Friday, September 30, 2016

Everybody Lies

(I've changed the title of my blog to be more relevant. Bonus points if you know what TV show it references!)

Take Sherlock Holmes. Make him American, and a doctor. Take his cocaine habit and make it a Vicodin addiction. Turn Dr. John Watson into Dr. James Wilson. Then, take the name Holmes, play around with it a bit, and you get...

You got it: House.

In this Sherlock Holmes-ian world, instead of solving murders and missing person cases, Gregory House solves mysteries at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, of bizarre illnesses that no other doctors can solve. Far from being a caring doctor, though, House's interest in medicine (and people) is purely for the sake of solving puzzles, and he doesn't care who he has to piss off or what rules he has to break to get there. He's destructive to himself and everyone around him, but his unmatched ability to diagnose undiagnosable illnesses means that he can pretty much get away with anything. And he knows it.

During House's run on FOX from 2004-2012, I took a vague passing interest in the show, mostly out of morbid curiosity about the horrific illnesses featured in every episode. I watched reruns on occasion and caught a great many marathons on cable, but I never dedicated myself to it enough to follow any of the underlying plot.

Then I started watching it on Netflix one day in college, just as something to pass the time, as it always had been before for me.

Somehow, I got completely hooked.

Suddenly it wasn't just a vague passing interest anymore. I put aside everything else I had been watching (Sorry, Mad Men. Maybe I'll get back to you eventually) and binged House like it was nobody's business.

The thing about House is that it's only good if you're really invested in all of the subplots, because it was designed to be a character drama in a medical environment, rather than a medical drama that happens to have people in it. I've found as I watch episodes casually again that it gets annoying quickly, though, because the procedural basis of the show is ridiculously repetitive. They have a good sense of humor about it, but that doesn't really stop it from getting old. Here's how it goes:
  1. A seemingly easy illness turns out to be weird enough to interest House, and the team picks a diagnosis to start treatment.
  2. The case is somehow personal to someone on the team. House heckles them until he figures out what it is.
  3. The treatment doesn't work. Patient gets worse.
  4. They break into the patient's house. Someone on the team objects to this.
  5. Somebody suggests porphyria or sarcoidosis.
  6. They start a slightly dangerous treatment. Cuddy is mildly annoyed.
  7. Patient almost dies. They were wrong again.
  8. Cuddy emphatically tells House he can't do a reckless treatment when he has no evidence patient has next-idea-osis.
  9. House makes a comment about Cuddy's boobs and tells the team to do the treatment anyway.
  10. "But your last ideas were wrong and now I'm dying! How do you know you're right this time?"
  11. Foreman is afraid he's becoming House.
  12. House annoys Wilson. Wilson lectures him about something.
  13. House has a sudden epiphany about what's really wrong with the patient.
  14. House stops the reckless treatment at the last second. Patient finally improves.
  15. Everybody takes away some lesson from the experience.
  16. House blows everyone off to be alone.
Oh, and somebody calls House an ass about every 15 seconds.

Where House succeeds is in its ability to change up the surroundings just as things start to get really stale. They introduce new characters, or relationships change, or House gets himself into an especially sticky situation involving his Vicodin addiction, his relationship with Cuddy, or his tendency to push the wrong buttons. Or all of those.

It still could have been a little bit shorter, though, by maybe a season or two. It took a couple of seasons at the beginning to really get footing in the secondary plots and to build the characters enough to branch out from pure procedure. The last season, too, really floundered until three episodes from the end, when (HUGE SPOILER REDACTED). It felt like they didn't know how to bring the show back to the hospital from the crazy places it had gone in seasons 6 and 7, and the new characters they brought in just seemed like placeholders. Without the interplay between House and Cuddy, something felt like it was missing. Foreman just wasn't enough to fill that gap.

That said, for a long-running network medical procedural, it was really solid for a lot longer than it could've been. It had a great combination of emotional moments and comedy that kept me invested in the ways characters interacted with each other.

