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!


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

Battle of the Shows – Round 1

Vulture.com are doing a sort of battle of the best TV drama of the last 25 years. I started reading it and was really impressed at the depth of the analysis and with the unexpected outcome of the first decision. But then I read a second article and I could not have disagreed more strongly with their choice. I figured I’d run through their choices myself and explain why they are wrong.

NB – They have started out with a shortlist of 16, which was already wrong. There’s a few of my top shows of the decade missing from the get-go and of course it ignores the output of every country other than the US (oh and Canada, there’s some Canadians on the list!). But I wanted to use the same list.

So round 1 – ding ding:

Deadwood vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This was the first category I came across (because I got the link from Whedonesque) and thought that Buffy would be in for short shrift. But I was impressed not only by the depth of the analysis, but by the fact that Buffy won. Although I’m well known as a Buffy fan, even I don’t think this was an easy competition to judge. I really love Deadwood, it’s a fascinating and unusual show that brings the poetry of Shakespeare to potty mouthed prospectors. Buffy on the surface is just an American high school show with cheerleaders who happen to fight vampires, but of course as any number of sources will tell you it’s really about life and destiny and choice. The beauty of Buffy is that it’s actually both, it’s hugely entertaining and it’s really very important. It created its own genre and dozens of shows owe Buffy their success.

The other issue to me though, and this is what really swung it – Deadwood is incomplete. Cruelly cut down in its prime, it never got to finish its story. Of course that’s not the shows fault, but when I evaluate the competition Buffy got more time and told a complete story.

The X-Files vs. The West Wing
This was where Vulture.com lost me. I’m sorry, but no way in this universe or the next is The X-Files a better show than The West Wing. My love of The West Wing is well documented all over this site, so I’ll not go over how smart the dialogue is, or how fascinating the subjects are, or how much I adore all the characters. On the flip side you won’t find any article about The X-Files because I haven’t re-watched it since I started writing reviews properly about 8 years ago. Now like every geeky teenage girl of the mid 90s I adored Fox Mulder, obsessively videoing every episode and dissecting them with my friends. But even my adoration couldn’t stick with the show when 4 seasons in it degenerated into overly complicated, drawn out conspiracy theories and endless will-they-won’t-they relationship bumblings. Then it went on another 28 seasons or something. Yes, The West Wing had some dodgy phases and although it eventually clawed its way back for a breathtaking season 7, it never really reached its original heights; but the best of The X-Files was never as good as The West Wing’s, and its worst was considerably worse and much longer.

Breaking Bad vs. Friday Night Lights
I have never seen Breaking Bad, I have sesaon 1 on dvd, but I just haven’t got round to watching it. So, I don’t really have any right to make a judgement here. However while I’ve heard stunning things of the early Breaking Bad, I’ve also heard some disappointment at the direction of later seasons. So with an acknowledgement that I’m not being fair, the only way I can vote is for the show that appealed enough for me to actually watch it. An easy win for Friday Night Lights.

The Sopranos vs. Six Feet Under
I’ve seen one season of The Sopranos and four of Six Feet Under, so I’m 5 seasons short on Sopranos and 1 season short on Six Feet Under. But the reason that I haven’t finished either season is the key to my decision. I thought season 1 of The Sopranos was ok, but I never really connected to the characters and there was nothing calling out to me to watch more. The counterpoint to that is that I haven’t seen the final season of Six Feet Under because I don’t want to say goodbye to the characters. I have had the season 5 dvds on my shelf for years, but haven’t watched them because although I know it is a superb season and often described as one of the best series finales ever, I enjoyed the show too much to watch it end. It’s stupid, but that’s why Six Feet Under wins.

The Wire vs. My So-Called Life
This is a bit like the battle of who cares less. I have friends who threaten to disown me for this, but I just didn’t get along with The Wire, I watched one season and really struggled to follow what was happening. I do have vague intentions to give it another try though. Meanwhile, I’ve got the box set of My So-Called Life and haven’t made it past episode 2 – I can’t tell you anything about it, just that I haven’t bothered to put the dvd back in. So on episode count alone, The Wire wins.

The Shield vs. NYPD Blue
This one is another unfair one as I’ve never seen an episode of NYPD Blue in my life. I suspect it’s also not fair because without NYPD Blue, would The Shield exist? I’ve seen the first few seasons of The Shield and thought it was amazing, BUT I haven’t watched the whole series because I just couldn’t take any more. It was all just too bleak, violent and depressing. So do I go for the show that is a foundation for so many great shows after it but that I’ve never bothered to watch, or the one that takes those foundations to their logical but eventually unwatchable extreme? I genuinely flipped a coin and it came down in favour of The Shield.

