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True Blood – 3×08: A Nip/Tuck Effect?

True Blood is the new Nip/Tuck. Remember that show? It finally got canceled this year right? Who knows… not like anyone watched it to the end or very long past the Carver anyway. Same formula as True Blood, really: extreme sex + extreme violence – any plausibility = ratings! Nip/Tuck was quite good in the beginning, kind of the way True Blood was (yeah, kind of). As the series went on, though, it got more and more ridiculous, but somehow it still managed to get in a few truly touching moments for a while, like towards the end of Season 1 when (SPOILER ALERT) Sean Macnamara fell in love with a dying woman named Megan O’Hara and helped to euthanize her as Elton John’s Rocket Man played in the background.

Excluding any moment on LOST or Buffy or the Season 4 finale of House (Wilson! Amber!) that particular scene sticks out in my mind as one of the most tragic television moments of all time. They were few and far between, but even with all the similarities between the two shows I still can’t think of just ONE moment on True Blood that I, or anyone I know, has ever connected with or been touched by in a similar way. I’ve never felt true elation for a triumph of these characters, and I’ve also never felt that pang of worry or heart-breaking lament for them either. The closest I’ve come to connecting are some “awwww’s” here and there between Jessica and Hoyt, or Lafayette and Jesus. True Blood is an endless string of empty stories with no heart. As for Nip/Tuck, I would go on to become disgusted by the show for its way way waaaaaay over-the-top and repulsive content done purely for shock value which helped to make it lose near any semblance of heart it had left, and to this day I advise people not to watch it as there is no chance of a swift resolution to these unlikeable characters aside from their demise.

Sounding familiar?

Christian Troy as Jason Stackhouse (FX)

This is a result of the slippery-slope of a relatively new monster known as the “Cable Drama”: they can discuss heavier themes, curse, show people having wild and crazy sex, hack each others’ heads off clean, masturbate to horse porn, you name it. But its easy for the writers to get lost in all that freedom, too, and apparently tempting to throw it all into one show just so audiences think you’re daring and different! Sometimes its not whole shows which overuse the privilege just because they can, for example, Debra Morgan on Dexter. Her incessant usage of the word “fuck” makes me cringe near every time she utters it. They are trying to be [fucking] funny with it, and it does [fucking all] but make her sound like a [fucking] retard. (See what I mean?)

Oh yeah, the episode…

I’ll be brief about the analysis-and-review portion of the latest episode of True Blood because I’ve gone on long enough. I know the episode was suppose to be some big deal with all these crazy twists and spins that affect the rest of the season but… meh. Well, it started off on a good foot with the refreshingly mutual break-up of Sookie and Bill which, truth be told, is a rarer occurrence on television than it is in real life. This is totally understandable being that mutual break-ups are low on the conflict scale and pretty damn anti-climactic, however, I enjoyed seeing two people tearfully agree that, despite loving each other, some things just aren’t meant to work out. I guess it was a sense of realism otherwise non-existent amidst the absurdity that is True Blood which I appreciated. But of course, the break up didn’t even last past the episode it took place in, which really lowers the stakes of any conflict moving forward between Sookie and Bill, as if it wasn’t low enough already. It’s like in the real world, you know, those people who always come to you after their on-again/off-again significant other have broken up for the 283472 time and they crying to you about it and promising its the last time. I’m sure they think its the end of the world each and every time, but you’re exhausted from having to pretend you care anymore because you know its all bullshit and all their own fault and this won’t end until one of them (A) dies, or (B) moves away. That’s how I feel watching all these idiots run around in circles most of the time, and that goes beyond Sookie and Bill.

"If I weren't so stupid I'd have fallen in love with someone like you." - Sookie (HBO)

Alright. The moment you were all waiting for: the sex is back! We’ve seen how relatively subdued sex has been in Season 3 in comparison to the disastrous Season 2 orgyfest (not in intensity but in frequency). I’ve welcomed the change, call it a little television abstinence. Well, it made its comeback in a huge way on Sunday night when we were reminded why God invented Premium Cable. Personally, neither Stephen Moyer or gay bunk-ups do it for me, but if Sookie or Eric are involved, the sexiness factor amps up anyone with a heartbeat and half a libido. (Yes, I’m still holding out for the moment when both their worlds collide and my screen melts!) Even the non-sex was hot: Alcide and Sookie. One of the few good lines of the episode is captioned above. There was a promise of a raunchy reunion in that goodbye which I would welcome, gladly.