Hugh Laurie is, in my opinion, the sole reason House worked as well as it did. The other actors were fine, the premise was fine, the production was fine, but the whole thing was ultimately a vehicle for Laurie to, frankly, just be awesome. He was so good that executive producer Bryan Singer thought he was actually American when he auditioned—and so did most Americans, including myself for a long time.

Considering Hugh Laurie got his start in the business in comedy (really, really good comedy, I might add; his sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie with Stephen Fry is one of my favorite things in the world), his dramatic ability is astonishingly good. Under all that amazing sarcasm, you can feel the depth of House's pain and his personal conflict in trying to connect with others. In less adept hands, Gregory House could have been over-the-top, a one-dimensional sarcasm machine, or just plain cruel.

Instead, House is a genuinely interesting character. On the surface, he's brash and misanthropic to the extreme, but beneath the self-destruction and a thick layer of sarcasm, there is a man who's unable, for one reason or another, to allow himself to connect with people. He understands people deeply, but only as puzzles to
figure out and manipulate for his own enjoyment. He is uncomfortable with meaningful relationships, and when he gets close to one, he ultimately destroys it in increasingly harmful ways. His only lasting relationship is with the long-suffering Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), whose need for saving people means that he'll always put up with House's shenanigans.

Add on top of this his injured leg—the result of a dead muscle in his thigh—the constant pain it brings him, and his resulting addiction to narcotics, and you get someone who intentionally cuts himself off and alienates everyone around him because, as is often pointed out, he doesn't feel like he should be happy. He believes his diagnostic skill is directly dependent on his misery.

The semi-changing cast of supporting characters was competent enough, but, to be honest, they mostly weren't especially interesting. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), Chase (Jesse Spencer), and Foreman (Omar Epps), House's original team, spent most of their time worried about whether or not House was turning them into terrible people. And once they weren't the core team anymore, they just kept coming back, which wouldn't have been a problem if they had brought new aspects to the story, but it was always the same. The new team with Taub (Peter Jacobson), Thirteen (Olivia Wilde), and Kutner (Kal Penn) was a bit more interesting, in particular Thirteen's struggle with Huntington's Disease. But ultimately all the team members felt like bodies for House to interact with and backstories to exploit.

Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) added a nice element to the story, especially as her relationship with House evolved over time. On an episode-to-episode basis her place in the story was repetitive, but she was the only one who really knew how to handle House, and the only one who could play his games as well as he could. House also desperately wanted to be with her, which added a good objective for the story outside of medical mysteries and provided an opportunity for emotional growth for them both.

Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) was the reassuring constant throughout the series. He put up with a lot from House—a huge understatement, to be fair—and was always around to keep House grounded and, well, alive. House always knew how to manipulate him, but ultimately House really needed Wilson, and needed to know that at least Wilson cared about his well-being.

In all, House is a great character study, a rare instance of a kind of anti-hero on a mainstream network series. It's a pretty good drama that made the most of its huge success. And it brought America's attention to the magic of Hugh Laurie, which is never a bad thing. It's not the best show I've ever watched, but it was worth watching. It grabbed my attention and kept it, which is what it should do.

Don't watch it while you're sick, though. It might be porphyria.
My Favorite Episode: "Wilson's Heart," (S4, Ep. 16): This is actually the second half of a two-part episode, but it really runs the gamut of the emotional range of the show. House was involved in a bus accident with Wilson's girlfriend, and she is in grave danger as a result. The key to saving her is trapped in House's concussed, drug-addled brain. This episode is really the first time we see the devastating destruction House's actions can cause, how deeply his problems run, and how far he's willing to push himself, physically and emotionally, to solve a puzzle. It also shows, for a rare moment, how much House is capable of caring, particularly when it comes to Wilson.

