Friday, June 24, 2011

Spoiling the Unspoilable

Elton John recently released an album with Leon Russell titled The Union. The initial track (“If It Wasn’t for Bad”) contains a line in the chorus that reads “If it wasn’t for bad you’d be good.” It’s a great song overall, but that specific verse should be the tagline for The Killing, the new TV drama series on AMC that just wrapped up its first season. The show has garnered  a decent sized following for a Sunday night cable drama, which has in turn allowed for the bubbling vitriol and outrage towards how the season was handled overall, most notably the finale (which pretty much everyone has expressed distaste for in the immediate aftermath). I, too, thought the episode sucked. I also thought it was really smart.

The oddly ironic thing about The Killing’s Season 1 finale (a show based on mystery and cliffhangers from week to week) is that it’s almost impossible to spoil; discussing the episode might spoil things that happen within that specific episode (if, say, you have watched the whole season but have yet to see that particular one), but there is no big reveal that will ruin it for those who were planning on watching in the future (although after the recent fury surrounding the show, I’m not sure why you’d subject yourself to that). What’s also interesting is how the show overall relates to both the Hangover and Hangover Part II, yet for two separate and entirely different reasons.

Without going into extensive detail, The Killing is a police drama that abandons the serialized, week-to-week format of shows like Law & Order, NYPD Blue, or CSI. Instead of each episode featuring the cops trying to solve a different crime or murder, the entire 13-episode season focused on the murder of one teenage girl, with each episode representing a single day in the investigation. In addition to showing the police work, we also got to see how the family of the victim handled the incident, as well as a few other viewpoints that are too irrelevant or inconsequential to waste words on. The idea from the beginning (or at least the audience’s assumed idea) was that this abnormal format would allow for (1) deeper context of the investigation, (2) more in-depth knowledge of our characters, and (3) a big pay-off in which we discover who the murderer was. In the end, I suppose we (as the audience) got the first thing, didn’t really get the second thing, and (here’s the unspoilable spoiler alert) definitely didn’t get the third thing. There was no big pay-off. After a whole season, we still don’t know who the killer is. We have a better understanding of what happened, and we know a few people that are innocent, but we have no guilty party. The result is as clear now as it was during the first commercial break of the premiere. There’s nothing to spoil. We’re still in the dark.

This is the major thing that pissed off viewers, but we’ll get to that later. One of the things I found intriguing was how much the show (and more specifically, the finale) related to the Hangover Part II. Similar to The Killing, the second installment of the Hangover series is relatively unspoilable. Read any review of the film, or ask any one of your friends that has gone to see it, and you invariably hear the same thing, over and over: it was EXACTLY like the first one. It wasn’t as good as the initial film, didn’t have quite as many funny moments, and took place in a different location – but in the end, followed the exact same formula and storyline as the original. Sure, specific plot points or jokes could be spoiled or ruined if you haven’t seen it, but that’s about it. If you’ve seen the first, then you’ve already seen a funnier, more well-crafted and relatable version of the second. You can’t spoil something if you’ve already experienced it. Or, in the case of The Killing, if you haven’t really learned anything more than those that haven’t experienced it at all.

Nevertheless, the sub-par product that the Hangover Part II offers, and the fact that it’s unspoilable, provided no negative consequences for the amount of money the movie earned. This is all due to the original Hangover, which leads to how the first film also relates to the AMC drama, albeit in a backwards sort of way. The Hangover became a shocking success in the cinematic realm, far exceeding the expectations that were set for it (which really weren’t that high to begin with). The movie has made nearly $470 million worldwide, which for a while made it the highest grossing R-rated comedy ever. This mark was recently eclipsed by the Hangover Part II, which has already pulled in close to $490 million worldwide, and has a great chance to pass the $500 million mark soon. But the second film really owes all of its financial success to the critical and mainstream success that the first movie received. Think about it: no one really likes the second installment all that much, and certainly no one favors it to the first. But it’s still made more money, almost entirely because of the respect viewers had for the former.

For example, I knew that I would almost undoubtedly never like the second film nearly as much as its predecessor. Once the reviews started to trickle out, this was basically a lock. And then even after hearing friends and peers tell me how mediocre it was, and how much it completely copied the first, it was clear that I would ultimately be disappointed. And you know what? I still paid money to go see it. After all of that, I still knew how much I enjoyed the original, enjoyed the characters and the storyline and ridiculous plot, and I wanted to spend time in that realm again. I had such a good time the first go-round that I didn’t mind paying for a second trip, despite knowing it wouldn’t be as enjoyable. I guess it’s somewhat similar to why people go to Disney World twice.

Anyways, this all takes us back to The Killing, because in my mind, the creative team for the show has attempted to pull off the same feat that the Hangover achieved. Despite early favorable reviews, the show went south very quickly.  And yet, the ratings remained decent, due heavily to the fact that a lot of viewers were hanging around simply to find out who the killer was. By the time the show started to stumble, the audience had already been hanging on for 5 or 6 episodes. They may have no longer been as invested in the show, but they figured they might as well stick it out and see it through. I certainly felt this way, and I personally know others that did too. Hey, maybe the ending would even prove to be a worthy pay-off. But because all of these people hung around, the ratings remained good, which therefore led to the show being renewed for a second season.

