Monday, April 13, 2009

April too early for Festivus? - Sepinwall on TV

Today's column is sort of a Blog's Recent Greatest Hits, as I again express my displeasure about what happened on last week's "House," the "American Idol" overrun last week, and the end of "Life on Mars." (Every now and then, I do one of these for the print-only readers. If you haven't read it on the blog, it's new to you!)

28 comments:

Undercover Black Man said...

Great column, Alan. Another Festivus miracle!

I never watched "Life on Mars"... but dare I hazard an opinion that the reveal was less of a "cheat" than the "St. Elsewhere" ending?

Anonymous said...

the thing about St Elsewhere is... how was that a cheat? It never gave viewers to believe it wasn't a real hospital in Boston with real people and storylines. And I'd wager that in the early 80s, that was probably a mind blowing original ending (I was like 9 when it happened so I can't say through my personal experience), not looking at it through a 2009 lense where every story device and gimmick has been played out.

Adam said...

Eh. The St Elsewhere's ending wasn't intend to explain the purpose of the show; it was just a neat trick at the end.

My grievance? A third straight "sing whatever you want" theme for Idol this week, when there's only one competitor this year with the sense to do anything interesting without such constraints.

Undercover Black Man said...

... it was just a neat trick at the end.

Yeah, Adam... a "neat trick" that made a viewer feel like a sap for having invested years in this fictional universe. At least "Mars" only claimed 17 hours of people's time before it did what it did.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I actually think you all have a point on the "St. Elsewhere" ending.

On the one hand, it was absolutely an F-you to the people who'd been watching the show for six years, in that Tom Fontana was comparing them to an autistic boy who does nothing but stare at a snow globe all day.

But on the other hand, "St. Elsewhere" was never -- unless you count the running gag in which veterans of other MTM shows would turn up, sometimes as their old MTM characters, sometimes as new people -- a show that asked you to question the nature of its reality until the very end. There was no mystery about whether the hospital was real or fantasy, whether time travel was involved, etc. With "Life on Mars," the whole show as about that question, and so to reveal the answer as something that had only barely been hinted at was a massive cheat.

You can still enjoy "St. Elsewhere" reruns even if you know about the Tommy Westphal ending; I can't imagine watching an episode of "Life on Mars" on DVD without constantly thinking about the finale.

tomok97 said...

I was a huge St. Elsewhere fan when it aired. Never missed an episode (and that was quite a feat in a pre-TiVo era). It ended when I was 17 or 18 and I loved the finally. I thought it was cool that Tommy Westphall had been incorporating people from his live into these stories.

I never felt it took away from the show. I always looked it at like he was the "writer" of the show. If I met the actual writer(s) of St. Elsewhere, I wouldn't feel like the show was ruined for me. So meeting the fictional "writer" didn't upset me either. Plus, it gave us the kick @ss theory that Tommy Westphall created 90% of all television shows.

http://home.vicnet.net.au/~kwgow/crossovers.html

maura said...

With "Life on Mars," the whole show as about that question, and so to reveal the answer as something that had only barely been hinted at was a massive cheat.

But isn't that what a surprise ending is all about? I'm thinking now about "Newhart". Would anyone have guessed it was all a dream? (Sometimes it seemed like a nightmare for poor Bob.) Yeah, it was a take-off of sorts, but still...

The "Life on Mars" ending seems silly, at best. Maybe the problem is that some shows pull it off better than others.

P.S. I never thought the ending of St. Elsewhere was a big f- you to its viewers. I loved it. But I liked the ending to Roseanne too, even if it was just a way to excuse how awful the last few seasons were.

J said...

My own frustration with House is that I abandoned it when it moved to the new time slot, and when I heard something "important" had finally happened I couldn't find a place to go watch it, legally, for EIGHT DAYS.

The ep is going online this coming Tuesday, being rerun on USA this coming Saturday (something I only found out by going to IMDB, not mentioned at all on either FOX's or USA's sites). Is there a reason for the delay before it goes on Hulu? Does Rupert Murdoch own a controlling interest in Bittorrent or something? It's not like I'm going to rejoin the show now just because something happened (and has been thoroughly spoiled, of course) last week. In fact, I'm more likely to just not ever bother with it again.

