Saturday, November 1, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #6: DRAMA SERIES/COMEDY SERIES: INTRO TO CRITICAL QUALITY ANALYSIS



Morning Class, Sorry I'm late, I was out making sure all the streets are (Takes off sunglasses) safe for television watching. (Long pause) I thought there'd be an entrance to a The Who song there, but it's possible I'm a little hungover today, so bare with me. (Deep breath)

Alright, I'm sure some of you have notice a slight pattern with these classes, so far. 1st discussion on a genre, introduction and history, 2nd, we talk about format, structure, how to recognize how they're being used, and then, we'll dive into recognizing a show's quality. And you'll also notice, there really aren't too many differences in terms of the basics of the genres, in terms of the actual storytelling. Everything that's of some quality is a little bit procedural or a little bit more serialized narrative, and there's a bit of a mix involved. Episodes have a certain structure, beginning, middle, end, and they often follow it, they often try to stray from them as well, The structure, for the most part, will in some form be in this manner, if they're gonna be anything remotely successful or of any quality, the continuous setting up of the next thing begets the next thing, begets so on and so forth. That said, that's the part where people get into some trouble, when a TV show, is so continuously one way or the other. Drama is about change, there's a condition, something happens,  the conflict, problem, then the resolution, and now, we're at a new condition, where we were at the beginning, plus, this new condition. Main plot line, in the episode vs. overall plot of a show if there is one. Main plotline, secondary plotline, for hour-long dramas there might be a tertiary plotline, or two. The real difference however, especially in drama, something very critical that people have been misunderstanding over the recent years is that, television is about slow changes over time. Movies, miniseries, even, and we'll talk about them eventually, but they're about quick changes, drastic, sudden changes, when you try to do that with television, you have to really be careful.

Especially lately, with some of the serialized shows, the changes occur so quickly, so often and so drastically, that literally, from one season to another they're almost completely different, and not just in a "American Horror Story"/"True Detective" type way. And I wanted to talk about some of these before we get into your guys' homework, 'cause these are really the sticking points that really determine the quality of a show, in every genre really, but every both comedy and drama, especially with dramas I've been seeing this lately,-. Sometimes it's- from the first episode on, they basically set up a character, a supporting character to be one specific way, and then, literally from episode 2, they do nothing but constantly struggle to change them, in a serialized narrative where you're supposed to be paying attention to everything. We talked about this too, with sitcoms, but consistency is key, you gotta have a sense of constant consistency. That doesn't mean, you can't then do something different and have a drastic change, but you gotta know how to do it.

That's- people talk about jumping the shark, after the "Happy Days" episode, but here's the thing they don't mention about that, that was a moment, when, we really got sick of the show, and the consistency. I mean, nobody was like, shocked that Fonzi jumped the shark (Not that we wanted him eaten by the shark either or anything) but that was when a show, really didn't change enough up to that point, and it was really problematic and contrite to contrite the way they were, and later on, characters came and left, the focus shifted from Ritchie to Chachi, characters had different responsibilities late in the show, and while that does happen still, when a show, continues on the same trajectory without much changing, and suddenly stops being good, most times when we think of a jump-the-shark moment, it's the other problem, when the show makes such a drastic change, very suddenly, that it really can't recover from it, particular to a character or two. Sometimes it's killing them off, that's a big problem, but it's often simply, changing them a little too much against their nature to the point that they're, really almost going against the nature of the character that's been established.

I've noticed a few shows lately, doing this in kind of a weird way, where, they basically one episode establishing a certain reputation and persona of a character, and then the rest of the series, apart of that past reputation remains apart of the show, but the character, in their behaviors and actions, are almost the opposite of it, consciously. Sometimes, when the show is an intentional transformation like "Breaking Bad", it's fine, but "The L Word" struggled with this, with multiple characters actually at certain points. This happens, in any genre, a reality show can suddenly make a stupid new rule one day, and suddenly there no longer being watched, but that's a little unusual to so, set up a show really, with the immediate to simply change everything continuously, 'cause that's shown to get old fast as well, 'cause then, you can't get used to anything, again consistency. The idea with whether it'd be comedy or drama, is that, the solid base of the show, should be strong without the absolute necessity of adding more unnecessary or outside conflict than is needed. That's the real key to quality.

