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Book Talk — Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN

I recently picked up Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton for some leisure reading in between the endless deluge of science fiction and science history books that now lie ahead of me.

On the whole, I thought it was a good read. The book mixes Daniels’s personal history with the WB with Cynthia Littleton’s analytical prowess to tell the parallel stories of the WB and the UPN, both of whom were vying for the status of “fifth broadcast television network.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on February 12, 2013 in The Archives

 

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Supernatural: “Citizen Fang” and Once Upon A Time: “Queen of Hearts”

Or, The Benefits and Detriments of Theme in Television

Theme is one of Aristotle’s Six Key Elements of Drama, and it’s an important one too: knowing why you’re writing something is as important as who’s in it (character) and what they’re doing (plot). But on television, theme can often be a detriment to crafting good drama. Just ask anyone who was disappointed with Battlestar Galactica‘s second half or LOST‘s final season and it seems self-evident that established themes can hinder a television show as much as it can help it. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2012 in The Archives

 

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Arrow: Revenge of the Batman?

I guess now is as good a time as any to drop an opinion about The CW’s Arrow into the mix. A lot of people (too many to cross-reference, but you know who you are) have been comparing it both favorably and unfavorably to Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy. My fellow This Was TV contributor Noel Kirkpatrick offered a side-by-side comparison of the show to ABC’s hit soap-drama Revenge. Both comparisons are apt to make, but not necessarily for the reasons being given. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in The Archives

 

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Supernatural — “We Need To Talk About Kevin”

The big problem, broadly speaking, with Supernatural‘s sixth and seventh seasons is what appeared at first to be a general lack of focus, with subplots being dropped for seemingly no reason and twists coming almost from out of nowhere only to be the driving force for a while. In hindsight, though, what Sera Gamble and the writers of the show tried to do was actually not bad in theory: mimicking film, the show adopted a three-act story structure for both seasons, so as to allow for one-offs the writers had always wanted to do and the obligatory fan-service episodes that keep people coming back for more (“The French Mistake” did nothing if not unite the fandom for one brief week in the middle of the wasteland that was season six.) while still having a plot that moves forward regardless of anything else. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in The Archives

 

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The Secret Circle – 1.06 “Wake”

As some of you may have noticed, my activity in writing new posts about the shows I’m watching is beginning to taper. That’s mostly by design: as shows move past their initial production stages and into a more stable, week-to-week production, there isn’t a whole lot else to do but wait until the stories take an unexpected turn before commenting on them again. Rare is the network TV show that warrants weekly discussion; of the shows I’m watching, the only two left that I feel compelled to talk about every week are this one, due to its intriguing mix of genre storytelling with young adult fiction in a way I hadn’t necessarily seen before, and Pan Am, because it has a delightful group of characters whizzing about in a fantastic setting, all tied together by themes of adventure and intrigue that make use of the time period without bashing it into the viewers’ heads.

And yet, I still took a break from last week’s Secret Circle, but not Pan Am. The reason is that I wanted to see what kind of story direction Nick’s death-by-drowning-a-demon would take. Suffice to say, I’m MOSTLY impressed. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in The Archives

 

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The Secret Circle – 1.04 “Heather”

Let’s talk about trust, because hey, it’s the thematic content for this week’s episode of The Secret Circle!

In order for the Circle to function, they have to work together. Part of this, whether they like it or not, is building trust. Cassie’s trust for Adam is symbolized by her sharing her mom’s Book of Shadows with him before anyone else. But Diana and Cassie are both distrusting of each other; Cassie ignores Diana’s warnings about the spell she wants to cast, but Diana knows why they shouldn’t cast it at all, and it cost them another life (well, technically Sally’s still walking and talking, but the point is that the body count is going up post-binding, not down). Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2011 in The Archives

 

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The Secret Circle – 1.03 “Loner”

If last week’s episode of The Secret Circle was an example of the show at its finest, this week’s episode, “Loner”, is an example of the show at its not-so-finest. While the theme of intergenerational conflict I identified last week is still intact, “Loner” plays just a little too bluntly for my tastes.

