Monday, September 12, 2016

Why did I watch a show every week I didn't really like?

BRAINDEAD has concluded its summer run. I ended up watching the whole thing. But the suspense for me was not wondering what was going to happen, it was whether or not I figured out why I just couldn’t get into this show. I felt like Dr. House wrestling with why a patient suddenly spoke French and his thumbs turned into ping-pong paddles.

I certainly give the show props for being ambitious. Trying to be a comedy/drama/satire/romance/political/sci-fi/farce/procedural/titillating/horror/thriller is not easy. The creators are Robert & Michelle King who will forever be in the TV writers’ Hall of Fame (as if there was such a thing) for THE GOOD WIFE alone. (Did Kirk Gibson ever have to do more than hit that dramatic home run in the 1988 World Series? Or Sharon Stone having to… you know … in BASIC INSTINCT?)

There were moments when BRAINDEAD was inspired fun. Unfortunately, the show was an hour.

So what went wrong? Or what went right but didn’t last?

I don’t have any definitive answers, just some theories. But here goes.

I think the show needed to declare just what it was. THE GOOD WIFE was clearly a drama with touches of comedy sprinkled in from time to time. But comedy did not have do any heavy lifting. MASH was a comedy with dramatic underpinnings. For hour comedies, I dunno, maybe ALLY MCBEAL?

The tone would shift on BRAINDEAD from moment to moment and you just had no idea what you were watching.

For me, the best part of the show (by a mile) was the musical recaps by singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. They were hilarious. During one episode he also did a recap of a GUNSMOKE episode. This device clearly tells you you’re watching a quirky comedy. Then the show begins and there’s long discussions about senate appropriation bills and a hidden plan to install internment camps. Huh? For several weeks the thrust of episodes would be swarms of alien ants entering peoples’ brains in delicious horror flick fashion. Then the last few episodes someone must’ve discovered RAID because that storyline disappeared.

Now it’s not unusual for a show to find its groove several episodes in. The producers see what works and steer towards that. Part of why I stick with BRAINDEAD is that I feel sooner or later they will. It’s uneven now but they’ll find the right direction.
Another issue, the characters aren’t in the same show. Tony Shalhoub is clearly in a comedy. And it’s soooo obvious he’s having a ball playing this deranged senator. Series star Mary Elizabeth Winstead is in a drama. I find her lovely and real, but Mary Liz is not naturally funny. Or so it seems from this show. What’s developed is that the characters who are infiltrated by the ants are in a comedy and the ones who are ant-free are in a drama. And the scenes between them tend to be awkward.

Also, the main character isn’t very active. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is primarily a reactor. People say weird things to her or act out in strange ways and she’s required to give them a look of “Okay, THAT was unexpected.” You could play a drinking game with how many times she's asked to do that during the course of one episode. Yes, she’s trying to get to the bottom of this conspir-ant-cy, but most of the time she is content to sit at her desk and wait for the next crisis to rear its evil antennae.

The visual tone is also a little schitzo. This too is understandable. Different directors come in and bring different strengths. At its best, the show tries to be somewhat Coen Brothers-esque. Odd angles, push ins and push outs, actors looking directly into the camera. Some directors pull it off better than others. On movies you have the advantage of one director with a consistent vision. Not so in TV, which is why networks want to hire movie directors to direct pilots. They establish a look and tone and hopefully the series directors can copy it. I suspect BRAINDEAD is hard on directors for all the problems I have with the show. Is this scene dramatic or tongue-in-cheek? Do bizarre angles enhance or detract from this moment?

I hope BRAINDEAD figures it out (assuming it comes back – a big assumption). Creatively, they’re walking a real tightrope that few can maneuver. I think of DR. STRANGELOVE as being one vehicle that did masterfully. But all of the characters, although deadly serious, had wacky points-of-view, and despite its extremely dramatic subject matter, the satire and absurdity of the situation hung over everything. As directed by Stanley Kubrick, DR. STRANGELOVE was definitely a comedy. Every so often the Coen Brothers can also strike a perfect “Fargo” balance.

So that's why I hung in there until the bitter end.  And if it ever resurfaces I'll give it another chance.  Maybe they'll figure it out.  Personally, I hope they veer more towards comedy, if for no other reason than to keep doing  the Jonathan Coulton recaps.

