Sherlock Who? The Brilliance of Steven Moffat

I was never a fan of the original Doctor Who. Maybe I would have been if I’d given it half a chance — a science-fiction-writer friend of mine was so enamored of it that he was guest of honor once at a Doctor Who convention — but whenever I’d catch a few minutes of it on my local PBS station it looked like a science fiction home movie filmed in someone’s basement. (I still can’t bring myself to sit through those old episodes, even though I’ve now got them on two different streaming services.)

The Doctor and friends

Rory Williams, the Doctor, Amy Pond: Two parents, one child.

But the new Doctor Who, rebooted in 2005 by Russell Davies, is different. For one thing, it looks like it was filmed in a much larger basement, one with a budget for special effects. Even that would be meaningless, though, without good actors, good characters and good writers. The new Doctor Who has those in spades and maybe the old Doctor Who did too; I’ll probably never sit still long enough to find out. Davies cast two wonderful Doctors, Christopher Eccleston (for only one season/series, alas) and David Tennant, and one of the best Companions ever, Britpop singer Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, with her dingbat mother Jackie (Camille Coduri), and deceptively useless boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke). Davies also gave stage actor John Barrowman probably the best television role of his career (Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow not excluded): the irresponsible, omnisexual Captain Jack Sparrow, who was later spun off to his level of incompetence on Chris Chibnall’s Torchwood, an unfortunate move. But that’s another story.

During Davies’ tenure a new writer, Steven Moffat (who had earlier created the Britcom Coupling), appeared on staff and wrote quite a few episodes, including a couple of brilliant ones, “Blink,” which introduced both the Weeping Angels and future movie star Carey Mulligan, and the two-parter “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” which introduced River Song (Alex Kingston), a time traveler who the Doctor didn’t know yet but who definitely knew him. There was no question that River Song would be back; she said as much. The real shock was the way, or several ways, in which she came back.

When Davies dropped out as showrunner after the David Tennant years, Moffat replaced him and recast the Doctor as Matt Smith, who played him with the same manic energy as his predecessors but also with a surprising edge of melancholy. Moffat also introduced a new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who would go on to become as important to Smith as Rose Tyler had been to Eccleston and Tennant, perhaps more so, because her presence on the show ultimately revealed as much about the Doctor as it did about her. The first two-and-a-half seasons of Moffat’s tenure are basically the Amy Pond Cycle and despite the standalone nature of many of the filler episodes — you know, the ones that come between the two-parters — Moffat has managed to make everything seem more coherent, more of a whole, with recurring themes woven throughout a season or half season, even if only in the final moments of each episode: Amy repeatedly glimpsing a crack in space with light pouring out; Amy repeatedly glimpsing a woman with an eye patch staring at her through a rectangular hole; the Doctor repeatedly recalling his own death notice, the one he wasn’t supposed to see with the time and place of his demise printed on it. These recurring images gave each season a focus and the viewer a sense of what sort of startling developments they were hurtling toward.

Okay, if you’re much of a Doctor Who fan at all you probably saw all of this a while ago, but I’m running late and only catching up on the Moffat years now. If I’d known how good they were, I’d have done it sooner. But stick with me. I’m going somewhere here.

The Amy Pond Cycle — and I’ll explain why I call it a “cycle” in a moment, though if you saw it you can probably guess — explores a question that’s always hung over the series like a cloud, but to my knowledge has never been actually addressed on the show itself: Why does the Doctor need a Companion? Sure, the Companion is a kind of audience surrogate and a device for giving the doctor a sounding board for his thoughts and exposition, but you can’t rely for — What is it now? 36 years? — on a screenwriter’s crutch. The companions, who are almost always attractive young women, must mean something to the Doctor and it isn’t sexual (though Davies explored that angle by having Billie Piper’s Rose fall in love with David Tennant’s heartthrob Doctor).

But after some brief sexual tension in the beginning, it became clear that Amy Pond had no romantic designs on Smith’s Doctor. She loved her fiance Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and returned to marry him, with the surprising result that not only did Rory become a co-companion of the Doctor’s but an indispensable member of the cast. Whatever Amy meant to the Doctor, Rory came to mean it too. The idea that the Doctor is a child who likes to run off on impetuous adventures with his chums has been explored before, but never as intensely as Moffat explored it here. Smith’s ageless adolescence eventually outlasts the semi-ageless adolescence of the Ponds (who really should be the Williamses, or at least the Pond-Williamses, but only once, in what looked like it would be her final episode at the end of Season 6, does the Doctor finally call Amy by her married name).

Over time Amy manages to become mother to almost everybody on the show, including the Doctor, her husband and her daughter (and that last twist is so stunning that I’m not even going to mention it in case someone hasn’t seen it). And Rory, as the Centurion, actually manages to become older than the doctor, who’s only 1,200 years old, while Rory makes it to 2,000. Even Amy ages into perhaps her 50s at one point (though that timeline is erased.) In the end his chums have all outgrown him, or at least outmatured him, except perhaps for River, who drops in and out of his life like she drops in and out of the show (but is apparently seeing him on a nightly basis for a while after their marriage, as one episode implies). But it’s Rory, not Amy, who finally points out to the Doctor how irresponsible his flitting around randomly through space/time with innocent people on board the TARDIS is. In the end, the doctor actually outlives the Pond-Williamses (though the show conveniently ignores the fact that he could simply drop back into the 20th century and visit them any time he likes).