Some Trivia:

  • Hugh Laurie became so used to Dr. House's limp that, even after the show ended, he would automatically start limping when a director called "action." Laurie has also said that the limp has caused him actual physical injury.
  • House lives in apartment 221B, just like Sherlock Holmes.
  • When patients with a history of drug abuse are admitted to the ER, they are given the label HOUSE in their charts, meaning "History of Use."
Next Up:
Life on Mars


Saturday, September 3, 2016

I'll Be There For You

(This post contains spoilers)

Well, I didn't think it would happen, but here we are. I've joined the rest of the world and I've finally watched all of Friends.

Of course, I'd seen a few episodes here and there before Seinfeld marathons on TBS, but I'd never taken enough interest to actually invest the time to watch all 10 seasons. It was only when I decided I needed a new Frasier (i.e., a ton of seasons that don't require my full attention) that I took the plunge.

Arguably one of NBC's (and television's) most successful shows of all time, Friends started with a cast of virtual nobodies who, over the course of the series, rocketed to star status and are now some of the most recognized actors on screen, big or small.

Friends is basically the epitome of the '90s; although it had spilled into the next decade by the time it ended in 2004, when you think of Friends, you think of the '90s. For the TV-watching world, Friends is the ultimate representation of both the era and of being a twenty-something.

As a twenty-something myself, it's impossible to separate myself from the intent of the show. I'm exactly the type of person who's supposed to love it. And yet, to be perfectly honest, I just didn't.

Let's be clear: I didn't hate it. I just didn't love it the way everyone else seems to. I found it perfectly entertaining, enough to stick it out through more than 200 episodes. But the '90s was a decade packed to the brim with really great multi-camera sitcoms (you already know how I feel about Frasier), and, to me, Friends just didn't hold a candle to the likes of 3rd Rock from the SunNewsRadio, or Will & Grace.

I get why people love it. It's fun, it's relatable, and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments. It wasn't particularly groundbreaking, though, and I found a lot of the punchlines to be predictable and a lot of the acting to be, well, overacted. A lot of sitcoms tend to get shouty, where all of the actors just yell all of their lines, especially the funny ones, instead of delivering them believably. Unfortunately there was a little too much of that on Friends (I'm looking at you, Courteney Cox).

On that note, I loved the episode where Chandler and Monica's prospective couple friends rejected them because of Monica's constant yelling.

To be honest, I don't understand why people like any of the characters or think any of the things they do to each other are okay. At least on Seinfeld the fact that the characters are all shmucks is basically what the show is about. But if Friends is about growing together as friends, it just didn't happen for me. Let's be frank—it's no wonder all these people are friends with each other, because there's no way anyone else would be friends with them! They're self-centered, judgmental, manipulative, and often just plain annoying. They're not even that good to each other.

That said, I honestly don't get why everyone hates on Ross so much. I find him so much more sincere and endearing than any of the other friends, and even though he was whiny and did some awful things—telling Rachel they were divorced when they weren't comes to mind—is he really any worse than the others?

Rachel ran out on her wedding, called Ross gay for not having sex with her when she was vulnerable after her dad's heart attack, and interfered in everyone's relationships when they didn't suit her. Jennifer Aniston is the only one of the actors that I ever really liked before watching Friends, but seriously. Rachel is terrible.

Chandler made fun of Monica when she was fat and lied to Janice about moving to Yemen just to avoid breaking up with her. He constantly belittled everyone he talked to. He grew the most as a character over the course of the series, and I liked seeing him as a husband and dad, but he was kind of an asshole about 80% of the time.

Joey is an incessant womanizer, and... well, that's really his entire character. We never know much about Joey, so all he is is a dumb, misogynistic actor and seems to only be there for punchline value. It's too bad, really. He could have been more.

Monica is extremely competitive and controlling, and I just can't get past the yelling. She's not the worst; I appreciate her ambition, and she knows what she wants. But her borderline OCD and control freak tendencies just get old fast.

