Thursday, December 10, 2009

V & FlashForward

We are in the middle of a golden age of television, with serialized storytellers making indelible marks on a medium that simply cannot be ignored. With the advent first of TV-on-DVD and next of TV-on-the-internet, audiences are more feverish than ever for new, exciting dramas. A decade ago, you never heard somebody say "I need a new show to watch." People are consuming television at a faster rate than ever before, and correlated with the increases in viewership there has been an increase in quality and depth.

So, how is it possible that in this day a network will invest so much capital in a product that is exactly and merely that: a product? (Obviously, there's an economic debate to be had here about the lack of revenue coming in from viewers on the internet, but that's a topic for another post.) With so much great television being made, it's inconceivable that ABC would try to set up a replacement for the Lost juggernaut that doesn't match that series for depth of story, precision of character development and production value. Lost has been carrying ABC for five years; whatever show gets slotted to take its place would have to be a heavyweight, right?

Wrong. How terrible are these two new shows on ABC? There are two reasons these shows are on network instead of cable. One is that the Sci-Fi Channel is in the midst of a re-branding as "SyFy" and trying to produce edgier content. The other is that some suits at the American Broadcasting Company specifically ordered an action-adventure science-fiction hour-long with a lot of built-in mythology because Lost is ending in May.

Both shows reek of desperation like a sweaty sixth-grader at a middle school dance.

V is, of course, a remake of the 1980's series of the same name. A fairly straight-forward alien invasion saga, the first thing that happens in the pilot is the arrival of a series of motherships hovering above all of Earth's major cities. "It's just like Independence Day!" shouts an onlooker, which is kind of like a background Ewok from The Battle for Endor exclaiming "It's just like Return of the Jedi!" The aliens promise peace on Earth and goodwill towards Humanity, but before the end of the first hour they are revealed to be wolves (or lizards, I guess) in sheep's clothing bent on our destruction.

The hook for FlashForward is a lot more complicated, in the way that I wish I had a convention-goer here to help me out. Everyone on Earth blacks out at the same time and for two minutes and sixteen seconds has a "flash forward" to what their lives will be like on a seemingly random day in April of 2010 (ironically, nobody we've seen in the ten episodes so far saw themselves watching ABC). Like in V, the main protagonist is an FBI agent, played here by Joseph Fiennes, confusing "recovering alcoholic" for "constipated". Fiennes' Mark Benford sees himself in April uncovering a massive conspiracy behind the flash forwards, meaning they weren't just a freak phenomenon and that we're gonna have to dirty our hands in police procedural to figure out what happened.

From here, both shows unravel winded, Dan Brown-inspired tales of conspiracies-within-conspiracies, unrelated characters matched up by coincidence and the ever-present threat of a bigger fish. I'm reminded, actually, of the legend about Joel Surnow sending a bid to Dan Brown himself to adapt The Da Vinci Code into the third season of 24 (Brown rejected the offer, forseeing, like his resourceful hero Robert Langdon, the promise of a lot more money from a feature film). The success of Brown's novels has seriously infected the way some producers are going about their storytelling.

24 itself has gone down the Dan Brown rabbit hole in recent years, though it was never exactly high-brow in the first place. The past few seasons (sharing with FlashForward in season four "Iranian with Dignity" go-to actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) of that show were particularly terrible for their repeated folding of the plot in upon itself. It's more obvious there due to the "real time" format; you end up tuning in just to witness the new depths of preposterousness as a third and then a fourth higher ranking sect of the same terrorist group attacks America not five hours later. The first wave was just a diversion!

