Writing Spoilers

The Walking Dead title screenI had some mental gymnastics when I was writing my recent Walking Dead review when it came to talking about the events of the season. When I write reviews I generally try to avoid spoilers, but on this occasion I just didn’t think I could write an honest review without giving away key twists and turns of the plot, all the way up to the last few minutes of the season. Very specific events and twists and turns were absolutely pivotal to my opinion on the quality and enjoyability of the show and I decided to post hefty warnings and have at it.

The acceptability of spoilers in reviews depends on why people are reading. I like to think that people may read my reviews before watching a series and use that to decide whether or not to watch it. Part of the joy of a new series though is in the discovery. I can’t really get away with saying “it’s great, I can’t tell you why, but you should watch it”. I try to be vague and talk more about theme and style than about specific plot points that might damage the enjoyment of the show. On the other hand, I figure some people read my reviews because they are also watching the shows and therefore want to hear (heaven knows why) what I think of key twists and turns. I know I read reviews for both reasons. I guess in an ideal world I’d do two reviews, one for each audience, but I barely manage to get the few posts out that I do at the moment. So I need to find a line.

Grey's AnatomyIt’s not the ‘simple’ spoilers that you have to worry about. It’s easy to avoid giving away spoilers like X getting together with Y on Grey’s Anatomy, or Z dying on The Walking Dead. Those are just facts and parts of the show that you can talk around – “the usual merry-go-round of relationships are to be expected from Grey’s and they’re as entertaining as usual”, “The Walking Dead continues to punch where it hurts with character developments”. The only time events like that cause me some mental anguish about whether to include them is if those events are done badly. Given their history and past relationship, does it make sense for them to suddenly fall in love. Does the character get a good death or are they just a sacrifice to clumsily move the plot along? Do the choices and actions on the screen match the universe of that show as we’ve come to understand it or is it a lurch for the audience? It’s no longer about spoiling a plot, but it’s about the quality of the writing of the show.

Sometimes you can’t even describe what a show is about without spoiling a key moment from an early episode. Many shows use the motif in their pilot of making it look like one thing is going to be case and then twist it to something more surprising. Several pilots have implied that someone is a main character, only to have them disappear by the end of the pilot. Buffy’s an example of that, but I’m going to use The Shield as an example because the twist is not just about characters but about the whole tone. The show ran 2002-2008, I figure if you haven’t watched it by now, you probably won’t, but if you’re in any doubt, skip the next paragraph.

TheShieldTitleThe pilot episode follows a group of police officers being not quite above the board. For the majority of the pilot the audience is led to believe that they’re bending the law for the good of the law; the only way to beat the criminals. Then, in the final minutes of the episode, they shoot a fellow office in the face. No mistake, no excuse. He was a threat to them and they murdered him. It’s an incredibly powerful moment and if you know it’s coming it spoils it completely. BUT without explaining that moment can you really explain what the show is going to be? Its not a show treading the familiar ground of cops occasionally stretching the law to keep really bad people off the street, its a show about criminals with badges trying to justify themselves while they make a lot of money. That distinction is critical to whether you’ll enjoy the show or not (I gave up on the show after a couple of seasons, not because it was bad, but because I just couldn’t take the darkness of it any more). But that moment of shock, desperately trying to work out if there was a reason that the seeming heroes of the show turned into remorseless murderers, that emotional experience is a television moment that has stuck with me a long time. I’ve just spoiled that.

Less frequent, but even harder to deal with, are when things twist or turn at the end. If I don’t tell someone that the end of a season or even series is rubbish, then they could rightfully feel grumpy about wasting their time. The best example I can think of is most commonly seen in film rather than television, it’s the underdog sports film. The no-hope team of lovable losers, somehow get through to the big game… do they win or lose. Without mentioning any names at all, my favourite films of this type are when they lose. It’s more realistic. It’s also more nuanced and allows for greater emotional depth and reaction. But how do you review that? There is no way to obfuscate it – “The film is great, because after all the tension and the build-up the writers don’t go with the easy, predictable ending”. Now it’s like you’re sitting in an M Night Shyamalan film and you’re just waiting for the twist.

I don’t know how well I succeed with my approach to spoilers. Frankly I write more for myself than anyone else anyway and don’t exactly have a huge readership. So I’ll stick with wavering around and erring on the side of caution when it comes to warnings at least. At some point I’ll get around to my thoughts on reading spoilers, which are even more complicated!


