Spoiler Theater: The 2014 – 2015 TV Season

I haven’t done any kind of review in a while, and I have a little bit of time before I have to head off to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (cheap plug), so I thought I’d jibber-jabber a little about the current TV season, which is more or less at an end until the fall. As the header of this entry suggests, I may be dropping a few spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

I only had about a half-dozen series I watched steadily, but that’s more TV than I’ve watched over the previous few years. There’s some good stuff out there — and some stuff that started off good and petered out hard. I’m going to work my way down the list, starting with my favorite show of the season…

The Flash

I didn’t expect to love this show as much as I do, but this was just so much fun to watch. It’s a super-hero show, flat out, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more — and that’s fine, because it’s nice to have a lighter series to counter shows like The Flash‘s darker counterpart, Arrow.

The Flash

For me, the relationships between the characters are perhaps the high point of the show — especially the relationship between Barry (the affable Grant Gustin) and his surrogate father Joe (Jesse L. Martin), and between Cisco (Carlos Valdez) and anyone. Cisco is a treasure of a character and I will personally lead a riot if he’s ever killed off.

The show’s two flaws: its occasional habit of having characters make conveniently stupid decisions in order to keep the story moving, and its constant mishandling of Iris (Candice Patton, who deserves better). She’s regularly pushed around by the male characters, and her will-she-or-won’t-she relationship with Barry renders her rather unsympathetic. I hope the writers treat her better in season two.

Agents of SHIELDAgents of SHIELD

This show deserves a ton of praise simply for fixing its many, many season one flaws. The show didn’t come alive until it starting dealing with the repercussions of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) turned bad, and it kept the momentum up in season two. Plus, it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

My biggest gripe is that it still isn’t delving into the Marvel Universe as deeply as The Flash and Arrow dig into the DC Universe. It had a few great moments (I geeked out over the Absorbing Man), but Marvel has such a deep catalog of characters I’m baffled as to why it’s not taking advantage of it more. And, as a friend pointed out, the show could be retconned out of existence and it doesn’t impact the movies at all; Agents of SHIELD simply has no real relevance to the films. I’d love to see a more deeply connected universe, which might yet happen given that the Inhumans — due to have their own movie in 2019 — figure so heavily in season two.

Arrow

I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan season three as the weakest so far, but I don’t think it was bad. The Ra’s al Ghul storyline was interesting and had some nice twists, plus we got a whole season of John Barrowman as a complex antagonist, and who can complain about a steady John Barrowman fix?

JB Gif

John was part of a solid cast of supporting characters, and the tragedy here is that Oliver Queen himself (Stephen Amell) is the least likable one of the bunch. His constant cycle of pushing his crew away in the most dickish manner possible, only to later admit he needs them, is tiresome, but the season finale’s happy ending suggests that maybe he won’t be quite the brooding pseudo-loner in season four.

Sleepy Hollow

This is my wife’s favorite show, and we both agree that we should have never liked it at all. The premise sounds so stupid: Ichabod Crane awakens in the present to continue his battle against the Headless Horseman, who is in fact one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It turned out to be a rather fun adventure series, anchored by what may be my favorite TV partnership since Mulder and Scully: Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). They have a great on-screen relationship (with no hints of sexual tension, thank god) and a lot of the fun derives from how they play off each other.

I also credit the writers for taking the “man out of time” trope in a different direction. Mison’s Crane is never perplexed by modern society or technology, but is instead alternately fascinated, frustrated, annoyed, and occasionally enthralled by new discoveries.

SH Gif

The show gets bonus points for having a woman of color as one of the main protagonists, and never treating her like the sidekick. Abbie gets to save the day as much as Crane, and has on more than one occasion pulled Crane’s ass out of the fire.

Season two wasn’t as strong as the first season, in part because it often felt like the writers had no idea what to do with Crane’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) or what role she played in the story once she was free from Purgatory. Also, the second half of the season felt klunky; the Apocalypse storyline was mostly wrapped up by mid-season, and it became more episodic / threat-of-the-week — a move intended to make the show more accessible to new viewers, but without a driving storyline, the show as a whole felt like it lost steam.

The Big Bang Theory

I’m putting this show on my list of favorites, but it is barely holding on at this point. The humor hasn’t been as strong as in past seasons, and I’m frankly getting tired of the show trying to wring laughs out of the dysfunctional relationships all the characters are stuck in. None of the characters seems truly happy with their significant other, and with the exception of Howard and Bernadette (Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch), everyone’s relationship was in trouble as of the season finale.

I’m in the process of re-watching Parks and Recreation from the start, and it’s really driving home how sitcoms take the easy way out and try to generate humor from bickering couples. The P&R relationships are all positive and healthy, and don’t try to make the sight of two people busting each other’s balls a source of entertainment.

