before it was cool to brag to everyone about how underappreciated Twin Peaks was, it was fun to slag off the second season, while it was still screening, for not being as great as you wanted.  Endless columns will lament that Lynch is just stringing his audience along – just like before.  This is why Twin Peaks got cancelled in the first place, they will say.  #Waiting25Years

In week thirteen many clever, ironic people, who are all very popular and hip, will write disparaging comments about how Twin Peaks is still on television.  Yawn.  I forgot that was even a thing, etc.  I watched that new Archie Riverdale show and it was weirder.  Did you see Gravity Falls?  #LodgeAComplaint

In week 14 a subsection of Tumblr fans will be disheartened when it becomes clear that the romance they were shipping is never to be.  Whether this romance was between a stale box of donuts and a taxidermied deer head is obscured.  #DoughADeer

On the fifteenth week, the week before it ends, fan theories will run amuck.  Entire Wikis will flourish and fade daily.  Click-bait websites will dangle promises of ‘WHAT IT ALL MEANS’ behind several pages of single sentence paragraphs and a confetti of pop-up ads.  There will be rage from those who love the series; rage from those who ‘have never and will never watch it! Why doesn’t everyone just shut up?!’; and rage from those who believe that it is just not as good as it was when James Hurley went on that stupid road trip.

Twin-Peaks-sign

On the final week, there will be no definitive resolution.  The answers it does offer will be nebulous.  Much will remain obscure.  Articles will be written praising a work that is willing to excite, entice, and respect its audience in such a way; others will be written calling the show a fraud.  David Lynch will be labelled a scam artist; a genius; an auteur; a hack.  The show will be called exploitative; ridiculous; outdated; cutting-edge.  It will be both hip and derivative to hate on it; its defenders will be equal parts brave and gullible sheep.  It will be the greatest; it will be the worst.  Proof of the revival model; evidence of why it never works.

Twins; mirrors of one another.  The darkness in the light.  Inextricable.

#CUin25Years

The show will probably be magnificent; but none will be able to tell anymore.  The flames will rise regardless.  The smoke will blind.  From the warmth of recognition to a fandom ablaze.

In the feedback is the fire.   All that is good burns.

It happened to Arrested Development.  To The X-Files.  Even the Gilmore Girls got a working over.

All of this has happened before.

All will happen again.

All of this my log has foreseen.

And, yeah.

That Rosanne reunion sounds like a terrible idea.

Twin Peaks thumbs up

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Things Strange: The Nostalgic Dungeon Master of Stranger Things

Posted in criticism, movies, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,

Before you read this, watch ‘Stranger Things’. Watch it immediately.

Do not let anyone (like me) spoil anything about the story. Do not let anyone (like me) say cute lines from it that you will then be waiting to hear uttered by some character in some scene or other. Don’t read supplementary articles (like this very one) talking up its themes or hidden references or whatever. Avoid the AV Club. Don’t even ask anyone if it’s good (it is).

Just watch.

Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.

I’ll see you on the other side.

*     *     *

The zeitgeist is funny.  It can speed along so swiftly.  What one moment was a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise.  But then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack.  And this has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet.  Once one of these kinds of entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great.  They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.

It’s strange.  It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

Because in the mere two months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (July 15th), Stranger Things has already lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle.  From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job.  And, what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows – arguably more acutely than any other – is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters can reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scruitiny.  Because Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST.  It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files.  The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day.  It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without changing a single frame.  It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.

For my part, I loved it.

And for once – for perhaps the first time in living history – I was in on the ground floor.  I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and happily got to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show.  Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out.  Before people began quoting things in their facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.

It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback.  Some forgotten film from the eighties I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that had been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm.  I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed play.  Five minutes later I knew I was going to follow that show wherever it led.

It was sumptuous and lean and wry.  It’s characters layered and fully fleshed.  It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore.  And it deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.

On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers.  It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can dangerous liars with malicious agendas.  On the level of the teenager characters, it was a monster flick.  Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence, like peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat.  For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.

And for eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until colliding in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, setting all of these narratives in motion.

I thought it was splendid.  Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.

Little did I realise that I was wrong.  And the show was bad.  And that my nostalgia had been exploited.  Thankfully I had critics like Film Crit Hulk, who are sick and tired of the adulation that this show has received over the past few weeks, to set me straight.

Because didn’t you know it was riddled with nonsensical creative decisions?  Like, didn’t you realise it was silly of the show to linger on the moment where the towns people think they have discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death?  Well, it was.  Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out that the show was dumb for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died.  …Even though what was actually being depicting was the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen.  Also, at this point in the narrative, in truth, we really don’t know what is going on with the boy – he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit.  But never mind all that.  Because didn’t you also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into it instead of scurrying away in fright is totally unrealistic?  …Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc.  Because never mind that either.  And surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened.  …Even though his character has been repeatedly established to have an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment.  Nope.  Never mind that too.  Despite all of these things arguably making sense, be assured that none of them make sense.  Because reasons.  Because shows have to behave in the predetermined ways that Film Crit Hulk has decided.

So bad show is bad.

(And yes, that’s Film Crit Hulk.  The same guy who furiously defended the lazy, racist nihilism of the Mass Effect ending because he had head-cannoned over its garbled script with a pseudo-philosophy about the cyclical nature of existence.  Who disliked The Dark Knight Rises because he was convinced a distraught Christopher Nolan, still mourning the death of Heath Ledger, had been dragged against his will through the writing and filming process.  Suddenly now an audience projecting anything into its experience of a text – nostalgia; an awareness of hackneyed narrative conventions – is a sign of the text’s weakness, and the audience’s poor, sad foolishness for buying into all this malarkey.)

The show trades in nostalgia, he complains.  It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps.  It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others.  On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand.  And somehow all of this is outrageous – as if it has never happened in cinema before.  …Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.

And that, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically.  His is by no means the only negative review.  His scathing reaction against the validity of the show in particular just strikes me as representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected.  Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic (at this point I would strenuously argue that the all-caps affectation is decidedly not one of them), his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a text.  Nor, I should add, should it be.

Criticism is an act of intimate engagement with a work of art, an interplay between audience and text.  Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the experience.  It is that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft.  It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers – creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things – employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their audience.

Because despite what its detractors claim, the eighties aesthetic and storytelling Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing.  It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot.  It’s an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity proves to be key to its purpose.  It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.

To begin with, there’s a lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things – a show that you can view alone on a streaming service that enables you to avoid speaking to anyone outside of your house – evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio.  It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it.  Just so someone you know can go on that journey with you.

More significantly, however, there is the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar.  Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps haughtily dismiss) is the most abiding narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling.  The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons.  The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a session of the game; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their campaign.  In between, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the D&D shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised though the rules of teamwork that govern the game; and the creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).

Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations – treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. – and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that you never perceived before, or that were never previously present.  By inviting the audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new.  Done well, it creates an experience, in the process of upending these conventions, more than the sum of its parts.

And that it precisely what Stranger Things, by touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, presents.  The series itself operates as a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed douchebag boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant.  So, fun!

And in perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast to whom she is warming to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life.  And even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Back in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.

All these things – these rote, familiar things – are appropriated and made strange.  And in so doing the show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself.  In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges.  Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’.  It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow.  It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you have not been steeped in texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.

But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly.  About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be.  It is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself – in either the world or the narrative.  With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts.  The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap.  The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world.  With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.

Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting these tired conventions, astounds.  But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone.  That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity.  Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in the show.  And that’s fine.  Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience at one.  Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience.  And as the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.

Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

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

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

IMAGE: 30 Rock (NBC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IMAGE: Northern Exposure (CBS)

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

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

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