Undercover Black Man said...

Again, never having watched "Life on Mars," I must say I'm tickled by the notion of a computer-generated fantasy with two layers of time.

Like, "I wanna be a Victorian English detective in ancient Rome." Or "I wanna be a Depression-era gangster in the Civil War South."

Adam said...

On Newhart, it was only that very last episode -- which got so intentionally over-the-top and ludicrous that the "it was all a dream from eating bad sushi" -- for which that ending had any real applicability. It was just a cute gift for the viewer.

Undercover Black Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Undercover Black Man said...

Ah. I think I get the problem now.

What's the use of such a "computer-generated fantasy" if you spend most of your time within the fantasy wondering how you travelled back in time?

I guess that doesn't make sense.

amysusanne said...

I've never felt that the SE ending was an F-you either. I actually sort of like thinking about how all of that could have reasonably sprung from the mind of an autistic child based on what he sees on television and who he meets in real life. Though love it or hate it, I'm not sure why it would make viewers feel like saps.

As noted, it didn't change anything that had happened. It didn't hurt previous storylines or characters. Without it, nothing is any different. I can't quite grasp why a gimmicky ending would make an already fictional show any less fictional. So, it was a daydream? Fine. But, it all still happened as it happened. The ending didn't affect anything at all, it just asked you to believe that what I was seeing on my television was filtered through someone else's imagination first, which is what television shows are in the first place. With LOM, it was an explanation for everything that had happened and twisted everything in the show into something else entirely. Tommy's daydream explained nothing and changed nothing. Knowing that it was a child's fantasy doesn't change the relationships or the events or add any real subtext to it, all it tells me is that Tommy probably watched a few too many episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Cheers".

JoelW said...

Is it possible that they specifically try to mess with people using their DVR?

Edd said...
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BigTed said...

I agree with your grievances -- though it seems worth pointing out that, like "Dollhouse" and "Sarah Connor," "House" and "Life on Mars" are (or were) intriguing enough shows to be worth complaining about. When dumb things happen on, say, "The Mentalist," or the sadly unsophisticated new detective show "Castle," nobody cares. So it's really a compliment to these programs to demonstrate that we're thinking of them seriously, and expecting better.

Edd said...

The ending didn't affect anything at all, it just asked you to believe that what I was seeing on my television was filtered through someone else's imagination first, which is what television shows are in the first place.

I think the purpose of fiction is to create a believable world. If a reader/viewer can't believe, then there's no point in reading; it's just gibberish on a page. The last episode of "Mars" made the series gibberish. If anything can happen then nothing makes sense. Sam could have rode to crime scenes on horseback, shot criminals with phasers, and handcuffed perps with his magic wand . . . and the story would have been just as believable.


It does matter how a show presents things. The ending of "Newhart" was appropriate because it was just one more wacky joke in a wacky series (e.g., "This is my brother Darrell and this is my other brother Darrell.") It didn't undercut the meaning of the show, address it's central mystery. The ending of "St. Elsewhere" was disappointing, but it could be written off because it didn't undercut the meaning of the show. The "shower" scene in "Dallas" angered viewers across the country because it made the previous season just gibberish, and therefore, a waste of viewers' time.

If a viewer doesn't care about what he's viewing, what's the point of watching? I recall a story about Charles Manson. In prison, he was interviewed by an author and later was offered a chance to read the book that came from it. Manson answered, "I was there. Why would I want to read about it?" I'm not calling anyone Manson, I'm trying to say that unless you care about your fiction, there's no point in reading or viewing it.

Anonymous said...

Now, it's so common no one even notices, but at the time, "St. Elsewhere" was the first prime-time show to make a major theme out of the viewers' TV knowledge. (Concurrently, Letterman was doing the same thing on "Late Night.")

Even a show as great as "Hill Street Blues" didn't mess with the formula by appealing to viewers on that level.

In the year that "dramedy" became the rage, I remember an episode that slipped in the names of each one. ("We'll invite Thirtysomething guests to the party." "It will be one hell of A Year in the Life of Ecumena.")

