Whedon to direct ‘Glee’

October 19, 2009

joss whedonAlthough my last post was also about Glee, I just couldn’t resist the chance to comment on the latest Glee news. Last week I mentioned my wishlist for future guest stars now that the series has been given a full season pick-up, but I never thought to consider the behind-the-scenes talent. EW columnist Ausiello reported today that Buffy creator Joss Whedon has agreed to direct one of the ‘back nine’ (as the 9 episodes that constitute a full season pick-up are called) episodes of Glee.

Whedon wrote and directed a musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled “Once More With Feeling” in 2001. The episode ranked fourteenth on TV Guide’s list of  “TV’s Top 100 Episodes of All Time” and was nominated for a Hugo award, which recognizes excellence in science fiction and fantasy. During the writers’ strike of 2008, Whedon created an Internet musical called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which has gone on to win a People’s Choice Award for “Favourite Online Sensation”, the 2009 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and an Emmy Award in the Short-format Live-Action category.

Glee Creator Ryan Murphy called Whedon, “a great, if unexpected, fit.” adding that he was “thrilled he’ll be loaning us his fantastic groundbreaking talent.” Glee and Whedon’s current project Dollhouse are both aired on FOX. Although the news might have caused Dollhouse fans some concern, particularly after the lackluster ratings the series has received thus far, Ausiello reassured readers that the job wouldn’t affect Dollhouse and would likely take place after the show completed its thirteen episode order.

FOX had previously announced that they would air all thirteen episodes of Dollhouse’s second season, stating, “We’re not saying we’re happy with those numbers, or accept them, but we don’t have to overreact. During [November] sweeps we might have to jack up the numbers a little [with other programming], but we plan on completing the order for this show.” This was due in part to the impressive DVR numbers the premiere of Dollhouse posted.

Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman also referenced the Whedon’s passionate fanbase, saying that the show’s fate was something of a no-win situation: “If you cancel it, you’re an asshole; if you renew it and then don’t put it back on, you’re an asshole. I’m still paying for ‘Terminator.’ ‘Dollhouse’ has a small rabid fan base that in the world of social media seems bigger than it is. We gave them another season knowing full well we were going to burn in hell if we pulled it.”

Whedon just posted his (humourous as usual) thoughts on directing an episode here. Concluding with, “I’m going to do my best, and more importantly, I’m going to do my best not to gush like a fanboy for eight straight days on set.”

Personally, I can’t think of a better fit for the snarky musical comedy than Joss Whedon. Unfortunately, he isn’t writing the episode as well, but hopefully if his episode goes well it could happen in a second season. Although none of my wishlist of guest stars have been announced yet, those hoping that Glee star Lea Michele (Rachel Barry) would soon have a male singer able to match her considerable vocal abilities are in luck. Her “Spring Awakening” co-star Jonathan Groff has signed on to appear in five or six episodes of the show as the male lead singer of competiting Glee club Vocal Adrenaline. He will also serve as a potential love interest for Michele’s character.


Thoughts on Epitaph One

September 25, 2009

dollhouseWith Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse returning to television tonight, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss the unaired thirteenth episode “Epitaph One”. Staring Eliza Dushku (Tru Calling), Dollhouse is about a secret company that possesses the technology to temporarily imprint human “volunteers” with new skills, memories, and personalities. These imprinted humans, known as “actives” or “dolls”, are hired by the rich for engagements ranging from hostage negotiator to dominatrix. After each engagement the actives are wiped of all memories and remain in a state of innocence until their next assignment. Dushku plays Echo, a doll who begins to become self-aware, while Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica) plays Paul Ballard, a former federal agent who becomes obsessed with finding the company’s base of operations, known as the “dollhouse”, and Echo.

For those who don’t know the story behind “Epitaph One”, Whedon wrote a pilot episode titled “Echo” for the new series but pushed it back to become the second episode due to “a few clarity issues for some viewers” and “also some slight issues with tone”.  Although it is included as a special feature on the DVD set, it never aired and was “cannibalized for parts”.  Whedon used “Ghost”, the second episode written and shot, as the series premiere instead.

Fox television’s original deal had been for thirteen episodes of the show, but they included the unaired pilot while production company 20th Century Fox needed a thirteenth episode for international DVD releases.  The result was “Epitaph One”, a low budget standalone episode set ten years in the future starring entirely new characters.  Although the episode never aired on North American television, it premiered at San Diego Comic-Con, has been released on the first season DVD set of Dollhouse, and can be purchased individually on itunes.  The episode, nicknamed the “lost episode” of Dollhouse has received a great deal of press and is credited with being part of the reason behind the second-season pick up because it demonstrated what Whedon could do with a reduced budget.

I was not impressed enough by Dollhouse to buy the first season on DVD, but I did download the episode to my iPod last month as entertainment for a nine hour car ride. When Dollhouse was mentioned on vacation my mom said, referring to both Whedon and the show, “I know you love the man but it was bad”. I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s projects and when the news first broke that Whedon was developing another television series I was all ready to shower it with praise, but when Dollhouse premiered I found it to be completely mediocre. In all honesty, if the show had been helmed by any other man I probably wouldn’t have watched the entire season.

However, I disagree with my mom.  I don’t think the show was bad; I enjoyed Alan Tudyk as Alpha in the season finale, and was shocked, but not displeased, when Dollhouse was picked up for a second season. Yet I feel no great urge to re-watch episodes, like I do most of Whedon’s works, and it was more than a month after its release before I finally sat down and watched “Epitaph One”

The fact that I watched the episode more than once during my vacation, and enjoyed it, says a great deal. It’s easily the best episode of the show and there are a lot of great elements to it.  Despite positive critical reviews of the second season premiere “Vows”, which airs tonight at 9:00 PM EST, I’m not so sure that the series will continue at this level.  Personally, I believe that there is one glaring problem at the core of the show that can’t be resolved, but “Epitaph One” is a large step in the right direction and here’s why.  Huge spoilers for the episode are below so stop reading now if you plan on watching “Epitaph One” in the future.

The Plot

whiskey“Epitaph One” opens in 2019  where the technology behind imprinting actives has gone wireless and, in the words of one character, “punk-kicked the ass of mankind”.  Body stealing is rampant and the technology has resulted in the destruction of civilization.  In the midst of the chaos a small band of survivors that have not been imprinted, calling themselves “actuals”, stumble across the abandoned Los Angeles dollhouse.  Glimpses of the events that occurred to shape this future are revealed through flashbacks.

Ethics in the Dollhouse

Despite the occasionally more noble motives for hiring an active, the dollhouse has very often been used as a way for millionaires to play out their romantic or sexual fantasies.  Yet throughout the first season, those running the dollhouse continue to insist that their work helps people, and that they are giving clients what they need.  The actives volunteered for this after all, or so we’re told, and at the end of their five-year contracts their original personalities will be restored.  There are only two characters who are uncomfortable with the idea of imprinting people, Agent Paul Ballard of the F.B.I., whose search for the Dollhouse, and for Echo’s original personality Caroline, becomes an obsession, and Echo’s handler Boyd Langton.

