Nothing But Memory
Post in Category Small Screen

Happily Ever After

I hadn’t intended to pick up any new TV shows this fall other than Ringer and The Secret Circle: Ringer because it’s Sarah Michelle Gellar and she’s Buffy so she has my allegiance, and The Secret Circle because I love The Vampire Diaries so much. Ringer is absurd but oddly entertaining. I’m a fan. The Secret Circle has unfortunately not lived up to the expectations created by The Vampire Diaries. I gave it six episodes to get going, but dropped it this week.

That was my intention. But I guess the lure of two fairy tale based shows turned out to be too much for me to resist, and I decided to tune in for the premieres of both Once Upon a Time (ABC) and Grimm (NBC) this week. Both shows have typical fantasy/hero story beginnings. Once Upon a Time is about Emma, a citizen of a reality much like ours, who discovers by way of Henry, the son she gave up for adoption at 18, that fairy tale creatures live in a town in Maine called Storybrooke, and that she is actually the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. The Evil Queen has robbed the inhabitants of fairy tale world of their happy endings by cursing them to live in our world, and the only way they can get back to the fairy tale world is if Emma comes back and saves them. Grimm is about Nick, a citizen of a reality much like ours, who discovers by way of Marie, the dying aunt who adopted him after his parents died, that fairy tale creatures live among us, and that he is actually the latest in a line of creature hunters known as “Grimms.” Nick, who is a cop, now has to take up the family calling and use his newfound knowledge to solve crimes.

Once Upon a Time is very literal, for lack of a better word, with its fairy tale elements: we see flashbacks set in a Shrek-like magical kingdom where all the fairy tale creatures live together. Snow White lives in a castle and wears a princessy white dress; Prince Charming is an acual prince who carries a sword. In the curse reality, the Evil Queen, called Regina, is the Mayor of Storybrooke, and Snow White is a schoolteacher named Mary Margaret Blanchard — see what they did there with the names? Prince Charming, meanwhile, is known only as John Doe. That’s because he got stabbed right before the curse took hold, and now he’s lying comatose in a glass-walled hospital room, presumably in suspended animation until his true love remembers who he is and comes to wake him with a kiss. Grimm has no alternative fairy tale reality. Its setting is present day Portland, Oregon, and its fairy tale creatures here have evolved over time to fit in with modern society. This seems to be the key difference between the two shows: while Once Upon a Time‘s conceit is that the fairy tale creatures are here in the real world unnaturally, Grimm suggests that they were always there and, just like the rest of us, have merely changed as the world changes.

I didn’t care for Once Upon a Time. The dialogue was a bit grating, both the stilted, cheesy style of speech used in the flashbacks to fairyland (see: io9 on “kitsch,” which can usefully be applied to this show), and in the present, with Emma annoyingly calling Henry “kid” every second sentence. I guess this is supposed to contribute to her “tough” persona (she’s also a bail “bondsperson”). Visually, the show did not appeal to me at all. There is a lot of bad green screen involved, and the costumes and hairstyles in the flashbacks were totally ridiculous. I also take issue with the inclusion of characters from Pinocchio in the fairy tale universe. Pinocchio is not a fairy tale! Do I sense a bit of marketing for ABC’s parent corporation Disney here? Next week maybe they’ll introduce Quasimodo or The Incredible Hulk. One thing I did like about it was the parallel images of Snow White in her glass coffin and Prince Charming in his “glass coffin” that began and ended the episodes. That was clever, and it was probably enough to get me to watch at least one more episode.