At the time of this announcement, I figured I would just finish the season, find out who the killer was, and then abandon the show and any future episodes. I think the show-runners figured the same thing, which (in my opinion) led to the decision to NOT reveal the killer by the end of season one. No big pay-off. End it with just as much uncertainty as it began with. As a viewer, this totally sucked. It ticked me off. But as I mentioned before, it was also really smart. Now, I’ve already decided I’ll watch the second season, at least until I know who committed the murder. The show’s futility has brought me back, which is really the ultimate goal. Sure, the team behind The Killing would love to be critically successful and popular, but there are plenty of shows in that boat that didn’t last very long. In the end, viewership is what defines success, because that’s what brings in the money.

Very few critics would argue that Two and a Half Men is better than Parks and Recreation, but guess which has more viewers? Ergo, guess which brings in more money? It’s the same reason that the Hangover Part II is viewed as such a success, and really, an even bigger one than the first. It wasn’t as good, but it made more money and had more viewers. And just like the Hangover, The Killing is attempting to retain (and possibly bring in) an audience based solely on the reaction to the initial installment. Although the obvious difference is that the Hangover achieved it’s residual success by being a good movie, while The Killing is attempting to achieve some semblance of triumph (which I believe it can do) by…sucking.

I’m sure there are a lot of people that feel the same as I do, being dragged into a second season due to the shortcomings of the first. There are also a lot of others that are claiming to be done with the show forever, which I have a hard time believing. Those same people have already stuck through half of a crappy season, so what reason is there to think they won’t do the same thing again? They obviously want to know who the killer is, because that’s the only reason they were still hanging on. Something makes me think they’ll be around a little bit longer.

Ultimately, I was terribly unhappy with how The Killing ended its primary season. As a normal human being that likes to enjoy and be entertained by the TV I watch, I’m not at all content with the direction the show has taken. And yet, I can’t help but admire and respect the attempt to keep me as a viewer – the ruthless, patronizing, demeaning, seedy, and wickedly genius attempt.

If it wasn’t for bad, it’d be good.

Thanks for reading

Friday, June 17, 2011

Are you Master of Your Domain?

I was watching Seinfeld the other day (by the way, I start about 78% of my conversations this way), and it happened to be the episode entitled “The Opera.” Without getting into too much detail, the episode revolves around Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine all attending an opera performance of Pagliachi. But really, the opera just serves as a plot device that eventually allows for the revelation (for the characters on the show) that Elaine’s new boyfriend Joey is actually (minor and recurring character) “Crazy” Joe Davola , who had terrorized Jerry and Kramer for quite some time. As the audience, we already know the situation from the beginning of the episode, but still get to see the disclosure of Elaine’s Joe and “Crazy” Joe Davola as one in the same, through the eyes of the Seinfeld gang.

Early in the episode, Elaine makes an unannounced visit to Davola’s apartment, still unaware at the moment how weird and crazy this guy actually is. After entering his slightly opened door, she finds an oddly run-down apartment with a collage of pictures on the wall, each of which was secretly taken of her by Davola. Basically, it is evidence of how mentally unstable Joe Davola happens to be. It is at this moment that Davola sneaks up on Elaine, startling her even further. Suddenly overcome with fear, Elaine nervously asks if Davola is ok, offering that he doesn’t “seem himself.” It is to this that Davola replies, “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?” Obviously, Davola is asking this in a creepy, snarky way, but you can still detect a sense of sincerity in his questioning. He is simultaneously lambasting Elaine for suggesting a lack of “normalcy,” while at the same time understatedly acknowledging that he too is a little unsure about how he fits into the grand scheme of customary reality. What was interesting though, is that I have watched this episode and this scene probably a minimum of 25 times in my life, and yet found myself with a completely new interpretation of it this time around. After hearing Davola utter those two queries, I immediately thought of LeBron James.

The star-studded Miami Heat recently lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, thanks in large part to big-time resiliency and clutch performances from the entire Dallas squad, as well as a complete and utter meltdown by Mr. James. The criticism that has been faced by the Heat and LeBron over the course of the season has been well documented, as James has continually been viewed as a punk for jettisoning his hometown team to join up with another star player in order to win a title – electing to play Scottie Pippen to Dwyane Wade’s Michael Jordan, as opposed to manning up and winning on his own.  Nevertheless, for a while there, it looked like LeBron was ready to communally rub our noses in the rewards of his “Decision.”

