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True to the End

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s been covered on this blog before: series finales are incredibly hard to pull off well. You’re trying to wrap up years of character development over the course of one season, or one episode in some cases. We’ve talked about All Good Things (1994), the Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) finale that is generally considered one of the best ever. Mash (1972-1983) is up there too, among countless others.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin as well. Loved shows like Lost (2004-2010) ended with a whimper in their finales. And a rough finale can sour the taste of the entire series for a lot of people.

I bring this up because we just saw the end of a long-running hit show in True Blood (2008-2014). HBO’s vampire drama started out strong in 2008, heralding a new golden era of television as HBO would begin its total takeover of TV. But the ratings sagged and it limped to the end with a season finale in 2014 after seven seasons on the air. The question is, regardless of your thoughts on the series, how did the finale stack up?

There are a number of ways to go in a finale and it seems True Blood went with most of them. Spoilers ahead.

You want to talk about killing off major characters? True Blood did it throughout the final season, culminating in Bill Compton’s assisted suicide in the finale. Alcide, Tara, both gone. How about sending characters off to another city? Yep. Sam got a quick farewell as he went to Chicago with his girlfriend. I’m also still not sure how Chicago is considered a ‘stone’s throw’ from Bon Temps, but that’s beside the point.

What about a wedding? Oh yeah, Hoyt and Jessica get hitched. THAT Hoyt, the one we haven’t seen in a few years since he moved to Alaska. The same Hoyt that had a different girlfriend just a couple episodes ago. A girlfriend who was serious enough to travel to Louisiana from Alaska with him.

But what about wrapping everything up with a nice little bow? They went there too, hard. Nearing the end of the series, we jump ahead one year to learn Bill and Pam have made another fortune selling New Blood, the synthetic blood replacement that is a treatment for Hep-V. They also have Sarah Newlin chained up in the basement, selling the opportunity for vamps to directly drink her blood. Then we jump ahead another four years to find Sookie pregnant. Who’s the father? We’ll never know, but apparently Bill’s prediction of her fairy light continually bringing more vampire suitors to her doorstep was incorrect. We never meet the father of her child, but he seems like a nice, normal human. The partner she apparently deserves, though all signs through the series pointed elsewhere.

Jason is married to Brigit, a character we only met a few episodes ago. They have three children. The marriage we saw earlier between Hoyt and Jessica seems to be going well, and the entire town of Bon Temps seems happy as they have an outdoor dinner on the front lawn of Sookie’s house.

So, what do you say? Did they do a good job capping the series, or did they take it in the wrong direction? Are you satisfied with how the series ended, or did you hope for something else from the finale? Was Sarah Newlin a strong enough antagonist to deserve her fate? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a producer/writer who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

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Categories: TV, Writing

Fall-en TV Shows: The Greatest TV Shows to Not Make It

September 29, 2011 3 comments

While I focus mainly on movies through this site, I don’t want to ever give the illusion that TV isn’t a priority of mine. With that in mind, I thought the launch of the fall season would be the perfect opportunity to go through a few of the great TV shows that haven’t made the cut in the past, and a few of my personal favourites.

We can see a lot of styles defined and improved in failed television series, whether the players involved were writers, directors, actors, or filling any other job on set. It’s always an interesting study to watch the evolution of a creative professional through their work, and many of the best have early failures that helped create the style they are known for now.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007)

Before he was known for writing The Social Network (2010), writer Aaron Sorkin was best known for his television work, including the hit show The West Wing (1999-2006). Mostly forgotten, however, is a little show he created called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The Cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Running only one season, Studio 60 premiered the same season as the comedy favorite and similarly themed 30 Rock (2006-Present) and debuted to massive fanfare. Truth be told, the pilot episode from Studi 60 is one of the finest television scripts I have ever read (the script was titled Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip), and is one of the most engaging and exciting pilots I have ever seen. Take the opening scene. In the scene Wes Mondell (Judd Hirsch), a play on SNL creator Lorne Michaels, loses his battle with the network to air a controversial skit. What follows is television gold.

Through this opening alone, you can see the famous Aaron Sorkin ability to write dialogue. Not only does Wes Mondell’s speech set up the entire premises of the series, but the subplot involving Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) beautifully sets up the play of the Studio 60 family against the network brass.

All this goes without even mentioning the main protagonists in the series: Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the new president of the NBS network, Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), the Chairman of NBS, and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford), a former AD on Studio 60 who has returned to produce and direct the show. Each of these characters are well developed and intriguing to watch as they evolve over the course of the season.