The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

The Revolution Was TelevisedConsidering the amount I write about television shows, I read relatively little on the subject. I follow plenty of blogs scanning through dozens, if not hundreds of news stories and interviews via the marvellous productivity aid of RSS, but the number of books I’ve actually read can be counted on the fingers of one hand and is entirely limited to books dedicated to specific shows.

The Revolution was Televised had come up in passing from several television pundits I respect, most notably Maureen Ryan, currently of Huffington Post, who always adds depth not just to reviews of individual shows and episodes, but of the television landscape as a whole. I popped it on a Christmas list and had finished it by 3rd Jan.

The concept of the book is that there was a revolution in the way television was produced starting in the late 90s and those changes can be tracked back to a dozen key shows, that were not necessarily ratings hits (or even critical hits, although most of them are), but marked a step change in the way that television shows are created, run, marketed and watched . Alan Sepinwall takes us through each of these shows telling their stories and explaining their importance.

DeadwoodYour enjoyment and empathy with the book is going to be somewhat dependent on how many of those shows you’ve seen and what you thought of them. But, I was actually surprised at how engaged I was even in chapters on shows I’d never seen a single episode of. Out of the dozen shows, I would consider myself a fan of about half of them (Deadwood, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and Mad Men), five others I’ve seen a few episodes or couple of seasons of and have some respect for even if they weren’t to my taste (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Lost, 24) and two I’ve never seen at all (Oz, Breaking Bad). But Sepinwall does a great job introducing each show and making you see what was groundbreaking and even magical about each show whether you were already on his side or not.

The dozen chapters telling the story of the shows are built up from interviews with a range of people involved with each show – the creators, producers, network executives that bought them, even the people who didn’t support them at the time. The comments are very open and honest, pride in successes, acceptance of mistakes and Sepinwall weaves them all together to form a detailed picture of the world of television production. Throughout the book there are also plenty of references to both older shows that lay the foundations and the newer ones which built upon them, charting the whole thing in a giant network of giants’ shoulders. Thanks to it going all the way up to the Summer of 2012 and talking about shows that are still on the air, it feels extremely current, although I guess the flip side of that is that it may not age so well.

LostMy only frustration with the book was that as it went on, it felt like it lost sight of its premise a little. Each chapter focussed more and more on the show itself and less on what was revolutionary. The reader is left to draw a lot of conclusions themselves, which is slightly frustrating. Also, for a book which is so current, there was surprisingly little said about how television distribution is changing both with the internet (pirated or otherwise) and even the rise of dvd sales over the period. Although it’s touched on a little in the section on Lost, there’s also very little coverage of the other effects the internet drives including marketing and fandom. Mind you, those subjects could easily fill whole books just by themselves.

This is an absolutely brilliant book for anyone interested in how television really works, not just gushing about shows that people love, but about how the industry develops and innovators can succeed in a massively competitive and generally risk averse environment. Alan Sepinwall is clearly a television fan, but he is not blind to the fact that it’s a commercial endeavour – he doesn’t vilify the networks who cancel low rated series and he doesn’t sanctify show runners whose poor working practices overwhelm their brilliant creative ideas.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerI found this book fascinating, entertaining and completely un-put-downable. Sepinwall has reminded me of just what a complex and fascinating medium television can be. He’s given me a fresh look at shows that I adore, brought to my attention shows I knew nothing about, and encouraged me to give second chances to ones that I’ve struggled with in the past. If you’ve read any of the dribble I’ve written, go read this and see what a professional can do.

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall (2010) is available in paperback from Amazon. It amuses me that if you search amazon for the book title you get a number of suggestions including The Revolution Wasn’t Televised (1997), The Revolution Will Not be Televised (2008), The Revolution Will be Televised (2010), Will the Revolution Be Televised (2012) – so it would seem the jury is still out on the question.

Battle of the Shows: Round 2

Previously on Battle of the Shows: Vulture.com came up with a list of 16 “Best shows of the last 25 years”, set them up in a fight and then proceeded to make all the wrong choices. I re-ran the fights to show you what should have happened.

Round 1 was pretty easy, outcomes were largely based on technical quality, impact and in one moment of excitement – a coin toss. Round 2 is where things get tricky. Ish.

Six Feet Under vs. The Shield
It comes down to the simple question of which one I’d rather watch. Although I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the end of the series, I have been known to re-watch older episodes of Six Feet Under. I don’t regret for a minute watching the episodes of The Shield that I have, but I have no desire to re-watch any of them again and only ever recommend it to the toughest of television fans. Six Feet Under is just a more pleasant experience, which is saying something given that it’s a show entirely about death and the difficulty of living.