Of course, the MTM shows got the most play. One of the most famous was the mental patient who thought he was Mary Richards calling doctors "Murray" and "Lou," then bumping into a no-nonsense Air Force colonel played by Betty White.

With this in mind, the ending wasn't out of character or a slap to its viewers. For six years, we were all in on the joke.

amysusanne said...

>>"We'll invite Thirtysomething guests to the party."<<

And wasn't that said to Patricia Wettig's character? Who was off camera since she was busy actually being on "thirtysomething". That was pretty awesome.

SE needs more seasons on DVD, especially since things really started picking up in the second year.

Ariadne said...

Up until now, I thought that the St. Elsewhere ending was the worst show ender ever (and not only because it would have been impossible for an autistic child to have come up with anything as emotionally complicated as the show) but Life on Mars is a challenger.

Some of the people who liked the ending have told me that I'm overreacting, that none of these characters are "real" no matter the timeline, but that misses the point of investing in a show like this. You have to pretend to believe in some of it for the drama to work, and the mission to Mars ending turned the entire show into a bad joke.

This I think is the connection to all three of your complaints. (I don't watch AI but I completely agree about the other two.) No TV show is perfect all the time and so the audience has to be invested in it enough and trust in it enough to get over the bad spots.

As Edd said above, "If a viewer doesn't care about what he's viewing, what's the point of watching?"

At the end of Life On Mars, my feeling was "Why did I even bother to watch this show if this is how little they respect me as a viewer?"

The same with House, a show which seems to have no respect at all for its viewers. You had a good point that they could have used Kutner to show a younger, less tortured version of House. Instead, Shore kept pushing the Thirteen Show. Viewers got attached to Chase and Cameron, Shore dropped them both, minimized Wilson and gave Foreman, the least popular of the original characters, yet another large arc. At least House/Cuddy has some fans, unlike Thirteen and Foreman. But nobody ever changing on the show doesn't make it brave and edgy, it makes it b-o-r-i-n-g.

Television is a more interactive medium than most TV producers give it credit for especially with the internet. John Wells lied to viewers about Josh/Donna in The West Wing and he's never had a show since that lasted its first season (although we have yet to see about Southland).

I like Castle. It may not be great art but at least it entertains me without treating me like an idiot and the leads are engaging.

Anonymous said...

amysusanne--Yes!! Patricia Wettig played Morrison's second wife until she left for "Thirtysomething." Morrison was on the phone with her planning a party.

They threw in so many nuggets like that, I can't imagine how many I missed. I wish they had more than Season 1 available, particularly since they didn't really hit their stride until Season Two.

You would think that the show would get much more DVD/Hulu/cable exposure given the massive success of Denzel Washington and the fact that plenty of other stars are still around.

There was some inspired guest-casting, too. I was watching the third episode of Season One on Hulu the other day and "Rizzo" from MASH was a psychiatrist questioning a baby-faced Tim Robbins.

Christy said...

Red Dwarf did the "Life on Mars" thing better.

jackie said...

It seems a bit early to include House in your early Festivus post if you don't know yet how it will play out. I don't think House is going to have a huge character overhaul and become a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, but I don't think you expect/want that, either, do you? I do think we're going to get major fallout that will impact House and other characters. If so, how will that impact your feeling about the episode?

I also think Kutner followed Chase's trajectory on the show. Chase too had the least time and dedicated storylines on the show in the first two and half seasons. He was chronically underused. BUT he was played by a charismatic sensitive actor who made the most out of every scene he was in, raising stirring coffee to an art. Chase ended up not only with a legion of fans, but with the best developed arc on the show, in my opinion. Kutner, as you noted, was also played by a charismatic sensitive actor who made the most out of every scene he was in. As his death shows, he had a legion of fans, so he imbued that character with three dimensional life. And I can't fault TPTB on not eventually giving him something like the arc Chase got in season three because Kal Penn cut short his time on the show. Yes, there was too much focus for a while on Thirteen, but that has already been remedied and Kutner could have been up in the spotlight in late season five or six if the White House had not called.

I think House did fine with sensitively and realistically handling a topic like suicide.

Terrence said...

Alan -- thank you sooo much for calling "Idol" out on their BS.