Matthew Perry from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

The one character I have purposefully avoided until now is Matthew Perry’s Matt Albie, former staff writer who has returned to the show with Danny Tripp to co-produce and be the head writer. This is the show that sold me as a lifetime Matthew Perry fan. Matt Albie is a well-written character, but Matthew Perry’s portrayal takes the character to the next level. Interestingly, this Matt Albie’s main issue is that he doesn’t have any true issues outside of recurring love interest Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). He doesn’t have a drug issue, at least to begin the season, but brings that pressure upon himself due to Danny Tripp’s recurring drug addiction. His pressure is to write an amazing show every week, but he also takes on a lot of the pressure from Danny Tripp’s side of the show. The play between these two characters, and how they both come together to create one functioning human, is one of the hilights of this series.

Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford

Stella (2005)

The Cast of Stella

A Comedy Central show that was tragically short lived, Stella was born out of a live comedy troupe starring comedy mainstays Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. This is one of the all-time great examples of perfectly  non-sequitur comedy.

Never knowing what twist was coming next, and not wanting to, Stella is a great example of how to let your restraints go. To use a phrase I use frequently with The Muppet Show (1976-1981), Stella is completely unbridled creativity. Look at when Michael, Michael, and David decide to grow their own vegetables in their apartment, or when David assassinates Michael Ian Black as he is running for building president.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to find any clips from the TV series on YouTube, but there is a plethora of their stage work and short films available on the internet.

Firefly (2002)

The nerd in me comes out when speaking of this beloved sci-fi series. Creator Joss Whedon has struggled to find a show with the same staying power since his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004), but just before both went off the air he had a show that rivaled them in quality.

Following the crew of the Firefly-class ship Serenity, Whedon perfectly blended the genres of Western and Science Fiction in this show. That is a feat not to be taken lightly as others have tried and not been as successful, namely this year’s Cowboys & Aliens (2011).

The hallmarks of this series are the same as from previous Whedon classics. Witty dialogue and excellent action can be found throughout, with just the right dose of humor. What sets this apart is the language used in dialogue, and how it matches the setting. Not only is the Western jargon spot on, but it is infused with Chinese dialect, creating a unique world in the future when America and China are the only two superpowers to survive.

Nathan Fillion as Captain Malcolm Reynolds

All of these are fantastic series’ that I can’t recommend watching enough, what are some of your favorite cancelled shows? Or what are your favorite moments from the shows mentioned above? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: TV, Writing

Removing Reference: Disorienting the Audience in Black Swan

January 16, 2011 1 comment

Some of the most intriguing films have always been projects that leave you wondering what happened. Horror films like The Ring (2002) have lasting power by not explaining everything. The story completes, but something from the overall concept remains unsolved. In The Ring we learn that we weren’t supposed to help Samara, but it is never explained why. What makes this more confusing for the audience is that the only way to save yourself is to make somebody else watch the cursed video tape, essentially helping Samara spread her message.

But even in films with twist endings, and unexplained mysteries, the audience will normally remain rooted in their reality. You may be confused, but that comes from trying to figure out how this film is interacting with everyday reality. When we try to find a murderer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), we wonder who actually killed Chancellor Gorkon, but the rules of the Star Trek universe have been laid out well beforehand so we do not become disoriented in this reality.

When a film like Black Swan (2010) comes out, it succeeds in disorienting the audience by removing these established rules and realities. While I try to remain as vague as possible, it is worth noting that this blog contains some spoilers regarding Black Swan, so you have been warned.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan

Black Swan, described as a ballerina thriller, seems to be a normal narrative at first glimpse. It follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she tries to land the leading role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She struggles with the expectations of the demanding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), achieving her mother’s broken dreams, and her own goal of perfection. Throughout the first half of this film, the audience is introduced to Nina’s mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), as one of the many villains of the film. She pushes Nina hard, and forces her to live by her rules in her house. Erica pushes Nina hard to strive for perfection, the perfection that Erica herself could never achieve in ballet.

On the other side of the coin is Thomas Leroy, who pushes Nina in the exact opposite direction. He encourages her to let go of her pursuit of perfection and, instead, just live in the moment and enjoy her performance. From the audiences point of view, Nina is being pulled in two different directions and is on the edge of a breakdown because of it. Cue Lily (Mila Kunis), the yin to Nina’s yang. Lily is impulsive and completely free. She wouldn’t make as strong a White Swan as Nina, but she could be the perfect Black Swan.

Thomas Leroy (Cassel) seduces Nina

To this point, the audience is still in this film, believing this to be in a standard reality. No rules have been broken yet, and anything out of the ordinary can easily be attributed to dream sequences or imagination. It is at the point when Lily takes Nina out to a bar that things start to become disorienting.