I call the Amy Pond era a cycle because — and you probably guessed this — it’s circular, ending with an explanation of why Amy was waiting for him in the first place, even as a little girl, and ends on a shot of her young face. The most significant things revealed about the Doctor during the Pond Cycle are that he can’t stand to be alone and he can barely stand to sit still. He can’t settle down to a normal family life, as he tries to do at one point with the Pond-Williamses. He has to be going somewhere constantly, almost as though he’s running from something, and what he’s running from seems to be loneliness, maybe the loneliness of being the last of the Time Lords, or maybe from his guilt at having been complicit in the destruction of his homeworld, Gallifrey. (Note: Gallifrey is apparently revealed in an upcoming episode to still exist in an alternate universe. How that will affect the Doctor I don’t know, but I suspect it will be up to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor to show us and from the couple of Capaldi episodes I’ve seen, he’ll be different in a number of ways.)

The companions, then, are a hedge against loneliness. But why are they almost always attractive young women? I haven’t watched many of the Clara Oswald episodes yet, but when he meets her (for the second time, as he finally realizes) in “The Snowmen” and asks her to sail away with him on the TARDIS, she asks, “Why me?” And he responds (I’m QFMing here), “I never know why. I only know who.”

Which is about the best description of romantic love I’ve ever heard.

Sherlock

Meanwhile, Moffat has been running a second show based on an even more iconic character, Sherlock Holmes. He’s created (along with Mark Gatiss) what I regard as the best television version of Holmes to date and he’s done it by being faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the only way that matters: in spirit. His Holmes has been lifted out of the late Victorian era and plopped down into our own as if by TARDIS, and the result is that the old stories, or new stories based on the old themes, seem fresh again, as Conan Doyle’s stories must have seemed back when the pages of The Strand hadn’t turned yellow and crumbly yet. It doesn’t hurt that Benedict Cumberbatch’s over-the-top yet tightly controlled performance catches Holmes’ arrogant self-confidence with such convincing bravado that you feel like you’re discovering the character for the first time, even if you finished reading the originals by the time you were out of middle school and read the Solar Pons stories afterward as literary methadone.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: Together again for the first time.

Moffat hasn’t given Sherlock the kind of overarching thematic structure that he magically imposed on Davies’ existing structure for Doctor Who. Instead it’s a show of moments, some large, some small, a great many of them brilliant. And getting better: My favorite moments are from the two most recent episodes, “The Sign of Three” and “His Last Vow,” specifically the drunken bachelor party (What could be better than being inside the head of a drunken Sherlock Holmes?), Holmes’ rambling toast at Watson’s wedding that went from insulting to moving (and I seem to recall that he solved a crime in there someplace too), and his slo-mo near-death sequence after being shot in the chest by an unlikely assassin (and if anything can be better than being in the head of a drunken Sherlock Holmes, it’s being in the head of a dying Sherlock Holmes trying desperately to deduce how NOT to be a dying Sherlock Holmes).

Sherlock could be accused of being everything from maudlin to too-clever-by-half, but that it can be these things and more in such an original and spectacular way is what makes it such transcendentally good TV. (No, I’m not sure what “transcendentally” means either, but I’m not using it to talk about meditation.) The visual innovations are particularly impressive. Some of them remind me of the screen tricks that the CSI shows have been pulling since the early 2000s, but when the first episode began with comical text messages appearing above the cell phones of a room full of reporters at a press conference, I knew that I’d stay with the show for its visual bravura alone and immediately called Amy in to watch with me. (The first season had just hit Netflix.)

It isn’t just the brilliance of Moffat and Gatiss that makes Sherlock so good. It’s seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in what will probably be the best roles they’ll ever be offered and, for Cumberbatch at least, the one that will lead off his obituary several decades from now. Cumberbatch’s talents are so unique that he’s a difficult actor to cast, but in the right role he’s the Olivier of our age. (I suppose that’s self-contradictory in that what made Olivier stand out was his extraordinary range; he was never typed by a single part, not even Heathcliff or his immortal Hamlet. Cumberbatch has range too, but he’s so much more interesting at this end of it that I don’t even enjoy watching him at the other.)

If Cumberbatch goes down as the great British actor of our era, I think Moffat will go down as the great British showrunner of our era — and maybe just the greatest showrunner period. I hope he turns down requests to go Hollywood, except perhaps to develop something for HBO, because there’s something quintessentially English in his style. But if he has the showrunner’s equivalent of Olivier’s range, maybe he can do something quintessentially American too. I’d just rather he not come up against the Hollywood executives who have made such an uneven hash out of the career of his American equivalent, Joss Whedon (and don’t even get me started on J.J. Abrams). I want Moffat to remain forever an original — and as brilliant as he is now.

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Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Age of Multidimensional Media

It wasn’t until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the last six episodes of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I realized just how radical an experiment Marvel Studios is performing with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies and TV shows.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

S.H.I.E.L.D. goes down in flames.

I’m a huge fan of serial TV shows. The broadcast networks have traditionally objected to them because they don’t rerun well and are hard for viewers to catch up with if they haven’t been watching from the beginning, but it’s gotten to the point where, if a show doesn’t have a serious serial continuity, I don’t have any interest in watching it. It turns out that the formula developed many decades ago on radio for soap operas is, in fact, ideal for showcasing what makes television in many ways superior to movies — i.e., the long-term ability to develop characters, relationships and situations such that the whole of a television series becomes greater than any of its individual episodes. But what Marvel Studios is doing with the MCU is even better than serial television. They’ve taken the concept of serial content in a series — of movies, of TV shows — and made it three or even four dimensional. They’re effectively doing something that I’ve only seen done before in one medium: comic books.

Let me back up for a moment. Marvel Studios is the Hollywood wing of Marvel Entertainment Group, which also publishes the Marvel line of comics. That’s the line where, back in the early 1960s, writer/editor Stan Lee and a few artists, primarily Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created what have become some of the most popular superheroes ever to don spandex unitards. The difference is that, in the 60s, their popularity was isolated to comic books and a few animated television shows. Today their popularity has expanded to movies and live-action television (though one character, the Incredible Hulk, achieved live-action TV success as far back as the late 1970s).