The immorality of using technology to wipe human personalities, and the use of imprinted bodies for sexual encounters, has always been present in the background of Dollhouse, and has certainly been visible to the viewer, but in “Epitaph One” it is in the foreground.

Pitching the dollhouse to a potential client, Adelle DeWitt says, “You are a man who can have everything he wants.  This isn’t just about what you want, this is about what you need.  An active doesn’t judge, doesn’t pretend.  This will be the purest, most genuine human encounter of your life, and hers.”  She is comfortable with renting out actives, but draws a line when Mr. Ambrose announces that the dollhouse will begin offering “anatomy upgrades”, effectively selling the bodies of its actives for a large sum.  At this point it is no longer an experience that is being sold but a person, and even DeWitt, who had defended what the dollhouse had to offer, says “This is wrong.  You can’t do that.” Her decision to disobey indicates for the first time that the dollhouse staff  have a moral line that they will not cross.  Similarly Topher, whose genius made wireless wiping possible, realizes what he has done and suffers a mental breakdown.  In other flashbacks it is revealed that he no longer goes into the imprinting room. For the first time Topher, who previously called the actives “a little bit bison” and shrugs off responsibility by justifying that they volunteered for this, sees them as people.

The sexual use of actives is also mentioned, with Zone, one of the actuals in 2019, unable to believe that the technology which destroyed civilization was “designed to create more believable hookers”.  For much of the first season the ethics of the dollhouse were like the elephant in the room.  Everyone is aware of and uncomfortable with the idea of wiping people’s personalities and renting them out for sex, but it hadn’t been discussed and brought to the forefront yet.  “Epitaph One” has this discussion, and Caroline sums it up best when, at the end of the episode, she tells the surviving actuals that the creators of the dollhouse were “playing with matches and they burned the house down.”

Making Mankind Better

The actives strive to be their best, sometimes asking their handler “Was I my best?”  Whedon plays with the theme of using technology or other means to alter mankind.  Although those in charge may have good intentions, this does not mean that the technology will be used as intended.  Topher’s improvements to the imprinting process were not meant to result in body stealing but his technology creates a war with two sides.

Topher: It was just one phone call, one robo call to a city, that’s all it takes.  An entire army in a single instant, in the hands of any government.  And boom. We went boom.  Millions programmed to kill anyone who’s not programmed to kill anyone.  And then the war has two sides.  Those who answered the phone, and those who didn’t.

Topher and Echo in Dollhouse.

Topher and Echo in Dollhouse.

It’s a theme Whedon has used before.  In Serenity it’s revealed that the reason cannibalistic Reavers exist is due to the Alliance administering a chemical substance designed to suppress aggression and create a planet without violence.  This attempt to make mankind better instead results in a populace who stop eating, working, and caring about anything until they waste away, while the remaining ten percent of the population have the opposite reaction to the drug and become extremely aggressive.

The theme of making mankind better is often used in science-fiction, whether it is through technology or genetics, and the increasing speed of technological innovation makes the fears played upon in genre films and shows very real. “Epitaph One” makes the viewer think about the issues technology raises. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.

In “Epitaph One” we see the result of attempts to better mankind.  Mr. Ambrose sees “anatomy upgrades” as a way to live on and create an impact on history, saying, “Imagine what one man can achieve if he has no fear, and will live forever.”  Indicating the difference between intent and reality, Adelle tells him “This is not what we set out to do,” but the damage is done.

Raising the Stakes

One of the problems with Dollhouse is that there were no stakes involved, and I don’t mean the sharp and pointy kind. It too often fell into the “case of the week” format where Echo would receive an engagement and Paul Ballard would continue searching for the dollhouse. It’s an easy trap to fall into and many dramas have begun following this format and then successfully branched out to incorporate a larger mythology. “Epitaph One” has given Dollhouse meaning, showing that all that occurs in the present has far-reaching consequences. Now the viewer is aware not only of what the imprinting technology will do, but also of Echo’s importance. Her ability to retain memories after being wiped is critical to the survival of civilization, and that purpose makes her worth watching.

Creating Sympathy

Another early problem with Dollhouse was a lack of empathy.  The actives are all blank slates, and therefore the audience can’t really connect with them on an emotional level.  In the first few episodes the closest I got to sympathising with a character was reluctant handler Boyd Langton.  Topher, who refers to the actives as “a little bit bison” and is the man behind the technology is not immediately likable, nor is Dollhouse defender Adelle DeWitt.  As the show continued the viewers had moments where they sympathised with characters, seeing the real personalities of Sierra, November, Echo, and Victor shine through for an episode, and watching the lonely Topher imprint Sierra as a friend for his birthday.  Still these characters were not thieves with hearts of gold like Mal, or even affably evil like Spike in the early seasons of Buffy.

Felicia Day in "Epitaph One".

Felicia Day in "Epitaph One".

“Epitaph One” remedies some of this, particularly in the 2019 parts of the episode where the audience is clearly supposed to identify with Felicia Day’s Mag.  Mag keeps the rougher Zone in line, feels the loss of a friend when a member of her party is printed, and even cries.  Yet “Epitaph One” takes steps towards making us feel more for the other characters as well.  As Adelle takes a stand against selling the bodies of her actives she demonstrates her humanity.  Similarly, Topher has a mental breakdown, likely when he realises what his technological innovations have done, which makes him a sympathetic character.  Dr. Claire Saunders, who was revealed to be aware of her status as the active “Whiskey” in the previous episode, is also a sympathic character.  As Dr. Saunders she bids Boyd a teary goodbye; As Whiskey she mutters in reply to Mag’s statement that there is no Safe Haven, “Not for everyone”.

With Echo beginning to remember who she is after being wiped, and the promise that Felicia Day’s character will appear again, hopefully the show is on track to having characters the viewer can identify and empathise with.

Emphasis on the Whole Cast

One of the best things about “Epitaph One” is that it not only brings in a new set of characters but also manages to fit in nearly every recurring character from the series.  The surviving band in 2019 include Lynn, Griff, Mag, Zone, and Iris, but flashbacks make use of the whole cast including Mr. Dominic, Victor, Sierra, Paul, Caroline/Echo, and Dr. Saunders/Whiskey.  Mellie/November and Alpha are mentioned but not seen.

Although the connection between Paul and Caroline is to be expected, and Victor and Sierra have been paired before, the episode also very quickly made us feel for the new romantic pairing of Boyd and Dr. Saunders, who I hope we see more of despite Amy Acker being limited to three episodes this season. If the show focuses more on the cast as a whole and less on Echo and Ballard I believe it will be more effective.

The Eliza Problem

elizaI enjoyed “Epitaph One” but one of the reasons I did so was because of the lack of Eliza Dushku.  I watched and enjoyed Tru Calling, and I love the Faith episodes of Buffy, but she doesn’t have a different level.  Although it could be argued that her inability to change characters when she is given different imprints is Caroline coming through, I can’t help but see Faith.