Phoebe turned out to be less annoying than I initially thought, but her character is a bit confusing to me. Half the time she's the flighty hippie type who lives in her own, strange world, and the other half she's manipulating her friends and boyfriends in various ways. Her rough childhood on the streets was actually pretty interesting, but it didn't really seem to factor into who she was on the show very often. It seemed like it just came up when it was convenient but didn't have any bearing on anything else that happened.

Ross may be trigger-happy when it comes to getting married, but he really cares about people. He's intelligent and has the only stable career of any of them, but he's constantly made fun of for both of these things, because sitcoms always have to dump on smart people. His mistakes almost always come from misguided attempts to be nice to people. I wouldn't want to be friends with him, but compared with the rest of the characters, why does everyone hate him specifically?

Anyway, somehow all of these lousy people ended up together, and the rest is television history.

Considering it was on for so long, Friends was actually pretty consistent in its quality. Granted, the quality wasn't much above average to begin with, but it didn't get really bad like it could have. It was more successful in its long story arc than other long-running sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory. Somehow, despite being perfectly average, it beat my 5-season theory. Well done, guys. Sort of.

And while the ending was mostly great, I was really unhappy that Rachel stayed in New York to be with Ross. It's great that they finally got together—the whole "will they or won't they" business got really old, because obviously they were going to end up together eventually—but there's no reason that Rachel couldn't have gone to Paris. There are museums in Paris that Ross could've worked at. But that job Rachel was offered was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I don't get why neither of them considered it an option for both of them to go to Paris. It seemed unfair to me for Rachel to just give up her dream without any discussion between them.

That aside, I liked that everyone moved on. They were out of their twenties and had gotten on with their lives, and that's why the show had to end. I appreciate that; as I've mentioned before, few things are more disappointing in television than shows that last beyond what's good.

Creator Marta Kauffman says that this is why there's never been a reunion or a reboot or anything of that sort: "Once you start having family of your own it changes, and the show was over. A show has a lifespan, I believe. It has a lifespan like anything else, and there's no reason to continue doing it just because people miss the characters. Watch the old ones; there is no way we could win that. And there's no way it would be satisfying and it'll never happen. We'll never do it." (I saved this quote but failed to save where it came from. I think it was a Buzzfeed article.)

Thank you, Marta Kauffman, for being a voice of reason in a profit-driven media world!! It would be so easy for a show as well-loved as Friends to constantly come back to appease viewers who don't understand that things either end well or get bad. There are 10 perfectly good seasons available to enjoy: enjoy them as they are.

I'm glad I watched Friends so I can finally have a real opinion about it, but the trouble is that I didn't like it enough to satisfy the people who would care enough to want to know. People are fiercely dedicated to Friends, to a point that I don't really understand. Again, I understand why it's popular. But really. It's not that good. Sure, I'll watch reruns, but it'll never be among my favorites.

Oh, and for the record, they were on a break.
My Favorite Episode: "The One Where Everybody Finds Out," (S5, Ep.14). Everyone finally finds out, in various ways, that Monica and Chandler have been dating. Phoebe and Rachel start messing with Monica and Chandler to try and get them to confess. Also includes Ugly Naked Guy, which is never a bad thing.
It's hard to choose a favorite episode, because there are so many. There are more individual moments over the course of the series that I liked a lot more than any in this episode, but as a whole episode, this one was funny and helped move the plot along in an effective way.

Some Trivia:

  • Even the cast didn't like the Joey and Rachel plotline. "It felt wildly inappropriate. [The cast] got super defensive about the whole thing." -Matt LeBlanc
  • Pay negotiations were a group effort for the cast, so that no main character ever made more than the others. At the beginning, they each made $22,500 per episode, and by the end it was $1,000,000 per episode.
  • R.E.M's "Shiny Happy People" was originally supposed to be the show's theme song instead of the now-iconic Rembrandts song.
  • Tom Selleck was met with standing ovations every time he entered a scene. Those entrances were unusable, so he would have to re-shoot them all without the audience.
  • The show's main characters are all named for characters from All My Children.
Next Up:
House, M.D.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Live Together, Die Alone

Remember that time I had a blog? No? Apparently, neither did I.

