The boss of TigerBot Hesh (cassielsander) wrote,
The boss of TigerBot Hesh
cassielsander

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Never Get To The Fireworks Factory

The biggest change in television in the past decade or so is, to me, that many people have gone from wanting a show that progresses by hitting various universal notes, to one that hits the notes especially well, to one that resists the lure of the usual notes altogether, at least as far as its central elements go. In other words, to adapt Millhouse's phrase from The Simpsons, we've gone from wanting to get to the fireworks factory, to hoping that the arrival at the fireworks factory is done well, to hoping that we never get to the fireworks factory.

One example of this evolution is popular "will they? / won't they?" pairings. In the 80s with Sam & Diane or Dave & Maddie there was considerable audience pressure to resolve the romantic tension and get them together. Since serialization was in its infancy this wouldn't be much of a process, more of a one-episode switch from "a show in which two people flirt" to "a show in which two people have a relationship" (although Cheers, to its credit, managed to carry out these things in nice season-by-season steps that neither required viewing every episode nor felt arbitrarily static).

The big pairing of the 90s, at least in my crowd, was Mulder & Scully from The X-Files. The pressure was certainly still there on the audience side, but the fate of the previous shows (growing irrelevance for Moonlighting and many interesting but difficult contortions for Cheers) led to an extreme awareness on the part of the creative team that putting Fox & Dana together should be done very carefully, and at just the right moment. And while this moment never arrived, at least on TV, its inevitability is demonstrated both by the extreme non-starterness of both characters' outside love interests and the fact that no justification was felt necessary when they're suddenly living together in their second movie.

As the 21st Century approached, the concept of "jumping the shark" passed into popular parlance (again, at least in my crowd), and with it the sense that resolving a situation could wreck a show. And this extended beyond romantic pairings: everyone had seen and minutely examined the fate of Twin Peaks, which had been designed to be all character exploration with no plot movement, when it was forced to resolve its central mystery (in short, a burst of brilliance followed by a quick, uneven, fall).

Therefore, hyper-self-aware shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy The Vampire Slayer played with the expectations, either by teasing developments they had no intention on delivering or by bringing the consequence of "giving in" to such impulses into the show's narrative.

So in these and many other cases, the creative teams had learned that sometimes it was vital to deny the audience what they wanted. Of course, there had always been some awareness of this; everyone knew that if you exonerated The Fugitive, cured The Incredible Hulk, or let the kids escape the realm of Dungeons & Dragons that would be the end of the show, but the audience knew on some level that these things could never happen short of the finale, whereas now the audience was being denied things they might reasonably expect to happen.*

The next stage of evolution, therefore, had to be on the part of the audience themselves. Many people were probably aware, on some level, that the show was better off if Buffy & Angel didn't live happily ever after, but the yearning for it to happen (or some substitute involving Spike or another known character) was still plenty strong. It took a further step for people to just stop even inwardly wishing for that kind of development.

The first big case of this to catch my attention was among the fans of Elementary, the American modern-day Sherlock Holmes show. Almost from the beginning there was a strongly expressed wish that Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes & Lucy Liu's Watson NEVER get together romantically, one that would have been hostile even to flirtation or hinting, and to the show's credit there wasn't any (compare with the BBC series Sherlock, which engages in some self-aware teasing along the lines of Xena & Gabby although with a very light, ironic touch). And it's not just that this audience didn't want it to happen; they were afraid that it would happen someday in a misguided play for ratings.

I noticed a very similar reaction, but on a plot rather than character level, to HBO's disappearing-people show The Leftovers. It generally takes a few episodes to figure out what the show is doing, but once people get hooked they often express a wish that the show stick by its practice of never explaining any of its seeming supernatural events, even to the extent of definitively proving that they ARE supernatural. I've seen many posts that quote the refrain of the 2nd Season theme song: "Let the mystery be"; they wouldn't wish for a big reveal any more than you'd wish for a juggler to stumble while he's trying to keep pins in the air.

I think this is great. Not that all shows have to be like this, but I love that a sizable audience has learned that a good cross-gender friendship or an insoluble mystery can be beautiful things, which would be spoiled by a resolution. In a way, it shows three stages of wish fulfillment: This audience went from wanting something without knowing it was bad for them, to wanting something while knowing it was bad for them, to NOT wanting something they knew was bad for them. And just because in real life they might wish to know if miracles really happened, or what it would be like for that co-worker to make out with them, they no longer required their tele-fictions to fulfill those wishes within their stories. At least, not every time.

Examples, counter-examples, and any comments always welcome.




* - Of course, another direction to go with either romantic tension or mystery is to resolve it and move on without making it a big deal. The 4400 was good at both of these; the leads determine their mutual level of attraction early on and never deviate from it, while the plot mysteries were resolved at the end of each season in order to make way for deeper ones in the next. Community might also qualify; characters get it on when they naturally would do so, without this upending the more important relationship in their life: that of the study group.
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  • 18 comments

cdk

December 1 2015, 23:32:32 UTC 1 year ago Edited:  December 1 2015, 23:33:10 UTC

Have you watched Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated? If not, I found it worthwhile to watch the whole thing completely unspoiled.