Marvel Studios was initially created in 1996 as a clearing house for licensing movie and TV rights to those heroes and, though it did a remarkably good job of attracting buyers, those buyers did an even better job of making money from Marvel-owned properties. Sony parlayed the Amazing Spider-Man into an ongoing series of summer blockbusters and Twentieth Century Fox has created what is, if anything, an even more popular series of movies out of the X-Men and their most popular solo member, Wolverine. (The Hulk, who was initially licensed by Universal, has had a somewhat more checkered cinematic history, and The Fantastic Four, while they turned a profit for Fox, generally proved to be a critical embarrassment in movie form. Fox is scheduled to reboot that series in summer 2015.)

In 2004, Marvel Studios realized that if other companies were making this much money off their characters, they could make even more money, or at least keep a larger percentage of the profits, if they made the movies themselves. They would also have more control over what was done with their characters and concepts. Over the next few years they quietly reacquired the rights to superheroes who either hadn’t done well for other studios (the Hulk) or had never even been given their own films (Iron Man). In 2008 Marvel Studios surprised everyone, or at least critics, by releasing a remarkably good film based on the latter character, who had mostly been a second-string superhero in the comic book world, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as alcoholic billionaire and arms merchant Tony Stark, who escapes from Afghan terrorists and a potentially heart-stopping load of shrapnel in his chest by building a supersuit that not only keeps his heart beating but lets him slug bad guys like the Hulk and fly through the air like Superman.

The real surprise, though, comes at the end of the film, mostly after the credits, when Stark is recruited by Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson and then Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to become part of the Avengers Initiative, a superhero collective being assembled (a pun that old Avengers fans will get) by Marvel’s superspy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. The same basic coda was appended, in one way or another, to the next three films in what Marvel Studios was now calling the MCU: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). (I’ve skipped Iron Man 2 (2010), a film for which this now predictable coda would have been redundant.) While each of these movies was basically standalone or the launching point for a series, it was becoming clear that they were also part of a larger whole. This whole, which eventually became known as Phase One, culminated in Marvel’s The Avengers, the highest-grossing movie of 2012 and the point at which it became clearest that all of these films were taking place in a shared universe, something that had only been hinted at up until then. This shared universe concept is common in superhero comics and has resulted in continuities so tangled that you pretty much need Wikipedia to sort them out, but it has only occasionally been used in films, so occasionally that I’m having trouble thinking of examples. (It’s more common in television, where character crossovers between shows and spinoffs from hit shows were almost a requirement in the 70s and 80s and still occasionally occur, with the interconnections between the Law and Order and CSI shows in the late 2000s probably being the most recent examples, unless the NCIS shows are doing something similar.)

Marvel’s The Avengers took elements and characters, some of them quite minor, from all of the previous films and threw them together into one big superhero soup. Marvel had been doing this in the Avengers comic books since 1963 and comic books in general had been doing this at least since DC Comics launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 back in 1940. Having such a series-jumping chronology in the movies was remarkable but it didn’t become extraordinary until it made the leap to television in the fall of 2013 with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a direct spin-off from Marvel’s The Avengers.

I’ve talked before about how I had great hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also about my frustration that it was taking its sweet time about realizing them. The reason why it was taking so long finally became apparent with the 17th episode, “Turn Turn Turn”: The show’s writers had been waiting for the second Captain America movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to come out.

Just as Captain America: The First Avenger had been, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of Phase One, Winter Soldier was the best movie so far of Phase Two and possibly the best MCU movie yet, better even than Marvel’s The Avengers. (To be fair, Joss Whedon was handed a nearly impossible task in writing and directing The Avengers. He had to balance at least half a dozen major characters, four of whom had film series of their own — or maybe three, the underperforming Hulk having apparently been phased out after Phase One — and all of whom had to be given roughly equal screen time and importance to the plot. Not surprisingly, the standout was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, borrowed from the Thor films, who chewed the scenery with charmingly vengeful gusto as the movie’s villain. More surprisingly, the other standout was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who I’m pretty sure first hit the screen in Iron Man 2, with her clever backhanded method of interrogating villains by making them think they’re interrogating her.)

Winter Soldier ends with — stop here if you’re one of the few MCU fans on earth who still don’t know what happens — the near total disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D., which turns out to have been riddled since World War II with sleeper agents from their sworn enemies, the Nazi carryover organization Hydra. The movie ends with Captain America more or less triumphant but S.H.I.E.L.D. in shambles and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury erroneously believed to be dead. And that’s where it impacted the TV show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the absence of S.H.I.E.L.D. had become a program without a premise and that suited it beautifully. After floundering all season in search of a theme, it had finally found one: a team of agents without an agency trying to defeat the enemy that had stolen it out from under them.

Turn Turn Turn

Things fall apart and S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes very centered.

For the final seven episodes of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the best thing on television — yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which is straining admirably not to start plodding toward its climax the way George R.R. Martin’s books are doing. Agent Coulson’s team developed personality along with purpose. They fought against one another — Agent Ward turned out to be one of the sleeper agents — as well as against other agencies and ended up as a team of self-described vigilantes. The final episode resolves all this a bit too neatly, or at least too quickly, but it leaves some interesting plot threads dangling and the hint that at least one of those threads is going to generate the premise for the second Avengers film, which will terminate Phase Two in 2015.