The West Wing vs. The Wire
The West Wing. Easy. I will get round to The Wire again, too many people who’s opinion I respect have recommended it. But after season 1 of The West Wing I went straight out and bought season 2 for full price in an actual shop and sat and watched it during my lunch break. After season 1 of The Wire, I never watched another episode.

Friday Night Lights vs. Battlestar Galactica
OK, that’s a lot tougher. I’m going to vote for Friday Night Lights, but I’m not 100% sure that isn’t just the easy option. It’s the show I’ve watched most recently and it’s certainly the easier show to watch. That’s not to say that Friday Night Lights is laugh a minute or anything, it’s a show about hope and dreams, and a lot of the time, those don’t work out. But Battlestar takes it a step forwards and shows you what happens when a distant hope is all you have and that really isn’t much at all. Friday Night Lights is about making the best you can and fighting for what you want; Battlestar is about desperation and fighting even once the war is lost, because what else are you going to do? Battlestar is obviously the more ambitious show covering a multitude of science fiction ideas, time and space, while Friday Night Lights is ‘just’ about teenagers playing football, but both shows take plenty of time to examine the people and relationships. While Battlestar Galactica is a superb achievement, Friday Night Lights more smoothly blends entertainment and drama, just making it a more pleasant viewing experience.

Mad Men vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Ouch another tough choice. Buffy means so much more to me than Mad Men. I used to get my family to video it and when I came home from university for the weekend my mum and I would watch it in marathon sessions. I think Mad Men is the better show, it’s crafted like fine art to be studied, appreciated and discussed, but that makes it occasionally academic and cold. But Buffy to me is something to love, it’s far from perfect, but it’s something you have a relationship with.

Previously – Round 1, next up – the semifinals and the final

Setting the scene… or not

I’ve got a request to make of executive producers, or creative directors, or whoever it is that makes these decisions for television – stop putting title sequences on your shows.

That’s not to say I don’t love a good theme song and credits, I really do. But there are a lot of shows out there at the moment that seem to at the last minute before the first episode is delivered for airing realise they never filled the 30second place holder where the titles are supposed to go. An executive producer throws out last minute instructions to pick a random piece of music with no tune, throw together a montage of explosions and characters looking moody “and make sure my name is big”.

In the great days of old title sequences were about setting the scene for your show, give the audience a helping hand picking up what you were trying to say. Remember all those great opening themes and voice-overs you got on things like Star Trek and The Outer Limits? It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realised how amazing the title sequence for M*A*S*H was, it wasn’t a bright chirpy tune to put you in the mood for a comedy, it was sombre and quiet, reinforcing the sadness of the drama behind the comedy. More recently, Firefly did a similar thing, reinforcing the western feel that might have been over-shadowed by the science fiction.

The primary inspiration for this article came from the fact I watched an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, followed by an episode of Blue Bloods and couldn’t help but see that the thing the shows had in common were two absolutely awful title sequences.

Standing alone the title sequences are both awful, loud cliché music, cheesy explosions, melodramatic posing from the actors and unimaginative text. The biggest crime though is how badly they fit with their shows. NCIS will usually jump from a dramatic reveal of a murder or crime straight into loud obnoxious music, Blue Bloods will jump from gritty and modern New York straight into a title sequence from the 80s. Knowing that each title sequence is coming leaves me anxiously hovering over the remote control so that I can fast-forward (god bless Sky+) before the opening chord intrudes on my viewing.

Most shows at the moment thankfully don’t bother with titles at all, taking five seconds for a splash screen and getting on with the show. Grey’s Anatomy used to have credits but rapidly got rid of them. Maybe it’s a bit surprising that Glee, a show all about music and presentation doesn’t have a theme song, but then how could they possibly pick just one song?

Some shows manage to make a surprising impact with even the most minimal splash screens, maybe Lost is the first that really got it right, showing exactly how much can be communicated with just a chord, a font and a fade. Supernatural adopts the same system, just the shows name, a sound and a special effect, but adds a variation by changing the effect and sound each season (and the occasional extra special version – see the collection). Even Brothers & Sisters with its simple sliding text and soothing couple of bars of music sets the correct tone for the show.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t however comment on a few shows that do manage to make title sequences work. For some reason channels like HBO and Showtime really make an effort and put a lot of thought into what they want their titles to say about their shows. The majority of things that would appear on my list of favourite credit sequences past (Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Dead Like Me) and present (Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire) aired on HBO or Showtime in the US. All absolutely beautiful title sequences that really suit their shows. There would be a clip of the Sons of Anarchy intro here… but there doesn’t seem to be a version on YouTube.

