The First Five Rule

This summer has offered a wide array of new fare for the American viewer. When the average viewer chooses a summer show, they are usually looking for something light and fluffy, with enough depth to provide a compelling storyline, but nothing too deep and dark that might depress us. This summer, with current events escalating in the Middle East and Ukraine, we are especially in need of light, fun fare.

Surprisingly, all three of the summer shows I decided to try this year were on NBC network. During the year, I watch nothing that is aired by NBC, a network that seems to focus on reality/competition type shows and daytime soap operas. So I was pleasantly pleased by my own choices.

Jordan (Jill Flint), Topher (Ken Leung), and TC (Eoin Macken) in The Night Shift.

Jordan (Jill Flint), Topher (Ken Leung), and TC (Eoin Macken) in The Night Shift.

The most appealing shows to me, when I decided back in June, were The Night Shift, Welcome to Sweden, and Working the Engels. The cast of The Night Shift was the main motivating factor: Jill Flint of early Royal Pains, Ken Leung of Person of Interest and Lost, and Brendan Fehr who played Booth’s brother on Bones, just to name a few. Welcome to Sweden had Amy Poehler to recommend it, plus I have an ongoing love affair that started with my first Ikea experience 10 years ago. I was cautiously optimistic about Working the Engels, but thought I would give it a try. I loved Azura Skye in her brief role in Buffy Season 7, and Andrea Martin was a riot in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. However, as a daughter of a legal professional, I am always skeptical of shows that dabble in that field.

Generally, I use the first 5 episodes of a show as a sort of trial period. If I think I might be interested in show, but I’m still withholding judgement, then I decide to watch or not by the end of the 5th episode. My reasoning is as follows:

1) Pilot: the pilot episode, while made to give the network a taste of the whole show, often bears little resemblance to the ultimate product. Filmed six months or more in advance, the pilot often contains actors in main roles who never again appear (case in point: New Girl), and sets and motifs that disappear within the first month (case in point: Bones). I find the pilot of a show unrepresentative of the body of the show in general. For instance, New Girl‘s pilot was quite possibly the funniest bit of television I have ever seen, but the rest of the show has fallen off considerably from there, and now mainly consists of people yelling at each other. In the same vein, I often instruct Buffy virgins not to watch the pilot at all, or to watch it with an extremely open mind. The rest of the show is better, I promise.

2) The second episode is written after the show is picked up. The writers haven’t seen each other in a year, or have possibly never met before at all. They don’t know the actors yet. They’ve mostly forgotten what happened in the pilot. Generally, the second episode is written in a fit of fear of losing the job they just got without any sort of forward planning or writing towards a story arch. The second episode is treading water.

3) I find in general 3rd episodes are often surprisingly good. The third episode of a series may end up being the best episode of a show for a long, long while. For instance, “Water” was the 3rd episode of Battlestar Galactica,* “A Boy in a Tree” was 3rd in Bones, and “Walkabout” was 3rd in Lost. These episodes are all at least in my personal “Top 20” lists for these shows, if not “Top 10.” In Downton Abbey season 1, the third episode is the one with the visiting Turkish diplomat. Forgive my oblique description, but I’m attempting to avoid spoilers. Those of you who know, know what I’m talking about and it’s a pretty big deal. So why not stop after the 3rd episode? Because sometimes it’s too good, too good to be true. For instance, Once Upon A Time had an exceptional third episode in “Snow Falls,” but we all know how I ultimately felt about that show. No, unfortunately, 3 episodes is not yet an accurate barometer for long-term show success.

4) The fourth episode is interesting. Often, this is when the show writers are attempting to further a long-term story arch. Fourth episodes can be similar to the second in that it may again feel like treading water. Or it can be the foundation for something much bigger coming later in the season. A perfect example of this is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fourth episode “Eye Spy.” At the time, Akela Amador seems interesting, and her eye technology disturbing, but we think at the end of the episode that everything is wrapped up. We are disturbed, but we sense no lasting consequences. Little do we know the importance of this episode until months later, in “T.R.A.C.K.S.” (Again, I am attempting to avoid spoilers, please forgive my obliqueness.)

5) Finally, we reach the fifth episode of the series. Now, the show is starting to find its rhythm. The writers have gotten to know each other, and gotten to know the actors a bit. The long term arches have been created, and you see an episode that contains both the episodic arch and marks along the continuing over-arching stories. We’re getting to know our characters better. We have an idea of where the writers are heading, where the story is going, and what the characters want. Now, we have a very good idea of what the show is going to be like for the rest of the season, if not the whole life of the series.

