Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Television

OK, I've got about a zillion things to do (this being my last weekend before my trip -- I'm already planning on getting my work done early this week so I can take off another day just to pack) -- anyway, I've got a zillion things to do but am I doing them? No. Because what I feel the really deep need to do is 'blog for a bit about television.

Torchwood, in particular.

Now, just in case you're not all watching BBC America, let me give you a brief rundown of what's going on here.

Torchwood is a spinoff (and anagram) of Doctor Who. It was always intended to be darker, grittier, and have more sex in it. After its first season, someone hit the giant "reset" button on the show and it came back a bit more fun (but still with the sex) for the second season. And at the end of the second season, the giant "reset" button got hit again, two main characters got killed off, and the show didn't so much get renewed as given, instead of a full third season, a five-night mini-series.

Which aired in the UK recently, and just aired on BBC America last week. It got high UK ratings (the best Torchwood ever got, apparently) and while I'm not sure what sort of ratings it pulled in the States (second-tier cable numbers aren't that easy to come by), the critical reception was strongly positive. In other words, well done, Torchwood.

Until you look on the internet and read the message boards. Fans of the show are peeved. Cancelling pre-ordered copies of the DVD. Threatening/promising to never watch the show ever again (assuming it gets picked up for a 4th season, which seems more likely given the numbers for the 3rd). Starting grass-roots campaigns.

Because, you see, Season 3 of Torchwood pretty much hit the giant "reset" button yet again. The mini-series was written in such a way that it could serve as a good series ender if the show didn't get picked up again, although that door was still left open a crack. The mini-series killed off another main character (a fan favorite). And it ended with, well, let's just say making another main character make a tragic choice, which left him emotionally devastated.

Fans were torn apart by both of these things. Writing letters (and raising money for charity) to bring back the dead character. Complaining that it is just too much for us to take -- killing off another one after they'd just killed off two at the end of the last season. Angry that emotionally devastating our lead will make him no fun at all to watch in season four. Whining that his tragic choice was unnecessary, as a perfectly easy solution to the problem would have been available had the writers not prematurely kicked off a guest character before the end of the show. Much, much anger. Much complaining about betraying the writer/fan relationship. (Followed by much hurt defensiveness whenever they're told that the writer doesn't owe them anything.)

To which I can only say: Step back for a second. (And, some of you, step back a little further.) Take a look at what you're doing for a minute.

It's television. These people aren't real. These are characters the writers wrote and the actors inhabited. That their death and emotional trauma hurts you means that the show worked. It jumped out of the television set and moved you. Maybe it moved you in a way you didn't want to be moved; maybe you feel cheated because you feel emotionally manipulated. But this just means that the people behind the show succeeded at what they wanted to do. That you're angry because a main character was killed off means that they created a character you cared about. That you're thinking about ways the lead could have spared the emotional trauma of the horrible decision he had to make means that they succeeded in a telling a story where things aren't fair and saving the world has costs. That's clearly what they wanted to tell.

There are shows I've watched once and haven't watched again. (Warehouse 13 leaps to mind.) And when that happens, I don't jump all over the internet and loudly proclaim that it's crap, a sorry retread of The X-Files, with bad dialogue and plot holes you could drive a jeep through (all of which are true, btw). I just stopped watching, briefly mourned the hour of my life I'll never get back, and moved on. There have also been shows that I watched for years, and then stopped watching when they fell off in quality (say, X-Files itself). I just remembered the good times, felt a bit sad that the show wouldn't be giving me any more entertaining hours, and moved on. That people are taking the trouble to shout how angry they are about Torchwood (even when it's clothed in language that the mini-series was poorly written) are actually saying it was good enough to make them care.

For my own part, I loved it. I enjoyed the first three episodes of the mini-series, and when it got emotionally dark it got really dark, and I applauded that the show had the cajones to, well, (1) actually sicken me with the depths to which humans could sink (in terms of behavior towards each other) when faced with an unwinnable situation; and then, (2) punch me in the gut. It was excellent television, more "can't look away" than anything the show has done before. And for everyone who is complaining because it looks like any fourth season they'd do would be no fun at all given what they've put the characters through, I have only one thing to say:

They still have the giant "reset" button.

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