Since my last post I've managed to get several jobs on actual TV shows and move to another country, but never fear—my introverted tendencies mean that Netflix is still an essential companion. Livin' it up!

So. Let's go to a mysterious island, where nothing makes any sense. A bunch of people crash there, only to find that a bunch of other people already live there. They all try to kill each other. And that, in a nutshell, is LOST.

LOST ran for six seasons on ABC, from 2004-2010. The concept and execution of LOST were hugely experimental for the time; with monsters, immortality, time travel, and an apparently-sentient island, nothing like this had ever been done before on television (outside of The Twilight Zone, which is, even now, in a league of its own), or really much afterward.

On top of that, there's nothing procedural about it, which is fairly common now on cable networks and streaming services, but which was (and still is) frowned upon by the networks, who are wholly reliant on viewership and the advertising money it brings in, and so need shows that anyone can start watching at any time during its run. But it's pretty much impossible to jump into LOST at any episode, which ABC was worried about before giving it the green light. In true creatives-versus-business form, creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof flat-out lied to the network and told them that "Of course people can start watching any time!" even though they had already written out a several-season story arc. ABC needn't have worried, because viewers got hooked immediately.

It's really kind of hard not to get hooked immediately. LOST grabs its audience by making us ask ourselves one of those hypothetical questions we sometimes think about in the shower: what would I do if my plane crashed on an island?

Charlie (Dominick Monaghan), Sun (Yunjin Kim),
Shannon (Maggie Grace), Sawyer (Josh Holloway),
Boone (Ian Somerhalder), Jack (Matthew Fox),
Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Michael (Harold Perrineau),
and Kate (Evangeline Lilly)
The show begins with Oceanic Flight 815 hitting turbulence, splitting in half, and crashing onto an uncharted island on its way to Los Angeles from Sydney. Out of the survivors, personalities, secrets, relationships, and alliances arise while they try to survive and wait for rescue. Once they start exploring the island, the survivors discover that they're not alone there, and "The Others" present a new threat that they—and the audience—struggle to understand.

Through flashbacks, and later flash-forwards (if that's a word), more and more about each character's history and motivations is revealed, building them into really interesting, complex people the viewers can understand on a deep level.

This, to me, is the most amazing thing about LOST. The concept is average at best, and the constant mysteries and cliffhangers can get a little old, especially in the later seasons. But the complex and genuinely interesting characters and the relationships they form are what made me want to keep watching. It's what I love most about television in general, but it's what makes LOST and J.J. Abrams's other shows so interesting to watch. It's what Abrams is best at, and where his films fall flat, honestly; he doesn't have time to build his characters and his stories the way he can on TV, so all that's left is a multi-million-dollar lens flare.

Another way that the show is really made by its characters is the sheer diversity of people. In a way that Hollywood pretty much never is, the cast of survivors is really representative of the diversity you'd find on an international flight. A pregnant Australian girl, married Koreans, a Black single dad and his young son, an overweight Hispanic guy, an Iraqi, a southern con-man, an older interracial couple, a middle-aged, sort-of paraplegic, and a British, drug-addicted rock musician. Though, of course, the main character, Jack, is a sexy white doctor, and, frankly, was wholly uninteresting. To me, Sayid and Sawyer were far more interesting characters and could've been just as effective as leaders of the group and the show.

One of the biggest missing links to me is
the origins of the Dharma Initiative.
There's a pretty definite shift in tone in the last half of the show, when the flashbacks switch to glimpses of the future. That's all well and good—it moves the story along and introduces new questions. But then in the last two seasons, things get really crazy with uncontrollable time-shifts, extra supernatural elements, and new plot twists that, to me, just muddled things up when they didn't need to be.