This drawn out process has become a fool-proof way for me to choose new TV shows to watch. Of course, the show will also need to get some Heart at some point, too!

Emma (Josephine Bornebusch) and Greg (Greg Poehler) in Welcome to Sweden.

Emma (Josephine Bornebusch) and Greg (Greg Poehler) in Welcome to Sweden.

The first of the summer verdicts are in, and the rest will follow soon. I am unashamed to say I’m loving The Night Shift. I watched the 8th episode and realised I had totally passed my 5 episode bench mark. The show had immediate heart, and I cared deeply for the majority of the characters within the first two episodes. I also really enjoy the themes about army versus civilian life, especially against a south-central Texan backdrop. I found myself questioning my own sanity for like it given its increasingly soap-opera type relationship networks, but I realised I should give myself a break: it’s a summer show! What better time to indulge in a little unimportant relationship intrigue on television? Mostly, I’m just sad there wasn’t an episode last week.

Jenna (Kacey Rohl), Ceil (Andrea Martin), Sandy (Azura Skye), and Jimmy (Benjamin Arthur) in Working the Engels.

Jenna (Kacey Rohl), Ceil (Andrea Martin), Sandy (Azura Skye), and Jimmy (Benjamin Arthur) in Working the Engels.

I am also now three episodes into both Working the Engels and Welcome to Sweden. While cautiously optimistic about Welcome to Sweden, I think the 5th episode of Working the Engels will be my last. I am unimpressed and mainly disgusted. The show has already resorted to stripper pole humour. But I have hopes for the future of Welcome to Sweden, though I’m worried about the survival of a show that relies heavily upon subtitles. They are easy to read, however, and so far the show has me in stitches.

Final verdicts on the sitcoms in about two weeks! Look for my post.

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Response to Tasha Robinson

This post is in response to an exposition by Tasha Robinson that appeared in The Dissolve on 16 June, 2014. To read the full text of the article, please follow the link: We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.

A few days ago, a friend’s posted link on Facebook caught my eye. “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters…” it read, and I was unable to see the rest. I thought, “That’s weird, I really thought we were getting better!” Of course, I had to read.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix.

The article, written by The Dissolve‘s Senior Editor Tasha Robinson, bemoans the evidently chronic practice of film-makers to create “Strong Female Characters(TM)” as she calls them, only to throw away their potential in favour of bolstering a male protagonist. I agree, this sounds like a bad thing. I wouldn’t stand for it, personally. Ms. Robinson cites several films in support of her thesis, alluding to “Trinity Syndrome,” which refers to Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) from The Matrix trilogy.

Merida in Brave.

Merida in Brave.

First on Ms. Robinson’s list is Valka (Cate Blanchett) in How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014). Robinson writes, “She’s interesting. Too bad the story gives her absolutely nothing to do.” Now, I haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon either 1 or 2, but that does sound like a real bummer for the Strong Female Characters(TM) of this world. But then I remembered my post about Frozen from this past February, rejoicing at the gains for, to abbreviate Ms. Robinson, SFCs(TM) in children’s (and especially Disney) films. Has Ms. Robinson see Frozen, I wonder? If so, she is correct that How To Train Your Dragon 2 could represent a depressing (though not wholly unexpected) backslide.

Ms. Robinson proceeds to lambaste The Lego Movie (2014), which evidently builds Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) as a SFC(TM), and then erodes that when she asks her boyfriend’s permission to give the plucky hero reward sex. Next on Ms. Robinson’s list is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), which evidently invented a new, female elf character simply because there weren’t any girls in the book. To be sure, that does sound like a rather stupid marketing ploy. Finally, Ms. Robinson expresses disgust at the character of Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) in Riddick (2013). Oh, but in the end, Robinson salutes The Edge of Tomorrow (2014) for not falling into that trap*.

Anna and Elsa in Frozen.

Anna and Elsa in Frozen.

One thing my readers may have noticed from my language above is that I have seen none of the movies Ms. Robinson discusses, with the exception of The Matrix (1999). Therefore, I have no basis with which to refute Ms. Robinson’s interpretation of the roles she discusses. Indeed, the way she paints the picture leaves me a bit blue. The problem I am left with, however, is that her hypothesis– that we’re losing our Strong Female Characters(TM) to White Knight Male Protagonists (my term)– leaves me feeling that she must be wrong.