It’s the way that the MCU continuity has not only jumped back and forth between movies but the way (and the speed) with which it has jumped between movies and TV (and apparently back again) that makes it revolutionary. (There was only a four-day lag between the opening of Winter Soldier and the introduction of its aftereffects into the show.) It would still be possible for a newcomer to jump into the multidimensional network of the MCU without being completely confused, but that window is rapidly closing and I would expect that, by some point in Phase Three, figuring out not only the plot but the interconnections between films, characters and TV shows (with yet another MCU television series, Agent Carter, debuting during S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s midseason hiatus in the 2014-2015 season) might become nearly impossible for a newbie.

This is clearly a studio executive’s nightmare and precisely the reason that broadcast television has fought — in vain, fortunately — against serial TV shows. If the audience doesn’t buy in early, it becomes extremely difficult to buy in late. But the way in which we watch television and movies is changing. We don’t necessarily catch TV shows while they’re on the air, the way we used to in the long-ago 20th century. We DVR them or buy the DVD sets or we get them On Demand or we binge watch them off Netflix or Amazon Prime Streaming. If we’re really desperate we resort to certain Internet back channels, which I’ll leave unnamed, to get our hands on content. The producers of Breaking Bad credited Netflix (and probably some of those back channels) with the show’s abrupt surge of viewership in its two-part final season, with viewers who had finally gotten word about how good the show was rapidly catching up through all-day streaming sessions.

My friend Sean Tucker thinks Marvel Studios is using the MCU to position themselves for a brand new media world and I think he’s right. Now that widescreen TVs with Internet connections have come to dominate the living room, the age of genuine on-demand viewing, which we’ve been promised since at least the 1980s, has arrived at last and I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the cable-TV companies die out altogether. (Unfortunately, they also own much of the Internet infrastructure and until that de facto monopoly is taken away, the true age of multidimensional media is going to be postponed — but I doubt for very long.)

Very soon now, we’ll be watching television and movies in the way people have long read comic books — picking up back issues and reading new ones in whatever order necessary to follow tangled continuities or just indulge sudden whims. To some extent, we’re already there — Amy is downstairs now binge-watching the entire seven years of West Wing on Netflix, something I did a few years ago myself — and I think we’ll need the original thinking of companies like Marvel Studios, which is taking continuity concepts from comic books and repurposing them for higher-budget visual media, to provide content that fits the new way we view what soap opera fans have long referred to as “our stories.” The multidimensional interconnections provided by the MCU may be the perfect model for a world in which TV and movies are only distinguishable by the size of the screens we watch them on — and much of the time not even by that.

I, for one, am thrilled to see the new era arrive. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

 

Welcome to Level Seven: S.H.I.E.L.D. at PaleyFest

I’ve already blogged more than once about the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not because I think it’s a great show but because I think it could be a great show and because it’s getting better with almost every episode. Shows produced by Joss Whedon, even ones like S.H.I.E.L.D. where he isn’t involved in its production on a day-to-day basis, tend to start out slowly and hit their stride at the end of the first season or even the beginning of the second. Honestly, there are times when I wish I could look into the future and see if S.H.I.E.L.D. is really going to live up to the promise I think it has, because I may just be wasting 60 minutes of my life each week by watching it. But I don’t think I am.

And, as if by magic, I got a peek into the future last weekend and saw next week’s episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. I can report that it’s getting even better, but it’s still not quite as good as I’d like it to be.

Felicia Day

Geek goddess Felicia Day hosts a panel of tiny little people from the ABC show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

One of the advantages of living in Los Angeles, as I’ve been doing for the last five years, is that you occasionally get the opportunity to look into the future of television, even if it’s only a week into the future. Last Sunday I drove to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (that’s where the annual Academy Awards ceremony is held) to watch part of Paleyfest, an event put on annually by the Paley Center for Media. I was there to watch a panel on S.H.I.E.L.D. and it was an impressive panel indeed, at least in terms of who showed up. Basically the entire regular cast of the show — Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge — were there, as were the show’s three showrunners: Jed Whedon (Joss Whedon’s brother), Maurissa Tancharoen (Jed’s wife) and Jeffrey Bell, along with co-producer Jeph Loeb. The panel was hosted by geek goddess Felicia Day, best known to Joss Whedon fans like myself for her roles in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and several episodes of Dollhouse.

Actually, you didn’t have to live in LA to see this panel. If you knew about it in advance, you could have watched it on streaming video using the PaleyFest app — and maybe you did. But if you were actually at the Dolby Theatre you got to see something extra, something that wasn’t included in the streaming video. You got to see the April 1 episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Jeph Loeb asked all of us to go home and tweet or blog about the episode or at least about how much we liked it. We were advised not to give out spoilers. Yeah, right.

I suspect by now hundreds of attendees have given out spoilers in defiance of Mr. Loeb’s request, so it would be completely redundant for me to do so here. Therefore all I’ll say is that it’s one of the best episodes so far, largely because it focuses purely on the show’s serial arc and doesn’t attempt to stand alone in any way. I suppose it would be a minor **SPOILER** to mention that it centers around J. August Richards’ character Deathlok and the oft-mentioned but never-seen character known as “the Clairvoyant.”

I love serial TV shows and generally don’t care for standalone episodes of those shows, so the mere fact that this episode stuck to the serial arc was enough to make me happy. But it also advanced the serial arc significantly with a few surprises and plot twists, which is more than I can say about most episodes to date. And that’s all you’ll get out of me without inserting flaming bamboo splinters under my fingernails. For more spoilers, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Try Google. Or Twitter.