Angels & Demons and its successors (and imitators) are popular because they keep you interested in (only in) what happens next. It's cliffhanger-based storytelling. I'm not interested in saying anything positive about Brown, but if there's one thing he's inarguably good at, it's plotting. He writes according to a page-turning formula that adheres to low attention spans and keeps people reading. There's a reason the majority of the chapters in his books are less than two pages long, and there's a calculated science to the way those chapters end. From Angels & Demons: "Tonight we change the world." (end of chapter 3); "The entire power structure of the Roman Catholic Church is sitting on a time bomb." (end of chapter 33, italics Brown's); "Then ... the little girl began to scream." (end of chapter 74) [*see comments]

This is exactly the kind of thing we see at work on V and FlashForward, although if you watch them both with any kind of juxtaposition, it's clear that the latter is superior in this delicate art. Both shows are on mid-season hiatus right now until next year, V having aired four episodes and FlashForward ten; if I were to pick one to keep watching from this point, it would have to be FlashForward and for the very reason I've stuck with it this long. I want to find out what happens next - V is so boring and underwritten, it was a slog getting through the pilot.

The slow eke of information on FlashForward is ridiculously paced, to the point where the show has, over ten episodes, established an ensemble at least fifteen-deep of regular characters about whom I couldn't care less. It's not the who, it's the why. We know the flash forward was caused by humans, but we don't know why. We suspect it was malicious, but we haven't a clue as to the motive. We don't care about the electrician's daughter showing up alive after being presumed dead in Iraq; we just want to know "whence the cover-up?" The inimitable Ricky Jay popped up for one minute at the end of episode eight to shoot a guy over a suitcase - and you know what? I'm curious as to why he did that. It's a morbid curiosity, and a sick one, but it's kept me going two episodes later, wondering when (and if) Jay would come back (he hasn't yet). I don't want to keep going, because I'm well aware that the show has me on a superficial hook. I'm sick of it.

In V, when FBI cutie Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell, one of three Lost cast members so far between these two shows, and, it turns out, way more bad-ass when she's not playing an FBI agent) stumbles upon an alien surveillance room, made up of thousands of floating video screens she manipulates with a touch of a finger like in Minority Report, the image that comes to mind is Hulu's television ad campaign.

Since I was entirely unconcerned about Erica's discoveries inside the security room, I took the moment to think about the bizarre synergy that would allow this terrible alien invasion show to juxtapose itself with the terrifying alien invasion commercials for the very conduit through which I was watching the television show. Is there a hidden message here? Are V and FlashForward carrying the subliminal directives of an actual alien attack, or perhaps merely suggesting subversively that all this crappy TV is going to melt our meager human brains (as the Hulu campaign suggests explicitly)? Probably not, but that would be a hell of a lot more interesting than anything else that'll be on ABC after Lost ends.


  1. *Incidentally, here's the final line from the first chapter of the epic medical mystery "HOSPITAL HOMICIDE", about a deranged medical robot, written by yours truly in the third grade:

    "There was a scream ... and all was silent."

  2. That line is pretty good, unlike the show Lost, which is terrible. Consistently terrible. Even when they create-- seemingly by accident-- interesting characters like Julliet, they ultimately ruin them by making them fall in love with Jack and then melodramatically restart the world because their husband is still kind of in love with his old flame. Pffffffft-- that's what I say.

    Also: if you peek over at The Misfit's Bookclub, you can see how pros like me handle additional notes with *real* footnotes.

    I'll be happy to teach you the HTML any time.

  3. Nevermind. My post still needs editing. I'll point you to it soon though, when it's actually done.

  4. Yes, please. Any lessons in HTML will be greatly appreciated.

    And I've always said - I'm going to reserve final judgement on LOST until the end of its run, but I have at least found it to be consistently interesting and sporadically heartbreaking. Pffft yourself, Cassandra Mortmain. Go capture a castle.

  5. I think if I could get in there and edit the show so that all traces of the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle were surgically removed, I would like it a whole lot better. Also I hate Locke.

    Ben is awesome. I wish the show were just about him. And Hurley and Sayid can stay too. Sawyer and Juliet would be welcome, as long as they stayed in love with each other and Kate were gone.

    I see your point about waiting until Lost is complete to really judge it, though. We'll have to have a big discussion this May.

    Also: the post is posted on Misfit's.

  6. You haven't written anything in a week. I miss you! Come back!