Kate (Evangeline Lilly) in Lost

Kate (Evangeline Lilly) in Lost

Take her first example, How to Train Your Dragon 2. The series is actually based on a children’s book series by Cressida Cowell. (If you want to read them, check them out!) Now, I’ve never read them, either, but I hear they’re pretty good. My question is, what is Valka like in the books? If she, as Ms. Robinson says, has absolutely nothing to do, then we must look at the book for our criticism. If not, then there is a deeper question as to why film-makers would take a female character’s power away from her. I assume Valka actually exists in the books, unlike Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who was invented for the second Hobbit film. That’s pure silliness. The Hobbit is essentially a medieval quest tale. There is no place for women in it, and even as a 10-year-old reading the book for the first time, I understood that and it didn’t bother me. Tauriel is just another sign of how silly Peter Jackson has become about this Hobbit debacle.

Just the fact that The Lego Movie made it into Ms. Robinson’s article is surprising to me. Did she really go looking for a SFC(TM) there? Most reveiwers called it “slapstick” at best. I’m not surprised a formulaic, often crude, movie about little plastic people failed Ms. Robinson on this count. And she had hope for Riddick? I don’t know any women who went to see that. Not even one who was remotely interested. I’m not saying that it’s OK to turn women into sex objects in male-targeted films, but it is certainly more expected. While I hope that will change in the future, one can’t expect miracles to happen overnight.

To Ms. Robinson, I propose the following:

Don’t like How to Train Your Dragon 2 or The Lego Movie? Watch Brave or Frozen. And read the books by Cressida Cowell.

Don’t like the made-up female character in The Hobbit? Read the book. Or watch the same actress, Evangeline Lilly, being kick-ass in Lost.

Don’t like Katee Sackhoff’s character in Riddick? Watch her for 5 seasons of Battlestar Galactica.

Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) in Battlestar Galactica.

Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) in Battlestar Galactica.

My question is, why did Tasha Robinson choose those movies? This year, there have been so many films with Strong Female Characters(TM). How about Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)? It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which in my opinion has a few flaws, though it’s a good start), but Natasha Romanoff definitely fits Ms. Robinson’s SFC(TM) definition. If Ms. Robinson is into movies based on books, how about The Fault in Our Stars (2014) (book by John Green) or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) (books by Suzanne Collins)? And, high on my list to see soon, Maleficent (2014)? There are so many movies out this year, including action films, that do not support Ms. Robinson’s hypothesis.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Ultimately, I’m glad to report that there is no need for alarm. We are not, as Ms. Robinson suggests, losing our SFCs(TM) to “Trinity Syndrome.” It’s a simple case of Psych 101 Phenomenon. When students in college take Introduction to Psychology, as they learn about each new diagnosis, they become convinced that they suffer from each and every one in turn. Once you start looking for something hard enough, you will find it. Psych 101 phenomenon works on many things. If you’re convinced there’s a spider in your bedroom, you will look until you find one (when you probably wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t been looking). Ms. Robinson was looking for these Trinity Syndrome characters, and she found them.

No need to panic, strong female characters are on the rise, and they work in pairs, ensembles, and solos, both on the silver screen and the small screen. Hollywood really is improving, and there is hope for our daughters and granddaughters.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

*In discussing The Edge of Tomorrow, Ms. Robinson says the following: “But there are exceptions to every rule. Edge of Tomorrow features Emily Blunt as Rita, an ultra-tough female character who dies to motivate the male protagonist.(Repeatedly!) She starts off as the biggest bad-ass in her world, but is eventually surpassed by hero William Cage (Tom Cruise), who starts off as a bumbling fuck-up. She mostly exists in the story to provide Cage with information and cheer him on, and eventually validates him with a brief romantic moment. And yet the story doesn’t degrade, devalue, weaken, or dismiss her. It sends the hero on without her at the end—but only at the very end, after she’s proved her worth again and again. She’s tough. She’s confident. She’s desperate. She’s funny. In short, she’s aspirational and inspirational, and just as exciting at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning.” Now, that sounds great. But why does Rita have to die to motivate William? I mean, isn’t that even worse? I understand that dying repeatedly is a part of Edge of Tomorrow‘s premise, but why couldn’t Rita just save the day herself? She has to die (and William has to die until he gets it right) so William can do it? How is that any better? It seems Ms. Robinson’s only concern is that her SFC(TM) is just as interesting at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning. Plus, Tom Cruise gives me the heebeegeebies, especially when we’re talking about women’s rights.