Overall, I prefer Grimm‘s premise. The idea that fairy tale creatures would naturally change with the times makes a lot of sense to me; fairy tales are archetypes, and the things they reflect are always out there somewhere. Grimm also seems like a mix of various things I like. There’s a bit of the comic book series Fables here (there’s also a bit of Fables in Once Upon a Time), plus aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the best show ever): the Grimms are very much like Slayers, and Aunt Marie, a librarian with a trailer full of Grimm information, is Watcher-like. I also couldn’t help thinking of Harry Potter when Marie told Nick that his parents didn’t die in a car crash. Unlike Once Upon a Time, Grimm is pretty to look at. At least, I found the dark and colourful visual style of the show very attractive, and I always like a Pacific Northwest setting for a sci-fi or fantasy show. The giant trees and overcast weather just lend themselves to that slightly weird, scary tone. The pilot episode took the story of Little Red Riding Hood and turned the Big Bad Wolf into a serial killer of girls in red sweatshirts, which sounds a bit silly, but a scene showing the Wolf’s collection of red hoodies was genuinely creepy.

I will watch Grimm again next week (though I will not watch it live because I’m sorry but I have to watch Fringe at that time) in the hope that it lives up to its potential, and that if it does, NBC might give it time to develop. The fact that they’ve put it in the Friday night death slot, against two shows that probably share a similar target audience (Supernatural and the aforementioned and awesome Fringe), following low-rated and already-cancelled Chuck, makes me think they’re not planning on having it stick around for long.

Mis-shapes, Mistakes, Misfits

A friend linked me to a blog post called Harry Potter: The Anti-Geek the other day. The author of the post argues that Harry Potter and his friends do not fit in with the “band of misfits” trope that commonly shows up in the fantasy genre; specifically, she cites the Scooby Gang from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of the type of group of social outcasts which Harry and friends are not. Seeing as Buffy and Harry Potter are two of my favourite things and I love comparing them, I have some thoughts on this subject.

I can’t disagree with the main point the author makes about Harry himself: I wouldn’t call him a nerd or a geek. It’s true that Harry is a jock, and that his fame and wealth give him some social status in the wizarding world. Some of the author’s other arguments, however, are more debatable. For example:

Harry and Ron, on the other hand, are more stereotypical privileged young men who only put forward a C effort in school because they know they can coast into adulthood on their families’ reputation.

This, I think, is blatantly wrong. First of all, the suggestion that Ron can coast through life on the Weasley family reputation seems dubious at best. The Weasleys are pure-bloods, but they are also poor, and we learn that Bill, Charlie, and Percy all work for a living after they graduate from Hogwarts. Arthur Weasley, meanwhile, is viewed by the wizarding community as an oddball (perhaps even … a misfit) because of his interest in Muggles. There is some suggestion that his obsession has even held him back at work.

I also think it’s unfair to condemn Harry and Ron as slackers. Sure, they might sleep through History of Magic — to be fair, everyone except Hermione also sleeps through that class — and BS their way through Divination — a subject even Hermione thinks is a load of crap —  but they work hard in the classes they enjoy, and there are many instances in the books where we see the two of them working frantically at their schoolwork. Are they more likely to skip doing homework than Hermione is? Yes. Is almost everyone else at Hogwarts also more likely to skip doing homework than Hermione is? Well, yes. She’s Hermione. I will agree that Harry and Ron may not be the most academically-inclined people in the world, but then neither are their Scooby Gang counterparts, Buffy and Xander.

And what of Hermione? I would think someone who loves schoolwork and reading as much as she does must have some nerd cred, but according to the author Hermione “still doesn’t rise to the level of a true geek character” because she’s beautiful and she dates Viktor Krum. This is a stretch. Hermione might grow up to be attractive, but she is explicitly described as being quite mousy in the first few books. The reaction from other Hogwarts students when she shows up at the Yule Ball looking pretty borders on cruel: Parvati gapes at her in “unflattering disbelief” that that’s Hermione Granger. As for Viktor Krum, while he’s certainly dashing on a broomstick, Harry notes that he’s much less impressive with his feet on the ground. It is possible that Krum himself is a bit of a misfit who just happens to be a world famous Quidditch player, too. At any rate: if the Scooby Gang is the standard by which all bands of misfits are to be judged, then I must admit that I’m struggling to see much of a difference in this respect between Hermione and her Scooby equivalent, Willow, who dates (ye gads!) a musician.

