Monday, December 20, 2010

According To TV: Community - Christmas

This is my first blog about the subject of Christmas in television, but the timing of the episodes couldn't be more recent.

Of course, my investigation into Christmas on television also deals with the messages that television sends about the holiday, and I feel there's no more positive messages to be found than the ones in the Community Christmas episodes. Though they're both wildly different in structure and form -- one is focused on Shirley, the other on Abed; one is a simple holiday-gone-wrong extravaganza, one is a stop-motion claymation extravaganza -- they both communicate a consistent message about Christmas, one that is both communal (evidenced by "Comparative Religion") and existential (in the case of "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"). They're both positive secular contributions to the canon of Christmas television.

"Comparative Religion"'s large focus on Shirley is more about her superiority complex regarding Christmas. She can't let go of her strong religious beliefs even in the face of basically every other major religion in the world being important to each of the other members of the group. Jeff, of course, isn't going to let the bullying of Abed continue unpunished. In the end, both characters level with each other; Jeff's speech is similar to the Tenth Doctor's speech about Rose in "The Satan Pit" (gratuitous Doctor Who reference: check!), namely that, if he believes in anything, it's his friends, particularly Shirley in this case. Shirley also realizes that if the study group is to be her new family, she needs to treat them like a family, so she supports Jeff in his endeavors. "Comparative Religion" isn't necessarily about religion, instead using religion as a lens for examining the true meaning of the holidays -- being with and supporting the people you care about most.

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" takes a similarly secular stance, though by somewhat different means. Abed, now seeing the world in stop-motion claymation, is looking for the meaning of Christmas. He and the rest of the study group (plus psych teacher Professor Duncan) engage in a group therapy session-slash-Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-inspired journey through Abed's mind in order to discover this elusive "true meaning of Christmas".

What does Abed find? The first season of LOST, representing lack of payoff. (That's another blog post, friends, a whole other blog post.) But after a wonderful song in which the rest of the study group fends off Professor Duncan yet again, Abed understands: the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.

How wonderfully existential! And yet, it makes sense. Previously, Abed talked about how he enjoyed the rituals associated with the holidays. They're tedious and annoying and often seem like they're all for naught, but performing the rituals was Abed's way of giving this holiday meaning. Now that Abed's previous ritual (watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with his mom) is gone, he finds a new ritual -- spending time with his new family.

Both episodes showcase characters who, in some way, have lost something, and try to get it back in their own forms of religion: Shirley turns her Christianity on full-speed-ahead, while Abed retreats into his own mind, stuffed to the brim with pop culture. And both show the characters coming to terms with that loss by reaching out to the people who care about them -- the study group. And while I'm sure many Christians object to Shirley's characterization as a "tolerant Christian" in the show, I don't think anybody can find issue with Abed, a Muslim, discovering meaning in Christmas simply by the very fact that Christmas has meaning at all. "Comparative Religion" tries to be fair to each of the religions represented, and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is entirely secular, containing no material related to Christianity beyond Shirley's protestations that only she knows the true meaning of Christmas.

Community is a rare show in this instance: that it can present a meaning of Christmas consistent with previous episodes dealing with Christmas means that the writers understand each other, their characters, and their show better than most. Both of these episodes go to extremes, but neither of them loses sight of the importance of the holidays. That's certainly not nothing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

According To TV: Christmas

In order to keep myself occupied over the long-but-feels-very-short Christmas break, I've decided to put this blog to use again. I'm gathering suggestions for, and making lists of, episodes of television shows that deal with Christmas directly or indirectly for me to watch and review in the context of a narrative. That narrative: what does television tell us Christmas is "about"?

In doing this feature, which will run at least through the end of this year, I'll be watching and discussing a broad scope of Christmas episodes from a wide range of television shows -- animated and live-action, drama and comedy, and all range of genre from science-fiction to horror to fantasy to slice-of-life to whatever else. The goal is to discover what values of Christmas television shows choose to highlight as positive, and conversely which values of Christmas are deemed negative, and how these values shift over time.

I'm in the "making a lot of big lists" stage of this project, but as I begin to write about the episodes, I'll post them here periodically. I'm going to try and jump around in time in order to keep things fresh. I can tell you what my first post will be, though: Community! I'm starting at the end, with a theory on the question I've presented, and I'll see how it holds up throughout the project. I'll also do a quick write-up on the Doctor Who Christmas specials from Tennant, summarizing my view of them, and then review Matt Smith and Steven Moffat's first special "A Christmas Carol" the day after Christmas.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Day Two

As if hearing my blog post from across time and space (to, you know, when the show actually aired last summer), "Day Two" hits all the sweet spots of building the scope of an on-going narrative while remaining fiercely devoted to character.