One act I was not pleased with, however, was Eric’s decision to kill Talbot as vengeance on Russell — particularly if that’s in fact his only plan. If the show really wanted the audience to flip their shit at the killing of Talbot, they wouldn’t have made Russell so annoyed and dismissive of him all along. They should have made the two inseparable and fleshed out their bond, or made Russell as obsessive over Talbot as Talbot was of him. I mean, of course all hell is going to break lose now anyway, but its unjustified and only vaguely reasonable. Who cares about a situation that yesterday appeared to mean next to nothing to Russell? Just another McGuffin as far as I’m concerned. They could have done a lot more with that story, as with most everything else. That being said, I repeat, this better not be the only thing up Eric’s sleeve because it sucks!

Here are some of my usual riddle of bullets from the episode…

  • LOL'ed hard at Bill's post-Tony Manero ensemble (HBO)

    Turns out that, yup, Sookie screamed that blood-curdling scream at the sight of Bill for no real rational reason. Just to scare you into another episode. What a joke!

  • WTF was that 1995 zip-up windbreaker Bill was wearing in the opener all about?
  • Talbot: “Franklin’s brains won’t wash off the bed linens!” Yessss he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s really dead!
  • Arlene is totally freaking about about Rene being the baby’s father. Whatever. I think she’s going to abort out of the fear that the baby will have that “serial killer blood” or some ridiculous and predictable excuse like that.
  • Tara wants to live more than ever = I want to die more than ever.
  • Tommy steps to Hoyt. FAIL.
  • Jessica and Bill’s relationship is actually pretty sweet. I’m all about these platonic male/female relationships, so I at least enjoyed their exchange a bit.
  • How brain-dead would someone have to be to have the following reaction: “OMG Jason and Crystal are sooooooooo awesome and exciting! I love them! What’s going to happen next?!?!? They had sex! How cool!!! They are totally in love. Can’t you see it in their eyes? Jason has to save her, she’s just such an amazing person with so many admirable qualities. Crystal Meth is getting some screen time outside of Breaking Bad? Awesome! People should totally hear more about it!” Honestly, what are the writers smoking when they come up with this crap? My 94 year-old grandmother comes up with better stories about the Lebanese neighbors!
  • Lafayette and Jesus together again? I hope so…
  • What will be the consequences and/or outcome of Jessica’s killing sprees? She tries to fight the urges, but is it Bill’s fault for not caring for her the way a maker should? Then again a maker is suppose to teach to hunt, not teach you how not be a vampire, right?
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The Problem with TV McGuffins – Procedurals vs. LOST vs. Battlestar

Chances are you know what a McGuffin is. Even if you’ve never heard the actual term, you’ve probably thought about it or discussed it. Then again, to the passive film and television viewer it may have gone unnoticed, thus proving the magic of the McGuffin itself. Here’s a fabulous little audio clip from my hero, Alfred Hitchcock, and an even more fabulous video to go along with it, which explains the phenomena:

Sigh. Nothing like the Vertigo theme to get your day going, eh? So just in case you’re only further confused, here are a couple of famous film McGuffins:

  • The contents of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction
  • The meaning of “rosebud” in Citizen Cane
  • Mrs. Thorwald (the missing/murdered wife) in Rear Window
  • Fisher’s inception in Inception

In all these films the characters are obsessed with getting their McGuffin; but really, did it make a difference to you what it was? In the case of Pulp Fiction and Citizen Kane, the McGuffin was a mystery all along. (Lets call these “Mystery McGuffins“.) For all we knew they could have been a can of spam, or a dirty condom… but still we watched. In heist, spy, or thriller flicks like Rear Window and Inception we know exactly what the McGuffin is (these are “Classic McGuffins”), but just the same we could have replaced the story of missing wife with the story of a missing child (Rear Window), or an inception to be directed at a suicidal young heiress who was going to give up her fortune to an evil uncle instead of Fisher (Inception)… and again, we still would have watched! Why? Because while the characters may think that thing is so important, we’re busy thinking that they are what’s important. We care that they get “it” but we don’t care what “it” is.

Okay, so what about McGuffins in television? Where are they?

In procedurals, the McGuffin is always the case-of-the-week. On House, we tune in to see how Dr. House and Staff react and interact with each other, with their co-workers, and with the issues surrounding the McGuffin (i.e. the case), but we really don’t care all that much about who did it, why, what it is, or where it came from so long as our characters figure it out. Procedurals are built on the whole concept of the Classic McGuffin with a new one showing up in every episode! Generally, they function fabulously and the show can last for 5+ years so long as there’s a new McGuffin every week and the characters remain consistent and entertaining.