Regarding Harry himself: as several commenters on the original post pointed out, it’s worth noting that he spends significant parts of the series being shunned because many of his classmates suspect him of being evil (Chamber of Secrets), wildly egotistical (Goblet of Fire), or deranged (Order of the Phoenix). Clearly, the special status Harry gains from being “the boy who lived” is not always a positive thing: just like Buffy, whose gifts make her a social outcast, Harry often feels like a freak. Think about how many times he faints or has a Voldemort-related seizure in public over the course of the series. That’s got to be more than a little embarrassing for a teenager. Before he came to the wizarding world, too, Harry was most definitely a misfit: he was forced to wear Dudley’s hand-me-downs and was constantly bullied by Dudley and his friends, who made sure that Harry had no friends of his own. It’s this aspect of Harry’s background that I think defines how he perceives himself, much more than his new status in the wizarding world as a star athlete and celebrity.

Aside from all that, what really made me react to this blog post is that I have always considered the wider social circles within which the Scooby trio and the Potter trio move to be extremely similar precisely because the two heroes share an ability to look past a misfit-like exterior and see an individual’s true value. Neville is probably the nerdiest kid in Gryffindor and Luna is, let’s face it, a total weirdo, but they both become valued and well-liked friends to the trio. Anya may be a strangely literal ex-demon with little understanding of human customs, but she’s on Buffy’s team. Faith and Andrew are both former villains who find a place in the group.

This ability to be accepting of difference extends to looking past the conventional wisdom on the supposedly innate characteristics of various magical or supernatural creatures. For Buffy, this means taking Angel, a vampire, as an ally. The rest of the Scooby Gang is (mostly) comfortable with having Angel on the team, but Kendra can’t understand this at all: to her, all vampires are just plain evil and should always be killed. In season four, a similar situation arises when Riley finds out that Oz is a werewolf. His Initiative training makes him question why Buffy would associate with such a creature, but Buffy and the others know Oz as a person and ultimately Riley comes around. There is an obvious Potter parallel to this in Prisoner of Azkaban when Professor Lupin is revealed to be a werewolf: Ron, raised with the belief that werewolves are evil, is initially repulsed when he learns the truth, but in the end Lupin remains a trusted friend to the group. Harry, Ron, and Hermione also understand that although Hagrid is half giant, he is a kind and goodhearted person; that Dobby is not merely a slave, but an ally and friend who deserves the respect of a proper burial. Griphook, used to being treated as a lower life form, is obviously struck by Harry’s behaviour, commenting that his actions in Dobby’s case mark him as a very “unusual” wizard. Spike, meanwhile, who is despised and rejected by almost everyone, tells Buffy: “I know that I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man.”

To my mind, the fact that Harry and Buffy’s evil-fighting social circles are inclusive, taking in the social outcasts and misfits others might perceive as having no value, is one of the things that makes them so similar as characters.

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People in the opening credits aren’t supposed to die.

It’s been interesting reading what people are saying online today about last night’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  The episode, entitled “Baelor,” is the penultimate episode of Thrones‘ season, and featured the death of a major character. (Don’t worry: I’ll warn you before I spoil anything more than that.) Reactions are passionate and very mixed, ranging from “It was absolutely brilliant! This is the best show on TV!” to “I’ll never watch that show again and also, I’ve cancelled HBO.”

All this fuss about the death of a character brings to my mind Joss Whedon’s famous line about the writer’s duty to give the audience the story it needs, as opposed to the story it wants, or thinks it wants. Talking about how his fans’ reactions to his work affect him, Whedon said:

It always affects me. At the same time, I need to give them what they need, not what they want. They need to have their hearts broken. They need to see change. They hated Oz, and then they hated that he left. These things are inevitable. If people are freaking out, I’m good. If people are going, “Hmmm…well, that was fine,” I’m fucked. (Source.)

There’s no doubt here that Joss Whedon is a master at breaking fans’ hearts. I remember watching the first season of Angel and being absolutely devastated by Doyle’s death, so much so that I think I even stopped watching the show at that point. (I picked it up again during season three.) Doyle was in the opening credits, and was positioned as a main character on the show. He was featured in all the promotional material. He was given backstory. Most of all, he was a nice guy and the audience liked him. And then, in episode nine, he died. People were not happy: this article published at the time that sums up the reactions to Doyle’s death.