14 comments:

BA said...

'The visual tone is also a little schitzo". One reason I don't watch "CSI" shows and such is they seem to take place under a sad blue light with grim percussion stings. Modern sitcoms seem so bright, rushed and slick I feel I'm being warmly greeted while they push me toward the exit and commercials (If that's what you mean by visual tone).

HollywoodMozart said...

So right, BA! Amazing, isn't it, how the music is either perfect or it detracts… Kind of like an anchorman's necktie being crooked while he breaks a world-shaking story… You don't hear a word he says.

What a great, fresh trendsetter the music was for "Desperate Housewives". And now, the "me too" boys have borrowed so much from that feel, that instead of providing production value for their own stories, instead it transports the viewer out of the scene and distractingly takes them them back to Desperate Housewives because the music was so highly identifiable that it became part of that brand.

A good parallel is the dominance and high identifiability of the KHJ radio logo many years ago. But as Radio became diluted with so many formats that no one was dominant anymore, one wonders the same thing about how other stations adopted (ok, stole) the exact musical logo and then wondered where their identity went! (Cue music: "I Gotta Be Me.... " Cuts off abruptly in the middle of the phrase).

Individuality, identifiability, dominance in ratings success, creativity and independent thinking… Zip)

HollywoodMozart said...

So right, BA! Amazing, isn't it, how the music is either perfect or it detracts… Kind of like an anchorman's necktie being crooked while he breaks a world-shaking story… You don't hear a word he says.

What a great, fresh trendsetter the music was for "Desperate Housewives". And now, the "me too" boys have borrowed so much from that feel, that instead of providing production value for their own stories, instead it transports the viewer out of the scene and distractingly takes them them back to Desperate Housewives because the music was so highly identifiable that it became part of that brand.

A good parallel is the dominance and high identifiability of the KHJ radio logo many years ago. But as Radio became diluted with so many formats that no one was dominant anymore, one wonders the same thing about how other stations adopted (ok, stole) the exact musical logo and then wondered where their identity went! (Cue music: "I Gotta Be Me.... " Cuts off abruptly in the middle of the phrase).

Individuality, identifiability, dominance in ratings success, creativity and independent thinking… Zip)

Rashad Khan said...

"BrainDead" is a good example of what happens when a TV series tries to be all things to all viewers.

Breadbaker said...

I realize you're a Dodger fan and all, but Kirk Gibson's home run to win the 1984 World Series had already assured his immortality. The 1984 Tigers were a bigger national story than the 1988 Dodgers, back in the day when teams were given airtime based on performance and not population.

VP81955 said...

In Ken's defense, Gibson was the 1988 National League MVP (voted on regular-season achivement, and I believe balloting finished before the World Series). Some Mets fans believed Darryl Strawberry deserved the honor. I frankly didn't care at the time, then being a Phillies fan (there being no baseball in Washington, something MLB finally rectified 17 years later).

Speaking of wrongs being righted, the NFL officially returns to Los Angeles with the Rams' game in Santa Clara tonight against the archrival 49ers. It reminds me so much of how D.C. felt in 2005 with the Nationals' arrival (although it would be more comparable if the Twins or Rangers had relocated rather than the Montreal Expos). I just wish the Rams would revert to the classic royal blue and gold uniforms they wore during their glory days (four division titles and one NFL championship from 1949 to 1955). The current navy blue and metallic gold has St. Louis all over it.

Dave Creek said...

I know a lot of people post STAR TREK references here, but this is relevant to the discussion of visuals and music. I'm increasingly tired of the dark look of so many dramas these days, and the lack of a distinctive musical score.

In watching some of those old TREKS on BBC America this past weekend, I was struck by how brightly lit they were. I realize some of that was NBC wanting to sell color TVs, and that we couldn't go back to that kind of style. But I wish producers would have their lighting people and set designers strike a balance, especially with some genre shows that are supposed to be fun and full of adventure (an exception that makes sense being dark is GOTHAM).

And the TREK music was front and center in many episodes, carrying a lot of the emotional weight. Again, much of it sounds cheesy to modern ears, but can't current producers allow their composers to actually provide melodies, and let the music carry the mood sometimes? Anything would be better than the endless, unchanging strings interrupted by the occasional boom of percussion.