After all, the core characters have benefited the most from Torchwood's transition to mini-series format. Children of Earth has yet to fill a single frame with filler, and never is this more obvious than in the intimate scenes between characters. Whether it's Gwen telling Rhys about her pregnancy as they flee to London in a potato truck or Ianto meeting his sister in the park all dirtied up from the explosion at Torchwood-3, the show takes its time to put the characters in perspective. As an added bonus, Captain Jack Harkness, arguably the most developed character coming into Children of Earth, spends much of "Day Two" dead, regenerated and screaming, cemented, then regenerated again. By putting him in the back seat, we get to see Gwen kick ass with two pistols Lara Croft-style while Ianto slips about London seeking out Jack and Gwen and wondering why the heck the government would want to harm one of its greatest alien assets when an alien threat is coming to Earth "tomorrow" (so say the children of earth). I also dig how Rhys and Gwen are no longer at each other's throats -- it was the main complaint I had about season two's handling of bringing Rhys into the fold, but while the couple still debate each other and question their collective next move, there is little of the hot-headed Rhys that was his defining characteristic in the series.

All of this is guided by an increasingly daunting narrative: gaseous-based life-forms are approaching Earth, using the children of the world (and an old dude, also on the run from the government) to communicate. Fortunately, we have Lois, an assistant to the guy in charge of whatever government branch this is (could it be UNIT? I don't really know, and the government branch is largely undefined beyond being "below the Prime Minister"), who aids Gwen and Rhys in locating Jack Harkness and realizing that Torchwood-3 was destroyed because someone with a lot of power doesn't trust them.

There's a lot to love so far. I can't say I was always a fan of Gwen in the series, but she grew on me as time went on; here, though, she's beyond multiple levels of badass. I don't know of many female characters who would engage in a shootout in a top-secret government facility with husband and fetus in tow. Ditto for Ianto, who like Jack is pushing beyond the traditional boundaries of gay characters by just being awesome: he totally saves Jack with that forklift, and he's smart in taking his sister's car and laptop after their meeting. Danger lurks at every corner for the people who love Torchwood-3 members, so every precaution must be taken.

Torchwood-3's members have been set up as the underdogs in the story, and that's fine, because underdogs make for awesome heroes. (See the list of critically-acclaimed cancelled television shows for reference -- and pour one out for new member Terriers.) "Day One" is a lot of plot setup and reintroduction to the world of the show; "Day Two" maintains the intensity but pulls back the pace so that we can see the characters we love transforming before our eyes from the two-dimensional players they were in the series to the three-dimensional human beings they are now. Gwen has developed a hardness, but maintains her love for Rhys and joy at having new life growing inside her; Ianto's love for Jack never clouds his judgment; and Jack is genuinely pissed at having been blown up, captured, chained, and cemented, a dramatic shift away from his usual flirtatious smile or hardened military stance of "doing what must be done for the safety of all humanity".

So the only question I have left is: what happens next? I'd say that's a sure sign of Children of Earth's success. The mini-series format has taken previously-developed characters and thrust them into an impossible, life-changing situation, yielding nothing but positive results for everybody.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Day One

(Note: Hello! I'm aware that the weekly reviews somehow stopped getting written. I refuse to give up on the blog, but I've come to understand that weekly reviews aren't really for me. When I have something to say, I'll say it. For instance, this post, which originated as a Tumblr post to start up a TV Tumblr microblog, is being posted here as well. I'll be writing one blog post for each of the five episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, which I'm watching one per day, since that's how they were broadcast. Starting tomorrow after Day Two, I'll also be watching the final David Tennant specials of Doctor Who, though I'm not sure if I'll write about any of them beyond The End of Time, which I've already decided is going to be a tear-jerker because, well, I freaking LOVE Tennant as Who.

Anyway, here are my brief thoughts on the paradigm shift from regular, 13-episode seasons to mini-series format; future posts will continue to weave in my thoughts on the power of a focused narrative in this serialized format.)

Well. That was a wild ride.

In reflecting upon my experience watching Torchwood’s first two seasons in the past two weeks, I’ve come up decidedly underwhelmed. It’s not that the show isn’t good — it’s great, in fact. But in watching Children of Earth’s first episode, I feel silly for enjoying what came before.

It’s all in the story, of course. Season One is excused largely because of “spin-off syndrome” (the first season of a spin-off show will invariably suffer compared to the parent show because there’s still an umbilical cord of characters, themes, and a new twinge of insecurity connecting the two shows). Season Two had John Hart (everybody say a silent thanks to whatever deity you believe in for James Marsters) and some fantastic character-centric stories, but was lacking the kind of grand scope that makes Doctor Who finales (and by extension, seasons) pleasing to the eyes and ears.

That limitation breeds creativity is a well-established fact, and no more so is it true than when Torchwood’s third series was reduced to a mini-series. Five episodes, five days. In that one move, Davies was forced to finally transform Torchwood into the show it should have been by the end of season two. And just think: I’ve only seen "Day One"! I have no idea what’s in store for me: how this whole “children standing still and uttering alien declarations” plot pays off, or how Gwen handles her pregnancy, or how Jack and Ianto will proceed with their relationship (and hey, talk of kids is all in the air in this particular story). But I do know at least one thing that I love already: blowing up Torchwood-3. It’s like a big exclamation point saying, “HEY, LOOK, THIS IS A NEW SHOW NOW. WE’RE GOING TO TELL AWESOME STORIES AND YOU ARE POWERLESS TO STOP US. PLEASE ENJOY THE RIDE.”

There is no going back now — and Torchwood is all the better for it.