As for the panel, I have surprisingly little to say about it. It was fun seeing the cast and producer/writers in person, along with the lovely Ms. Day, who I’ve followed on Twitter for a year or two now because she’s a great source of geeky news about Joss Whedon TV shows. In general, though, the conversation on the panel didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know or at least suspect, such as the fact that Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Phil Coulson on the show, is a really nice guy. Twice, he literally leaped off the stage and ran into the audience to give someone a hug, most touchingly when the huggee was a youngish female fan who appeared to have Down Syndrome and was having difficulty articulating her question to the cast. I laughed when Chloe Bennet mentioned that fanfic ‘shippers — fan fiction writers who like to invent relationships between fictional characters from television and elsewhere — had created a romantic couple out of her character (Skye) and Elizabeth Henstridge’s character (Simmons) and were calling the couple “Skimmons.” (A quick check on Google revealed that, yes, there’s actually fanfic about “Skimmons.” It had slipped right past me.) Otherwise, the conversation consisted largely of cast members answering banal questions from the audience like “What superhero would you like to be?” (For the record, not all of the questions were banal. If you were there and asked a question, I can assure you that it wasn’t one of the banal ones. Hey, you’re intelligent enough to be reading my blog, right?)

Also, if you were watching the streaming video you probably saw me without realizing it. When a heavyset guy in a Captain America sweatshirt got up to ask a question, I was the gray-haired guy with glasses over his shoulder on screen right. I reached up twice to touch my glasses, not as a signal to anyone viewing the video stream or as a nervous tic, but to make sure the guy I was seeing on the giant video screen above the panel was actually me. Sure enough, the guy on the video screen reached up to touch his glasses too.

Two other pieces of important news gleaned from the panel — actually, from Jeph Loeb’s introduction to the panel — are that, starting with the April 1 episode, there will be no more interruptions in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. schedule for seven straight episodes, right up through the season finale in May, and the April 8 episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a direct follow-up to the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be released to theaters on Friday, April 4. (Hey, that’s today! Better get tickets soon!)

If you saw the screening of next week’s episode or you’re reading this after it’s already appeared on TV, I’d be curious to hear what you thought of it. Feel free to leave a comment on this post.

And keep your fingers crossed that S.H.I.E.L.D. gets renewed (word has it that it will) and that it has the greatest second season of any show in the history of television. Or at least of any show executive-produced by Joss Whedon.

That would make a lot of people, including myself, very happy.

Okay, NOW It’s Time to Start Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Joss Whedon was the last person in the world who should have directed The Avengers. But somehow he got picked for the job and accepted it, probably out of his love for comic books (which he sometimes writes), and turned it into the single most successful movie of 2012. The Avengers was a high-budget action movie of the superhero variety and, as such, emphasized spectacle, explosions and stunning CGI special effects. The irony is that this really isn’t the kind of thing that Whedon is best at, though obviously he can do it when he tries. I’m beginning to suspect that any hack director in Hollywood can do a successful CGI blockbuster because most of the REAL work is done during post-production by people other than the director.

agents-of-shield-pilot-pic-01 (1)

Fitz and Simmons: Not all heroes are super.

What Whedon does well is writing TV shows about quirky, witty, interesting groups of characters with unexpected and gradually revealed backstories, people united by chance and held together by comically dysfunctional yet simultaneously affectionate relationships. If you go back and watch your CD (or Blu-Ray) copy of The Avengers, you’ll notice that it has witty characters with comically dysfunctional relationships, but this fact might have slipped past you on first viewing because these things were being drowned out by explosions and noisy alien invaders. The Avengers was a Michael Bay epic as viewed through the Joss Whedon lens and as such seems to have appealed to the mass audience, a very massive mass audience, the same way that, say, the Transformers films do. I loved it less than many people did not because I don’t enjoy a good action spectacle — I do, actually, though I draw the line at the Transformers films — but because I know that Joss Whedon can do so much more than that. And what he does doesn’t require spectacle, expensively produced action and CGI effects, which is why it’s so perfect for the relatively low-budget medium of television, the medium in which he first became a success.

The success of The Avengers got Whedon, or more properly a team of people supervised remotely by Whedon, the job of creating the TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I suspect because the people who run Disney (which owns both ABC, the network the show runs on, and Marvel Studios, which owns the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept) figured that his name along with the S.H.I.E.L.D. name would draw in that massive audience that had flocked to The Avengers. And I suspect it did — at first. But I hear that the ratings numbers are dropping and I’m not surprised, because the show is becoming less and less like the movie and more and more like a Joss Whedon show. And that’s what I’m starting to like about it.

At first the TV show looked like it was trying to be the movie, at least a cut-rate version of the movie, even going so far as to have a superhero character of ambiguous intentions in the first episode. (What happened to that character, anyway? Did he just vanish? Will he be back?) But the connection between show and movie has been shrinking and the show is becoming better because of it. In the most recent episode, “The Hub,” it finally became quite good, because it ceased to have much connection with The Avengers and became a true Whedon show, which is to say that it truly became what I referred to in my last blog as a jigsaw puzzle show.

Ostensibly, “The Hub” was about a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to go to a fictitious Eastern European country and disable something called the Overkill Device, the kind of ridiculous spy-fi name associated with bad James Bond films. (To their credit, the characters even commented on how ridiculous the name was.) But the Overkill Device was really just a MacGuffin, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an otherwise meaningless object that serves only to bring characters together and let them interact. And that’s exactly what it did, quite well. “The Hub” wasn’t really about television spy action, though there was some of that in it, but about giving the show’s viewers a better sense of who the characters are, what the relationships between them are like, and what kind of mysterious backstories lurk in their secret S.H.I.E.L.D. dossiers.

Jigsaw puzzle shows, as I defined them last time around, are neither serial shows nor standalone shows, but shows that, in each episode, introduce pieces of a puzzle that at first seem almost random and then gradually fit together to form a picture that’s larger than anything in any single episode. In “The Hub,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used the Overkill Device as an excuse for giving its viewers several major pieces of the show’s underlying jigsaw puzzle and the picture that’s starting to form from those pieces suggests that this show is going to have one of the best backstories of any Whedon show yet — and, given that Whedon is a master of backstory, that’s saying quite a lot.

