Thursday, February 16, 2012

TV Roundup -- It's All about Writing Character

The Dowager Countess: Wasn't there a masked ball in Paris when cholera broke out? Half the guests were dead before they left the ballroom.

The Earl: Thank you, Mama. That's cheered us up no end.

(From Downton Abbey)
Spoiler warning: Assume that all the following sections contain spoilers for whatever TV show the section is about.

Downton Abbey.
This is not the same show it was last season. Characters I knew then, I don't know anymore… Like Matthew, like Edith, like Branson (would someone please punch him for putting down Sybil's nursing work?); I'm even a little bit lost with Mary. And it's not that characters can't change. It's only that we need to understand what made them change. Otherwise they stop being characters and become tools for advancing/manipulating the plot.

I feel like it's a little bit more soap opera-y this season. Lavinia dies of a case of "Spanish flu with broken heart complications," for example. Seriously? She learns that Matthew still loves Mary, so she decides that the most convenient thing for everyone would be if she herself died, thus (after thoughtfully informing Matthew of her decision), she does? I feel that the writers did Lavinia a disservice here, because for me, it made her into a silly little nothing, and begged the question of why Matthew fell for her in the first place. (Which is another example of something I could have believed, had the writers given me some sort of character-based explanation for why it happened. Sure, I can imagine an explanation. But this season, I feel like the show is asking me to provide too many explanations of my own.) Anyway, Matthew needs someone who's as muleheaded as he is... but now the reason Matthew and Mary can't be together is because, according to Matthew, they're cursed, and everything they touch turns to ash? SRSLY? I hope Matthew doesn't spend too much more time marching around (yes, marching, now that he's pulled a Colin Craven -- which surprised me -- it seemed a little unimaginative for this show) being gloomy and defeatist. I used to think of him as the type to insist on being useful (like his mother). I hope that during his (unexplained) character transformation between seasons one and two, he didn't lose that quality. Where's the Matthew who makes some sense?

Speaking of inexplicable character transformations, can we talk about Edith? Except first, let me just say that actually, the other (more explicit) reason Matthew and Mary can't be together is that Mary is engaged to Richard. Richard interests me. He actually kind of seems right for Mary, because he's smart, hard, and manipulative, like she is. Whereas Matthew is right for Mary (or was, last season) because he's smart, strong, and ultimately good, like Mary – and because he sees Mary's situation, and knows and understands who Mary really is.

(This show has always been about Mary for me – or at least it was last season. I love her smarts; I love how much she's like her grandmother (for example, trying her hardest to get Sybil to drop Branson (and being honest with Branson about her intentions to do so), then making the best of it when she understands that Sybil won't. I feel that both Mary and Granny Violet, for all their snobbishness and manipulation, understand people and understand feelings and know when pushing will cause more damage than good); I appreciated how kind she was to Lavinia; and I have a lot of sympathy for her untenable position. When Mary is cruel, it's because she's trapped. I also think she's fairly honest with herself. I think she sheds a really interesting light on her father, who seems like such a kind, softhearted, noble man, until you consider how many of his decisions put his estate and his somewhat buffoonish notions of honor far ahead of the happiness of his eldest daughter. (Like deciding not to try to break the entail after very little consideration; like prioritizing Matthew's wedding over Mary's, because Matthew, though not his son, is his heir.) Do they like each other at all, Mary and the Earl? It's hard to tell. Again, Mary can be deliberately cruel, and I'm not condoning that, but she can also be extremely insightful, kind, and good. And the Earl can also be kind and good, and usually is, eventually (after the requisite bluster) -- but he can be cruel, too. Because his head is up his ass. (And yes, I felt all these things about him before he ever kissed the maid and told his wife she's stupid.))

Anyway. I suppose the big question now is how they're going to get rid of Richard. Ooo, I know! Why don't they have him randomly decide he wants to learn to fly an airplane, then offer his services dusting crops on a nearby farm, purely because he's decided he wants to be helpful! Then he could haphazardly fall in love with a married farm woman, get jilted, and come out of the experience with a complete personality transplant! Richard will be kind and helpful and utterly without self-interest! Sounds completely bizarre, doesn't it? Except that it's precisely what the show has done with Edith's character (substituting cars for airplanes and farmer man for farmer woman).