The majority of the episode takes place at a school dance — not imaginative, but hardly the worst plot device for a high school. The locus of this week’s story developments is Zachary Larson, an old friend of Cassie’s mom who pops into town and starts harassing the kids. First, he corners Cassie in the parking lot, but gets flung aside when Diana comes out to stop him. Then, he approaches Faye while she’s alone at Scooby Headquarters (the nickname I’ve given the abandoned house where the kids meet to discuss magic-related stuff) which prompts her to slip into the dance she previously didn’t care to attend. The gang finally corner him in a hallway and knock him unconscious, which then allows Dawn and Charles to “mark” him so that he’ll never come back again.

The problem here is that Zachary Larson is just too blatant of a plot device. He knew Amelia Blake — okay. And now he’s blaming… whatever the heck happened to his girlfriend (and Amelia’s old friend) Heather Barnes, on the next generation of the Circle. Um… okay? And then at the end, the parents protect the children, even as the children prove they’re perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. (And they also prove to each other how cool they are when they use their magic as one.) It was just all too convenient, and not as elegant as last week’s hints of parents and kids making mistakes.

Look, I’m fine with so-called “mythological” storytelling. But Zachary felt too much like every guest character on Ringer this week — a talking head designed solely to dole out exposition and then get out of the way. If he’d been on the fringes of the story this week, that would have been fine. But as I said, he was the locus around which both parents and teens swarmed, which drew too much attention to the story being told instead of, y’know, actually telling the story.

Besides that, I didn’t mind the episode that much. I don’t totally buy Nick’s sudden change of heart (though Faye can admittedly be intimidating — kudos, Phoebe Tonkin, for being the highlight of the episode once again), but I now understand the function of Melissa and Nick. They’re the ordinary teens. Cassie is defined this week more specifically by her loner nature — a quality common in teen fiction for the heroes and heroines, and one I relate to quite well. Faye, of course, is hedonistic but strong, capable of being ticked off at her inability to use magic alone post-binding and also standing by her friend Melissa when she sees a situation going sour. And Adam and Diana are the “It” couple, with Adam and Cassie sort-of eyeing each other mostly as a way to set up a developing romance plot later on.

Like I said, I didn’t mind much of this. It’s what you sign up for with The CW, and to their credit, the actors are having some great moments. (The scene with Cassie, Sally, and Adam in the boat house is one where I realized how little credit I actually give Thomas Dekker. He’s developed quite a bit of nuance as an actor in the past few years.) But particularly with shows like this, where a strong theme is developing early on, the romance subplots can feel disconnected. This show at least has the excuse that they all have to be somewhat friendly to each other lest their magical powers be useless. But there’s still a little roughness in having scenes with Faye and Melissa talking about Nick in the midst of “Zachary Larson is coming to kill us all!”. It’s early Buffy/Angel in the bad way.

Still, this episode isn’t too far off the reservation. And lots of genre shows have stumbling blocks in the first season before they really find their groove — even companion show The Vampire Diaries. So what say you and I chock this one up to a bad week, and we’ll meet back at Scooby Headquarters next week for what looks like a real doozy of an episode? Or are you just gonna stand there and yell at your locker all day?

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2011 in The Archives

 

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The Secret Circle – 1.02 “Bound”

(Note: the following post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. It also has passing reference to The Vampire Diaries, though no specifics are given. I’m sorry, I know, I have to separate Vamp Diaries and Secret Circle from each other eventually. Just give me this one.)

The Vampire Diaries didn’t get big for The CW for no reason. Sure, initially it had the popularity fallout of Twilight to get it started, and it’s also based on a popular series of books, but the former has produced truly awful pop culture drivel as well (there’s a whole section of it in my Barnes & Noble called “Teen Vampire Romance”) and the latter has produced ABC-Family’s entire line of stupid soaps (disclaimer: soaps are not inherently stupid; the ones that ABC-Family airs, however…) and means little to True Blood.