Lily (Kunis) takes Nina out for drinks

At the end of that sequence is the scene where Lily seduces Nina. This is the point where Nina lets go, becoming her own person. She no longer cares what her mother thinks. Nina is emerging as her own swan, and the audience is cheering her on as she goes. The next day, however, we learn that Nina and Lily never had sex. It was simply a wet dream created by Nina’s mind. This is when things start to become disorienting for the audience, as the lines between reality and Nina’s dream world are blurred.

Lily seduces Nina

Writer Mark Heyman succeeds in making this world exceptionally disorienting for the audience as he slowly tears away each and every point of reference for the audience. If Nina and Lily didn’t have sex, who’s to say that anything else we see on screen is actually happening? Heyman exploits this as we go along by continually shifting between the two realities without cueing the audience as to which reality we are in. When things become violent between Lily and Nina, we can’t know if they are fighting in real life or if the conflict is entirely internal in Nina’s mind. Lily has become the anti-Nina in effect in Nina’s mind, so the audience has to deal with both reality Lily, and dark Lily, the Lily that eventually allows Nina to portray the Black Swan.

Lily and Nina fight over who gets to play the swan

Without a point of reference in the film, Black Swan becomes a fast paced, disorienting and downright thrilling film. But this is definitely not the first time we have seen this style used. Removing reference is a tried and true method to confuse an audience.

The lines blur as Nina becomes the Black Swan

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer epsiode Normal Again (2002), a demon gives Buffy a hallucinogen that makes her wake up back in her original reality. Instead of being the Slayer, she is committed to a mental hospital thanks to her delusions of fighting demons. Her parents are still together and everything is as it was before she moved to Sunnydale. She spends the entire episode flip-flopping between the two realities.

Buffy in the hospital in Normal Again

In the end, Buffy choses to exist in the Sunnydale reality and returns fully there to help her friends. While we are clearly cheering for her to return to Sunnydale, it is left ambiguous as to which reality is real. There is no reason to not believe Buffy is actually in a mental hospital, and the doctor makes convincing arguments as to why the hospital is in the actual reality.  To add to the effect, the show ends in the hospital reality with the doctor informing Buffy’s parents that ‘she’s gone.’

These are only two examples of how you can enhance the effect TV and film can have on an audience by forcing them to try and figure out the world that surrounds them. How about you? What are your favorite examples of this process? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Movies, TV, Writing

Buffy Returns

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve got to admit, a part of me wanted to jump for joy when I heard Buffy the Vampire Slayer was making a comeback. I’ll just as readily admit that I was about as out of the loop as you can get on the fact that a comeback was even in the works. So forgive me when I tell you that I was surprised to hear the new feature film version of Buffy won’t involve Joss Whedon in any way.

Whedon’s maintained both franchises by publishing ongoing serials through a partnership with Dark Horse Comics, but the new effort will not have the imprimatur of Whedon, who is revered by “Buffy” fans and has not been in favor of the project.

– Dave McNary, Variety.com

Now, this is cause for fanboys and girls to be concerned. I’m not writing off this film, I won’t do that to any film, but a complete re-imagining of Buffy doesn’t seem entirely necessary to me. Personally, I still believe the TV Series run has legs to carry a feature film and I believe the fan community that supported the series for seven seasons would flock to the theaters to reunite with the crew.

I appreciate the viewpoint of Warner Bros. and Atlas Entertainment, of course. By remaking the classic now with a new vision behind it, you open Buffy up to a whole new group of fans. With a little luck you don’t alienate the traditional fans and you can move forward with double the fan base. It’s been done recently, with 2009’s Star Trek remake coming to mind. Star Trek was able to introduce the franchise to an entirely new group of viewers, while not alienating the majority of the existing community.

But what this speaks to more is the permanence of franchises. Fans have put a lot of time and effort into Buffy, the same way fans have put time into Star Trek. One feature film, seven TV seasons, and countless comics. Buffy has been a major impact to an entire generation of pop culture enthusiasts, and they are currently in danger of throwing those efforts away. Trek had the built in plot device of alternate realities, allowing the pre-existing universe to exist side by side with the universe created by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film. In theory, we could still get a TV series to follow up Voyager with few issues conflicting the latest film.

Buffy, on the other hand, will have to work far harder if it hopes to maintain its current cult following. Yes, Buffy is rooted in the fantastical and supernatural. In the past, it has even dealt with the concept of alternate realities. But not in a way that ensures their existence. In fact, the path to making this film coexist with the original series may be so convoluted and muddy that it could alienate the original audience anyway. This is why I fully expect this film to be a completely different Buffy.

I hope the film is a success, and I hope that it stays true enough to not alienate people who have put a lot of time into Buffy. My biggest worry is honestly cheapening the memories of one of the finest written TV series I have watched.

Categories: TV, Writing
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