Rhonda Schneider said...

I loved it. Maybe I just love weird stuff. I was also a big fan of Max Headroom, Freaks and Geeks, Neighbors, Man Seeking Woman, etc. Anything that spins my brain around a little and makes me look at things differently. (Notice a pattern. Most of them didn't last very long.)

About Braindead, of course the Laurel character (Winstead) was in a drama. She was idealistic and still hoped she could make a difference. The Wheatus character (Shalhoub) was in a comedy because he was completely jaded and lived to amuse himself. Not only didn't think he could change anything, he didn't want to. Politics was a game to him and he played it for entertainment. I think that was part of the point of the show.

Rhonda Schneider said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff R said...

Hi Ken -

Just home from Maui and while listened to "Native 92.5"...lots of island music to keep me in the Hawaii Vacation mood!
I did laugh out loud when I heard the Cheers theme done in a Reggae/Island style...I immediately thought of you at KTNQ and this blog...my wife couldn't figure out why I was laughing so hard!!

Mork said...

Watching Gibby's '84 homer even today gives me chills. Perhaps the best part of it, aside from the homer itself, was the fact that a) Vin Scully was calling the game; and b) when Gibson hit the ball, Vin was smart enough to know that there was nothing even he could say that would improve upon the pictures, so he just stopped talking, all the way through the following batter.

Back to "Braindead", you're absolutely right about Coulton's recaps; I watched the entire series, and I've a hunch that had those recaps not been there to pull me in each week, I might have given up on the show.

Maybe it's just me, but why can't a show be two different things at once? Seriously--why is a show like this not allowed to be a drama *and* a comedy *and* sci-fi? Maybe crossing between the genres didn't bother me as much as it did you, but I never had any problems with Tony Shaloub being over-the-top silly in the same show (hell, even in the same scenes) as other people being serious.

As for "abandoning" the storyline of space bugs crawling into peoples' ears, I thought that was a good thing. If each week's episode is about space bugs crawling into peoples' ears and our three heroes trying to stop the space bugs from crawling into peoples' ears, I'm not coming back next week, because I already know what's going to happen: space bugs will crawl into peoples' ears and our three heroes will try and stop the space bugs from crawling into peoples' ears. There's only so many ways for Laurel to duct tape styrofoam cups to her head. I was glad they moved on to bigger picture stories.

I'm with you on the direction; it felt like there were a lot of wide-angle shots in the second-to-last episode that didn't do anything but be disorienting and distracting. And the one thing you didn't mention that I really, really didn't like was (tip-toeing around it, trying to be spoiler-free) when the cops pulled out Gustav's ID and found out who he really was. I kept waiting for him to reveal that it was a fake ID or something, but it never came.

All in all, I enjoyed it; it wasn't brilliant television, but it was fun summer viewing. Glad they wrapped up all of the storylines, and in a way that leaves a second season possible, but if it doesn't come back, I won't find myself tremendously disappointed.

Tom Lawrence said...

Speaking of shows I watched every week and loved: What are the best "M*A*S*H" episodes?
I watched "As You Were" and "Crisis" tonight. Those are right at the top of my list. After all the years and joy, I still laughed aloud at these classics.

"We'll do it, me and the missus." -- Hawkeye, in a gorilla suit, with the identically outfitted Trapper John, agreeing to perform a hernia surgery on Frank.

"There's your lounge lizard at war." -- Frank Burns, referring to Hawkeye being, well, Hawkeye
"That one I gotta write down." -- Trapper

"Better bring the brass monkeys in tonight," Henry offering sound advice on a bitterly cold night

The wonderful AV Club offered its take, including a great one from Ken and David Issacs.

http://www.avclub.com/article/10-classic-episodes-of-imashi-84329

May I ask your faves, Ken, both as a fan and a writer/producer?
Thanks for laughs, man.

Chris Riesbeck said...

I haven't watched the last episode yet but I'm happy any time I get something original, with decent acting, scripting, and a sympathetic attitude to multiple characters.

thirteen said...

I loved it and I'm sorry it's gone. I guess I appreciated the schizo nature of the thing. I also liked looking at Ms. Winstead.

That said, I hope it doesn't return. There's no more story to tell; it's done. They hinted at a Wall Street follow-up, but I don't know how they could make it different enough to be interesting.