This is not just a matter of reusing actors. I completely believe Amy Acker as Whiskey/Claire, and I loved watching Alan Tudyk as Stephen Kepler/Alpha. In my opinion Eliza just doesn’t have the necessary acting chops to pull off this role and it brings down the show.  This is emphasized by the remainder of the cast, who are all excellent.  Adelle (Olivia Wilde) can be a cold-hearted bitch, but she can also be affectionate and even funny, and watching Topher (Fran Kranz) in “Epitaph One” is heartbreaking.  The true standouts for me are fellow actives Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman).  Enver and Dichen have the range to play a variety of roles, from fangirl to bounty hunter, and from mobster informant to horse breeder.

Eliza’s Caroline isn’t my only problem with Dollhouse though.  To be honest, I find Paul Ballard dull at best.  As a possible couple they fall into Lost territory where, like Jack and Kate, the romantic leads are the two least interesting characters on the show.  I would much rather see more of Victor and Sierra, or for that matter Boyd and Claire, than Paul and Echo.

Season Two

Jamie Bamber and Eliza Dushku in "Vows".

Jamie Bamber and Eliza Dushku in "Vows".

Despite all the elements I loved about “Epitaph One”, I’m just not convinced that season two will continue in this vein. I’m certainly hoping Dollhouse will prove me wrong though. Tonight’s premiere, titled “Vows” guest stars Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) and sees Amy Acker’s Dr. Saunders struggling with being an Active.

Dollhouse airs tonight at 9:00 PM EST on Fox.

Follow Friday: TV and Twitter

September 18, 2009

twitterI admit it, I tweet. For the uninitiated, “tweet” is the term for the 140 character updates Twitter allows you to post, broadcasting your interests, boredom, or messages to fellow members. Although it has been compared to another social networking site, Facebook, that uses status updates in much the same way, the thing about Twitter is that it isn’t quite so personal. I have a Facebook page and use the site regularly, but I do so to keep in contact with friends and close associates.  I use Twitter to “follow”, the term used for receiving another user’s tweets, television stars, entertainment news blogs, and writers who I am not personally acquainted with.

Television and Twitter

There are a number of people involved in the television industry on Twitter now, and people have begun to take notice of Twitter as a marketing tool and a way to gauge popularity.  The social networking site uses trending topics, meaning that the more a topic is mentioned in an individual’s tweets, the higher profile it receives.  The most used subjects are pushed into the top ten trending topics.  Often this includes recent news items, such as Kanye West’s outburst at the MTV Video Music awards, or the death of a celebrity, but during Primetime hours the Trending Topics often include television shows.

When Fox aired the premiere for its new comedy Glee in May, after the ratings juggernaut American Idol, executives were less concerned with its ratings and more interested in regarding the sneek peek as a marketing initiative. Although they certainly took note of the fact that the pilot was watched by 9.6 million viewers, staffers also monitored iTunes, blogs, and Twitter in order to measure reactions to the show.  The debut was largely a success, and one Fox e-mail read “It was the No.1 topic all night on Twitter”.  Since then the show has continued to be among the top ten topics on Twitter each Wednesday night it airs.

Television fans have discovered the importance of Twitter as well, with some organizing awareness campaigns using the popular site.  Although NBC’s Chuck was picked up for a third season, it was a close call for Chuck fans, who decided to use the hiatus to generate publicity for the show.  The ‘Chuck Me Mondays’ campaign aimed to draw new viewers to the show by re-watching episodes of Chuck on Monday, its regular night.  Additionally they used twitter, tweeting #chuckmemondays in an attempt to make the trending topics list and generate interest in the show.  With the third season of the show not airing until early 2010, the fans are continuing their campaign, watching the second season from the beginning.  This week they tweeted We Heart Chuck in order to honour the campaign of the same name to raise funds for the American Heart Association, which has currently raised close to $20,000.

This TV enthusiast recalls being spoiled for Torchwood: Children of Earth when ‘Ianto’ appeared as a trending topic on the same night that “Day Four” was scheduled to air in the UK. Surely the trending of a character’s name couldn’t be good news.  There’s an argument to be made that I shouldn’t have clicked on the topic, but I was more of less sure that Ianto was dead as soon as I saw his name, the click only confirmed it.

Collins on Supernatural.

Collins on Supernatural.

Perhaps the most interesting occurrence of television on Twitter happened more than a week ago when fans of the CW drama Supernatural garnered attention by banding together to push the hashtags #Supernatural and #luciferiscoming into Twitter’s trending topics. In the season finale, brothers and demon hunters Sam and Dean Winchester began the apocalypse by inadvertently releasing Lucifer from Hell, so for Supernatural fans #Luciferiscoming referred to the fifth season, premiering that night, in which Lucifer was a character. Unfortunately the message was misinterpreted by some, including P. Diddy, who tweeted the following:

I’m calling GODS ARMY TO ATTENTION!! #GODISHERE #GODISHERE #GODISHERE let the devil know the fight he’s in for! Retweet all day! Make GOD #1

Soon there was a battle for the top spot, with Supernatural fans continuing to tweet #luciferiscoming while Diddy’s followers re-tweeted #godishere, even though Diddy had been informed by many that the hashtag referred to the fictional show and not to Devil worshippers.  The Twitter war caused confusion among the uninformed, “leading many users to question whether today held some religious significance or if the tags were in response to the anniversary of the 09/11 attacks upon the Twin Towers in New York back in 2001 – one user mused that perhaps the two trends were the result of sick, twisted humour in that regard.”  Twitter took action, removing both hashtags from the trending topics entirely, but Supernatural fans continued to Tweet, encouraged by actor Misha Collins, who plays the angel Castiel on the series.  However, new rallying cries, the more innocent #pdiddyisscaredofhistv and #twitterisafraidofmishasminions have also been blocked by Twitter, causing some to wonder about censorship.

Follow Friday

Twitter has its own set of popular hashtags for days of the week, including “Music Mondays” and “Follow Fridays”.  It would be impossible to rhyme off all users of Twitter who are involved with television, but for Follow Friday here are some of those worth following for fellow TV enthusiasts.

Nathan Fillion in Castle

Nathan Fillion in Castle

It’s no secret that I am a fan of Joss Whedon and his works.  Although the man himself is not on Twitter, many “Whedonverse” talents are, including Castle star Nathan Fillion, his Doctor Horrible co-star Felicia Day, who also stars in her own popular web series The Guild, and writer Maurissa Tancharoen.  Dollhouse stars Eliza Dushku (Echo), Dichen Lachman (Sierra), and Miracle Laurie (November) are also on Twitter.  Canadian Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee in Firefly, has an account, as do Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast members Anthony Stewart Head (Giles), Amber Benson (Tara), Tom Lenk (Andrew), and Alyson Hannigan (Willow).  To keep up to date on all Whedon related news, follow Whedonesque.