Viewers have already had hints that Agent Coulson didn’t really spend the eight months after his reportedly brief death (depicted in The Avengers) recovering in Tahiti, as he supposedly believes, but now it’s clear that Coulson himself realizes that this is a lie and wants to learn the truth. It’s also clear that the possible solution to this puzzle scares the hell out of Coulson, which makes it that much more tantalizing to viewers, the way that the riddle of Simon and River Tam was so tantalizing to viewers on Whedon’s Firefly. However, “The Hub” also revealed that Skye, the gorgeous terrorist who has been subsumed for no apparent reason into the S.H.I.E.L.D. unit run by Coulson, has a backstory that’s far more interesting than has been hinted at up until now and that she has a preexisting history with S.H.I.E.L.D.: She was left at an orphanage as an infant by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Why? Nobody’s telling us yet. But it’s another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, one that’s almost as fascinating as the Coulson part of the puzzle.

As I said earlier, Whedon’s major strength besides designing jigsaw puzzles is creating groups of characters who have interesting relationships and the show started doing that in earnest with this episode. We finally got a glimpse of the relationship between Fitz and Simmons, the show’s male-female geek team, and it’s fraught with both sexual and affectionate tension, with a special emphasis on the affectionate part. Unlike, say, Skye and Ward, these aren’t characters you’re dying to see jump into bed together, but the affection between the two of them is so palpable and charming that you just want to give them a great big hug. The objective correlative for that affection in this episode was a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with just a hint of aioli and it was used to clever effect. The show also gave us some bonding scenes between the unlikely pair of tough guy Ward and uber-geek Fitz that started out with exactly the sort of friction and incompatibility that you’d expect in such a relationship, but then took a surprising turn toward mutual respect. And while Ward and Fitz were putting themselves in harm’s way, the show did something even more unexpected: it featured a bonding sequence between two of the show’s major female characters, terrorist Skye and Fitz’s female counterpart Simmons, that was deftly comedic and bodes well for the way that all of the character relationships are going to build on this show.

Mostly, though, “The Hub” was the episode that turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into what I’ve wanted it to be all along: a true Joss Whedon show. It’s finally clear that the spy show we thought we were watching up until now was just an excuse for a show about relationships and secret histories, which are the things I’ve loved about Whedon’s shows since Buffy. It’s at last become a show that’s genuinely worth watching and I’m starting to feel the love for it that I’ve wanted to feel since it started. In fact, the only reason I’ve stuck with it this long is that I knew that this was the type of show it would eventually become.

Because Whedon’s shows always do.

Fringe, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Perils of Jigsaw Puzzle Television

Back in 2008, I stopped watching Fringe after the second episode. That wasn’t because it was bad and I had a feeling that I might start watching it again later, but in the early episodes it wasn’t delivering what I wanted it to, which was something like the amazing shockwave that J.J. Abrams and his staff delivered with the first episode of Lost. In retrospect that may have been a blessing, since the first episode and entire first season of Lost turned out to be a high point that even the show itself was unable to equal in later seasons. Fringe, by contrast, came across as a tepid imitation of The X-Files, a show that I remembered fondly but didn’t want to have to sit through again. It had, after all, been done before.

Fringe characters

The jigsaw puzzle comes together.

Turns out I had it all wrong. Lost was a bomb, a muddled mess of a show that got only one thing (aside from a great cast) right: hooking the viewer so perfectly with its first episode and first season that for a lot of us it was hard to get unhooked. Fringe, on the other hand, is genuinely great television, even though it didn’t look that way at first. I’m now halfway through watching its third season on Netflix Streaming and can already see that it’s a much better show than Lost ever managed to become again after its first season and really isn’t all that much like The X-Files, a show that made only one major mistake: staying on the air too long. However, both shows fall into a category that I’ve only recently begun to realize exists: jigsaw puzzle television. Think of jigsaw puzzle TV as the point where standalone television meets serial TV and produces something that can go back and forth between the two or even gradually morph from one into the other.

The X-Files started at a time (1993) when only a few prime-time shows, like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, had played around with the idea of serial television, introducing plots that weren’t neatly tied up in a single episode but that continued over an entire “arc” of episodes. This was a concept that made television executives so nervous that early on, when Hill Street Blues was getting ratings so low that it probably would have been cancelled if NBC’s overall ratings hadn’t been so bad that the whole network was in danger of getting cancelled, an edict went down from the network heads to the show’s producers demanding that at least one plot (out of many simultaneous ones) be both introduced and resolved in every episode.

The X-Files couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be standalone or serial, so by the second season it was doing both, alternating between standalone “monster of the week” episodes and serial “mythology” episodes, which usually consisted of two or three parts each, which gradually filled in pieces of the backstory. The standalone X-Files and the serial X-Files were almost two different shows, with events in a standalone episode having very little effect on character relationships and plot events in the serial episodes. Both the mytharc and standalone episodes were done very well. But every now and then something would happen in a seemingly standalone episode that would turn out to be a part of the show’s continuing mythology. And that, I would argue, was when jigsaw puzzle television was born.