Before that point, it felt like things were finally being explained. The time jumps were promising, because it seemed like the origins of the island, the Dharma Initiative, and the Others would finally, finally, make some sense. But instead, LOST fell into the trap that I've found a lot of suspense-driven shows fall into: mystery for the sake of mystery, drawn out for the sake of intrigue, and then poorly—or never—explained. I like being left with questions, sure, but they have to be good, thoughtful, interesting questions, and not just "What the hell just happened?"

It's incredibly disappointing, because up to that point the mystery was exciting, and didn't feel exploitative. In the last two seasons, I felt like the cliffhangers were just taking advantage of my investment in the show, and not in the smart way that good stories do. It felt a little cheap, frankly.

And, well, the end. I had heard complaints about it and went into the show believing it had been spoiled. If it helps anyone who wondered, they weren't all dead the whole time. Thank. God. I put off watching the show for several years because I was so disappointed in this possibility, because, if it were true, it would be such lazy writing that it would completely ruin an interesting show.

I still didn't love the ending, but it was better than the alternative. It was emotional and was nice in that it brought all of the characters back together, even ones that had died early on in the show. But it was disappointing in the same way the last seasons were: it just wasn't explained well enough. It was a nice idea, but there were too many loose ends that felt contrived. They could've been explained, but they just weren't, and for no reason.

My five-season theory holds up here. LOST would have been infinitely better if it had had one fewer season. It felt like it had one too many story lines. One too many returns to the island, one too many time trips, one too many supernatural elements. Again, it felt a little cheap and exploitative. It felt, as with many shows that last a little bit too long, like ABC was just trying to drag out the viewership just a little bit longer.

All in all, I'm glad I watched LOST. I'm glad I can be part of the cultural phenomenon that came out of it, even if it's years too late. It's certainly worth watching if you like suspenseful stories and interesting characters with some sci-fi elements, but just be aware that it's not consistently good all the way through. I personally much preferred Abrams's Fringe, which is one of my favorite series, and the very short-lived Alcatraz was promising, as well. But LOST was worth watching and is really fun to discuss, and with so many hugely-dedicated viewers and so many weird plot lines to figure out, there's no shortage of things to talk about. And I think the LOST community is what helped it last.

This is a show that demands conversation. So on that note, let's talk about it! Leave a comment with your thoughts below—I'd love to hear from you!
My Favorite Episode:
"Live Together, Die Alone," (S2, Ep.23). We learn more about Desmond's past, and Michael brings Kate, Jack, Hurley, and Sawyer to the Others to try to rescue Walt, while Sayid, Sun, and Jin try to stop the betrayal. Desmond and Locke decide not to press the button in the hatch, and Charlie and Mr. Eko try to stop them. Picking a favorite episode is difficult, because each one is so connected to each other one that it can be hard to separate them. But the hatch was my favorite plot line, because it included a lot of interesting dilemmas for the characters. They learn about the Dharma Initiative (which I wish had been better explained), and the imperative to keep pressing the button brings up the question of how much of the island's information they should take on faith, and how much control they actually have over their time there. The hatch also showed a lot about the characters involved, based on how they reacted to the instructions to continue to press the button.

Some Trivia:
  • Daniel Dae Kim hadn't spoken Korean since he was a teenager, and had to relearn the language for his monolingual character Jin. Yunjin Kim, whose character Sun secretly speaks English and teaches Jin to speak English, actually spoke Korean in most of her previous acting credits and helped Daniel Dae Kim with his Korean.
  • Michael Emerson, who played Ben, was originally only supposed to be in a few episodes. The producers liked him so much that they made him a more prominent character. (Good thing, too. Ben was probably the most interesting character, even in the last seasons when things got weird.)
  • Parts of the crashed plane were used as instruments in Michael Giacchino's soundtrack.
  • Jorge Garcia (Hurley) was the first person cast in the series, after J.J. Abrams saw him in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Next Up in the Series:
Murder, She Wrote