Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"An Echo In The Wilderness - Conclusion"

You like a show; you don’t like a show. The reasons are various.

“It’s funny.”

“They’re doing my life. But with jokes!”

“That girl is hot!”

“It’s on after a show I like, and I’m too lazy to change stations.” (Even with a remote! Imagine Attila the Hun, determining his chances of beating America in a war. “They refuse to change stations, even with a remote. I think we got ‘em!”)

Sometimes, you don’t need a reason to like a show. It’s “Some enchanted evening you may meet a stranger across a crowded room.” Your response is purely visceral. A chemical reaction to sequential flashes on a screen. It’s okay. Reasons are not necessary.

You like a show; you don’t like a show. Case closed.

I spoke last time about the subjective elements that could singly or in concert compel a viewer to become a fan. You cannot dispute any of them.

"'That girl is hot'? Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

Case close again.

It’s the same with all eight of the categories I delineated (and there are probably others) in evaluating, say, a pilot for future viewing consideration.

“It’s all subjective”, one might say. But that “one” would not be me. For me, it is not all subjective. It’s subjective a lot. But sometimes, it isn’t.

What do I mean by that? I mean this. There are elements that affect one’s appreciation of a show that are simply not subjective. The reason a show fails to appeal is because the creator of the show did something objectively wrong. Or at least flagrantly unhelpful.

Which brings us back to Up All Night.

And their, for me at least, serious mistake.

Here’s what it is. There are three main characters in Up All Night. And in the pilot episode, the show’s creator sold two of those characters down the river.

That’s a big number, two out of three.

And it’s important.

You want to distract the audience from the reality that they’re watching paid actors playing made-up people on a show. In order to get the audience to return week after week, it’s important that they care about those characters. And that they take those characters seriously.

The premise of the show: After they have a baby, named Amy, lawyer husband, Chris (Will Arnett) decides to stay at home and raise her, while his wife, Reagan (Christina Applegate) returns to work on an Oprah-type television show, eponymously called Ava (“featuring Maya Rudolph as Ava”). The couple are former cuss-comfortable, “party hearty people.” So this is all new to them.

Okay, I got it. Now.

In the pilot story, Reagan has to cancel her and her Chris’s desperately needed night out to celebrate their anniversary because of a last-minute emergency at work. How does the husband respond?

“It’s the deal, right? Don’t worry about it.”

At the episode’s climax, Ava insists that Reagan drive to Santa Barbara with her, to nail down a guest for the show. Reagan demurs, explaining that she needs to stay home with the baby. How does the husband respond?

“It’s okay. You go. Amy and I will be fine.”

Yikes! This guy is wim-pee! Unworthy of my interest, sympathy, viewing time, or respect.

At some point, I want Chris to erupt. Even if it’s hopeless. Even if he’s being petty, and he knows he’s being petty, but he can’t help himself, because he’s a human being! I’m watching this guy, and the only thought in my mind is, “Do something!”

The closest Chris comes to erupting is with a philosophical observation. (Who of us doesn’t erupt that way?) The observation?

“I guess I’m just pissed…and I don’t know who to be pissed at.”

Well, okay then.

No!

I get, “Men need to be sensitive”, but this actor has nothing to play. And more importantly, I as a viewer have nothing to watch. “Passive and reactive” is not a compelling characterization. I don’t know many audience members who will happily return, explaining, “I like it when he gives in.”

One major character (out of three) – a soap bubble. Then it gets worse.

Ava, played with energy and comic verve by Maya Rudolph, is a needy, insensitive terrifying tyrant. She says “insan”, and everyone in the office is too intimidated to tell her it’s “insane.”

When Reagan returns from maternity leave, she immediately stops Ava from “eating her feelings.” Ava confesses that Reagan has been sorely missed; she’s the only one who will call Ava on her mishugas (foolishness). Reagan promises Ava that she will be there for her one hundred percent.

In the final confrontation, Ava says I need you to come to Santa Barbara with me. Reagan says I can’t. Ava reminds Reagan that she promised to be there for her one hundred percent. Reagan respectfully stands her ground. Then, after a “You can’t have everything” story that says, “At a certain age, a woman has to choose between her ass and her face”, and Reagan’s continuing refusal to acquiesce, what does the megalomaniacal ogre Ava say?

Pretty much,

“Okay.”

The primary antagonist of the series has just caved. In Episode One! And with very little opposition to boot. This is not satisfying. I’ve been watching the show for twenty minutes. I deserve a decent argument. “I love you, but… no” is not an argument. And “Okay” is a surrender. I’d call this toothless capitulation a letdown. And an egregious disservice to the integrity of the show.

