Suspending Our Regular Program

Alright, if you’ve been paying attention to the rhythm of this blog, you know that when Friday is my day to post, I usually post a BSG list.  But this week there’s a wee problem.  We only have one list left and I seem to have misplaced it.  So until I find it or we reconstruct it and/or write more (though it might be time to stop beating that dead horse for a while) the BSG lists are on hiatus.

Instead we’re going to talk about a little issue I have.  Suspending disbelief.

Clearly I don’t have an overall problem with suspending disbelief.  I mean, I love Sci-Fi, fantasy and musicals.  And soap operas.  In general, I’m all over suspending disbelief.  I’m an incredibly uncritical viewer.  But there are moments that break me.  And not the ones you’d think.

For example, Stargate SG-1.  Magic portal that transports people to the other side of the universe?  This I will accept without blinking.  And anthropologist that looks like Daniel Jackson?  Okay, seriously?  I’m not sure I can buy that.  (And I’m not alone on this one.  When I pointed to the character and explained to faithful reader Mary that he was an anthropologist, she snorted and said, “No, he’s not.”)

Another example:  Lord of the Rings (the movie trilogy, I think the moment in question happened in The Two Towers)—the moment where Sam and Frodo fall down the hill outside the gates of Mordor and Sam gets stuck in the gravel.  Frodo throws his cloak over them and the soldier that comes over to investigate mistakes them for a rock.  There’s something about the camera work in this sequence that makes it impossible for me to believe the guard doesn’t see them.  Again, the whole “magic ring has the power to cover the earth in darkness” is totally believable in my brain.  But this moment?  Pulls me out of it, every time.

Sometimes my reactions aren’t even on base.  Take my soap opera of choice, One Life to Live.  We’re talking about a show where people come back from the dead with a fair amount of regularity.  Where the “good” characters go through a dozen marriages or so.  But when the show revealed that Jessica and Natalie Buchanan were twins but had different fathers I went, “Okay, OLTL, you’re really reaching here.”  Thing is?  It turns out it’s actually possible (the real world kind of possible) for twins to have different fathers.  My mother’s even seen it happen.

So anyway, long and the short of it is I don’t really understand why these moments jump out at me.  And yoink me out of my happy fictional world.  (Okay, I really do think in my second example camera work has something to do with it)  But I feel like it needs to be said.  For the children (so long as they aren’t hot anthropologists or half-sister twins).  I don’t think I’m the only one this happens to, but it seems to be different for everyone.  One of my old roommates always said the part about Lord of the Rings she couldn’t believe was the whole Frodo being willing to give up his life for the good of the world thing.  Clearly she and I are different.

Navigate This.

We here at My TV, My Peanut Butter are quite the fans of TV on DVD.  We were the ones who tried to tape and collect everything, so this whole better-quality-smaller-container-easily-available thing was tailor made for us.

But all this consumption has also given us some very strong opinions.  Particularly on the subject of menus and navigation.

The way a main-menu runs on a DVD, particularly one for a TV series, can make or break the experience.  Some of them have really rotten icons that don’t make it clear what you’ve highlighted so instead of playing the episode, you wind up turning on Korean subtitles.  Some of them have the world’s crappiest menu music (you can always tell when there was a dispute over rights to the music in the show).

But the worst of the worst is the lack of a “play all.”

The offender that comes to mind first on this is The X-Files (though they are by no means alone: Stargate SG1?  I’m looking right at ya).  I love my X-Files, and there’s not much about them that can tick me off, but I hate, loath and despise that when I put in those DVDs?  I have to manually select each episode, and then manually select to play it.  It’s not just the lack of ability to put it in and hit play knowing it will run for 4 eps without my having to stop ironing, it’s the fact that every single episode requires me to essentially select it twice.  And then when the episode finishes, I get dumped back to that episode’s play menu, and have to navigate to go back to the main menu to play the next episode.  Annoying. As.  Hell.

Menus aren’t the only failing though.  Other navigational screw ups can destroy an experience as well.  So right behind the lack of “play all” on the menu poorly marked chapters within an episode.  When you’re sitting down to a marathon of a series, no matter how good those credits are, but the last 6 or 7 episodes of that 20 episode season?  You’re bordering on homicidal.  In the name of the safety of yourself, and others (including the makers of the show), you pick up the remote as those credits begin again and hit to skip forward.

Except some clueless asshat put the chapter break well past the end of the credit sequence, so now you have to scramble to go back to the previous chapter where you will either have to grit your teeth through the opening, or you’ll have to use the more manual fast-forward and hope you don’t overshoot your mark.  Total drag.  Oh and Stargate?  I’m totally looking at you again.

So, to all you wonderful people who bring me TV on DVD?  Please take notes.

Series Finales: The Rare Breed of a Decent Ending

Random factoid:  Today is the one-year anniversary of the series finale of Battlestar Galactica.

I find it odd that it’s been a year because I recall the finale well, and yet it’s an episode I only watched once because it was too much of a kick in the gut to watch without significant emotional recovery time in between.  In my book, that’s a mark of greatness for a TV show or movie.