I'm focusing on this with you guys, 'cause like last time, when, nobody really understood the differences between a drama or a reality series here, and I got into another discussion recently, and it was over "Nurse Jackie" over whether it's a drama or a comedy series. I'll just ask you guys, how many of you know that show, a little bit? Most of you, what do you guys think, drama or comedy? Drama, drama, drama, 3 dramas, comedy? Dramedy, yes that word came up. Yeah, to me, the core tone is comedic, dark comedy, but it's still comedy, and btw, that's the category it submits in for the Emmys so far. Anyways, that was on my mind, 'cause they are so similar, two sides of the masks, comedy and tragedy, right? That's the real distinction, anything can be a comedy, anything can be a tragedy, it depends on the way you approach the material, and it can miniscule, the difference. Some of the funniest things ever were on drama series, but remember that the approach is the same thing. You can come with a storyline for any scripted series, and it's a choice to make it comedic or dramatic.

So when a show makes that choice, any choice, really, the main question a TV viewer should be asking is "Why are they doing that?" "Is that the best choice,...." yada, yada, yada, but if you can't answer that question, for you, then you really can't answer it. For instance, why would "Nurse Jackie" consider itself a comedy, even-eh, what's her name, Edie Falco says she's not funny, but, what do you guys think? Half-hour, that's typical, there's aren't a lot of dramas anymore that are an hour, what else? The tone, I mentioned before. The side characters are funny, her situations are funny-, let's lean on that a minute, what's the core conflict of the show. She's a drug addict, trying to, hide her addiction, essentially, and the ways and shit that she does and happens to her, because of her hiding it. Is that a dramatic conflict, or a comedic one? Yeah, it could be either. Fish out of water story, a drug addict in a hospital, she doesn't belong. She doesn't belong, in the healthy mom role either, but she's an addict. Juggling multiple things, that's farce. She's a nurse, she's a mother, a wife, a mistress, an addict, a liar, from day one, she's been a liar. How would be different, if it was, just a drama series? Take the comedic aspects and tense out of it, what would you get? Tough to answer that one, isn't it, it would all be depressing. Is being an addict all depressing? No, not really. I'm not gonna pretend I'm experienced in this, but-, but then again, what if it was all comedy? Be a different kind of hospital, different,-, different everything really. When you consider it, this way, you realize why they made all the choices they make, you see?

That's the whole point of these homework assignments, hope you all like that segue so, let's take a look. How did you guys do, taking it from serial show to a procedrual? Who had trouble? What was your show? Oh, "True Blood", well, that's another one of those shows I was talking about that continually keeps changing everything it seems from the very beginning even. Granted, that's a show that's based on a book series, so they're kinda, sticking to another artist's work, but yeah, that's a hard into a procedural that isn't Buffy, the Vampire Lover or whatever-the-hell. Taking a procedural and turning into a serial, much easier, than the other way around. It can be done, but the point I'm making with these shows, is that, you have to be actively thinking with these shows, like this, some of these shows, already insist upon it, and make of them, almost make you demand it. You can't be a casual "Mad Men" fan. Actually worst, you can't be a casual "24" fan, really. I think what certain people don't realize is that, you have to do that with every show though, and you'd be surprised which shows hold up under that kind of scrutiny and which ones don't.

"Community" is a modern one, that- I know, a lot of people love it, but when you look at the original core of that show, lawyer, needs to get a legal degree, a group of misfits, in the study group, and they become friends, while they're taking classes at this second-rate community college. It had that potential, but then, all it became, was a bunch of references and inside jokes and, a lot of whole other crap, that frankly- I mean, it went from sitcom to sketch comedy, really. That's what that is, doing something new depending on what's the en vogue thing to make fun about that week. Now that's fun, but it wasn't "Family Guy" which basically started this like fifteen years, or "30 Rock", which exists in that world. Look at the conflict that's already there, for comedic and dramatic possibilities? Going those directions, is one thing, but the how and why have to make sense, and because it's funny or because it's dramatic, is not a good enough answer. And a lot of the problems with even good dramas occurs when they either, bring in conflicts that don't belong there, from the outside, or the Joss Whedon syndrome, which I why always have a problem with his work, 'cause he'll, find a way to manufacture, melodrama that, really isn't germane to anything else, with the thing, and that's going too far the other way, and he does that a lot, and there's no real reason for it, or worst, they don't take advantage or explore the natural conflict the show has in it's premise already.