A number of other Television actors and actresses tweet.  Among them is the aforementioned Misha Collins, who has gained a lengion of “minions” with his humourous tweets.  Julie Benz (Dexter) has an account, as does Pushing Daisies star Kristin Chenoweth, and Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan.  It’s only fair that Aldis Hodge, who plays a hacker on TNT’s Leverage with the motto “Age of the Geek” has an account, but so do his co-stars Tim Hutton (Nate), Beth Riesgraf (Parker), and Angel alum Christian Kane (Eliot).

Jeremy Piven, voted “least deserving of their 2009 Emmy” by TWoP readers, is on Twitter, along with Corbin Bleu of the new show The Beautiful Life, which premiered with a dismal 1.5 million viewers.  If you’re missing Dirty Sexy Money you can follow two of its stars, Lucy Liu and Blair Underwood through the Social Networking site, or for someone completely different there’s John Lithgow, who plays the Trinity Killer in the fourth season of Dexter. Christopher Gorham, of the summer show Harper’s Island, has an account and for some Canadian content there’s Degrassi actors Adamo Ruggiero and Lauren Collins.  Fans of CW drama Gossip Girl are no doubt already following stars Leighton Meester and Blake Lively.  While for any Trekkies out there, Brent Spiner and Levar Burton are worth following.

Unless you have an iPhone you probably won’t find Heroes star Greg Grunberg all that interesting.  He tweets mainly to promote his money saving application Yowza!, but co-stars Zachary Quinto (Sylar), James Kyson Lee (Ando) and former Heroes actresses Kristin Bell (Elle), and Brea Grant (Daphne) might be more interesting.

Actors aren’t the only ones using Twitter.  Just as interesting are some of the writers and other individuals who work behind the scenes in television, including James Clark, the On Set Prop Master for Heroes, and Doris Egan, a writer and co-executive producer on House m.d. Former Buffy and Battlestar Galactica scribe Jane Espenson, who is currently working on Caprica, has an account as well.  Also on Twitter are Whedon brother Zack Whedon, who worked on the Emmy winning Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog and Hart Hanson, the creator of Bones.  For the TV enthusiast who isn’t spoiler shy, following writers, and actors, on Twitter can mean getting tidbits about upcoming episodes.

Cory Monteith of Glee

Cory Monteith of Glee

With the network’s use of Twitter both to promote Glee and to air reruns with commentary that comes from Twitter comments made live by its cast, it comes as no surprise that most of the young cast have their own accounts, such as Lea Michele (Rachel Berry)  Cory Monteith, who plays Finn, even uses the nickname given to his character in the last episode, “Frankenteen”, as his account name.  The rest of the Glee cast is comprised of Chris Colfer (Kurt), Diana Agron (Quinn), Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina), Kevin McHale (Artie), Mark Salling (Puck), and Amber Riley (Mercedes).

Another show with a strong presence on Twitter is So You Think You Can Dance.  It’s always interesting to read what the choreographers thought of the performances and the judges are quite good at interacting their their followers.  Nigel Lythgoe, Tabitha and Napoleon, and Lil C all actively tweet.  Less active are Mia Michaels and Tyce Diorio.  For fans of the Canadian version of the show there’s judge Blake McGrath, and back on the original series sometimes judge Debbie Allen. Of course no list would be complete without the new third judge on the show, Adam Shankman!  Former contestants on Twitter include Travis Wall, whose amazing piece of choreography should be nominated for an Emmy next year, contemporary dancer Courtney Galiano and, one of my favourite contestants, Mark Kanemura.

Naturally there are also too many American Idol contestants to name, including Adam Lambert, winner Kris Allen, and David Cook.  Other Idol personalities with accounts are Randy Jackson, new judge Ellen DeGeneres, and Ryan Seacrest.

Just as interesting to me as the television stars and writers are updates from entertainment blogs and journalists.  An article takes time to write up while Twitter is an instant way to communicate any breaking news to interested parties.  What better way to stay up to date with your favourite TV shows than to follow one or more TV journalists?  Personally, I’m fond of The Nick C Blog, James Hibberd of The Live Feed, and Hercules the Strong of Ain’t It Cool News, but other choices include Robert Seidman and, for spoilers more than anything else, Michael Ausiello.

spongeFinally there’s Happy Squared, a Twitter account that provides “Daily affirmations from everyone’s favourite sea sponge” with tweets like “When spying on a neighbor late at night, be careful not to be lulled to sleep by the soothing sounds of his clarinet.” and “If you’re going to skip town and live under a new name, try to come up with something that’ll really fool ’em: like “BobPants SpongeSquare.”

Clearly in the Twitter Universe, there is something, or somesponge, for everyone.

Birthdays in TV land

August 8, 2009

angel buffyMany TV enthusiasts have wanted, at one point in their lives or another, to escape to the fictional worlds inhabited by their favourite television characters.  Who wouldn’t want to share a booth at MacLaren’s with Barney Stinson, research the new “big bad” with the Scoobies, or travel through time and space with The Doctor?  Yet despite the promise of adventure that these fictional worlds offer, there is one occasion on which you are better off in the real world – your birthday.

In TV land, birthdays are the testing ground for Murphy’s Law, the adage which states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”  At the best of times character birthdays pass unnoticed, or wacky but ultimately harmless hi-jinx ensue.  At the worst, the character is put through the wringer with lasting consequences.   One of these sub-sections of birthdays gone wrong even has its own TV trope , the “Ironic Birthday”.  This occurs when:

“A character has had to make a tough decision or has just lost something of extreme value to him, and upon walking into a room is greeted with a surprise birthday party.  This is not a celebration that makes everything all right; this is about the character having to pretend to enjoy what should be a happy time while secretly suffering.”

The example of this trope that sticks with me is Buffy’s seventeenth birthday, when she comes home to celebrate with her mother after her vampire boyfriend Angel loses his soul, taunts her mercilessly, and tries to burn the humanity out of the population of Sunnydale.  Instead of making a wish, a melancholy Buffy lets the candle on her cupcake burn.

Although other shows have featured the birthday where everything goes wrong, Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the cake (excuse the pun).  After watching her boyfriend become a monster on her seventeenth birthday, Buffy begins a pattern of birthdays where everything that can go wrong does.  For her eighteenth, Buffy’s trusted watcher Giles drugs her in order to remove her slayer abilities, and an insane vampire kidnaps her mother.  The following year an old foe turns Giles into a demon and an unknowing Buffy almost kills him.  As the slayer enters her twenties, her sister Dawn discovers her origin as a ball of energy put into human form, and narrowly escapes the God searching for her, while season six sees Buffy and her party guests trapped in the Summers residence with a sword wielding demon, after Dawn wishes that people wouldn’t keep leaving her.  Her latest birthday disaster causes Spike to ask Buffy if she had ever thought about “Maybe, not celebrating your birthday? Just try it, I mean.”  Perhaps Buffy took his advice.  The final season of the show didn’t feature a birthday episode for Buffy.

Willow and Tara dance in "Family".

Willow and Tara dance in "Family".