The two current masters of jigsaw puzzle TV shows are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, though those are as much brand names now as they are human beings. Both Abrams and Whedon have gotten too good at making monstrously successful films like the Star Trek reboots and The Avengers to spend the kind of time with television that they used to, but they’ve managed to put together teams of producers and showrunners who can mimic their styles amazingly well and I’m convinced that both men are heavily involved in the creation of their shows and draw up detailed blueprints that their writing staffs can then follow in putting their shows together while the big guys themselves are off making billions of dollars in the more lucrative parts of their empires. In effect, they’re the guys who put together the big pictures that their writing staffs then cut up into the jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Fringe appeared initially to be an X-Files clone simply because the first episode featured a male-female pair of FBI agents who found themselves involved with supernatural and high-tech phenomena. Fortunately, the male half was immediately killed off and Anna Torv’s agent Olivia Dunham never became a clone of The X-Files Dana Scully, which may have come across as bait and switch to X-Files fans who tuned in hoping to see a reboot of their favorite show but was actually a clever move on the part of the showrunners. It allowed the introduction of one of television’s quirkiest teams of leading characters, Dunham and her new partners, the father and son team of Walter and Peter Bishop (John Noble and Joshua Jackson). All three leads are great, but it’s brilliantly crazy scientist Walter, one of the most cleverly conceived and bizarrely gonzo characters on TV, who really makes the show work. The fact that he seems to be part of the show’s mysterious backstory but is simultaneously so batshit crazy that he can’t remember exactly what part of it he is is what keeps the show from being like anything else anywhere on TV, the X-Files included.

The reason Fringe is a jigsaw puzzle show is that the early episodes bear a strong resemblance to standalone episodes of The X-Files, revolving around similar mysterious phenomena like people abruptly melting into warm jello or suddenly finding themselves cut in half, but every episode also adds a surprise piece of the show’s serial continuity, usually at the very end. As it becomes clear that elements like the apparently malevolent corporation Massive Dynamics and its elusive founder William Bell (whose very casting is a delightful surprise in itself) are going to figure into the show in a big way, it also becomes apparent that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are going to fit together into some kind of stunning and unexpected picture, as indeed they do.

In some ways, Fringe is the polar opposite of Lost. Abrams tried to make Lost a continuous serial. Unfortunately, the show was put together quickly, had a great beginning and great first season, then just became muddled. Completely serial shows like this are almost impossible to do and the only truly great example I can think of is Breaking BadFringe, on the other hand, never really tried to be completely serial, and it was much better for using the jigsaw technique. You could view at least half the episodes as standalone stories, but somebody put a lot of work into creating a terrific picture that would come together out of that jigsaw puzzle. Even if the quality of the show takes a nose dive after the middle of Season Three (which is where I am now), it will still have been a terrific jigsaw puzzle for one and a half seasons longer than Lost was. And I’m told it remains good for much longer than that.

Joss Whedon has elements of the jigsaw puzzle show in his early programs, like Buffy and Angel, but his first true jigsaw puzzle show was Firefly, which unfortunately was only given 14 episodes to put itself together. The jigsaw puzzle pieces in those 14 episodes, though, were interesting enough that Whedon was then given an entire movie, the terrific Serenity, to give us an idea of how wonderful the full puzzle would have turned out to be. The major pieces that we got were Simon and River Tam, a wealthy doctor and his sister on the run from the show’s evil government, the Alliance; Shepherd Book, a mysterious preacher with a very unpreacherlike past combined with a genuinely warm and comforting personality; and the Reavers, savage cannibals of unknown origin who appear unexpectedly in burned-out spaceships to eat the unfortunate populations of entire cities or perhaps even entire planets. Whedon got the chance to complete the parst of the puzzle having to do with the Tams and the Reavers in Serenity and he supposedly explains Shepherd Book’s backstory in a comic book, which I have yet to read. I wish we had gotten to see the completed puzzle lament the way it was meant to be seen, on television, and suspect it was altered considerably to fit a two hour film, but what we got was still great. We can blame the Fox network for not allowing us to see it the way it should have been seen. (Why Whedon did another jigsaw puzzle show, Dollhouse, for Fox is beyond me, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for it somewhere. At least Fox allowed him to wrap Dollhouse up in a second season, but the pieces were put together in such a rush that the completed puzzle was partly brilliant, partly a complete mess, and wasn’t wrapped up nearly as well as Firefly was.)

Whedon’s latest jigsaw puzzle show is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a sequel of sorts to The Avengers but on a much lower budget. Though I doubt that Joss Whedon has much to do with the show on a day-to-day basis, I’m sure he had a lot to do with putting together the initial jigsaw puzzle before turning it over to his brother Jed Whedon, his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen and former Angel writer Jeffrey Bell. So far the standalone episodes have only been fair-to-middling, but the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — what happened to Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) after he “died” in The Avengers; what horrible event occurred to Melinda May (Ming Na Wen) that gave her the hated nickname “the Cavalry;” why strange artifacts keep turning up; and why they’re allowing a known terrorist like Skye (Chloe Bennet), who seems to be a quadruple agent — at least — for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its enemies, fly on their tricked-out jet — look like they could form a pretty interesting picture whenever they start falling together.

The problem with jigsaw puzzle shows is that they start out slow and usually don’t look more than mildly interesting in early episodes, sometimes in early seasons. That’s certainly the case with S.H.I.E.L.D., which could be mistaken for any run of the mill spy-fi show if you aren’t watching closely. I’m watching it because I’m convinced that it’s going to become great when the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall together. (I might note that, with the possible exception of Firefly, none of Joss Whedon’s shows has ever been more than mildly interesting before its second season, just as J.J. Abram’s Fringe didn’t really become great until its third season.) The question now becomes whether S.H.I.E.L.D. will remain on the air long enough for the pieces of the puzzle to come together and the show to realize its full potential. Ordinarily I’d doubt that it would make it that far, but it’s on ABC, which is owned by Disney, the company that also owns Marvel Studios, so maybe it will be given the chance to develop.

When it does realize its full potential, I truly hope that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be as great a jigsaw puzzle show as Fringe.