Uh, we've spent some time trying applying this to our favorite shows, I'm looking at a lot of new shoes right now, and trying to apply these things to that, and has anybody else? A few? We're still early in premiere season, and one show was canceled and it deserved to be? Who saw that "Manhattan Love Story"? No one, yeah, even the title, so freaking generic. So many of them, sucked, have we noticed that too? Yeah, not that different from other new seasons, but the ones that are good, they're strong, 'cause you kinda see, what they are, where they can go, where they should go, etc. It's much more crystal clear, sometimes a show, grows into something, so you always have to be wary, like, look at all the ways, "Red Band Society" can go wrong? It isn't so far, but teenage characters, usually a limiting formula, but sick ones, terminally some of them, in a hospital, new twist. That allows for room for new characters over time, to naturally come in, old ones to go out, a consistency that's strong, a tone, a few adult characters that can be consistent, but they don't overtake the show.... There's a lot there, a lot of directions that the show could go. There aren't too many logical places "The Mysteries of Laura" can go. She's a detective, single mother, kinda flashy and ridiculous, even for a procedural detective, lots of bad exposition, I mean that's very limiting at it's best, without changing the show completely. "Jane's a Virgin", you know she's, not gonna accidentally be artificially inseminated and then, not have a kid, so you know where that's going, there's a few other places it can go, potential's there, but you got hit the execution there. The more narrow you insist on a potential storyline or plot, the more that's limited, the more it's about execution, Walter White, will turn from physics teacher to Scarface, you gotta absolutely then, nail it perfectly. That's why a "Law & Order", without being so connected to a serialized storyline, can last, 40 years over multiple variations. Why "The Big Bang Theory" can evolve, why "The Simpsons" don't have to so much, and you have to be able to see that when you're watching a show. "Homeland" is the best recent example of this screwup, you have a limiting main storyline, then that goes on too long, Emmy wins one year, two years later, not even nominated. It's unfortunate, 'cause quality-wise nearly every other way, it's not bad, but even done well, you run that risk, as a viewer however, even if you like or want to watch a show with those limitations, half the battle is recognizing those issues, even before the show might. Where you want the show to go, that's not important, the important part, is, where can the show go, should it go there, when should it, why should it, those questions. How much would "Friends" have sucked, if they just got Ross and Rachel together, in the first episode? You know, no point, no reason, the conflict is the driving force in that relationship. Could that exist, if they just, got together immediately, and there's still a bunch of other friends around? And still be funny? Those who say no, should be careful, 'cause there's some successful shows that have done that too.... Drama's are the same way, if the Matthew Crawley walks into "Downton Abbey", and everything's hunky dory and fine, like he's lived there all his life, and him and what's-her-name, immediately fall for each other and all that? (Shrugs) It doesn't really work either. Or does it? Big house, upstairs, downstairs, lotta natural conflicts, bubbling all around?

So, here's the big homework assignment, for this week: I gave you a couple pet peeves and signs of my own here, but what are some signs to look out for, in determining whether a show is good or not. By that, I mean, we're gonna be comparing shows, both comedy and dramas can apply here, but what makes the show good. Is it well-written, well-directed, well-case, and what does it means that a show is like that, to old myths and truisms, like, "Can you replace a major character or two leave without being replaced, and will the show survive?" to name a common one, there's a few others as well. Ask around maybe, take a poll. Don't just think about, the things that separate the good and the bad, what are the things that separate the good and the very good and the great and why. Get to those nuances. Find the things that really make great shows special. Why is "Star Trek" still around, and why is "Lost in Space" sorta forgotten. This is practically,- you should be able to get a thesis paper out of this really. What was better, the shows that started the trend, or the shows that copied, why? You know, whatever it is, clear it with me first, the direction you're gonna go, and you'll all have two weeks for this, btw, so take some time, inform me on how you want to approach it, let me know so I'll clear it for you, and then, two weeks, next week, we'll dive into another genre,- well, not dive, we'll just dip a toe in, into a new genre, while we're taking one last look at Primetime comedies and dramas.

Alright, cool. Correctomundo everyone? Any questions? Yes? Well, if you want to disagree with me about a show, and go ahead and explain why. Okay, anything else. Alright, say good night, Gracie. Oh, there's no, Gracie here, just see you all new next, we'll have a brand new episode then. 
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