It’s easy to forget that Buffy wasn’t the only character on the show to have a birthday where everything went wrong.  Tara’s birthday involved her family arriving in Sunnydale to convince her that she was a demon who had to leave behind her girlfriend, Willow, and her independence.  In order to prevent the group from seeing the demon she believes she is, Tara casts a spell that makes all demons invisible, which renders the slayer unable to see her opponents.  Fortunately, this birthday ends on a high note as Tara realizes who her real family are and is defended by Buffy and her friends.

Cult favourite Firefly, also created by Joss Whedon, features a TV land birthday as well.  The birthday celebrations for Dr. Simon Tam are cut short when the engine room is engulfed in flames and life support is disabled, leaving them stranded with only a few hours of remaining oxygen.

Similarly, Isabel Evans begins her birthday with a party at the Crashdown Cafe in Roswell, but must abandon her party when she receives visions of fellow alien Tess in danger.  Although Isabel rescues Tess from her kidnapper, she also finds out that in her past life on Antar she betrayed her family for love.

Sitcoms are not immune to the birthday curse.  On his 30th Birthday Ted, upon finding out that Barney and Robin slept together, tells Barney that he no longer wants to be friends with him on the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. The following year, Ted’s architecture contract is passed over for Swedish rival Sven, and he has an infamous encounter with Missy the goat.

tedYet it is Ted’s former flame Natalie who has a true TV land birthday when she is dumped by Ted through a message on her answering machine during a surprise birthday party.  Three years later, when he decides to re-date her, he breaks up with her on her birthday once more.

I wasn’t looking for adventure, but a year ago I experienced the perils of a birthday fit for TV land.  After an afternoon watching the excellent Queen musical “We Will Rock You”, my birthday quickly descended as our dinner waiter was stoned and we walked through the pouring rain to the movie theatre.  By the end of the walk we were soaked, and upon arriving at the theatre we discovered that the movie had begun ten minutes earlier.  Since there wasn’t another showing, I had to choose between my friends as some disbanded to a movie theatre closer to home while others, who I saw less regularly, had to remain in Toronto.  Although the company was excellent, the night did go as planned and we can still remember the misery of being caught in that downpour.

This year I spent a quiet, but enjoyable, night in with my family.  Sometimes not being a fictional character has its perks.

Thoughts on Torchwood: CoE

August 2, 2009

children+of+earthIt’s been a week since day five of Torchwood: Children of Earth aired here in North America, and although I did mention the Save Ianto Jones campaign, I haven’t actually written about my thoughts on the miniseries.  Although I generally have positive comments about ‘Children of Earth’, it is my firm belief that it works only as a series finale.  Unfortunately, all signs seem to indicate that there will be a fourth season of the show, with creator/writer Russell T. Davies in charge and stars John Barrowman and Eve Myles returning.  Wondering why I wish this was the swan song for the Torchwood team?  Keep reading.

Upping the Stakes

What ‘Children of Earth’ did well was up the stakes for Torchwood.  In previous seasons, the show mainly focused on an ‘alien-of-the-week’ formula, similar to the old ‘freak-of-the-week’ familiar to fans of Smallville during its earliest seasons.  The show mixed humour with drama, and even the possibility of the world ending was faced with deadpan humour by the Torchwood team.

Owen: What if they can’t stop it?
Tosh: They’ll stop it.
Owen: Yeah, but if they can’t?
Ianto: Then it’s… all over.
Owen: Let’s all have sex.
Ianto: And I thought the end of the world couldn’t get any worse.

‘Children of Earth’ featured one story arc unfolding over five episodes and dealt with a much greater threat than the Torchwood team had faced before.  The problem with this was that it didn’t allow for a continued build-up of evil.  If the show is going to return how can it top this latest series?  As far as villains go, how much worse can you get than an alien race who wants to use 10% of the Earth’s children in order to get high?

American science-fiction dramas, which creator Davies has said influenced Torchwood, have used escalating evil very successfully during their multi-season runs.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the title slayer begins by facing one ancient vampire, escalates to facing a pure demon, and dies facing a god, while the final season pits Buffy and her friends against the first evil itself.  Its spin-off Angel has a similar pattern of escalating evil.  During the first season the vampire with a soul takes on weekly cases, but by the series’ final year, Angel and his team face a powerful group of foes and must wrestle with the morality of working at an evil law firm that keeps demons and vampires as clients.

Torchwood: Children of Earth certainly built on the evils shown in its first two seasons but I believe it went too far too fast and did not follow a natural progression but jumped ahead to a future evolution, like in H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’.  Torchwood very quickly became a tense melodrama rather than a sometimes light-hearted drama.  This change in tone is not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with the price of not being able to go back to simpler times.  The remaining members of the Torchwood team have been too affected by the events of ‘Children of Earth’ to go back to being who they were before, and the show has now lost the ability to play between the lighter comedic moments and serious drama.

This change particularly affects Captain Jack Harkness, a character who was so refreshing because he had elements of the common brooding heroic figure with a dark past, but was also capable of being a flirtatious rogue.  Having watched his lover die and sacrificed his grandson, it is safe to say that we will no longer see that half-brooding, half-flirting Jack Harkness who takes it on the chin, and if we do, what does that say about him?  Is he a character we want to know and who we can sympathize with, or is he a monster?

Kill ‘Em All

the original Torchwood team.

the original Torchwood team.

However, my main issue with ‘Children of Earth’ is that it has taken the ‘anyone can die’ theme to the extreme.  Certainly television characters who constantly face danger must occasionally die; if they didn’t then the viewer would never believe that their favourite characters were in any real danger, but Torchwood has gone to the opposite extreme and killed three of its main characters in the span of five episodes.  This is worsened by the fact that the show’s ensemble cast was not large, like the casts of Lost or Heroes, but only had five people to begin with.

The idea of creating a dramatic ending by killing off multiple characters has been used in many mediums, including the Harry Potter series where the final battle results in the loss of fan favourites Lupin, Tonks, and Fred Weasley.  The problem here is that it isn’t the end for Torchwood.  If ‘Children of Earth’ was not an extraordinary occurrence but a regular week in the life of the Torchwood team, do we really want to continue watching such a dark series on a weekly basis?

While I certainly appreciate the need to write-off characters and show the cost attached to working for an organization like Torchwood, I worry about a show that kills off characters so quickly and recklessly.  Doing so doesn’t give the remaining members of the Torchwood team a chance to realize their grief about Tosh and Owen, who were only briefly mentioned at the beginning of ‘Children of Earth’, before killing Ianto.  This is not drama but melodrama, a never-ending tragedy.

Recently there have been comparisons between Davies and Buffy creator Joss Whedon, both of whom have no problem killing lead characters.  The difference for me is that Whedon doesn’t lightly kill a character for the sake of dramatic effect then seek to replace them.  Tara’s devastating death was not only the catapult for Willow turning to dark magic, but continued to be mentioned through Willow’s guilt over beginning a new relationship, her receiving messages, apparently from Tara, in the episode “Conversations with Dead People”, and a visit to her grave.   Although Willow did begin a new relationship, Tara was always remembered.  I worry that Tosh, Owen, and Ianto, will not be remembered in the same way and this takes away the meaning their deaths may have had.

