TV pet peeve #5: The Meaningful Montage

While all of TubaTV’s pet peeves make our collective blood boil, #5 is doubly peevey: firstly, The Meaningful Montage constitutes some seriously vile pop culture demagogy.  It’s like the aural equivalent of the soap opera close-up: in the event that some half-dead member of the audience isn’t certain how to feel about a given story line, the Meaningful Montage packages the appropriate sentiment into an easy-to-digest caplet of radio friendly, unit shifting sound and vision.  Worse still than its status as a marketing ploy, the Meaningful Montage is essentially a less ambitious/more plebeian cousin to The Magnolia Moment, finally amounting to a spiritless gesture entirely bereft of rhetorical force.

Rupert Murdoch’s army of simpletons over at Fox/FX have honed the device to its most utilitarian: Don Draper must have convinced them that the final minutes of any given serial drama can be made both poignant and relevant for the “coveted 18-49 demographic” by the simple inclusion of a slow-motion montage set to some “edgy” New(ish) (White) Music.  Got a character moving to another state and/or resigning himself to a life of working class baby daddery?  Oh, Jeff Buckley’s oft-abused cover of “Hallelujah” should do the trick:

Rescuing someone from a burning building?  (Or drinking yourself into a stupor?  Or slowly ruining every relationship you’ve ever had?)  “Indie” rock is most definitely in order:

The Meaningful Montage is so trite, so ridiculously facile that this fan vid of The shield is practically indistinguishable from an actual episode:

In honor of all you anonymous Tuba lovers out there, I’ve gone ahead and edited the following choice editorializing out of the Wikipedia entry for The shield: “To enhance its realism, the show makes very little use of background music until the end of each episode.”  Back loading music at the end of an episode “enhances” its “realism,” huh?

[Edit: Some devoted Shield fan has undone my edits.  I had changed “realism” to read “market appeal.”  Any Wikipedia editors out there, please join the discussion page and weigh in on the proposed change.]

— J.C. Freñán

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TV pet peeve #4: The ‘Magnolia’ moment

Anyone who saw Magnolia will remember Paul Thomas Anderson’s crowning preciosity, the pan-diegetic sing-along (featuring none other than Crazy Wanda from Big love and everyone’s favorite Dr. Steve Brule!):

Very clever and very Oscar-tempting way back in 2000.  The sing-along schtick was still viable in 2004, when transposed to the small screen and folded back into a specific story arc via a collective tryptamine experience:

1)

Less convincing in 2006.

2)

And fully expired by 2007.

3)

On a related note, the comedic sing-along does manage to avoid peeving, if it’s done well.  Sing-alongs sustained one season of Flight of the Conchords

4)

..but then turned around and killed the second.  They have also propelled some very strange British comedians to (well-deserved) stardom:

5)

6)

J.C. Freñán

TV pet peeve #3: Overthickening the plot

One could be pardoned for forgetting that once upon a time, Prison break was actually pretty entertaining.  The original premise — loosing the bonds of incarceration via the bonds of fraternal love — strikes a weird chord with me, and if we can forgive the predictable Fox-isms, that first season did fulfill its narrative promise rather satisfactorily.  Insofar as the first part of the second season attempted to deal with the consequences of the first, it wasn’t too far off the mark, either (although the Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell character did wear out his welcome well before that).

I think everyone can agree that the unapologetically racist third season — Prison break: Pandemonium in Panamá! — was an unmitigated failure.  (Not even the finale’s ill-advised inclusion of Rebekah del Rio’s Vini Reilly-less version of “Crying” could do much to redeem it.)  It’s been downhill for the brothers Scofield and their merry band of felons ever since, and there’s a very simple reason why: the conspiracy’s just too goddamn thick.  I’m not complaining about the show’s lack of verisimilitude so much as its writers’ total disregard for compulsively recurring to the same improbable emplotments: living relatives keep finding themselves held as collateral, while estranged and/or presumed dead relatives keep coming back to life; enemies keep becoming grudging allies, and steadfast allies either defect from the cause or become embittered enemies.  Whenever the flip-flopping gets too confusing to follow, the writers just add a greater, previously unimagined threat to the mix.  After season one, the antagonist function is tossed lazily around like a lukewarm, unappetizing potato: Brad Bellick, Alex Mahone, Paul Kellerman, Gretchen Morgan, General Krantz, Donald Self… Who cares, really?  By now we know to expect each villain’s badassery to be trumped as we move up (or laterally across) the conspiratorial ladder of The Company.