But what about serialized McGuffins on serialized shows? You know, the Mystery McGuffin that year after year the characters have still learned next to nothing about. And along with them, neither has the audience! I searched deep into my memory to recall some over-arcing, multi-season, serialized Mystery McGuffins and found these:

  • Rambaldi on Alias
  • Laura Palmer’s murderer on Twin Peaks
  • The mother on How I Met Your Mother
  • The island on LOST
  • The myth of Earth on Battlestar Gallactica

Now some of you may be thinking: “Hold on, I care about who the mother is on HIMYM! I cared about what the island was on LOST! I was dying to find out what ‘Earth’ would look like on BSG! These aren’t McGuffins. They are plot!” And, yes, I see your point, but here’s where the problem lies… if the answer to what the Mystery McGuffin is is anything less than perfectly satisfactory by the series end, then it loses its credibility as plot and was simply a McGuffin all along! It was fluff. It was stuffing to fill in for the character’s motivation. This would be fine if the series treated the McGuffin with the careful distance with which it should, but to make an audience think that the McGuffin is anything more than a McGuffin is just wrong. Just as in the Hitchcock’s story, as soon as the second man on the train realizes that “there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands“, and the contents of the McGuffin are not what we theorized they might be at all, what it is becomes totally meaningless. So, when a series turns their Mystery McGuffin into part of the plot which affects the characters’ lives and it takes on a life of its own, they better find a way to make sure that there are some lions in those highlands! Either way, creating such a larger-than-life mysterious object of desire runs the danger of becoming an obsession for the audience, not just for the characters. Why a ‘danger’, you ask? Because while the mystery may work on film for an hour or two, the time investment and emotional investment put into a serialized television show (especially a drama) can easily create a situation in which the audience will care more about the McGuffin than the characters and their relationships, and this should never be the case. Caring about “it” is a job that must always be left primarily  up to the characters themselves! Can you see where I’m going with this?

Credit Unknown

LOST – Year after year we watched a show in which what the characters wanted became the same thing that we wanted: to know what the Island was. Actually, I regress, most of them just wanted to get off. It was us that wanted to know what it was more than anything. Instead of rooting for them to get off and to grow and change, we wanted answers about the McGuffin. What ended up happening was that a show which had such beautiful characters, tremendous acting, heartbreaking stories, and moving relationships in its early seasons, began to build so heavily and unnecessarily around its Mystery McGuffin (“the Island”) that the audience began to lose their initial connection to the characters and stories. (Of course, adding 10 new Losties every season didn’t help in strengthening our connections with existing characters either, but hey, that’s a different bone to pick.) If you’ve never read the Alan Sepinwall Interview with Lindelof and Cuse which came out the week before the series finale, I suggest you do. In it, the LOST showrunners claim that their show has always been about characters first and that the finale will resonate to that. Indeed the finale did go back to the characters stuff, and I thoroughly enjoyed it as an episode (tears and all!) but to claim that the show always put these characters as its focus, and not the Island, upsets me in ways I can’t even explain because its simply not true! They certainly may have wanted to do that but unfortunately they failed by creating the fluffiest and most complicated Mystery McGuffin ever put to film.

Battlestar Gallactica –  If you ever get a chance, read the BSG Bible by Ronald D. Moore. It’s a fascinating guideline on how to create a serialized drama without getting lost (inadvertent pun!) in the meaningless details of ‘coolness’. Time and time again Moore repeats how important the characters are and how the story is about them and their reactions and how vital it was to keep them flawed but real above all else. This series too was built around a Mystery McGuffin: the myth of planet Earth. It was that thing that that the entire fleet was looking for, the thing which kept their hopes alive, which kept them going despite death and chaos biting at their heels and plaguing their memories. Let’s think for a moment, though, when you talked about BSG then, or when you talk about it now, how often do you talk about the need to reach Earth and what it was and whether it was real and who was there and how it all happened? Pretty often, perhaps? Good, because it was important, as it should be with such a heavily serialized and mythological series. But nonetheless, while watching an episode, reaching Earth was a question which lingered in the back of our minds, meanwhile the conflict of each episode or each season was what kept us going. In my very humble opinion, this is a point under which LOST failed and Battlestar Gallactica played it just right.

How can we tell? While there are always going to be people who were disappointed in the way that both of these shows ended (and we all know there are plenty of angry fans in both corners), a less than satisfactory answer to the mystery of the Island in LOST is significantly worse than a less than satisfactory answer to the mystery of Earth in BSG because the myth of Earth remained as much of a McGuffin as possible, while the Island grew to pseudo-plot of epic proportions. If Hitchcock could retell his McGuffin allegory for LOST, the package wouldn’t be above the man’s head, it would be sitting smack dab in the middle of the room in a box covered with the words “DANGER. BEWARE. SECRET”. It makes for a much more tension-filled story, perhaps, but by the time the second passenger gets the nerve to ask about it, the thing has grown to such a size that it has taken over the entire train car and he can’t even see past it. The poor man has to sit on the longest train ride of his life, staring at the thing, and wait to arrive at his destination in order to be able to ask the man sitting across from him what was inside it all along, at which point anything he had made up in his mind about what it was, was far more interesting than the answer he got.

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