Unfortunately Davies has made his attitude towards his characters clear.  In an interview with EW’s Michael Ausiello, Davies has this to say about continuing the show after killing half the cast:

I will just sit down and invent new stories and characters. That’s what I’ve spent my entire life doing. It’s not difficult at all. I could write the first 10 scenes in an episode right now.

The flippancy with which Davies claims he will just sit down and invent new characters is problematic.  To kill characters for a reason after a story arc is one thing, but to kill them for the sake of melodrama when their stories are unfinished is another.  Tosh, Owen, and Ianto were characters who the audience had come to care for over the course of two thirteen-episode seasons.  Since Davies has not introduced any new potential characters, except perhaps office assistant Lois Habiba, will he be killing off team members shortly after they are introduced?  Do viewers want to sit down and bother investing in the story and new characters if Davies is just going to kill them four episodes later?

Death of the Coffee Boy

The death of Ianto Jones

The death of Ianto Jones

Although I am a fan of the Ianto Jones character, it is not the fact that he died, rather than Gwen Cooper or Rhys, that bothers me but the way in which he died.  Although Ianto’s death was clearly conceived to be a great dramatic moment, all I kept thinking was how poorly plotted it was.  Senseless deaths happen in real life, so moments like Tara, shot by a stray bullet meant for Buffy, or even Kutner on House m.d., committing suicide seemingly out of the blue, I understand.  I also understand making a final stand against a great evil, which accounts for the deaths of Anya and many a potential slayer in the seventh season of Buffy, or the other Torchwood deaths of Tosh and Owen in “Exit Wounds”.  What irks me are deaths that the writers clearly mean to be purposeful but that the viewer sees as absolutely preventable.

I always found Charlie’s death on Lost to be a prime example of this, although some people have since explained that the hanger door he closed could only be locked from the inside and that was why he couldn’t save himself.  I do still think that since this obviously confused many people, and for me cheapened his heroic death, the writers should have articulated it better.

I find Ianto’s death to be problematic for much the same reason; it was entirely preventable if the characters had stopped to think at all.  This was death for the purpose of melodrama.  Why else would Jack, the man who tried to convince Gwen not to go along with Captain John Hart because it was dangerous and she might get hurt, take the all too mortal Ianto along with him to essentially peeve the aliens by telling them you’re not going to obey their commands?  There was no reason for Ianto to be there, except to die a horrible death in Jack’s arms.

Davies’ response, that someone had to die because “The threat to the world was just so great it simply would have been unlikely if everyone had survived,” indicates that there was no purpose to Ianto’s death except that he seemed to think someone should die.  What Davies doesn’t get is that someone did die, a child at that, not to mention the others involved in the 1965 deal with the 456.  Did their deaths mean less because they were not main characters?  Perhaps they haven’t provoked the fan response that Ianto’s demise did but I hardly think no one was sacrificed.  I doubt audiences were unaffected watching John Frobisher kill his wife and two daughters, and finally himself, because he couldn’t stand to watch them suffer the fate of the original eleven children.

The Ego Has Landed

Russell T. Davies

Russell T. Davies

Clearly I disagree with Davies’ decisions, particularly his idea that someone has to die in order to create drama or make danger believable.  There are other ways to create drama and killing characters does not make something good.  Certainly the 456 were fuel for nightmares, but despite all the insistence that Torchwood is “darker”, “sexier” and an “adult show”, episodes of Doctor Who have created better drama and been scarier, including “Blink”, which will ensure that, regardless of your age, you never look at a statue in the same way ever again.

What annoys me even more than the moments of sloppy writing towards the end of ‘Children of Earth’, is Davies himself.  I remember first being introduced to the man’s writing through a thought-provoking TV movie “The Second Coming”, and then of course through the new Doctor Who.  Certainly he’s a capable writer who has written some great episodes, such as “Turn Left” and “Midnight”.  Yet there are other great writers in the world.  Personally I love novelist George R.R. Martin, comic and television writer Brian K. Vaughan, Dead Like Me creator Bryan Fuller, Joss Whedon, and fellow Doctor Who scribes Paul Cornell and Stephen Moffat.  So I am a fan of Russell T. Davies’ writing, but not of his ego.  I am even impressed by the way he has been treating his fans.

In a previous entry I detailed the current campaign to save Ianto Jones.  I don’t have any hope whatsoever that it will be successful in reviving the character, and that’s a shame, but regardless it is a labour of love for fans who miss a character and should not be so easily dismissed.  More importantly, the fans of Ianto and actor Gareth David Lloyd have currently donated 4500 pounds to charity.  So when I read interviews with Davies where he tells fans who didn’t like ‘Children of Earth’ to “go watch Supernatural, because those boys are beautiful. And don’t tell me they’re brothers.  Not in my mind.” I get angry.  To put down the very fans who have kept you on the air for three years and to dismiss Ianto as nothing more than a pretty face, or his relationship with Jack as simply eye candy, is a low blow in my mind.

He has also said, regarding the backlash, “It’s not particularly a backlash. What’s actually happening is, well, nothing really to be honest. It’s a few people posting online and getting fans upset.”  Yet the 4500 pounds were hardly raised by a few people, and www.saveiantojones.com has received 59,165 hits.  Davies has also mocked those sending coffee to the BBC, claiming only 9 packets have been received although tallies indicate a number in the hundreds, and called upset fans “nine hysterical women.”

I agree that a writer can’t always pander to fan reaction.  Sometimes characters will be killed regardless of how much audience members enjoyed them, and they will stay dead.  What I have a problem with is the way that Davies has been treating a group of fans who have done nothing more than show their love for a character and raise money for a charity that will benefit children!  Surely there is a polite and respectful way to tell fans that although you appreciate their support over the years and understand their love for Ianto, he will unfortunately not be coming back, but you are touched by their efforts to raise money for charity in the character’s name.

Lessons Learned

New head writer Moffat.

New head writer Moffat.

I don’t have a great desire to watch another season of Torchwood, although I am confident that there will be one given the ratings ‘Children of Earth’ received.  To be honest, I am far more interested in seeing how new head writer Stephen Moffat handles Doctor Who with eleventh doctor Matt Smith and companion Amy Pond.  What I do hope is that he has learned from Davies both what to do and, more importantly, what not to do with the characters he has inherited.  Hopefully he has learned that an avoidable death is not heroic but melodramatic, no matter how much rising music plays in the background, and that characters can be written out and drama occur without killing the entire cast.  But the lesson I hope Moffat has learned from his predecessor most of all is how to talk respectfully to fans, because belittling them or forbidding them to disagree with you is clearly not the way.

Quotes from Comic-Con

July 27, 2009
Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

As I’ve said before, San Diego Comic-Con is on my list of things to do before I die. Hopefully in a few years I’ll get the chance to experience all the madness and the joys of being there firsthand, but until then, this TV enthusiast is making do by reading everyone else’s tweets and blogs, and by enjoying the youtube videos of panels that inevitably emerge. For anyone else who didn’t get a chance to attend the event, or for those who don’t spend quite so much time gathering information and quotations from various television resources, here’s a look at some of the great quotes of Comic-Con this year.