I’m going to lump the rest into one chunk, since now we’re getting into the series that tried and failed to keep me entertained, and I’m going to start with the biggest disappointment, Gotham. I wanted this show to be good, but it never lived up to its potential, in my opinion. It had a great cast and some good ideas, but suffered from seriously hit-or-miss writing; when the show was good, it was great, but more often it was mediocre at best and painful at worst. Its early bad habit of heavy-handedly establishing who the characters were (Look! Selina Kyle goes by the nickname “Cat” and is playing with a dangling object! Get it?) didn’t last long, thankfully, but it continued to waste characters, often supporting female characters, and relied on characters behaving stupidly in order to keep the plots moving. Don’t even get me started on the brief plotline that stuck Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in Arkham as a security guard.

I gave Gotham a chance to get good, but I ultimately decided to cut it loose, along with The Walking Dead and, sadly, Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead has become too repetitive in its plots, most of the characters are uninteresting and in a few cases (Rick Grimes) utterly unsympathetic, and the series feels like it no longer has an overarching point to it. It’s sad, because season one was amazing, but after cutting Frank Darabont loose as executive producer, the series crashed and burned and never fully recovered.

Then there is Game of Thrones, which lost me as a viewer with the highly controversial Sansa Stark rape scene. I have heard all the arguments, both those that condemned the scene and those that defended it, and I simply cannot abide by the creative team’s decision to go there.

As a writer, I never want to deprive myself of a storytelling tool, but when it comes to rape scenes, I feel strongly that there is always a better way to achieve whatever end such a scene is meant to achieve. A female character (or a male character, for that matter) can hit a low point from which to climb up in countless ways, none of which involve a sexual assault, and if you believe you need rape to show the audience what a monster your male character is, you’re being incredibly lazy. Same goes for using the rape of a female character as a means of motivating a male character. Find another way. Find a better way.

I’ll end on a positive note in the form of Marvel’s Daredevil, which I have yet to finish but am enjoying immensely. This is such a departure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s working beautifully because it’s everything the movies and Agents of SHIELD isn’t: more realistic, gritty, edgy, and mature.

Daredevil

The high point of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio, who is knocking it out of the park as Wilson Fisk. D’onofrio’s Kingpin is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes pitiable. He’s taken a character I never found interesting in the comics and turned him into a complex, living, breathing person who owns every scene he’s in. I can’t wait to finish season one!

But I’m going to have to, because I have my own stuff to write — tomorrow, as a matter of fact.

Reasons To Love ‘The Big Bang Theory’

This morning I came across an article on UGO.com entitled 11 Reasons Geeks Hate The Big Bang Theory, and I felt compelled to respond to a few of the accusations.

I came into the show late — as in, within the past few months, after it entered syndication — and I watch it religiously. It never fails to entertain me, in part because of its geekcentric world view. Being a geek, I can relate to the characters and I get all the jokes (that don’t have to do with advanced physics theory).

To be fair, UGO made some good points, but missed the mark on others. I’ll hit them in the order listed in the original article (be warned, some of these have nothing to do with the writing-related aspects of the show).

11 ) The Laugh Track

That’s a laugh track? Really? It’s a damn good one, because it sounds like an actual audience to me.

10 ) Losing Leslie and 3 ) Girls Are Weird

UGO laments the show’s poor treatment of the female characters; the site says the show regards them as sex objects, with the notable exception of Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert), a fellow scientist who was dropped from the cast after a few episodes because the writers “didn’t know how to write for her.”

My knee-jerk reaction is the show should have gotten better writers, but that’s unfair. The fact of the matter is, characters sometimes simply never click. They sound good in concept, but once the character starts talking on the page (so to speak), you realize that he or she just isn’t working like you thought he/she would.

That does not mean the character is bad. Sometimes it takes another writer to show everyone a character’s potential. An example in my own career is when I co-wrote the script for Pastimes‘ 2004 King Arthur Festival with my friend Amy (of Asperger Ninja). One of the characters in that show’s particular continuity was King Uriens, Morgan LeFey’s consort, and in previous shows, he was a very bland, flat, second-string villain. Paul, one of the producers, remarked to me how much he hated the character because he was so dull.

He was dull because he was never anything more than Morgan’s yes-man. The character agreed with Morgan constantly, spouted evil dialogue, got into fights with the heroes, and that’s it. Amy and I were able to make him interesting by writing him not as your basic Evil Goon but as Morgan’s husband and as the co-ruler of a kingdom. In this particular storyline, we added emotional conflict by creating friction between Uriens and Mordred, Morgan’s son with King Arthur — the son Uriens believed should have been his.

Most of the Big Bang Theory eps are written or co-written by show creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, and in the case of Leslie Winkle, they could have farmed her writing out to someone else who could have found the character’s center and given other writers material to work with.

All that said, UGO totally overlooked Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon’s (Jim Parsons) girlfriend, who is very much not an object of lust for the male cast members. Amy started off as She-Sheldon but has since evolved into a very well-realized and layered character — perhaps the best in the cast.

9 ) Endless References and 8 ) Messed-up References

UGO compares the show to Family Guy in terms of its ham-fisted use of pop-culture references, and yeah, the refs can fly fast and furious on Big Bang, but they feel less disruptive than the Family Guy references, which are clumsy, abrupt non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the story. Big Bang is not as slick, subtle, and sly as, say, Futurama (which UGO rightly credits as the best when it comes to pop-culture references), but the show uses them to better effect than Family Guy.