You could basically take that article, switch out “Doyle” for the name of the deceased Game of Thrones character, and get an accurate recap of the reactions to this most recent TV death. It seems that not much has changed in the 11 years since Joss Whedon killed off Doyle. (Sidenote: I can’t believe it’s been that long.) To paraphrase Zap2it’s TV Gal (Amy Amatangelo), you don’t kill people who are in the opening credits! It just isn’t done! TV Gal wrote this in reference to the shocking death of a major character in the first season of 24:

Didn’t they know the rules? People in the opening credits aren’t supposed to die. We now take it for granted that those who come in contact with Jack Bauer often don’t live to tell the tale. But in the show’s first season, it was a brave and risky move that proved no one is safe in Jack’s world and there would never be such a thing as job security on the popular FOX series. (Source.)

Looking at the anger the producers of Angel and Game of Thrones have faced over killing off major characters … well, yeah. Apparently axing an important and well-liked cast member is just about the bravest and riskiest thing a TV showrunner can do.

I understand being distraught and/or enraged about the death of a favourite character, but I’m no longer inclined to stop watching something just because a person I liked died, as I did back in the day with Angel. I don’t mind a little darkness in my stories. I don’t expect everyone to live happily ever after. Sometimes character death pushes a story forward in really fascinating ways. Angel (a different death), Six Feet Under, and Dexter come to mind. Having read the novel on which Game of Thrones is based, I know for sure that last night’s death was necessary.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Behind the jump, the name of the character who died on last night’s Game of Thrones is revealed.

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God Only Knows

Big Love, a show I’ve watched and enjoyed on HBO for five seasons, aired its final episode on Sunday night. I can’t say that Big Love is one of my favourite shows, but I’ve always found it entertaining. The best thing about it for me is the huge number of non-stereotypical female characters it presents. Bill Henrickson’s three wives — Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) — are the three main women on the show, and the most fully-developed. But plenty of other intriguing women have shared the stage with them, notably: Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), Bill and Barb’s teenaged daughter; Bill’s mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and Nicki’s mother Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), both of whom were brought up at the polygamist compound, Juniper Creek; other compound-raised women including problem child Rhonda, Nicki’s daughter Cara Lynn, Bill’s unstable sister-in-law Wanda, twins Kathy and Jodeen, the androgynous Selma Greene, and Alby’s wife Laura; and regular Mormon women like Barb’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn!) and sister, Sarah’s friend Heather,  and the Henricksons’ neighbour Pam. Basically, Big Love was overrun with female characters, most of whom didn’t quite fit into any of the normal roles for women on TV.

The show placed all these women in a highly repressive, male-dominated society, and yet they were the ones who shone; they were, at least in my opinion, generally far more likeable (with a few notable exceptions *cough* Rhonda *cough*) and almost always much more intriguing than their male counterparts. Series creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer said in an interview for TVLine that it was always their intention to make the show about the women:

Scheffer: The show has always been a feminist show, which I think people didn’t always understand. And some people were put off by the fact that these women were quote-unquote under the thumb of a patriarchal jerk. But it’s always been a show about the bonds between women, about the way that women subvert power when they’re in [oppressive] situations.

I thought last night’s finale, entitled “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” did an excellent job of bringing this fact home. In the process, it made a few very interesting statements about its lead male character, Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton), and his role in the world and his family. It was a solid finale: less spectacular than many shows’ final episodes (for me, Angel and Six Feet Under are the standard bearers for TV endings), but satisfying nonetheless. I felt the writers succeeded at wrapping up most of the many ongoing story arcs — which is pretty impressive, because after the penultimate episode I couldn’t imagine how they’d possibly tie up the seemingly endless different plot threads in just one episode — and left viewers with some ideas to ponder. The more I think about “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” the more I like it.

For a few of my thoughts on the episode, follow the jump.

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