One of the best comedies on television has to be The Big Bang Theory, so it comes as little surprise that their cast offered a number of memorable quotes.  Although this year the show will be moving towards Leonard and Penny in a relationship, a portion of the Internet community prefers the idea of Sheldon and Penny as a couple.  Personally I agree with the writers’ stance that Sheldon’s mistress is science and I can’t picture him in a romantic relationship, but one fan who felt differently asked if he would ever get a girlfriend.  Jim Parsons (Sheldon) replied, “Do you want me to sit here and prognosticate? Because you’ve got the writers.”  After co-stars Kaley Cuoco (Penny) and Johnny Galecki (Leonard) commented on his great word choice, Jim said, “Thank you.  I said I’m not dumb, I just don’t get the science.”

The idea of Sheldon and Penny as a couple did get an enthusiastic response from some of the attendees at Comic-Con, leading to this exchange:

Writers: Ten minutes and she’d shoot him.  She’s from Nebraska, they have guns.
Jim Parsons: I don’t know that Sheldon’s man enough for Penny.
Kaley Cuoco: She would eat you alive.
Jim Parsons: Uh huh.

Yet the most memorable moment came when one fan asked Jim Parsons, referring to the show’s Christmas episode “The Bath Gift Item Hypothesis”,  if he would use a napkin so that he could “grow his own Jim” for his little sister.  Kaley wiped Jim’s brow before handing the napkin back to the fan.

Although I don’t watch the show, I’ve heard a great deal of praise for Battlestar Galactica, which was recently snubbed at the Emmy nomination ceremony.  Executive producer Ron Moore had this to say on the subject, using the BG substitute expletive ‘frak’ while shouting to enthusiastic applause:

“It was a fraking crime that the entire cast of ‘Battlestar’ was never recognized for the performances they gave week in and week out.”

Tru Blood the drink will be available soon.

Tru Blood the drink will be available soon.

At the True Blood panel, series creator Alan Ball announced that the popular synthetic blood drink from the show would now be a reality.  The beverage will be available on HBO’s website as of September 10th, just in time for the second season finale.  But just what will the drink consist of?

Ball: We put together a nice little mixture of a kind of delightful Chateau, cabernet, with some actual blood of hemophiliac European royalty, a little vodka, a little vicodin, a little viagra, and ecstasy. Unfortunately it’s completely illegal.”

The label is an exact replica of those used on the show and the drink will actually be a blood orange soda.  The panel also announced that Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels that the show is based on, has signed a deal to write three more books.

Other big announcements at Comic-Con included the fact that Supernatural might get a sixth season.  Creator Eric Kripke has had what so many writers inexplicably don’t – a plan.  His five year plan for the show would have made this year the last hurrah for the Winchester brothers, but Kripke says that he is open to doing another year of the show and that stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are signed for a possible sixth season.

Finally, Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse panel offered some insight on which Whedonverse stars would be appearing in the Dollhouse this season.  ‘If the stars aligned’ Summer Glau, of the recently cancelled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, would guest star.  Felicia Day, who appeared in the unaired episode thirteen, titled “Epitaph One”, will also be appearing in the first episode of season two, while Alexis Denisof, known to Angel fans as Wesley, will put in an appearance this season as well.

Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon and star Eliza Dushku.

Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon and star Eliza Dushku.

Between offering hints of what’s to come, Whedon found time to quip, getting in some great quotes as follows:

When asked how he knew that Alan Tudyk was the right one to play Alpha:
“I met him.”

On what’s next for Dollhouse:
“We talked about a lot of ideas for going forward after we accidentally forgot to get cancelled.”

On his obsession with big corporations:
“Have you been in America?”

And finally, getting in a dig at Heroes:
“As long as we don’t send anyone back to feudal Japan we’re pretty much okay.”

With Lost entering its sixth and final season, the actors speculated on how they would like to see things turn out for the island’s characters.  Nestor Carbonell (Richard), Michael Emerson (Ben), and Jorge Garcia (Hurley) commented on the Sawyer/Kate/Jack love triangle in an interview with Michael Ausiello:

Michael: I think that Kate should find another man altogether.  I really do, there’s just so much baggage now.  It’s not a healthy triangle I don’t think.  It would be better if someone had the nerve to bust out.  It’s a large role, there are a lot of nice people out there.”
Jorge: Have Kate go ruin someone else’s life.
Nestor: I’d be happy if Kate ruined Richard’s life.

Josh Holloway, who plays Sawyer, had his own theory about season six:
“Me and Hurley will hook up and live happily ever after.”

Only executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hold the answers and they presented a locked box at the beginning of the panel which they said contained the last page of the final episode’s script. They claimed that they would open the page on Jimmy Kimmel after the series finale aired. However, near the end of the panel Josh Holloway took to the stage with a taser and forced Cuse to open the box so the final scene would be revealed to Comic-Con.

Paul Wesley from the new CW series The Vampire Diaries commented on being compared to heartthrob Robert Pattinson of Twilight, “It makes me so uncomfortable.  9  of 10 girls in this room would throw me under a bus to get to Edward Cullen.”

While Freddy Prinze Jr., who is joining the cast of 24 this year, recieved a response for mentioning watching television with his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar who starred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  As the audience screamed, he snorted, “I forgot she’s big here.”

John Barrowman and David Tennant in Doctor Who

John Barrowman and David Tennant in Doctor Who

Some of the most eagerly anticipated panels were those for Torchwood and Doctor Who.  Introducing the Easter special Planet of the Dead to American audiences, star David Tennant said “Tonight you’re going to see the American premiere – the legal American premiere of Planet of the Dead.”

He also joked about American pronunciations telling the audience “I love America, you say premieres and awesome.  I’m taking awesome back to London with me.”

But the highlight for some was John Barrowman, there to introduce the screening of Torchwood: Children of Earth, reacting to David Tennant kissing him.  After Tennant planted one on him, he pretended to faint and let out a fangirl scream.  Recovering, he said “I’ve slightly gone all flustered, I really have.  I’ve been waiting for that for years, thanks David.”

At the Fringe panel, actor Joshua Jackson (who plays Peter in the series), talked about the revelation that his character was from an alternate universe, saying, “As an actor, you never want to read the line ‘And he looks at Peter’s grave’.”

Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood

Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood

True Blood‘s thousand year-old vampire Eric Northman, played by Alexander Skarsgård, received cheers at the HBO panel, and in an interview afterwards Skarsgård and co-star Deborah Ann Woll, who plays fledgling vampire Jessica, talked about what they would like to see for their characters.  Deborah hoped her character would get a little loving in the future, prompting the interviewer to ask if she was saying that she wanted Skarsgård to play her love interest.  Deborah replied, “Who wouldn’t?”

Fan favourite Johnny Depp even made a Comic-Con cameo, appearing to support Tim Burton at the Disney 3D panel, where he was previewing his live action ‘Alice in Wonderland’ adaptation.  Depp reportedly walked onstage to cheers, said “Hey. Happy to be here.” into the mic, and departed.  Burton quipped, “He was in the neighbourhood visiting Sea World.”