Lie to Me – I can’t help but smile every time that woman’s eyes light up

Big Bang Theory – I don’t watch the show (I know I probably should, it’s on my list, I just haven’t got to it yet) but I love the titles!

Fringe – the standard intro is nothing special after a couple of seasons, but this year they’ve done a few alternate versions to fit with their alternate themes, including this genius one for their flashback to the 80s episode.

(Thanks to Smashing Magazine and TV.com for their collection of links.)

Sky Atlantic

Sky are giving me a birthday present. It’s going to be a day late (happy birthday me), but they’re giving me a channel all of my very own. Sky Atlantic premiers on the 1st February and it is like someone read my blog, worked out the kinds of shows I like, the kind of attitude I have towards television and catered it directly for me. It’s a bit scary.

The channel will be a home for all the high quality television that comes out of the US but may not have the popular appeal that grab prime-time slots. Traditionally these shows end up buried in the schedules and often end up airing months, if not years after it’s been on in the US. Most of the shows are on subscription channels. I heard an interesting interview with David Simon (of the Wire) and he spoke eloquently about the fact that being on the subscription channels means you don’t have to get massive ratings, if you are good enough to persuade even a couple of thousand people to shell out extra dollars a month for the channel, you don’t have to get the 8million viewers needed to sustain a network prime-time show.

Sky have bought the exclusive rights to HBO’s catalogue (minus a few with outstanding licenses on other channels, e.g. True Blood), this gives them not only current shows with massive buzz about them, but allows them to give people the opportunity to see older classics like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. The lineup is not restricted to HBO, they’re already making a lot of noise about having the next season of Mad Men and that won’t even be on for 6 months or so. There are even a few network shows that are being promoted to the big leagues, the new Tom Sellek show Blue Bloods is worth a look.

One thing that really startled me when I spotted it on the website was they will be showing Battlestar Galactica from the first episode. This is the perfect home for Battlestar, surrounded by critically acclaimed shows that very few people actually watch. Despite being science fiction it sits among these gritty dramas and dark comedies far better than it does on the SyFy channel.

Sky Atlantic is a 24 hour channel and I wondered what they were going to pad the non-prime-time schedule with. Apparently the answer is a kind of high quality soapy daytime schedule of ER, thirtysomething and The X-Files. There are also plenty of mini-series and made-for-TV movies which so often sweep American award shows and yet never make it to UK channels.

This is not going to be an easy channel to watch, these programmes are extraordinarily good… but often dark, gritty and complex. They’re not the kind of thing you watch with half an eye on your suduko. But they’re the kind of shows that really reward you for loyalty and attention, they’re satisfying and GOOD in a way that the more popcorn mainstream hits can only dream of. There’s a reason these shows win all the awards, they’re just in a different league and I for one am thrilled that Sky Atlantic is going to give them the respect they deserve.

From Wikipedia – the full list of acquisitions:
24, Angels in America, Battlestar Galactica, Big Love, Blue Bloods, Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eastbound & Down, Empire Falls, Enlightened, Entourage, ER, Flight of the Conchords, Funny or Die, Game of Thrones, Generation Kill, How To Make It In America, Hung, In Treatment, Inside the Actors Studio, Luck, Mad Men, Mildred Pierce, Prison Break, Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: Voyager, Tell Me You Love Me, The Borgias, The Mind of the Married Man, The Pacific, The Sopranos, The Wire, The X-Files, Thirtysomething, This is Jinsy, Treme, Weeds

Sky Atlantic is on Channel 108 and available with even the most basic of Sky packages (although of course to get the HD you’ll need to shell out for that add on). Although it may appear like it, they’re not paying me to say nice things about them. But if they’d like to, I’d be open to it.

Three golden rules for science fiction

What’s gone wrong with science fiction shows this year? It looked set to be a good year, with a spattering of returning shows and a good crop of new ones coming in. Sitting at the end of the year looking at the list though, there are very few successes, a lot of mediocrity and a couple of high profile failures.

The most embarrassing failure of all has been FlashForward. Promoted to death as the new Lost, launched with a pretty decent pilot it barely made it out of the gate before its ratings collapsed and the critics turned on it. For me there are three big problems with FlashForward, and they’re representative of what’s been wrong with some of the other sf shows this year.

Yes, yes Mr Showrunner* you’ve got Big Ideas – parallel universes, complex analogies, virtual reality, fate and whatnot. You’ve also got a big budget and a giant marketing team. But you have to actually deliver that. If you’re presenting yourself as smart, you need to BE smart.