Things didn’t have to turn out this way — narratively, I mean.  Granted, the fugitive angle was inevitably going to get tedious, but there are always going to be metaphorical prisons these characters would have had to confront, right?  But because Prison break is on Fox, such musings are pretty worthless.  (Wentworth-less, even!)  Instead we’re left with a sticky mess of half-baked characters and their competing interests.  Not even the tepid Scofield-Tancredi romance manages to sweeten the pot (impassioned fan art notwithstanding).

Not exactly llorando, is he?
I preferred his ink sleeves.

And because we’re talking about Obama-era Fox here, we’ve also got to contend with the suddenly formidable figure of Michael and Lincoln’s mother, of all people.  Not unlike Renee Walker on 24, I’ll venture that her being a very well-produced Woman With Boobs is meant to defer criticism of the show’s politics.  Not that I can make out a coherent political message from Prison break, other than maybe a vague, delusional libertarian anti-government posture.

Since I’m growing increasingly skeptical of Miami-based series, I’ll go ahead and point out that we can now add Prison break to the tally.  Maybe Dexter can help Michael and Linc get Scylla?

– J.C. Freñán

Boobs for Bauer

As the two-hour special prior to this season of 24 made totally clear, Day 7 is all about Bauer’s “Redemption.”  How, exactly, is Bauer to be redeemed, you ask?  By standing trial and serving jail time for violating the Geneva Convention on a daily basis?  By admitting his mistakes and dedicating his life to the peaceful resolution of international conflict?  By embarking on the twelve steps to recovery from violence addiction, confronting his countless victims or their families, and asking for their forgiveness?  Or maybe he’ll redeem himself by becoming even more intransigent and recruiting even more of the simple-minded to his one-dimensional vision of the world?

This season’s dupe is very obviously Renee Walker.  Was anyone fooled by her presence?  Is it not patently obvious that Renee’s femininity (which has been on prominent display ever since she changed into that translucent, V-neck sweater) is meant as an apology for or vindication of Bauer’s politics?  Just because a womanly woman serves as Bauer’s “hard won” ally-slash-mouthpiece, is his extremist patriotism now suddenly something other than the fulfillment of a conservative’s wet dream?  (Chloe O’Brian’s unconditional trust in Bauer was a lot harder won, but her femininity is, shall we say, less than convincing.)

Am I the only who thinks she bears a striking resemblance to Skeletor?
That's a standard issue FBI push-up bra, obvs.

The season’s other strategy for redemption is of course Bauer’s martyrdom: he has now been tragically infected by an experimental bio-weapon in the line of duty.  The problem with this particular plot twist, however, lies in the fact that we’ve known since January that we can expect yet another season of 24 next year.  So unless the show’s producers have the guts to write Day 8 as the immediate, “real-time” continuation of Day 7 (during which we might finally see Bauer get in a well-deserved cat nap or two), we already know that Bauer’s gonna be just fine at the end of this season.  No dice, then, Bauer: TubaTV, at least, will not be granting your redemption any time soon.

For the lulz, here’s some more priceless dialog from this season:

Jack: I think I found us a new way in.  Look: these are Senator Mayer’s files.  This is Douglas Knowles.  He’s the chairman of Starkwood.  He was actually helping the senator with the investigation.  He’s the one who brokered the deal to open the company’s books.

Renee: What, another insider?  Didn’t we just get burned?

Two minutes later, we cover the exact same ground when Jack relays the budding plan to Larry and Tony.

Jack: Tony, you’re gonna need to find a way to stay behind.  We’re gonna get your vectors over to a man we contacted inside Starkwood.  His name is Douglas Knowles, he believes he knows where the weapons are.

Larry: Isn’t that how we got into this mess?  Almeida and some supposedly friendly contact?

Renee: Knowles is chairman of the Starkwood board, but he was cooperating with Senator Mayer’s investigation of the company.  Larry, he’s all that we’ve got.

[24‘s writers just LOVE the Only Option scenario, by the way.  In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that the Only Option structure is what organizes the development of all seven seasons of the show.  There should be a 24 drinking game that requires a shot for every time the writers resort to the Only Option logic, every time someone (usually Jack) says something along the lines of “We don’t have a choice” or its kindred invocation, “You’re just gonna have to trust me.”]

– J.C. Freñán

“It Was Written”: Kings, Slumdogs, and Prophecies

I’ll just go ahead and say that I thought Slumdog Millionaire was weak. And without getting into every crack in the film’s lacquered surface (the implausible plot, the dopey politics, the corny resolution), I’ll focus on the central conceit of the film, which, I think, is the ultimate copout of any story: we learn, in the opening minute of the film, that Jamal, our protagonist, will reach the end of the yellow brick road because “it was written.” Prophetic tales aren’t just lazy, they’re manipulative. They follow the same grammatical skullduggery that old Dick Nixon employed when he uttered the famous words, “mistakes were made.” Prophecies evacuate agency. Just invert the punchline of Slumdog into active voice, and we realize that “it” wasn’t “written,” but someone (say, the writers?) actually wrote it; or if you want to stay within the borders of narrative, the characters did it.I gotta thank God / 'cause he gave me this chance to rock hard.