Dexter stars Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, and Jennifer Carpenter were joined by guest star John Lithgow, who will play a murderer known as the “Trinity Killer” on the show, on the Showtime panel.  Referring to his popular 3rd Rock from the Sun character, Lithgow said, “On ‘Dexter’ I play a serial killer and his first victim is High Commander Dick Soloman.”

But it was Comic-Con favourite Robert Downey Jr., there to promote Iron Man 2 who arguably had the best quote of the event as he said had this to say about co-star Mickey Rourke, “And I thought I was eccentric.”

Kings Ends its Reign – What Went Wrong?

July 25, 2009

kings dvdTonight creator Michael Green’s Kings airs its series finale. Based on the biblical story of David, Kings takes place in the fictional kingdom of Gilboa, which resembles the United States but is ruled by an absolute monarchy. The cast, led by Ian McShane (“Deadwood”) as King Silas Benjamin, includes Sebastian Stan (“Gossip Girl”) as the closeted Crown Prince Jack, and Australian actor Christopher Egan (“Eragon”) as soldier David Shepherd, who defeats an enemy tank, called a Goliath, to become a national hero.

Originally airing Sunday nights as a lead-in for NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, Kings premiered in fourth place with 6.47 million viewers and a 1.6/4 share in the desired 18-49 demographic. This figure continued to drop, prompting NBC to move the show to Saturday night but after just one Saturday airing, Kings was banished to the summer. Despite receiving generally positive reviews and being considered by some to be the most original drama of the season, Kings was officially cancelled in May at the network upfronts. When it returned to burn-off remaining episodes, it was without promotion and without many viewers. Last week Kings drew a dismal 1.57 million viewers and received a 0.4 demographic rating.

Which begs the question what went wrong?  The show was not a critical darling, like Pushing Daisies, but reviewers generally felt it had strong aspects, a great deal of potential, and was one of the most original series they had seen come along in awhile.  Then again, American audiences aren’t always known for catching on to unique or high-concept shows.

What is clear is that Kings was an ambitious show with a larger mythology. It was the sort of show you expect to see on a cable network like HBO or Showtime with the likes of Carnivale or Rome, certainly not on the fourth place network, who recently announced that Jay Leno would be filling its 10pm primetime slots instead of original programming. One look at the Emmy nominees for Best Drama says it all. The only network shows nominated are House and Lost, both shows that have been on the air long enough to pass the 100 episode mark.

kings groupIt’s a formula known only too well. A intelligent original show = cancellation. In a world where the originality of ABC’s Pushing Daisies or Eli Stone are overlooked in favour of a less engaging Grey’s Anatomy spin-off or an umpteenth edition of The Bachelor, what chance did Kings ever have? Perhaps this is why so many of the 2009-10 pilots contain the same tried and tested formulas, including the ever popular medical drama, and more police procedurals.

Kings was a different sort of show and NBC never knew what to do with it.  I’ve read an article that opposes the suggestion that Kings failed due to NBC’s poor treatment of it.  The point of the article seems to be that people weren’t very interested in Kings and it would have failed anyway.  The writer might be right, it might have failed, but I don’t agree that NBC did all they could for the show.  The sad fact is that, as creator Michael Green said, “They were very confused with how to market our show and I think, ultimately, I think it’s one of the reasons they lost the desire to make a success out of it. It’s very easy to say, ‘we have a nice cop show we executed really well for you.’ It’s harder to say, ‘we have a character-based soap that’s got some bizarre elements to it.'”

This is why, as a fan of Kings, I’m finding it hard to let go.  Unlike Pushing Daisies, a show that received an unlikely second season in order to build an audience, not to mention critical attention and network promotion but ultimately could not pull in viewers, Kings was incorrectly promoted and we can only speculate about what might have been.  What if it had been paired with a more compatible show than Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice? What if Kings had a better time slot?  What if NBC had a plan regarding how to market the show?

Green said that while the network was extremely supportive of how Kings approached the story of King David, there was discomfort with advertising it.  “I talked extensively with them about this,” he said. “It was a very bizarre divide. I found that in the development of the show, on the creative level of what the episodes and their content would be, I got nothing but support and interest in the religious or magical or somehow belief-inspired storytelling.

The Royal Family and David Shepherd

The Royal Family and David Shepherd

“When the time came for the marketing, there was a very deliberate, outspoken, loud desire articulated by them that, ‘We are not going to say King David.’ They were scared to say King David. They just felt that that would be detrimental to the show,” Green explained. “I thought it was the clearest way to express what the show was about, and I thought it might actually generate interest. But there was a fear of either backlash or marginalizing or pigeonholing. There were a lot of reasons they had. They wouldn’t go near it in the marketing, but they never had a problem with it on the creative level, which is why I was so baffled.”

Unfortunately, some also feel that Kings was a late starter, much like fellow new show Dollhouse, and that only the last few episodes of the show have realized its full potential.  Fans of Joss Whedon will recall tuning into the highly anticipated Dollhouse pilot and finding it largely mediocre.  They may also recall the numerous television critics, as well as Whedon himself, telling viewers to stay tuned as the sixth episode was a “game changer” and that Whedon had more creative freedom to tell the stories he wanted to tell from that point onwards.  The series did indeed pick up towards the end, aided by Alan Tudyk’s scene stealing performance as “Alpha”, although I’m still not sold on its brilliance.

Ian McShane and Chris Egan star in Kings.

Ian McShane and Chris Egan star in Kings.

I don’t necessarily agree that Kings was a late starter though, as I was hooked from the brilliant two-hour pilot, but as the series has built towards its finale it has gone from being great storytelling to true must-see TV.   Certainly ratings are a part of the television industry and without the ad revenue generated by ratings, a network will not profit.  Still, there are so many examples of shows that have been on the bubble of cancellation only to grow their audience after surviving the first season.  This is especially true of a show like Kings, which has a seasonal arc and is not a procedural where all ends are neatly wrapped up within an episode.

There have been a lot of great shows this season that were cancelled.  Although I found it a little too sugary sweet for my tastes at times, I do understand mourning the loss of Pushing Daisies.  With the news that NBC has cancelled it, I wonder if Canadian series The Listener will not get a second season on CTV.  Fox’s summer show Mental is likely cancelled as well, and, as I wrote in a previous entry, I will certainly miss the quirky and touching Eli Stone.  More than any of these cancellations though, I will miss Kings.  Now that it has become available to pre-order on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com, I will be purchasing the DVD set and I will be suggesting it to friends who missed the series.  With any luck it will become the kind of cult hit shows like Wonderfalls have become after their cancellations.

As for tonight, I’ll be sitting down to watch the series finale hoping for closure and enjoying the last new episode of the show.  I hope I’m not alone.

The series finale of Kings, titled “The New King part 2” airs tonight at eight on NBC.

Kings: The Complete Series will be released on DVD on September 29th.