Listen, it's not that characters can't change. And it's not that I don't like the new Edith. (How interesting Mary now looks beside Edith. Edith used to make Mary seem kind in comparison! Now Mary's the only hard one in the bunch.) But where the hell did this new softhearted, virtuous, Toad-of-Toad-Hall sister come from?! What happened to sad, trapped, mean, conniving, incapable Edith between seasons one and two?

Moving down to the servants' quarters – I'm reserving my opinion on Branson for now. I loved him last season, but this season I could do without some of the things he's said to Sybil (putting down her work, telling her how she feels). On the other hand, it's a damn romantic story for one of the ladies of the house and the chauffeur to fall in love, I get why he's so pissed off about everything (including politically), and he has been very patient. I love Sybil, and hope Branson's worth it. I hope we'll get to see Sybil talking back.

You know who I love? DAISY. You know whose situation I'm tired of? Mr. Bates'. You know who should be appointed Queen of the World? Maggie Smith.

******
Once Upon a Time.
...I've lost interest. Yes, TV show, I see what you're trying to do with the mysterious, 5 o'clock-shadowed, typewriter-toting stranger who just rode into town on his motorcycle, but it's not working on me. First I didn't give a shit about the sheriff; then, in one episode, you made me love the sheriff by showing me his pain; then, in the same episode, you KILLED THE FREAKING SHERIFF. Which might even have been fine, had there been anyone else on the show I loved, instead of just a nice cast of people I liked. I can watch a show that's got a nice cast of people I like. Until the show gives me someone to COMPLETELY LOVE, and then the whole tenor of the show changes, and my expectations rise, and they never go down again.  My love for a character can gradually, over time, start shedding light on other parts of the show, so that I begin to love them too. But you killed my sheriff too soon, and then you left me with nothing to love. And now I realize that this is an empty relationship and I don't care.

I've even lost interest in Snow White and Prince Charming (Mary Margaret and David in Storyville), now that David is sneaking around behind his wife's back to see Mary Margaret. It's pretty normal behavior for a regular real-life dumbass, and even rather understandable, since we all know there's something fishy about the legitimacy of that marriage, plus, we've all watched enough TV to know that waking up with complete amnesia and excellent muscle tone after years in a coma is extremely disorienting and can affect behavior. BUT. David isn't a regular guy. He's Prince Charming. I expect Prince Charming to be unable to live without his true love, but I also expect him not to be a coward in his behavior toward his wife. PRINCE CHARMING IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DISAPPOINTING. THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT.

 ******
Sherlock.
The second series, in my opinion, is even funnier than the first series. The first episode in the second series, "A Scandal in Belgravia," was hilarious, highly entertaining, and also deeply disappointing to me -- such an opportunity missed. Happily, someone else wrote an eloquent post about the problem, which allows me to link instead of trying to articulate it myself. Here's what Holger Syme has to say (thanks for the link, Marie!). The third episode in the second series, "The Reichenbach Fall," was so fabulous that I wrote an ecstatic post about it being fabulous....  this episode took me by surprise by making me care for Sherlock himself, much more than I ever had before. I had cared for Sherlock's satellites and found Watson, in particular, very dear; I'd been extremely amused by Sherlock, and understood why Watson loved him. But I don't think I'd quite loved him myself, until I was allowed to watch him struggle with fear, grief, love, and defeat here. Sherlock, I care now.

Also, I've come to LOVE the theme music and opening credits sequence of this show.  (Here's a youtube vid --  the music is criminally cut off at the end, but it's the best I can do.) (I miss London!) The music in particular, when it comes exploding in, feels just exactly right for the show.

******
Other shows on my queue that I haven't started yet, and have no idea when I'll ever find the time: Six Feet Under; The Wire; Madmen; Doctor Who; Dexter; Better off Ted; Alias; Deadwood; The Good Wife; Mildred Pierce; and the final season of Battlestar Galactica, which I still haven't seen all the way through.