Kings, NBC’s latest period drama, is a tale of prophecy; creator Michael Green (of Everwood and Heroes fame) projects the Biblical tale of David onto a modern city-state called Shiloh that looks a whole lot like NYC. (For those of us who didn’t enjoy the privilege of Sunday morning cathecism, you’ll at least have heard of the David who slung stones at the towering Goliath, and knocked his ass flat out. Same dude). In the Kings pilot, our blond-haired, blue-eyed David rises up to a Goliath (the codename of the neighboring nation’s tanks), chucks a grenade instead of a stone, and blows it to smithereens. In an inspired bit of writing, Green colors David’s heroics ambiguous: despite the press clamoring otherwise, David admits that his dramatic slaying of Goliath was, in fact, a sheepish attempt at surrender. I was with Kings at that point – upending a familiar story is always a good move – but by the end of the pilot, David actually does find courage to diplomatically “slay” Goliath, raising the white flag in front of a line of tanks and crossing the L-O-C, to redeem his slain brother’s death. It’s not that bad a moment, really, but the Platoon-like histrionics and the dolorous, quasi-Arab singing took it into schmaltzy territory. It’s a land that Kings returns to constantly.

When you have prophecies, flocks of animals and swarms of insects often intervene as symbols and plot devices (the pigeon that saves David’s life in the second episode embodies both). There are massive deus-ex-machinas (a quiz show, let’s say) that enable a comedic resolution (the heterocouple getting hitched) with a payoff (protagonist becomes crorepati). But they can work, too; think of the prophetic convention in Shakespearean tragedies, for instance; or to keep the Filmi bus running, think of Maqbool, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Hindi adaptation of ‘Macbeth,’ which opens with two crooked Mumbai cops prophesying Maqbool’s rise and fall in the criminal syndicate. It worked, ‘cause the characters were memorable and complex and fucked up in recognizably human ways.

Welcome to Shiloh, cocksucker.So far, the characters in Kings are a mixed bag: the twenty-somethings are entirely two-dimensional, and the lines of good and evil have neatly been demarcated between the hetero-pairing of David and Princess Michelle and the dastardly, hedonistic, gay Prince Jack*. The elders, however, aren’t so easy to peg – King Silas (played by Ian McShane) vacillates between his own desire for power and his acceptance of (and even desire for) the responsibilities of power, between violence and peace, between war and diplomacy, between hyperliterate blowhard and hardass (he’s a lot like our old pal, Al Swearengen, that way). The queen, too, is complex: a daughter of wealth and leader of her own army of domestic life, who clearly knows a thing or two about the marriage between court and capital. And I am digging the entire quasi-American kingdom, set in a modern, neoliberal world – Kings certainly has an opportunity to explore power in some novel, interesting, if archetypal ways.

What worries me is that the whole prophecy schtick will become the tenuous thread through which anything ever happens in Shiloh – last week’s episode depended so much on “signs and wonders” to propel David to save the day. Then again, we (like the old guard in Kings) only know that the Aryan prince here is being chosen for something, and aren’t exactly sure what that something is (I’ll take a stab, and guess, he becomes King). But maybe, like all the grizzled veterans of Shiloh, David will emerge in three-dimensions, become more Miyan “Macbeth” Maqbool and less Jamal “Slumdog” Malik.

Green says, just give it time. And I guess that’s fair.

Who wants to be a millinaire!

  • Brent Hartinger of AfterElton points out that Kings de-gays the David and Jonathan story, erasing the romantic bond between the two characters in the Biblical story.

– Thumbu Sammy

‘Battlestar Galactica’ left me with blue balls.

(Spoilers ahead.  Obvs.)

There’s a very simple reason why Friday night’s conclusion to the overly-acclaimed Battlestar Galactica wasn’t convincing.  It wasn’t the triteness of the notion of “breaking the cycle of violence.”  (Peace in the Middle East, y’all.)  Nor was it the anticlimactic Starbuck ex machina resolution to her story arc this season.  Nor was it the unabashed sacrifice of coherence for melodrama, as, for instance, when former Admiral Bill ‘Craterface’ Adama explains elliptically to Lee and Kara that he “[doesn’t] have much time,” thus prompting an unnecessarily tearful goodbye before he schleps moribund former President Laura Roslin off to some African hillside… so they can be alone when she dies, like, five minutes later in their Raptor?  Because dying in a Raptor was way more comfortable for her than dying on the savannah where they’d been chatting pleasantly moments earlier?