I was so angry that I sent an email to WFXT (Fox Boston) and got a standard blah blah DVR extra time response from them -- which made me even angrier.

I totally agree that this was calcuated and planned. When they have run over or come close to running over, they re-pace the show. Last week's overrun was PURE BS!

Mark B said...

Plus, it gave us the kick @ss theory that Tommy Westphall created 90% of all television shows....vs...
Tommy probably watched a few too many episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Cheers".While I am as amused by the Tommyverse as anyone, I prefer the latter theory, that Tommy incorporated the TV shows he watched into his fantasy. It conveniently explains such inconsistencies as the "Cheers" characters showing up as themselves, yet "Cheers" is also a TV show they refer to. (Morrison asked his son if he wanted to go to "the place where everybody knows your name.")


The "shower" scene in "Dallas" angered viewers across the country because it made the previous season just gibberish, and therefore, a waste of viewers' time.The previous season was already gibberish. It's why I was one of the few who liked the reset button of the "dream," as cheesy an idea as it was. The benefits outweighed the ridicule, as it brought back Patrick Duffy and wiped out some really bad story lines.

Is it possible that they specifically try to mess with people using their DVR?That's exactly what they're trying to do, except they're screwing it up.

The idea is to purposefully schedule the show to run until 9:01 or 9:02, making it harder to record something at 9:00 on another channel. Instead, they're running past 9:02, annoying their OWN fans who properly accounted for that. (Then they blame it on the viewers, like they didn't set their machines properly.)

It's challenging to fit a live show within a given time window, but it's not impossible - and it used to be the norm! Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, Steve Allen, and countless others have done it successfully over the decades. News programs (and SNL) manage to do it to this day.

Alan -- thank you sooo much for calling "Idol" out on their BS.... I totally agree that this was calcuated and planned.I don't buy that. What is their benefit in irritating their fans? It's just plain incompetence on their part.

Matthew L said...

It seems a bit early to include House in your early Festivus post if you don't know yet how it will play out.Personally I think the inclusion of House in the Festivus post is justified. Alan was criticising the show (a) on its handling of the Kutner character up until now - like Alan said, it only worked because of the mishandling of the character, and we have all the information we need to assess that issue, and (b) on how it will go forward. And for that criticism he's commenting on the basis of how the show has handled such issues in the past, and we have five years of history to draw conclusions on. No doubt Alan (and the rest of us) will be happy to be proved wrong, if the show actually follows through with a storyline beyond an episode or two, but we have legitimate reasons to think this storyline will just be abandoned just like so many others.

And it's a shame, because House is a legitimately entertaining show, and so it's frustrating to see that they don't know how to handle their cast of characters or follow through on story threads to any real degree.

amysusanne said...

@Mark B: Even more than that season of "Dallas" being gibberish, it was *happy*. Which is probably why some were so upset by it. They'd had a year to get over losing Bobby and get used to the new direction and suddenly all the happy little worlds that the characters had built were torn down by a gimmick. Poor Mark Grayson was still dead. Poor Ray and Donna and that deaf kid that apparently never existed. And I don't remember what was happening, but I'm fairly certain that Cliff Barnes was actually doing well. Which is part of why the dream year was probably a good thing. You can't have people living happily ever after. It's a soap. Gotta have drama and tragedy and tears. Plus, you know, it brought Bobby back even if it required a little fanwanking to work out the kinks of the drama pre-Bobby going to sleep that night.

I really don't mind the dream, partly because it was kind of an awesome and brave stunt to pull (and it's given us a few laughs over the years) and partly because I expected craziness and shock on "Dallas".

Tom said...

The ending of ABC's "Life on Mars" didn't make me think of the ending of "St. Elsewhere" so much as it made me think of the ending of Tim Burton's version of "Planet of the Apes." It was an overheated attempt to trump a really kick-ass resolution to a story you've been hired to remake and in the process TOTALLY MISUNDERSTANDING what made the original work.

Seriously, the ABC version of LOM was so unbelievably retarded it achieved a sort of naive brilliance. It's like they hired Karl Pilkington to come up with the twist ending, after giving him nothing but a description of the characters and the title of the show.