No, what keeps The Vampire Diaries running long after most people think it should have died is that it has a strong theme at its core. The core love triangle isn’t a simple love triangle, as genre shows go — it’s one that spans centuries. It’s the epic kind of romance that Logan talks about at the alterna-prom in Veronica Mars‘s second season. It’s the kind of romance Spike and Drusilla (yay, more Buffy references!) had before their unfortunate breakup. That simple little story seed can provide plenty of metaphorical material to deal with. Coupled with the show’s on-going developments of its fictional city, and, well, you’ve got a show that’s earned its spot on Thursday nights.

I bring this up because, if The Secret Circle intends to work as a complement to The CW’s monster hit, the show needs a similar core theme that it can comment on through the characters and their actions. “Bound” finds it. If you ever need to pitch this show to someone, just say this: “The Secret Circle is a metaphorical battle between generations explored through the explicit use of magic.”

Of course, the show’s flaws are a bit more apparent now that it has a purpose. “Bound” is about getting the Circle to finally bind together, and while I appreciate going for broke on the best elements in the teens (the hedonistic Faye, the confused-but-trying-to-learn Cassie, the handsome and completely self-confident Adam), I wish we knew a little more about all of them. I don’t even remember the name of Faye’s other Circle friend, or the guy that said friend slept with who also lives next door to Cassie (man, sometimes I hate small town shows), though Faye provides shorthand for the both of them when she says she’d “have to leave [her] self-esteem at the door” in order to sleep with The Dude. (Can we call him Shirtless Guy? Does he own a shirt? Calling Robert Pattinson!)

But as the episode went on, I sort of let all that go. It’d be silly to lay down everything that ever was written about witch power in one episode, so “Bound” wisely focuses on the consequences instead. (The power basically works like the Force from Star Wars, but with more of an active quality to it, which is fine enough shorthand for me, and it was only implied by Adam in the Twilight Moment of the Week scene at the abandoned house. Yay subtlety!) We meet the charming Sally Matthews (Logan Browning, who has been in exactly nothing I like but made an impression anyway), find out that she and Faye hate each other (typical) and then… Faye throws her off a pier and onto some sharp rocks. Now THAT is exactly how you convince someone to do something they might otherwise not want to do. The whole hour, the other Circle members were trying to convince Faye with words that they had to bind together, but it’s Faye’s own actions that push her to make the decision. Cassie and Faye still despise each other, but the chaos of the energy encircling the town has to be contained, and the only way to do that is binding together. It’s a really cool way to present an astoundingly mature decision to people who aren’t entirely mature enough to make such a decision.

Oh, but Sally doesn’t die, either! Let’s back up. Dawn, Faye’s mom (and also the principal of the school, which… okay), is secretly working with Charles, the dude that killed Cassie’s mom. Ostensibly, they’re manipulating their children into binding the Circle. This week, we get a look at why, and why their magic was banished after an accident killed most of the Circle’s parents. Dawn’s father-in-law drops in, sees Faye and What’s-Her-Face performing magical ring tosses at the Sea Fair, and confronts Dawn about it. Turns out, the Circle that came before Dawn are the ones that banished their magic, due to the explosion of energy that caused the deaths of the parents. But then Dawn uses this magic crystal thingy (apparently, it’s the remnants of her Circle’s powers or something) and causes him to have a heart attack, revealing that Dawn is pretty much like her daughter: hedonistic to a fault. She uses this same magic crystal to save Sally, thus protecting Faye while also betraying her. Awesome? Yeah, basically.

