Friday, May 1, 2009

House: Whodunit? Who Cares?

Occasionally, I am forced to endure the peculiar feeling of being wrong. It doesn't happen often, of course, but when it does, there's usually nothing to do but deny it. This time, however, I will admit my error and try to understand it.

I first watched House, M.D., the current popular medical drama, some time during its first year. I enjoyed it, but I said, "I don't think I'll like watching it for very long." I rarely make predictions as bold as what will last or what millions of other people will think, but I figured it was safe enough to predict what I myself would think. My thinking was thus: The show was suspenseful because it was structured as a mystery. There was a victim, a quirky detective, a group of earnest but inferior associates, and an unknown villain. The detective and his associates spent the hour gathering clues from the victim and at the scene of the crime, trying to eliminate possibilities and zero in on the right evildoer. At the end of each act, there was a twist, showing that our heroes were on the wrong track and time was running out, until, in the last act, a look of comprehension crosses the detective's face, and he confronts the offender, explaining what happened and how he figured it out. The only trick here was that the villain was a disease, not a criminal. Everything else about the show followed the conventions of a well-made mystery show.

My prediction sprang from the belief that part of the fun of a mystery is trying to solve it. I am a stickler for fairness in mysteries. The clues have to be available to us as we read or watch, allowing us the chance to solve the crime at the same time, or before, the detective. On Ellery Queen, Jim Hutton actually addressed the camera before the last scene, telling the audience we now had enough information to solve the mystery. If he had turned to the camera and said the mystery was solved, but we sure couldn't have known it, who would watch? House, by making the "murderers" medical conditions, and generally obscure ones, absolutely guarantees that no audience member who is not a practicing physician can ever solve the mystery. It's not that they hide information--they tell you what you need to know, but they fail to give you the three-year infectious disease residency required to interpret what they tell you. So, again, I enjoyed the episode, and figured the show would soon get on my nerves, as a mystery that I had no chance of solving.

Nope. Now finishing its fifth season, House is still a frequent staple of my television viewing. It turns out that I can be engaged in enough other ways that I don't need a crack at solving the case. Certainly, House has its over-the-top gimmicks, such as showing the inner workings of blood vessels every so often and the absolutely guaranteed blood spewing from an orifice before the end of every show (watch for it--it really happens in nearly every one). But by keeping the characters interesting enough, not just in the soap operatic ongoing plotlines, but in their reactions to the medical mysteries and to each other, the story somehow holds me just long enough for me to forgive and forget their total denial of my chance to figure out what happened.

House may look like a mystery, but it is actually a magic trick. While you are watching the medical mystery in this hand, the show is entertaining you with the drama in the other hand. So I can be wrong, too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Remington Steele: Keeping the Plates in the Air

I have been watching and enjoying the new series Castle on ABC, and although it is not as complex as Remington Steele, it certainly recalls that series in its premise, as well as its attempt to engage the audience on several levels at once.

For anyone who has never seen it, the premise of Remington Steele is that hard-working, intelligent, dedicated private investigator Laura Holt cannot attract clients under her own name because no one wants to hire a female detective. In a conscious nod to North By Northwest, Laura solves her problem by creating a phantom male superior and opening Remington Steele Investigations. She solves the cases, while giving credit to the unseen Mr. Steele. When the series begins, this scheme has been working for her, but through some plot machinations, a gentleman con man and thief ends up assuming Steele's identity. She can't expose him at first because that would mean letting her secret out, and she realizes that having a real live Mr. Steele could be good for business.

Each episode of Remington Steele functions on a number of simultaneous levels, and part of the appeal of the series is its ability to do so many different things. On the simplest level, each episode is a mystery adventure. Steele and Laura work at a detective agency, so that setting is used in its depth. Whatever else the series was doing, there was always time for a fully developed mystery plot in each show. I make an issue of that fact to contrast it with its subsequent imitators, like Moonlighting, who quickly sacrificed that first level of plot: the mystery. The mystery always drives the story on Remington Steele, even when other things may be more important.

C.S.I. fans beware...Remington Steele is far from a police procedural. Star Stephanie Zimbalist described the mystery plots as taking place "two feet off the ground" and she is exactly right. The mysteries are usually light-hearted in tone, continuing a tradition of pleasant whodunits that are carefully plotted and clever, but bear no relationship to real crime. In fact, that tradition is very much an overt aspect of the series. Mr. Steele is a movie buff and he almost invariably finds parallels between the agency's cases and his favorite old movies. Another layer of the show is that homage to whatever movie (or movies) inspired the story. In a few cases (e.g. Sting of Steele), an entire episode is a tip of the hat to a movie. Usually, there are just moments or subtle allusions. The more you know about old Hollywood, the more gems you will find in the plots, dialogue and even character names.