There are comparatively few programs that have an ending as painful-yet-satisfying (Starbuck notwithstanding–I maintain that was just excessive cruelty).  Of course, there are comparatively few programs which are good enough to justify hanging in to watch until the bitter end.  When I start to take stock, there are few series that I’ve clung to until their ending, and of those there are fewer still that were given the unique opportunity of ending by something other than the swift-pen of a studio exec marking their cancellation, and of that few who received the opportunity to wrap up their loose ends, even fewer actually did it in a way that really did justice to anything that came before.  As I started to do the math, I realized the following:

I’ve only actually made it to the finales of approximately 14 shows.  I’ve been hooked on a lot of shows that went dud somewhere in the mid-seasons and I never went back.  In the case of The West Wing, I watched solidly seasons 1-4 and the first half of 5, then walked away completely until the finale, which I consider among the best I’ve seen.    So I counted that as my 14th show, because even if I lost interest in the middle, I did care enough to see it brought to an ending and that’s more than I’ve done for other shows I’ve given up on.

That brings us to 13.  Of those, 6 had what I consider the “non-renewal-travesty” endings where maybe some things were resolved but over all you could tell the story was cut short by some moron who decided the ratings weren’t good enough.  The most bitter is Remember WENN, for which I’ve boycotted AMC since about 1998.  This group also includes 2 series (Farscape and Firefly) which were later wrapped up in a movie event of some sort (neither of which was as satisfying as I would have liked). In general I don’t count conclusions which take place in another medium (for example, Angel was axed with a very inconclusive ending, IMHO, but continued as a comic…which I haven’t actually had a chance to read so, not counting that at all).  Some of these may have run to crappy endings one day, but they were cut down at a time when I was still watching and had no reason to cease.

That leaves 7 shows which I stuck with until the end and which came to their conclusion with intentional endings.  Of those 7, I found that the more episodic the show, the more likely the ending was not actually as satisfying.  For example, I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I can’t honestly say that I got much out of “All Good Things”  It was a nice ep and all, but it’s not really….satisfying.  And I certainly can’t count the follow-on movies as anything worth calling a good conclusion to that part of the Trek Franchise.  The same goes for Stargate: SG-1.  Straight ball honest?  Off the top of my head, I don’t even really recall how SG-1 ended.  Yeah.  I’d put in my season 10 DVDs to check, but I have Anne of Green Gables playing right now and little in the world justifies stopping Anne of Green Gables.  I do know that the end of SG-1 never answered anything regarding Sam and Jack so my inner-standard-issue-shipper is dissatisfied.  Again, there were the follow-on made for TV movies, but you definitely can’t count those as a conclusion.  Then there’s the biggest stinker of all, The X-Files.  Say wha?  Yeah–no.  I never expected answered questions to end The X-Files because that would have been a travesty in and of itself, but I did expect that I wouldn’t feel like  I’d been cheated after suffering through those last few seasons.

When all is said and done, I’m left with Babylon 5, which had a finale so appropriate to the show that I cry like an infant in need of a diaper change every time I watch (Kristy has actually forbidden me from viewing “Sleeping In the Light” if I’m already depressed because the emotional recovery time after viewing this episode is way too long), and with Battlestar Galactica, which, as I’ve already stated, I haven’t been able to watch in an entire year since first seeing it and drenching two hankies and my shirt sleeve with tears and snot.  It does not escape me that both of these satisfying (if heart-wrenching) endings came from programs that knew the value of a full series arc.

And yet, it’s funny.  Technically the episodic shows have those tied up endings down pat–after all, they do it weekly.  You’d think they’d be better at it.  But in giving us a tidy package each week, they deny us the pleasure of concluding with something that feels like more than just another package in a row.  By the time the episodic shows have decided to wrap it up (which is generally a season later than it should have been), there aren’t many threads which reach back to the beginning.  The few continuous threads they have running through the series (almost exclusively those based on an uncertain romantic coupling) are either hastily put together in a way even the most amateur of fan-fics could out-do, or they are left dangling, generally with some misguided view that this is a deeper and more meaningful thing to let the audience wrap up in their minds.  Which is bull, particularly if the dangling thread is a romantic couple.  Shippers in an audience already wrapped it up a thousand ways in their minds and posted it to the internet, so the least the series folks could do is grow a set and show that they can handle writing a wrap-up to the romantic web they’ve used to tease an audience over multiple seasons.

Maybe so many endings suck because, ultimately, endings are scary.  In reality even the happy endings in life still come with the reality that change lurks around the corner, all creepy and unknown.   For those who’ve been writing to the arc, the ending has been known from the beginning.  It’s not scary because it’s a known quantity that they prepare for every step of the way.  For those poor episodic types, there’s no grand plan.  It’s just day by day.  So when the day comes to finalize it all, it’s just too much–and suddenly that cancelled-too-soon ending seems more humane.  Even if we in the audience don’t realize it.