So: generations. If I had to pick a favorite non-Faye scene in “Bound”, I’d have to go with the very beginning and the very end. The episode opens with Cassie flipping through her mom’s old diary while the voice-over from the previous episode is repeated. (I hope that voice-over dies; Vampire Diaries doesn’t need it anymore, Secret Circle certainly doesn’t need it either!) Then she tries to bring light to her room by lighting a candle, but instead the curtain flies open, giving her sunlight. That is, instead of giving her the solitary candle, the magical energy granted her light through the ever-burning sun — and, not incidentally, the window to the other Circle guy’s room; in either case, the magic is pointing her to bind the Circle… maybe, perhaps, even her mother is asking that of her. In the end, of course, the Circle binds around a burning fire, which flares up at the final words.

Like family, like ancestors even, fire can provide warmth, but it can also consume everything in its path. Both the parents and the children in The Secret Circle are making mistakes in their lives (at least, I’m sure Cassie still sees using magic as a mistake, even though she agrees to bind the Circle by episode’s end; also, blah blah Thomas Dekker’s Adam blah blah Diana blah blah love triangle). But it’s not really about choosing between warmth and consumption; it’s about what you do (or intend to do) with this volatile force. As the younger generation makes a choice to help contain it, the older generations fight to unleash it.

See how this works? This is how you make fun television. I don’t even care that some of the romance stuff is rough and sickening in that Twilight sort of way. This show knows what the frack it wants to do! I’ll take any self-confident show, flaws and all, over the fall premiere shows that have multiple identities and no heart.

(That’s also how I date, but I don’t think we need to read too much into that. Yet.)

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in The Archives

 

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Ringer – 1.02 “She’s Ruining Everything”

On the one hand, I wasn’t expecting to like Ringer’s second episode as much as I did. On the other hand, there are still some flaws keeping it from being must-see TV every week.

The big advantage this episode has over the pilot is how much more room it has to breathe. Without the pressure to hang the audience over a cliff every two minutes with shocking new plot developments, “She’s Ruining Everything” vaguely resembles an episode of television, albeit one torn between the show’s various impulses. Having Bridget worrying constantly over the dead body made for more silly double-entendre dialogue, but somehow her jumpy paranoia gave her focus. That focus is evident in virtually every problem she deals with in the episode, helping herself and the audience seamlessly transition into Siobhan’s life without having to introduce everybody with clunky dialogue. (That doesn’t stop the writers from trying, of course, but the effort to cut back is welcome.) Episode director Rob Bailey also has a better grasp of the impulses Ringer is struggling to use. Bonus: he didn’t abuse mirrors! (Although that stupidly large picture of Siobhan in her apartment makes me laugh out loud every time.)

It’s this internal struggle between campy thriller and genuine neo-noir that’s holding Ringer back from being great. I enjoyed the light use of flashback, which gives us a bit of insight into how the two sisters related in “the old days”. It’s a bit on-the-nose to have Juliet essentially playing that younger version of Bridget, but it’s an effective technique in showing how (somewhat unrealistically) quickly Bridget has inserted herself into her sister’s life — a chameleon in hiding from her mistakes. And all of this makes for the kind of simple fun that a campy thriller, not unlike some of the films Sarah Michelle has played in her movie career, can provide. But then there’s the whole idea of Siobhan pulling the strings from (we find out this week) France, and Bridget’s own natural impulses, that feel like the echo chambers of Brick or Veronica Mars. Can Bridget change herself, or her sister? What exactly is Siobhan’s purpose in leaving her life to her deadbeat sister? Both of these questions are implicit in the second episode (and are implicitly asked much better here than in the pilot — I still have nightmares about the mirrors and the green screen) and both could drive the show without any additional window dressing (i.e. more men, for which this show is apparently never lacking.)

When I talked about Playboy Club the other day, I said that that show would be a lot more fun if it just dropped the whole murder plot. With a second episode now in play, I feel like Ringer could swing either direction. They could pull back on the Siobhan puppet-master business and let the cheap thrills of the mystery guide the first season; alternatively, Bridget could start using Siobhan’s life against Siobhan herself, in the process uncovering the apparent web of secrets and lies she’s sowed in order to put herself in her current position. Either way, “She’s Ruining Everything” works much better than the pilot at establishing Ringer’s identity issues (which, fortunately, are about the same as most of the comedy pilots this year) and allows Sarah Michelle the room she needs to properly establish herself in the characters she’ll be playing in the weeks to come. I’m still not saying I’ll be thrilled to sit down and watch every week, but at least I don’t think I’ll be having a gag reflex every week either.