S.H.I.E.L.D. Maintains Momentum and Castle Flounders While Bones Proves How Very Dead It Remains

*** SPOILER ALERT!!! This post contains spoilers for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Castle Season 6 Episode 17 ‘In the Belly of the Beast,’ Bones Season 9 generally, and especially Episode 17 ‘The Repo Man in the Septic Tank,’ and Person of Interest Season 3.***

The blue alien!

The blue alien!

Well, it’s good to have some regular shows back for the last few weeks! I was happy to see that my prediction for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. proved out, and Skye really is going to live (for now). I was especially tickled by the lovely little morsel we were handed at the end of the episode, when it was revealed that May is somehow a mole for the people behind T.A.H.I.T.I. (Boy, these acronyms sure are a pain to type.) Since the mystery of Skye’s origin was revealed, I have always had a very strong suspicion that May could be Skye’s mother– or at least she may have been the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who dropped Skye off at the orphanage. This new development does not necessarily mean that my hunch is untrue, but it does leave me thinking about all the possible levels that could be going on. I’m sure you’re all wondering the same things: Who was May calling? Was it Agent Fury? (Does that mean Samuel L. Jackson will be on the show again at some point? Pretty please?) Or is May connected to the people who created T.A.H.I.T.I.? Plus, that blue alien in the tub… did anyone else think he looked a lot like one of the Frost Giants from the first Thor movie? Whatever the answers to these questions, I feel much more hopeful about the future of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I hope we will get our answers.

Beckett (Stana Katic) being asked to go undercover.

Beckett (Stana Katic) being asked to go undercover.

Castle has also been puttering along, with an especially good episode last week to break the monotony of tiny Beckett insecurities that only last one episode and are always happily resolved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a Castle fan and not giving up on the show– but the fact that the writers have been struggling for ideas this year has been quite apparent. When Kate wound up suddenly undercover in the most heart pounding, nail-biting Castle episode since she was hanging off a building by her fingers, I was excited. I think that bringing the show back to the conspiracy behind Beckett’s mother’s murder is the best thing they could have done. Ultimately, it’s what invests us in the characters in the show– not solving the one-off murders every week. Plus, TV seems to love a corrupt politician these days, and I say, ‘Keep ’em coming!’ (But for all you nay-sayers who think this means that ultimately the wedding is off? Forget about it! Too obvious. Rick and Kate are getting married, just like Booth and Bones, and the show’s issues will focus on the many other conflicts offered by the situation that is modern marriage.)

Speaking of Bones… I was really sad to hear that the show has been renewed for another season, and I mean that in the best way possible. Poor David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, and all the other incredibly talented members of the cast who could be moving on with their careers! I mean, face it, the show is tired. It was starting to get tired two years ago, for goodness sake! Just think of Angela’s and Hodgins’ relationship story arc, and how they are now discussing having their SECOND CHILD. I’m begging the writers, don’t pull an X-Files on such a great show like Bones. Know when to renew, and when a great show has run its course. DON’T BEAT A DEAD HORSE. The show is so tired they’ve resorted to Latin stereotyping for the latest squintern. I mean, enough already!

New squintern Rudolfo Fuentes (Ignacio Serricchio) on Bones.

New squintern Rudolfo Fuentes (Ignacio Serricchio) on Bones.

However, Person of Interest really lifted my spirits this week. It is so much fun watching Amy Acker do her thing in that show, and I was very pleased when it

Shaw (Sarah Shahi) and Root (Amy Acker) in Person of Interest, the show you aren't watching but should be.

Shaw (Sarah Shahi) and Root (Amy Acker) in Person of Interest, the show you aren’t watching but should be.

became clear that she would be playing a more regular role this season. I have to admit, I was very late to the PoI party, and only started watching the show this year. But now that I am caught up, I dare say it may be the best show currently on television. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, the writing is phenomenal, and the acting is always spot on. Plus, Person of Interest has the biggest Heart I’ve seen in a while. Also, the show dares to ask philosophical questions that haven’t been touched since Battlestar Galactica went off the air. Not surprising, coming from Bad Robot creators of Lost.

I’m very much looking forward to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s return next week, and seeing what will happen when Samaritan comes online. Also, I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve been enjoying the final episodes of how i met your mother quite a bit, but I’ll write another post on that at some point. Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up with Scandal, based on some advice from friends– gotta say, I’m not too impressed so far. These things, my secret guilty pleasure show, and more in future posts!

