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.

It’s More Than Character Development, or, Once Upon A Time… I was bored.

***SPOILER ALERT!!! This post contains spoilers about the show Once Upon a Time all seasons and episodes through Season 3 Episode 8 “Think Lovely Thoughts.” Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is also mentioned, though no specific spoilers beyond basic plot situations are given.***

When it began, Once Upon a Time had a lot to recommend it. From the creators of Lost, a show I loved for at least the majority of the seasons, starring Jennifer Morrison, who I enjoyed in House, and Ginnifer Goodwin, who at least showed potential in Big Love, the concept was intriguing and full of promise.

The first season, however, proved fairly disappointing. I tend to give all shows a 5 episode trial run, and if I don’t think there is at least some redeeming element by then (and that could even just mean it’s a guilty pleasure show), I scrap it. The first 5 episodes were very up and down, but the up ones were, for some reason, up enough that I continued watching for another 2 seasons.

Once Upon a Time certainly has tons of character development. In Season 1, I was concerned that Regina was portrayed as the classic evil mother figure (in this case adoptive), and was also the career-driven, non-traditional woman type. It seemed like both Regina and Emma were punished for choosing non-prescriptive mothering roles. However, Season 2 remedied that, and I enjoyed learning more about Regina’s back story.

Regina Mills/Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) in Once Upon a Time.

Regina Mills/Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) in Once Upon a Time.

“Back story” is indeed the catch-phrase for Once Upon a Time. Every episode fills in another chapter of fairy tale history, creating alternate versions and “the true story” type tellings of familiar tales. The thing is, these back stories have become so complicated and convoluted, the only one I can really follow is Regina’s (and Emma’s, though hers is not fairy tale). I’m so confused by Snow’s, Red’s, Charming’s, and Rumpel’s stories by the beginning of Season 3, I don’t even bother trying to keep them straight any more.

So, with all these inner-plots, story-twists, and character-complications, one would think I would really start to care about the characters. Nope…

I’m not really sure why I kept watching for so long. I think it was a good procrastination tool, since I would play with my phone most of the time I was watching anyway. Mostly, I was bored. When Once Upon a Time in Wonderland came out this year, I was pretty excited, because for at least the first two episodes, it seemed like it was living up to the original show’s promise, especially with an interesting blending of Alice in Wonderland and 1001 Arabian Nights. But six episodes in, and I was bored with Wonderland, too. Not to mention the problematic stereotyping the show employed….

What really did it for me on Once Upon A Time was when they killed Henry– and I didn’t care. For a while there, I thought he was a pretty cool kid. But Peter Pan sucked the life out of him, and all I could think was, “I guess the actor was getting too old.” So that was the end of that. Even the next episode title, “Save Henry,” wasn’t enough to spark my interest. My only thought was, “Guess he’s not really dead.”

I don’t think I’ll be watching any more Once Upon a Time series. Sure, they had great character development. I think the characters do truly care about each other, too, though it helps that they are all related to each other at this point. But I didn’t care about them, not at all. Character development is not the key to making a Show with Heart; that takes a little more magic that has been lacking in the fantastical fairy tale world of the Once Upon a Time franchises, and it’s why they are likely to be cancelled soon as well.

For more on Shows with Heart, please read my first post.

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.