Twin Peaks vs. Battlestar Galactica
I’m about two thirds of the way through Twin Peaks. I watched the first half obsessively over the space of a week and have got at least 4 blog posts in my head about it. So why haven’t I finished watching it? Mostly because like most people who watched the show, I found that after they solved the initial mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, the momentum of the show just disappeared. Secondly I wasn’t actually a fan of the levels of weirdness it degenerated to, I liked the kooky and odd stuff, but the resolution to the mystery was just too much. Battlestar Galactica came pretty close to losing me a few times along the way as well with its rather extreme mythologies. But I stuck with it, because it was so well written and produced and in the end, I think it all came together, and then it dutifully stopped. Maybe if Twin Peaks had just stopped, it would have stood a chance, but as it didn’t, Battlestar wins.

Mad Men vs. Lost
I gave up on Lost somewhere in the third season, because I lost faith in the writers. I felt they were trying too hard to make a television show that could be stretched out for as many years as possible, rather than telling a well paced mystery story. By all accounts I should probably go back and watch it through because I hear it pulled it all back together in the end, but I haven’t got round to that yet. With Mad Men however, I have nothing BUT faith in the writers. It’s one of the slowest series I’ve ever watched, half a dozen episodes can go by with seemingly nothing happening except gorgeous period detail and subtle acting. But every now and then, something happens – two characters share a moment, or a single line of dialogue and you realise that all that nothingness has been building to that one perfect moment. It’s breathtaking. The only proviso I put on awarding this win to Mad Men is that it’s one of the few shows on this list still airing new episodes and it still has time to blow it.

Next up – Round 2, and the semifinals and the final

The Shield: Season 2

I forgot to actually write the review of this season after I watched it and only wrote the review of the special features for some reason. Looking back at the episode list the key plot arcs come back to me – particularly the Armadillo drug wars and the set up for the Money Train heist at the end (which I seem to recall actually came across as a bit of a damp squib after a whole season of buildup). It’s a continuing miracle that the Strike Team manage to get themselves out of trouble every time having got themselves into seemingly untenable positions.

The character arcs seem mostly set around breaking characters down, in contrast to season 1’s building them up. It seems we see the characters fail more often and more spectacularly and then see them mope about a bit and eventually work out how to get back on top. The end of the season ends explosively and sets up some interestingly different situations for season 3.

DVD Special Features
This season has a lot more featurettes than the first season, but fewer commentaries. In some ways this actually works well – particularly in the form of the directors table which is a fascinating 45 minute discussion between 3 directors and Shawn Ryan the creator. Having the directors together discussing the whole season allows them great interplay and range rather than being locked to an episode. The wrap day is a bit sappy with everybody hugging and gushing, but it shows how shooting actually happens and I’m a sucker for watching cast and crew looking so happy. The sound and editorial features are a bit dry, but informative. The 30 deleted scenes are great – most of them again cut for time, sometime losing whole sub-stories but this really really suffers from the lack of play all functions.

The Shield: Season 1

The first episode tells you just about everything you need to know about the show. It drops you right in the middle and expects you to catch up, keep up and hardly gives you the time to evaluate your feelings at any point. The world of the shield is all about conflicts and shades of grey, between good cops through bad cops, good criminals through to real evil criminals – and also how a person’s label can change by the hour. I found myself desperately trying to like characters that I knew had done unforgivable things, the contrast of watching Mackey with his family after seeing what he does ‘at work’ is breath taking. So many of the characters are hanging to their jobs/sanity by their fingertips it makes almost every scene potentially life changing.

The first season has some elements of arc, mostly watching the back and forth between Captain Acceveda and Vic Mackey and over the thirteen episodes the balance is well maintained with neither side ever coming across as victorious or incompetent. Other characters also have their own developments, Dutch’s eventual acceptance is a particularly welcome moment that seems so well earned and genuine. The stories have an interesting range covering regular cases as well as the strike team cases which seemed likely to be the focus. The complex politics of the gang/drug cases the strike team manipulate are contrasted with regular detective cases with Claudette and Dutch and even the beat officer scenes with Danny and Julian. There really aren’t any stand-out episodes, the short season of 13 episodes is intense and continuous almost all the way through, I’m not sure a longer season would have managed this intensity and realism.

DVD Special Features
This is quite probably the best dvd of a season I have ever seen. Every episode has a commentary and there’s a couple of documentaries as well. The pride and joy the cast and crew have in their show is outstanding and the number of people involved in the dvd shows this. The commentaries are ‘overseen’ by creator/writer/director Shawn Ryan who compares them, meaning that they don’t descend into self congratulations or deathly silence. All the series regulars are involved in the commentaries as well as crew from writers, directors to the music director and all thirteen are fascinating. There’s a whole bunch of deleted scenes which mostly fall into the category of ‘cut for time’ rather than ‘crap and not important’. The making of feature is interesting although mostly is covered in the commentaries. My one criticism would be that a play all button would improve flow of episodes and was a huge oversight for the 17 deleted scenes. But that oversight is only so irritating because of how superb the whole rest of the set is.