If I were being generous, I could forgive these indulgences as the adolescent sentimentality of a group of science fiction writers mourning the loss of their all-too-short-lived source of self-esteem.  What I can’t forgive, especially since generosity isn’t my strong suit, was the (increasingly inevitable, it seems) recourse to flashbacks.  Even when a flashback is used to good effect, it’s a plot device for the simple-minded.  Shakespeare never needed to flash his shit back to sustain drama, did he?  (Feel free to chime in, Thumbu.)  Worse still, the final two episodes of BSG left me feeling like the flashbacks were used both to eat up screen time, and to coat the development of the entire series with a hasty, post hoc veneer of gravity.  Part I of “Daybreak,” especially, seems to have been an exercise in frustrated masturbation.  As a result, the multiple climaxes proferred in Part II felt artificial and fundamentally empty.

Part of the problem was editing: in one scene, present-day Boomer delivers Hera to Helo and Athena, asking that they relay to Adama her message that she “owed him one.”  Only then are we shoe-horned into a totally contextless Caprica-era scene during which Adama and Tigh jointly humiliate a rookie Boomer for not being able to land her Raptor properly.  Adama, adhering faithfully to God’s plan for the future, decides to give her another chance (to land properly?), to which Boomer replies that she owes him one, an obligation she will fulfill “some day” — i.e., today — “when it really means something.”  Do you see the problem here?  Using a flashback to illuminate the words or actions of something that’s just happened in screen-time isn’t just weak, it’s wasteful.  Had that scene been part of an episode in an earlier season, it might have been legit (albeit heavy-handed) to flash back to it at this point.  But riddling a series finale with entirely novel flashbacks, especially when those flashbacks *immediately follow* the scenes they’re meant to contextualize, is just lazy storytelling.  I’d go so far as to say that it’s disrespectful.

Similarly, I derived no special insight from witnessing the prelude to and aftermath of Roslin’s unfulfilling one-night stand with her former student, even if this was the immediate precursor to her decision to continue with politics, even if this decision then put her in a position to become President of the Republic.  This level of storytelling produces precisely the same breed of banality that structured J.J. Abrams’s mercifully euthanized experiment in coincidence, Six degrees.  Adama remained as captain of the Galactica because he was too proud to take a lie detector test?  Lee and Kara almost got freaky on a kitchen table while Lee’s brother-slash-Kara’s husband Zak was passed out in the next room?  Who fucking cares, at this point?  BSG‘s writers drastically overestimated the privilege such scenes would exercise in our understanding of these characters, when really, they afforded no insight whatsoever.  We already knew that Adama was a stubborn, self-righteous prick; we already knew that Lee and Kara would find other opportunities to trespass the boundaries of fidelity, propriety, whathaveyou.

For these reasons (and a host of others) BSG was not the ground-breaking drama everyone seemed hysterically to want it to be.  It was a space opera, whether Ronald Moore realizes it or not.  Not that the genre itself can’t be groundbreaking — the fourth chapter of Star wars was, after all, an allegorical denunciation of the Viet Nam War.  The problem with uncritical praise for BSG is that it confuses middle-brow aspiration with high-brow achievement.  We here at TubaTV believe that television as a medium can be great; transcendent, even.  Battlestar Galactica was entertaining, sure.  It even had its inspired moments.  But great?

– J.C. Freñán

Déjà vu. No, for real.

Why on earth do I keep wasting my time with Damages?  Is it because seeing Timothy Olyphant makes me wistful for better days in the Western Territories?  Is it because cameo appearances by Baltimore PD heavyweights Lou Rawls and now Lester Freamon will inevitably bring a tear to my eye?  (Thank you, Lester, for keeping it real.)  Is it because I have pronounced OC tendencies?

This week’s episode — directed by none other than Orange County’s number one dead-beat dad, Jimmy Cooper, and presciently titled “I agree, it wasn’t funny” — actually felt like something of an insult.  The deliberately cryptic flash-forwards are just SO GODDAMN TIRED.  At least on Lost there’s a coherent (albeit wacky) justification for the flashes; on Damages it’s just an empty gimmick.  And worse, it’s wasteful of some considerable acting talents (Numbnuts Donovan notwithstanding).  Weak, FX.  Y’all need to get Charlie Kelly to fix the rest of your programming.

Ich liebe es wenn man mir sagt dass was nicht geht.
Ich liebe es wenn man mir sagt dass was nicht geht.