The Heat ripped through the initial three rounds of the playoffs, and LeBron’s inspired and impressive all-around play was a major reason why. After a pretty easy win in Game 1 of the Finals, it looked like Miami’s Big 3 would live up to the hype, simultaneously telling each of their many, many naysayers and cynics to “shove it.” And LeBron James would be front and center for every last bit of it, basking in the glory of his “wussy” choice. Then all of sudden, LeBron disappeared. Shrunk.  He came up noticeably small, stringing together games that ranged from mediocre to pretty unimpressive. The more the pressure of the moment and media spotlight were turned towards him, wondering when he would step up and prove he was the best player in the game, the faster he seemed to crumble. Dallas won four of the next five games, with LeBron serving mainly as a glorified bystander to the Maverick’s triumph. On his face, you could see the same Davola-esque mixture of devilish and confused emotions. As the basketball world delighted in his shortcomings and searched for answers, you could almost hear LeBron muttering under his breath: “Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?”

This may not help my popularity in Cleveland (which is kind of like having the best wardrobe in a nudist colony) but I personally feel like LeBron James takes a little more flack than he actually deserves. Whether it be from fans or the media, the rubric by which we grade him and the scrutiny we bestow on him is slightly on the harsh side. Now it certainly isn’t lost on me that LeBron brings a great deal of this criticism and scrutiny on himself, due to a mixture of the way he acts, the talents he possesses, and the amount of money he makes. I get that. But that still doesn’t mean the disparagement can’t go overboard at times. I see James as similar to someone like George W. Bush or Tom Cruise, a public figure who is probably viewed a little too critically by mainstream culture, despite the fact that a great deal of that blame lands squarely and rightfully on his shoulders. Admittedly, it would be a lot easier for LeBron to handle it if he was racking up NBA titles and Finals MVPs. He’d probably end up making a lot of people eat a lot of crow for questioning/doubting him in the first place. Instead, he’s only adding more fuel to the fire, and leaving us to ask the very same questions Davola did.

The distinction between criticism and over-criticism regarding James has become dependent on the variations in his production. To me, the vitriol and hostility is unwarranted (to the degree in which it’s leveled) about 80% of the time. Over the course of this season and his career in general, LeBron has been everything you would look for in a star ballplayer. He plays hard on both ends of the court, plays big minutes night in and night out, chooses to score or facilitate based on which scenario will help the team win, and exhibits at least some amount of leadership. And yet, it can’t be ignored that throughout the NBA Finals, when all those superstar qualities are needed the most, LeBron regressed, wandering aimlessly around the court like the chunky, uncoordinated kid during a pick-up game.

In Game 5, James became only the fourth player EVER to record a triple-double in a Finals game, joining the ranks of Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan, and Rajon Rondo. Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell, Bryant…none of them were able to put together a complete stat line in a Finals contest quite like LeBron did. And yet, it can’t be ignored that the triple-double came in a loss, following a Game 4 in which James shot a paltry 3-11 from the field and prior to a decisive Game 6 in which he spent the start of the fourth quarter on the bench and finished with 6 turnovers and a +/- of -24.

In the Game 4 loss, Dwyane Wade missed a game-tying free throw with 30 seconds left, followed by him flubbing an inbounds pass in the final seconds with the Heat down three. If this same chain of events had occurred to LeBron James instead of Wade, James would have been crucified by the media over the next few days. Wade, on the other hand, escaped the situation largely unscathed, illuminating an obvious double-standard. And yet, it can’t be ignored that LeBron had only 18 points in the fourth quarter…over the course of the entire six-game series. In every big, late-game moment, James was either playing hot potato or hiding in the corner, making himself as invisible as a 6’-8”, 250 lb freak of an athlete could possibly be.

But in the end, every LeBron James argument or discussion inevitably circles back to the idea that LeBron could (and should) be the next MJ, when instead, he is playing and acting a lot more like Pippen. To me, this is the biggest problem in assessing James. Why are we focusing so hard on pigeonholing him into one of the MJ-Pippen roles? Why does he have to be one or the other? The truth is, he’s neither. We’ve yet to discover what type of player he actually is, and how he fits (or will fit) into the spectrum of success and stardom in the NBA. No one has quite been able to distinguish the mystery flavor that is King James.

LeBron has been touted as the “chosen one” since he was a junior in high school. If you look at him as the two-time MVP, five-time NBA First Team member and seven-time All-Star that he is, then you could certainly argue that he has lived up to the hype.  But if you’re looking at his hands for championship rings, or at his crunch-time performances for his killer instinct and clutch gene, then you’re coming up with nothing. As of right now, we just don’t know who LeBron James is or is going to be as a basketball player. And just like “Crazy” Joe Davola, LeBron seems as unsure as the rest of us.

The scene with Elaine in Davola’s apartment ends when she escapes after spraying Cherry Binaca in Joe’s eyes. (In print, I realize how dark and demented that entire scene must seem if you’ve never seen the episode. But if you have seen it, then you know how freaking hilarious the whole thing is.) Honestly, I have no idea how LeBron’s story will play out. No one does, himself included. It’s practically impossible to make even a semi-confident prediction, because the path could go in so many different directions. In any event, I’m intrigued to find out who exactly LeBron James turns out to be.

And if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that in the end, I’ll be able to find a Seinfeld episode that somehow relates to the whole thing.

Thanks for reading