What makes the series really special, however, is the third level at which it operates. It is, as far as I have seen, the only popular entertainment that shows two people falling in love in real time. Over the course of a little more than four years, Steele and Laura discover the deeper qualities in each other, good and bad, explore their feelings, take tentative steps toward each other and then away. Each episode is one moment in the ongoing development of their relationship. Sometimes the subtext, sometimes just the text, the biggest mystery they have to solve is always whether or not they should get together. Both a little damaged and wary, it takes them the entire series to trust each other enough to get involved. Some critics of the show say the dance went on too long. Even I, an acknowledged fan, felt a little strain in the fourth year in trying to find good reasons to keep them apart. But bringing them together before the end would have been disastrous, and have robbed the show of its unique niche in art.

The other ongoing storyline was Steele's attempt to find out who he really was. At first, Laura (and we) think he is just being mysterious, but in fact, Steele doesn't know his own true identity. As the years go on, he makes various attempts to discover where he comes from, both for himself and for Laura. The ongoing evolution of their relationship, as well as Steele's search for his origin, give the show a nice thread. It is not a serial drama, and each episode stands alone in almost any order. But for people following the series straight through, those continuing elements make the characters seem all the more real.

As with Casablanca (So?), the situations on Remington Steele are intentionally far-fetched, but the characters and their relationships are utterly believable and true-to-life. Each episode of Remington Steele weaves together the fantasy and escapism of a mystery adventure with the emotional reality of two people falling, slowly, in love. Adding in the elements of nods to old Hollywood, a search for identity and occasionally drama and even farce, the series has a lot of plates in the air at once. And what a pleasure to watch them spun so beautifully.

Patience is a Virgin

The title of this post is a quotation from All in the Family, a show that, had it premiered this January, would already be canceled. A lot of shows are being renewed, canceled, time-shifted and pre-empted right about now, and I wonder how many good shows or potentially good shows will not survive.

If you make a list of your favorite long-running series of all time, it is almost certain that at least one of them began its life with poor Nielsen ratings. All in the Family for example, which went on to be arguably the most popular show ever on television, began as a midseason replacement with low ratings for its thirteen episodes. The controversial subject matter got it some attention in the press, some good and some bad, and when the thirteen episodes were repeated over the summer, the show became a blockbuster, staying at number one for five years. Cheers was notoriously rated last among all television series on the air for its first episode. It went on to be a ratings success for eleven seasons. The Dick Van Dyke Show was canceled after its first year because ratings were so low, but executive producer Sheldon Leonard personally lobbied the sponsors to insist the network renew the show, which went on for four more successful seasons. The list could go on, but the point is that shows' fates are not determined from day one. It can take time to build an audience, and there is often a financial, to say nothing of artistic, benefit to taking that time.

There was a time when a show was guaranteed at least half a season, no matter what the ratings. If it was a failure, then the show was cancelled. If it was a success, or seemed to be building toward success, then the show would be renewed. I am not sure whether television has grown too expensive for that commitment, or if decision makers are less confident in their choices, but now shows are often pulled after three or four airings. In some cases, a single low-rated telecast will end a series.

I understand that television is a business and low-rated shows are bad for business. But low-rated shows can become high-rated shows. Sometimes it just takes a little while. In the Motherhood, an ABC comedy that premiered this month is an example of the trend. Let me begin by saying that I didn't care for the show. I am not championing a personal favorite here, as I probably won't watch it. ABC ordered thirteen episodes. After showing two episodes, they reduced the order to six episodes. Now, it seems that the show has been canceled after running four episodes. How many potential fans never got to see the show? To be fair to the show, what if it got better? As long as you have that list of your all-time favorite long-running series from two paragraphs ago, look it over and see how many were wonderful in their first four episodes. Some probably were. But some weren't.

In fairness, there have been recent examples of networks giving a show every possible chance. Arrested Development, a series I liked very much, was given great time slots by Fox, renewed for three (well, two and a half) seasons despite abysmal ratings, and well-advertised throughout. People just didn't want to watch it. I wish the show had stayed on, but I can't fault the network for jumping the gun. They tried and tried and America just didn't want to see it. That's fair enough. I don't begrudge networks their profit motive--just their itchy trigger fingers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Casablanca: Truth is Great, But No Need To Be a Fanatic About It

Having written about Bea Arthur yesterday, and focusing on the truth in her work, I was put in mind of Casablanca. Casablanca is my favorite movie of all time (I said I was thoughtful, not original) and I have seen it many times over the years. The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA used to show it every year, and may still. I hope so.

One year, a few friends and I went to visit another friend up there for law school, and we were there the night Casablanca was showing, so we went to see it. All of us had seen it before, some more than others, but it was still a popular choice. No small feat among a group of people who can't agree on what time it is. The movie ended, everyone clapped (except me...I never clap at movies because I always feel silly. They can't hear you, you know?) and we left. And my friend Steven said to me, "It's a very well-made movie, and it's fun, but it's completely preposterous."