That said, without spoiling details, it reminds me of The Five Obstructions, in a way - it's as if the challenge presented was: "Tell an engaging story across multiple episodes that all follow exactly the same structure, down to ending every single episode in some variation of 'And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids.' You can have as many episodes as you like, but each and every episode has to meet this exact checklist of events." It's as if every single episode MUST go to the fireworks factory, and yet there's also a series-long constraint that the eventual arrival at a completely different fireworks factory must be well-done.
Sounds very interesting. I've long found extreme-formula television fascinating, and strangely freeing, and I like the comparison to Five Obs. I remember liking the Freddy's Nightmares series from the late 80s for the same reason. Every episode had to have a half-hour story in which someone both met Freddy and died (without there necessarily being a causal link), and a second half-hour in which someone introduced in the first half-hour was killed by Freddy. Beyond that, as far as I can tell, they could do whatever the hell they wanted, and it got very off-the-wall.
Seconding Mystery Incorporated for being absolutely marvellous.

And also for approaching things in the spirit of contradiction and being happy to be multiple different kinds of show over its run.

Worth watching from beginning to end in order.
Life on Mars (BBC) strikes me as an excellent example of a series that sought from the beginning to avoid the fireworks factory. I think that's a big part of what I love about it - because it was intended from the start to be a fixed-length engagement, you are completely freed from the worry that the direction the show went was in any way an attempt to prolong its life. So you know that the unresolved mystery was intended from the start. Except of course that then you go to the internet, and you learn that the writer actually intended to write a completely unambiguous finale. So. Oops.
Yeah, sometimes a writer not being able to make their intentions clear is a blessing. q.v. most viewers liking the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko more than the Director's Cut, and me finding well-made political-message films like Jungle Fever a lot more ambiguous than the Spike Lees, Oliver Stones, and even Tom Clancys of the world intended. (It's as if, when they're at their best, their talent won't allow them to make the message as clunky as they meant for it to be.)
I think Ashes to Ashes is an even more fascinating example - both in the way the final season relentlessly teases a major guest star that never actually happens, as well as having a resolution of the mystery that is completely batshit insane. :D
Yes! Have you read Max Gladstone's excellent essay on Agent Carter and friendship?
No! That show's on my list but I haven't started it yet. Will keep this in mind, thanks.
I love all of this. :)
I've seen a lot of pushback against mysteries that never get resolved, I think in large part sparked by "Lost."

People waited season after season to find out what was going on behind "Lost," and were really pissed when it wasn't suitably resolved.

Afterwards, getting teased by mysteries lost a lot of appeal. I saw it after the first season of "The Killing" didn't resolve the basic mystery. People were furious, and many vowed not to watch the second season, because they didn't want to be teased for nothing.

I hope that "The Leftovers" won't go that route. I hope the mystery will be resolved slowly, and satisfactorily.
I think the difference is that Leftovers pretty much said in ep 1 that literally no one knows the answer to the mystery, which I think makes it okay if no one ever finds out. Whereas Lost or even Twin Peaks raised expectations by having the characters constantly trying to investigate, which raises audience expectations even if the creators never intended to give an answer. Leftovers skips over three years of the other stages of grief and starts with Acceptance.
But the characters in the Leftovers do try to find out. Or at least, they are confronted by people who do, and who seem to be finding some answers, which also raises expectations that there could be an answer.
I dunno, it seems like the people who are still trying to figure it out are kind of parodied, like the Yale people or the "Host Of Azrael" people. And stuff like the lens theory comes up but then switfly turns out to never have been valid (I think the latest ep pretty much kills the idea that Nora brought the Departures to Jardin with her).

And it's true that the characters are still in a lot of pain, but I think the ones we respect are coping with the Departure as "something that happened" not a problem to be solved.
Also, the show itself has offered some clues as to what might be going on, like the first season, which highlighted how people who were unwanted disappeared, or the "lens" theory from the second season.

I'm not at all sure that the characters are in the acceptance stage, either. There is certainly a lot of anger and depression going on.
I do find it kind of weird, though, that people are so unhappy with solid relationships. I think there are too few examples of really solid relationships on TV (which is one of the reasons why I love "Modern Family" so much). But people are already calling for Penny and Leonard on BBT to break up, and I don't get it. On-again-off-again relationships get so boring after a certain period of time, and I think BBT has reached the ultimate level of on-off-ishness with those two characters.
That IS interesting. I don't watch a lot of shows with stable relationships but it does seem like people often take sides against one half or the other (for instance Miles & Keiko O'Brien in Star Trek DS9), possibly in hopes of seeing the other side have romantic adventures (although this could also be because the relationship isn't always well-written). This is probably especially true for "pre-cooked" relationships that started offscreen; I think for ones where we saw the genesis of it the audience takes a little more ownership (like say Tom & B'Elanna in Star Trek Voyager).

The biggest exception I can think of is Marhsall & Lily on How I Met Your Mother, which seemed like a popular pairing for as long as that show was good.
Well, there are shows that tease you by not delivering what you want - like Buffy - and then there are shows that annoy you by delivering what you don't want. Also like Buffy. The Buffy/Spike relationship was one of the most annoying things on a tv show that I otherwise liked better than that. It also retroactively destroyed earlier episodes in which the mere idea of Buffy and Spike as a couple was the cause of amusing "ewwww"s.
Good point. And sort of classic Whedon (& co.). Sort of like how Dawn's introduction was a brilliant parody of the Late Season Cute Kid but over time she basically became just that without the parody.