Trailer Scenes: Why the Parts of Some Movies Are Greater than the Whole

In some comment thread I was reading recently about Joss Whedon’s movie version of The Avengers, a commenter pointed out that some scenes in the film looked like they came straight out of a Transformers film. I nodded in happy agreement, because despite my deep love for Whedon’s writing, directing and producing, I long ago noticed that The Avengers looked much more like a Michael Bay movie than anything I’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, full of fights, explosions and action sequences, each of which probably cost more to make than all 14-episodes of Firefly. And then the commenter added, “But I guess such trailer scenes are necessary when you’re making a blockbuster.”

The Avengers poster

Trailer Scenes Assemble!

Trailer scenes! What a perfect phrase for summing up everything, or at least a large fraction of everything, that’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies today.

Anybody who’s spent much time watching film trailers (and now that you can find them on YouTube, I’ve become more addicted to trailer watching than I am to TV watching, though not quite as addicted as I am to video games) has doubtlessly noticed that in 90 percent of cases the trailer is better, often much better, than the movie it’s flacking. And in zero percent of cases is a movie ever better than its trailer; the best you can hope for is that it will be equally good. One reason for this, of course, is that the trailer is shorter than the film and the trailer editor has the luxury of selecting all the best scenes and leaving out the junk. Another reason is that trailer editors have gotten really good at exploiting the post-production mechanics of filmmaking — editing, fades, pacing, sound effects, music — to create a mini-movie with its own dramatic arc, from the slow rising action at the beginning to the larger-than-life climax to the final punchline button (often after the title of the film has been shown) that leaves the audience laughing.

But it had never occurred to me until I saw that term “trailer scenes” that some directors are putting scenes in movies not because they really belong there but because they’ll look so mindbogglingly good in the trailer. God, I must have been dense not to think of that.

In fact, this explains something I started noticing many months ago, which is that when I surf past a movie on cable that I found only mediocre in the theater, I’ll often find myself riveted by it in a way that I wasn’t when I watched the whole thing from the beginning. That’s because I’ve skipped over all the boring filler that was used to string the trailer scenes together and jumped into one of those moments that was intended all along to work better on its own than when weighed down by lousy exposition, improbable premises, weak dialog and padding designed to make the movie long enough to justify its ticket price. I’ve stumbled right into the middle of a trailer scene.

Indeed, I’m starting to suspect that some movies are nothing but trailer scenes strung together by hastily written bubble-gum scenes, a phrase I just invented because they resemble pieces of bubble gum that have been chewed so many times that they now have the adhesive property to hold the trailer scenes together while simultaneously being elastic enough to stretch to whatever length is required to keep the trailer scenes safely distant from one another. (Trailer scenes are expensive to make, so you need some long, cheap scenes to hold them together.)

A perfect example of this kind of movie is Prometheus, which I happened across last night while we were trying out the new cable box that our cable company sent us. I was sorely disappointed in Prometheus when I saw its theatrical release. Much of it was barely coherent. (The name Damon Lindelof in the writing credits should have been a tip-off, as any viewers of the later seasons of Lost should know.) Yet when I saw that immense horseshoe-shaped spaceship rise out of the mountain, crash land, and improbably roll over Charlize Theron (who, unlike Noomi Rapace, didn’t have the sense to run in a direction perpendicular to the line along which the spaceship was rolling), I couldn’t look away. No, it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first time I saw it, but now I didn’t have to sit through the monotonous, nonsensical setup. I could just enjoy the coolness of this…trailer scene.

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I surfed across The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a better film, but it’s still full of bloated bubble gum scenes and ominous, throbbing Hans Zimmer music. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the music Zimmer does for Nolan, but it gives a false sense of dramatic credibility to scenes that don’t really deserve it.) The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to go on forever in the theater, but watching chunks of it on cable was fun. I was making my own trailer while cable surfing, skipping to other channels when the slow scenes came on, skipping back to Dark Knight Rises to catch the neat stuff.

Some movies just aren’t meant to be watched whole. As much as I love Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of them. It’s another movie that should be cable surfed, but only for the best scenes (which in this case aren’t the weirdly Michael Bay-ish action scenes — the movie’s real trailer scenes — but for the cute character interaction bits that come in between the trailer scenes, because that’s the sort of thing Whedon does best). Watching SHIELD headquarters rise out of the water and zoom away on helicopter blades — okay, that’s still pretty exciting. Whedon can do a great trailer scene when he puts his mind to it, which is why Marvel/Disney is having him do the next Avengers film too. I just wish he weren’t devoting so much of his talent to this sort of action movie lately (and I’m really looking forward to the Whedon-produced Agents of SHIELD on ABC this fall, where Whedon hands the showrunning duties over to his brother Jed and a couple of other writers), because TV shows and movies about interesting human beings and the relationships between them are still what he does best.

Not all movies that have great trailer scenes are bad movies. Occasionally you hit a truly inspired one. Inception, by the same director who gave us the bloated Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), was a dazzling Rubik’s cube of a film, a fascinating puzzle for the viewer that grows better through repeated viewings and that also happens to have a lot of great trailer scenes that actually are an integral part of the story. That’s a rare and amazing thing, yes, but it’s nice to know that it can actually happen.

Poster for Gravity

Gravity: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Another movie with amazing trailer scenes that I think is going to pay off in the theater is Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming Gravity. I say this not only because films like Children of Men have led me to trust Cuarón as a director, one who can both capture character moments and rise to stunning technical challenges, but because it’s already started getting excited notices from film festivals. Yes, it has some eye-popping trailer scenes, but I think they’re merely going to be the hook that draws the viewer into a movie that stands on its own merits, not just the merits of whatever would-be movie director edits its trailer scenes together.