I asked what he meant, and he laid out the implausibilities of the storyline. Without going into the details too much, so as not to bore those of you have seen the movie or spoil it for those of you who haven't, he talked about the silliness of the "letters of transit" signed by DeGaulle, which would mean nothing in French Africa, the coincidences of the plot, and the remarkable good fortune of the central characters on at least two occasions. It was quite a well-reasoned critique, and having listened carefully, I responded as appropriately as I could, by saying, "So?"

Every good drama (or comedy, for that matter) should be based on truth, but that doesn't mean a strict depiction of reality. Hitchcock said drama is life with all the boring parts cut out, and you can't forget to make those cuts. I asked Steven to forget the plot for a moment. "Did you believe in the people?" The story is only there to give the characters something to react to, something to get them started at showing us who they are. Casablanca has truth in the relationships it depicts, and that's one reason people have gone back to it for nearly seventy years. Rick's transformation from idealist to cynic and back again is utterly believable. Who cares if the details of the events that sparked those transformations are hard to swallow?

Casablanca also trades in the deeper truth of allegory. Rick represents, depending on your interpretation, America before World War II, America all the time, all men, or all people. If you find something true about the human experience in the story or the characters, then it doesn't matter whether the plot reflects reality.

It still has to make sense. There still has to be internal consistency. Murder, She Wrote is a great example of this caveat. Murder, She Wrote is not a realistic depiction of life in Maine or of the experience of middle-age widowhood in the late 20th century. No one thinks it is realistic, and that is part of its charm. But there still has to be internal consistency, or it's dissatisfying. Good Murder, She Wrote episodes function on that unrealistic plane, but still have clues and plots that follow logically. Bad Murder, She Wrote episodes fall victim to the fantasy nature of the premise and the stories don't work.

Casablanca is not realistic, but it's consistent. In the real world, Signor Ferrari probably wouldn't have told Ilsa and Victor where the letters were. Doesn't hurt the movie. If Rick had hidden those letters with a trained monkey we never saw before, that hurts the movie.

Truth is not the same thing as reality, and fantasy is not the same thing as inconsistency. So if your friend says your favorite movie is unrealistic, feel free to use my "So?" line.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bea Arthur: Why Truth is Funny

Bea Arthur died this past weekend, and she has been eulogized quite a bit, deservedly so. With appreciations, quotes and clips, everyone has been reminding us how very funny Bea Arthur was. And she was. But that gift was only half of what made her so special.

Some of the obituaries I have seen refer to Arthur as a comedian. There's no shame in being a comedian, but she wasn't one. She was an actress. Yes, she occasionally made personal appearances, and her sharp delivery worked in that setting, too, but as an actress, she was funny because she was real. When I laughed at Maude, it was because Arthur was showing the full dimensions of a human being and, knowing that human being made her funny. Bea Arthur's comedy was the comedy of recognition. She got thousands of laughs in her career, but none were laughs for their own sake. She played the parts so that we understood the women on screen in all their depths. If the characters were funny people, so be it.

But being an actress playing comedy rather than a comedian still doesn't define her unique quality. Many actresses succeed at comedy by limning real portraits of funny people. A smaller number can even do what Bea Arthur was so good at, which was going from side-splitting comedy to heart-rending pathos in the blink of an eye. But no one else could do both at exactly the same time. Arthur could show the deepest, saddest part of her characters, and make us laugh at the very same time. Suffering from bipolarity on Maude, she showed us the ravaging highs and lows of that condition in all its frightfulness, but she did it with humor. When Dorothy on The Golden Girls fell in and out of love with her ex-husband, Arthur made us see the pain and the humor of the situation, not close together, not in the same show, but at the same moment. A good actress can make an audience feel something. A great actress can make an audience feel different things. And Bea Arthur could make an audience feel different things at the same instant.

She was a wonderful actress, but also a star. You can be both. She was a star because she brought a certain personality to her work. Maude and Dorothy, contrary to the obvious external similarities, were very dissimilar characters, but they both fell within the realm of Arthur's star persona. Most fans already know the story of how Betty White and Rue McClanahan switched parts at the last minute. They were wonderful in the parts they got, and they'd have been wonderful the other way around. White and McClanahan are character actresses, and they can disappear into their characterizations. Bea Arthur could not have successfully switched parts with either of them; she was not a character actress. She had a star personality and the characters she created reflected that personality, although she could create complex, and separate, characters along that spectrum. One of her great contributions to The Golden Girls was providing that personality. They needed a star to center the show, and they had the foresight and fortune to get Bea Arthur, a star and an actress.

In an interview with The Archive of American Television, Ms. Arthur said she would like to be remembered as an artist. You got your wish, Bea.