The Miracle that is Frozen

I, like almost all Americans my age, grew up on some excellent Disney staples. I think I spent most of second grade singing Beauty and the Beast songs on the jungle gym, and became quite torn over my favourite movie when Aladdin came out. At 14, I condescended to forget I was a teenager long enough to go see Mulan, which made a nice little change from the other princesses. While I never went to Disney as a kid (my parents preferred to spend money on vacations to Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, for which I am eternally grateful), it is inevitable that these Disney incarnations of ancient tales in  many ways shaped my childhood. As a teen, I moved on to finding my heroines in Star Wars (the original trilogy) and Xena: Warrior Princess (yeah, that was a phase, we don’t need to dwell on that). I grasped at Eowyn as a role-model in Lord of the Rings, though I hated her for loving Aragorn when he clearly couldn’t love her back. As a young adult, it was with great joy that I discovered the work of Joss Whedon, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Veronica Mars. In my childhood, books and real life provided me with the truly strong women; in that, the silver screen failed me.

I really, really wish that the world had been ready for Frozen about 20 years earlier.

A few years ago, I heard that Disney was doing a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and I remember thinking briefly, “Well, that’s a terrible idea.” I thought it would easily fall into the same traps that Once Upon A Time had been finding itself in during its first season: buying into the fairytale idea that if a woman doesn’t fit the traditionally feminine expectations set out for her, she is evil and should be punished.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Years later, I first became re-acquainted with the idea that became Frozen when a friend posted this little gem on Facebook:

(I won’t condescend to call this girl cute or amazing– she is phenomenally talented and she’s only 9 years old. If you don’t want to watch now, feel free to enjoy it later, because it’s worth it.)

I loved the song the moment I heard it, and it got me curious about the movie. I still had no idea that Frozen was the final incarnation of “The Snow Queen.” In fact, I had absolutely no idea what it was about. Seeing the occasional clip of Olaf the Snowman had led me to think maybe it was the next incarnation of the Ice Age franchise or something. But when Frozen won the Golden Globe for best animated feature and I heard Idina Menzel was involved, I realised this might be something I needed to go check out.

It makes sense that the song “Let It Go” was what got me interested in Frozen: the song was what changed the course of the whole movie. Written by Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Book of Mormon fame, “Let It Go” was the earliest piece of composing that made it into the final film. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Kristen said, “We … [were] still walking the line– is she a villain? Is this about good versus evil? And then we put ourselves in the head space of someone who would have to leave everything they knew, who was keeping a secret their whole life and then messes up once. Just once! And gets chased out.” From then on, she said, the story became about hope versus fear, rather than good versus evil.

However, I would say that the success of Frozen started even before that, but was the reason that “Let It Go” had to happen: Kristen and Bobby were writing this film for their daughters. I would argue that nothing else worked before “Let It Go” because good versus evil creates one dimensional women that are not sufficient for the daughters parents today want to raise.

FrozenElsaFist

In another interview, Bobby and Kristen tell us their favourite lines in the song are, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and “That perfect girl is gone,” respectively. Bobby cites the subversiveness of the former, and how much he loves introducing that to a female Disney character. Kristen says she can personally relate to the latter, because as a career woman, she feels she constantly has to block out those feelings that she’s not being a good enough mother, wife, or woman. She literally has to “Turn away and slam the door.”

This is a far cry from “Tale as old as time,” or, “I can show you the world.” It’s even a welcome improvement on “Be a Man.”

Yesterday, I serendipitously ended up seeing Frozen with two friends after a lunch date. The moment it opened with a Saami chant, I knew I was in for something truly special. (The Saami are an indigenous people who live in far northern Europe, mainly Norway, Sweden, and Finland.) Visually, it was beautiful. I strongly recommend going to see it on the big screen in HD, because moment after moment left me gasping. The music is phenomenal. And the story is one of the best ever told. I laughed and cried, and laughed so hard I cried, and became totally lost in the wonder of it all. Oh, and did I mention Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) voices Anna, and Idina Menzel (Wicked and Glee) is the power behind Elsa? Plus, the cast is full of a host of other acting gems like Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening and Glee)  and Alan Tudyk (Firefly and Dollhouse). Dare I say it, but Frozen may be the best film of 2013.

I really hope that Anna and Elsa mark the start of a new era of Disney princesses. I’m aware that both Tangled and Brave made way for these ladies in recent years, and I hope to watch both those movies in the near future. But Frozen has that combination of excellent writing, phenomenal visuals, and truly inspiring music that makes true Disney magic.