Oh, but will someone please tell The CW that “less is more”? Or, at the very least, they can look at Chuck and see how to do music montages properly. If you want to prove that this show is for a smart audience, let the show do that for itself. All I’m saying. Show and tell. Not that hard.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in The Archives

 

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The Secret Circle – “Pilot”

After watching The Secret Circle‘s pilot for the first time, I felt, for lack of a better word, weird. My initial impression was that I kind of liked the show, but something was off about it and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Later, I had my epiphany: nothing in this show is truly original material. I have no idea why that was such a shock to me, but as I started going over scenes from the pilot in my head, I realized that the show is essentially a mash-up of every single hit drama The CW has ever had in the past ten years. And given the (supposed) middling quality of new shows this fall, that’s probably not a bad thing.

The Secret Circle follows the story of Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson), who moves in with her grandmother in the small town of Chance Harbor, Washington. She is very quickly stalked by a group of teenagers (including Adam, played by Thomas “John Connor” Dekker) who eventually come out to her… as witches. They are, of course, part of the titular “secret circle” of witches, with bloodlines that go back centuries. But after some tragic accident involving each of their parents, the children’s powers were silenced, never to be spoken of again. Except, you know, when they become teenagers “finding themselves” and also “rebelling against the nest” and such. So now Cassie has to decide if she wants to get involved with these ruffians (including Faye, a Faith-the-Vamipre-Slayer type who is ready to use her enhanced powers now that Cassie is in town) and wondering what kind of unspoken secrets her mom left her to discover. Oh, and the adults of the town are keeping secrets too, which is always fun. (Unless you’re a teenager, I guess.)

So, that’s essentially the show. But like I said, there’s nothing particularly new about the execution. The opening scene depicts Cassie’s mom dying in a fire caused by a warlock/wizard (where will TSC fall on this important lexical issue?) — a scene that should remind Supernatural fans of the time Mary Winchester literally set the roof on fire. Another scene, in which Adam demonstrates Cassie’s abilities to her by making rain fall upward, might as well be Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in the forest, arguing about whether he can date her because he can’t read her mind or if she can date him because he’s a vampire. (Or something. I was too busy mocking how pale both of them looked, and the cheesy ’70s special effects, to really pay attention to that film, and I only got halfway through the first book before deciding that Virgina Woolf was indeed the better option.) The photography should make Vampire Diaries fans feel right at home, using magic as metaphors for various things (power, drugs, sex — you know, the classics) is old hat for Buffy people, and a group of teenagers keeping secrets from everybody else is basically ABC-Family’s brand name.

Again, though, this is not necessarily bad. Most of these things have great pedigrees, and all of them are quality shows from which to borrow. Most importantly, the show manages to merge the elements into a show with a strong sense of identity (which gives it the advantage over New Girl and Ringer, the other two pilots I’ve seen as of this writing). I can envision a hundred more episodes of the show, and while most of them will be derivative of the shows that came before, The Secret Circle knows what it wants to do, which means that it will probably turn out alright.

The bottom line is that The Secret Circle was created to be a complement to The Vampire Diaries, and on that count, it is a very good show. There are some flaws that can and should be worked out — I’m not totally bought into the Washington locale yet, and most of the Circle witches feel like caricatures — but, as with all shows, those things take time. Of course, if The CW’s lineup of shows wasn’t already your thing, then The Secret Circle won’t convince you otherwise. But if there’s a part of you that does enjoy this type of genre storytelling, then this mash-up of “OMG MAGIC” and “OMG DRAMA” is right up your alley.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2011 in The Archives

 

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