I need to have confidence in the people that are making a show that they know what they’re doing, where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. It doesn’t matter if every episode is action and excitement melded into a perfect 45 minutes, if the next week you contradict everything that happened I’m rapidly going to get annoyed. But at the same time it doesn’t matter if you have an amazing plan for a five year series if every episode is really dull, I’ll rapidly get bored. It’s a difficult middle ground to hit, but it is achievable – go back to and watch Babylon 5. That’s how you create a masterpiece.

2Charisma vacuums
My god there’ve been some boring characters this year! The lead character of FlashForward was just a kind of gaping, well paid hole where an engaging person should be. The cast of V looked so good on paper, but as it turned out by the end of the first episode the only ones I found interesting were the aliens (notably the Firefly duo of Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk). If on careful consideration I’ve evaluated your entire ensemble and have decided that in fact the best thing for you is to be eaten by the invading alien force, you’ve rather failed in your mission. I lasted half a dozen episodes and then gave up. Sure, the show is shiny and some interesting ideas, but if I don’t care about anyone, I’m not gonna bother.

3Lighten up!
The other big failure of the year for me was Caprica. I’m a big fan of Battlestar and thought this could be really interesting – same concept, different setting, characters and philosophy. Six or so episodes in and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Battlestar was never exactly laugh a minute, but at least they blew stuff up periodically and appreciated a nice fist fight or sarcastic aside. Caprica was the most depressing, soul destroyingly slow thing I’ve seen in a very long time. Battlestar seemed to be about hope in the face of overwhelming destruction, Caprica was about doom in the face of overwhelming shininess.

When it works… it works
Caprica and FlashForward both got good pilot reviews from me and then failed to deliver. On the flip side, Stargate Universe got a poor pilot review and then I cheerfully ate my words for the season review. The Stargate showrunners have been at this a while and I should have had more faith. They pulled it all together – it was smart AND fun, happy AND sad, sometimes characters moved forwards, sometimes they moved backwards, but they actually seemed like real people who it would be interesting to have coffee with. The confidence from the showrunners was quiet and reassuring – ‘we know what we’re doing, just trust us’.

I personally thought Defying Gravity had a lot of things going for it. I found it interesting and entertaining. This is one I think where the show was let down by everything around it – it wasn’t on the right network, it wasn’t marketed right and it was kind of doomed from the start. I think if it had been on the sci-fi channel we’d probably still be watching it, but Grey’s Anatomy in space was gonna be a tough sell.

Warehouse 13 is a truly awful show. The plots are all over the place and the production is often terrible with poor blue screening and budget effects. But it somehow manages to actually pass all three tests and ends up being one of the staple shows in our house just because it’s so entertaining! The characters are likeable, the dialogue snappy, the stories follow on from each other and no one is taking themselves seriously, it’s like some sort of ugly mongrel that you can’t help but love.

When it doesn’t, it’s kind of sad
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse should have worked. It has great characters, an original plot, some fun episodes and a showrunner with a built in fanbase and a lot of success under his belt. But, much as it pains me to say it, I think it failed on the smugness test. It put a lot of emphasis on the long term plot and asked for a lot of trust, which only those of us with an unhealthy obsession with Joss had any faith he could deliver. To everyone else the cocky attitude of “you’re watching something special and you don’t know it yet” was too patronising.

Although I adore Supernatural, I find I have to also put this season into the “kind of sad” category, because it too failed a couple of the rules. It often drifted away from being fun to watch, the endless misery of the apocalypse does get you down after a while. The smugness also occasionally overwhelmed, it took the season a long time to get started, spending way too much time wallowing and mucking about before finally squashing a lot of plot into the final half dozen episodes. It’s a real shame, because I think the first four seasons managed a really good balance of the rules, I have high hopes for season six though.

And there’s no coming back once you’ve lost me
Of course the gaping hole in this review is the assessment of Lost. This year of television will probably be remembered as the year that Lost ended. But I can’t comment on it, because I stopped watching three years ago, when the smugness became too much for me. I don’t know whether it redeemed itself, maybe it really was as good as it purported to be. Maybe one day I’ll go back and watch it all again. Today is not that day though.

* I did a check, although sadly imdb doesn’t seem to list ‘showrunner’ as a job title, despite the fact that it’s referred to in the press a lot, so I looked at ‘creators’ and ‘executive producers’ (and no I don’t really know what they do). Of the shows I have name-checked (and Doctor Who and Fringe which were mentioned and then edited out) in this article there are a total of seventeen people listed as show creators, only one is a woman (Jane Espenson on Warehouse 13). Of the 43 executive producers listed, there are seven women (including Jane Espenson again for Caprica). These are not good percentages people.