It’s not enough for a show to be funny, or the players are talented. If the show’s creator doesn’t make the effort to protect her characters, what reason is there for me to care about them or take them seriously ever again?

A, humbly proposed, alternate version?

“I need you to come with me.”

“I’m sorry, Ava. I love you, but…no.”

“At a certain age, a woman has to choose between her ass and her face. You can’t have everything.”

“Well neither can you.”

“”I’m sorry, what?”

“If you want me to be the woman you need me to be, I can’t be a doormat.”

“Wait, did you just turn this around on me?”

“I thought nothing would change after the baby. I was wrong.”

“So you’re reneging on your promise?”

“Ava, you need me to be strong. For you. But to be that person to exist…that you need, sometimes, I’m going to have to be strong…for me.”

“Will you be doing that a lot?”

“Only when as I need to.”

“Fine. But on my drive to Santa Barbara – by myself – I am going to think real hard about what’s wrong with this.”

Something like that. It doesn’t have to be those words, or those beats. But it has to be something. Otherwise, I’m watching a show for no reason.

Many explanations for why a show works for you are subjective. A small number of them are not.

One of them?

You do not sell out your characters in Episode One.

It may take a professional to diagnose a problem. But anyone can hear when a show has a rattle.

9 comments:

Moopot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moopot said...

I respectfully disagree with your analysis of Up All Night. Personally, I found the fact that all of the characters reacted to things like real human beings, rather than conflict-generating-machines, refreshing. No situation depicted in the show was an end of the world type thing, and so it was nice to have characters act appropriately. Sure, it is funny when Frasier over-reacts to something wildly, causing the plot to go to ridiculous places no actual human would ever go to. But it is refreshing to see people on television act like real humans.

Tobi Gordon said...

I respectfully disagree with Moopot.
This real human being would have a fit (in fact, I had many fits) over exactly this kind of conflict with my mate. Only mine would have gone to Santa Barbara!
Also, people don't turn in week after week to see 'characters acting appropriately'.
If I want to see real humans, I can cast my baleful eyes around my own life.
(Don't mean to sound cranky, but we could use more laughs on TV. I gave 'Two Broke Girls' a chance last night but had to turn it off when the horse in the backyard (?!?) did the inevitable and the pretty blonde princess fell in it and actually had to ask if the brown crap all over her white dress was mud!? The set up for this classy yuk took about 5 minutes to unfold. Thank you Judd Apatow)
Earl, your analysis reminds me of a perfect episode written years ago for the Dick Van Dyke show....when Laura goes back to work as a dancer against Rob's wishes. The conflicts are appropriate, the payoff is perfect, and there is nothing ridiculous about it other than that is the way women were treated in those days.

Jon88 said...

My first thought that this show was in trouble occurred when they changed the Maya Rudolph character from co-worker/friend to talk-show host/boss. Your observations are spot-on, and add to the disappointment.
Now, about "Two Broke Girls" -- no, never mind. Last night's second episode was so sitcom-robotic that the show isn't worthy of attention.

john brown said...

When you write a sit-com, don't you have to worry about painting yourself into a corner?
My main complaint is that they call each other "Babe". That isn't used too much out here in fly-over land.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; like high school, I didn't do my homework, crept into the back of the classroom, and hoped I wouldn't be called on or at least be able to wing it after hearing what teacher and the rest of the class said. It's paid off again!

How did sit-coms work? I can still laugh at some of Lucille Ball's antics from her first show, yet find many modern shows telegraph so much that I don't. So even though I know what LB is going to do because I've seen it before, I laugh; yet when I guess what's coming next in a contemporary show I don't. It is a puzzler.

-z

Frank said...

I will only watch an episode of this dreadful sounding show if it is rewritten by Earl.

Mac said...

I see your point. Working in TV, you get asked all the time to put your real life aside and do something work-related. Career-wise, it's difficult to say 'no.' It's an industry full of divorce and multiple break-ups, so I'd have thought that would be a setup that would be shot through with conflict.
It's a situation a lot of couples find themselves in - the tension between "getting your priorities right" and hanging onto your job. As is being former party animals and having to adjust to domesticity.
Many people are in that boat, and it's a shame that this show doesn't seem to have nailed it.
If I can chuck in another observation, not unrelated - Will Arnett is so iconic to comedy fans as Gob Bluth - a man who was probably incapable of being reasonable and understanding - and he was very, very funny. I'm not saying he has to crank out the same character every time, and I'm sure he has range - I'm just not sure I buy him as the guy's who's so nice that you wish he'd crack up and throw a fit sometimes.

Mac said...

That should, of course, be "as the guy who's so nice..."

I swear to God, one day I'm going to read these things before I post them.