As for the gripe that the show gets its geek references wrong, well, UGO’s example — that a player cannot in fact loot allies’ bodies in World of Warcraft, despite the show’s assertion — only bothers the hardcore players who know better. It bothers them in the same way it bothers neurologists when a character gets knocked out cold for several hours and wakes up with nothing worse than a headache, or the way it bothers cops when an action movie police officer — well, does just about anything.

There are countless instances when a movie or TV show gets wrong some technical detail, but the flub goes unnoticed by all except those in the know. Any good writer should know enough to do their research so they don’t get the facts wrong, but sometimes writers don’t exercise due diligence, and other times they ignore reality to move the story forward, hoping the general public won’t know any better. The Big Bang Theory is not committing a crime that Hollywood hasn’t committed before and won’t commit again.

PS: reductio ad absurdum is indeed, despite UGO’s claim to the contrary, a logical fallacy; it’s just not the one Sheldon describes. I’d call that irony, but UGO might point out that I’d be using “irony” incorrectly.

7 ) Other Geek Shows Are Better

Yes, and others are worse. That’s just a lame argument. Moving on…

6 ) Evil Wil Wheaton

UGO remarks that Wesley Crusher was the worst part of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You know why fans hated Wesley? Because he was getting to do what all the fanboys wanted to do: be on the Enterprise having adventures. The character had problems, but it was mostly jealousy on the fans’ part that led to Wesley’s low standing in the Star Trek universe.

But that’s beside the more important point UGO makes, that the “evil Wil Wheaton” character has shown up too often and is losing his punch with each appearance. Wait, what? Wil’s made three appearances on the show, that’s three appearances in five seasons and 100 episodes. That’s hardly a glut of Wheaton.

5 ) Sheldonmania

UGO writes:

There’s a common tendency in many sitcoms to abandon their original premise when one character becomes more popular than the others. Probably the best example is Family Matters, which eventually just became a showcase for the antics of Steve Urkel. In the case of The Big Bang Theory, that character is Sheldon Cooper, the Aspergers-esque theoretical physicist.

I’m not sure what they mean by the show’s original premise being abandoned. The show is about the lives of four geeky friends. Yes, the Leonard-Penny dynamic was a major point in the show’s early seasons and remains a recurring theme, but to act like that was always meant to be the main point is not accurate. Leonard and Sheldon are the anchor characters, and always have been.

Besides, there’s a difference between a wholesale character takeover, like the Urkel-ization of Family Matters, and writers finding their footing writing for characters. Sheldon’s quirks were definitely less pronounced in the very early episodes, but the character as we know it was there.

4 ) Bazinga

Character catch-phrases are always going to be hokey and contrived, but Bazinga abuse is far less egregious than, say, anything ever uttered by any given character in any given sitcom during the 1970s or 1980s. It’s hardly in the same class as “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

2 ) It’s Not Us

UGO writes:

At the end of the day, the biggest geek gripe against The Big Bang Theory is that we know plenty of geeks who would be better protagonists for a TV show. Most scientists we know are the absolute opposite of the stereotype on the show — when you’re super-smart, you spend your time working on world-changing projects, not visiting the comic book store every Wednesday. The real geek is too busy subtitling anime or modding Skyrim to keep a job like that. If they wanted to show the actual world of geekdom, they need to lose the high-paying science jobs and focus on dudes writing articles for Internet magazines.

So, the problem with the characters is that they have real and respectable jobs and DON’T spend obscene amounts of time on their geeky hobbies? Seriously, guys?

One of the things I love about the show is that the characters are, undeniably, geeks, but they are not the typical Hollywood interpretation of geeks as lonely, zit-faced, Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing sexless losers who live in their parents’ basement and spend all the money they earn from their McJob on action figures and comic books. Except for Howard (Simon Helberg), the guys all live on their own — real apartments and everything. They have and have had relationships, real and purely sexual.

UGO’s insistence that a “real geek” is too busy indulging in their hobbies to hold down a day job — at least, one that is not an extension of their leisure-time activities — is not just untrue, it’s insulting. You know that episode in which Leonard and Sheldon have a heated debate over exactly how Superman’s powers work? Yeah, I’ve had that conversation. You know what I do for a living? I’m a reporter, and my work and my social life are two totally different worlds.

I do have friends who apparently eat, sleep, and breathe their geeky fun. I call them “the minority.” Most of my friends are teachers, scientists, lawyers, artists, techies of every variety, writers, medical professionals — jobs that utilize their intellects but are utterly unrelated to their funtime, like performing at renaissance faires, getting together for weekly Dungeons & Dragons games, hitting the comic shop en masse on Free Comic Book Day, holding Lord of the Rings movie marathons…right now I know of several people playing Skyrim and Skyward Sword until their eyeballs dry out.

To act like they’re the exception is to perpetuate a stereotype — which, I guess, is only worth complaining about when the show is stereotyping women. Sorry, UGO, but you’re WAY off-base on this one; the Big Bang gang are closer to “real geeks” than you think.

1 ) The Theme Song

That’s UGO’s number one gripe? For Christ’s sake…