Bloggers love writing prompts. Toss them a random topic, see what they can do with it, cross your fingers and wish them the best on their mental exercise. I don’t mind them myself, sometimes. If there’s a subject on which I have even the most tangential thought, in many cases I can find something creative and/or catchy to do with it, provided there’s no vital scheduling needs involved.
Writing prompts are an enjoyable challenge for me if everyone’s fine waiting anywhere from two days to three years for my results. It doesn’t matter if the idea came from the WordPress.com Daily Post. It doesn’t matter if it came from current events. And as I’ve discovered over the past four months, it makes no difference if the idea was mine.
Speaking of which: I have a commitment to fulfill and a project I said I’d finish.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
My plan over the next three months is to see if I can handle watching the first episode of…twenty-six shows and report the results here on MCC, for better or for worse. My hope is I’ll find some diamonds in the rough, maybe a few unexpected pleasures. My basic thought line is “Let’s do this goofy thing and see what happens,” rather than “I’m gonna suffer mightily on purpose and then spew out an unoriginal, scathing indictment of the pale wretchedness of network TV!” I’m looking forward to a couple of these (and only a couple), but I apologize in advance if this becomes “Twenty-Two Short Entries About Crap TV”. I promise I’m not hoping for that.
Then I hit a snag. Sorry, I mean “snags” plural. But we’ll come back to that.
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#23: Marry Me
Vinnie van Lowe from Veronica Mars spends half an hour trying to propose to the most irritating character from the only two episodes of Happy Endings I ever watched, except now she’s escalated her issues to the point where I have absolutely no idea what Vinnie sees in her. My wife wasn’t watching, but was in the other room, and even she was annoyed by this would-be fianceé’s inability to dial down her freakouts below a 9, her complete lack of awareness of her surroundings, and her penchant for contriving exasperation in others past the point at which even the most pacifist conversant would be screaming at her like Sam Kinison, and justifiably so.
It was nice to see SNL’s Tim Meadows on TV again, plus small parts for Stanley from The Office and George Clooney’s friend from The Descendants, but awkward karaoke, bleeped profanities, and expired punchlines like Paula Deen (or mortifying ones like the Challenger) wore my patience out in three minutes.
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Years ago an internet friend pitched several of us on an idea he called “The TV Show Hate Game”. Each of us brainstormed a list of shows we knew we couldn’t possibly like, had one of them randomly assigned to us, forced ourselves to watch at least one entire episode, and then would report back to the forum with our results, on the theory that aggravated exposure to negative stimuli can be a kind of writing prompt. If you’re Roger Ebert, bad reviews can be an artform. Below his level, diminishing returns set in at some point, especially for the viewer who’s been given no choice.
For my part, I watched two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy before I broke out in soap-opera mental hives. Sample paragraphs from my 2007 recap:
McSteamy tags along with Webber to consult on a favorite patient, a chatty middle-aged lady who brings along two more just like her from her kaffeeklatsch as moral support in this time of tongue cancer surgery. Tests show the cancer removal will sav her life but leave her with serious speech impediment. Because chatting is all she has, she freaks out. Webber and McSteamy decide the better way to go is to perform an experimental nerve graft procedure they read about in a magazine that would let them create replacement tongue flesh from her thigh meat. Neither of them has done such a thing, but how hard can it be? It’s in a magazine. I mean “medical journal”.
McSteamy and Webber begin the tongue replacement procedure…and are halfway into it before realizing they have no idea how to proceed. Reader’s Digest has failed them. They page McDreamy to come save the day. He does, though the surgical particulars are yadda-yadda’ed, so we, the viewers at home, can’t take notes and attempt our own impromptu tongue grafts. During cleanup, McDreamy lectures both McSteamy and Webber about being reckless loose cannons…
…and so on. Later I tried doing the same with Desperate Housewives. The result: a different kind of misery. Other participants began seeing the TV Show Hate Game as a form of intellectual self-harm and we all quietly let it drop.
The moral of the story: I should’ve known better. Seven years later, here I am having forgotten my own history.
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#24: The McCarthys
Much of this CBS sitcom seems like a reboot of another old CBS sitcom called The Cavanaughs that only my mom and I remember. The most important takeaway for me is that now I know the late John Ritter had another son besides Jason. Tyler Ritter, starring here as an articulate gay son trying to connect with his old-fashioned family who seem like fussy Irish Catholic refugees from a Ben Affleck Boston movie, is the spitting image of his dad, who famously starred in Three’s Company as a hapless California single guy who only pretended to be gay as a wacky cost-cutting measure.
Despite Ritter’s relatable charm, and game attempts from comedy mainstays like Laurie Metcalf and Jack McGee, The McCarthys is determinedly old-fashioned enough to use a laugh track, crack archaic one-lines about Annette Bening, play up the gay/straight cultural divide for all its meager worth (sports = straight! plays = gay!), and fixate on The Good Wife so much as a shared interest between characters that I’m 98% certain it was blatant product placement.
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When I vowed to write twenty-six reactions to twenty-six pilots, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea how many obstacles I’d face:
* The instant backlog I had on my hands whenever five or six pilots debuted the same week.
* The discomfort from enduring genres that aren’t my thing — e.g., CBS procedurals, sitcoms about sexing, reality TV.
* The delays caused by my swerving from topic to topic on MCC as events and whims dictated.
* The generally tepid response from Viewers at Home, often a sign that either I’ve turned tedious or it’s Thursday and Google has changed its algorithms again.
* Two TV series whose “live” premieres I missed and weren’t available On Demand for at least their first month on the air.
* The TV gridlock I created in trying to keep up with all these pilots, and continue following seven ongoing shows from previous years, and attempt to follow seven more of the new shows into further episodes beyond their pilots.
After a while, writing wasn’t the problem. I kind of started resenting TV itself.
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#25: State of Affairs
So, Grey’s Anatomy, my old foe, we meet again. Except now it’s just Katherine Heigl and all of the other doctors are fired, which is a great start. The action-packed wartime opening scene shatters my complacency, but then she segues into her own rendition of the Bad Judge pilot. I hide my eyes until that goes away and she switches to the Madam Secretary track instead. Thus does State of Affairs find its groove as the story of a CIA analyst working tightly with President Alfre Woodard to hunt terrorism and jointly seek revenge on those responsible for slaying their loved ones.
Some of the show was dumbed-down a tad for viewers who’ve never read a Tom Clancy novel or seen 24, so newcomers can learn what “POTUS” stands for, and have no idea that the writers consciously chose to have someone say “situation report” instead of the not-uncommon portmanteau “sitrep”. (I chortled when they used “Lotus note” as product-placement slang for “email”. Not gonna catch on, guys.) On the other hand, we got the chance to see old pros like James Remar and ’80s guy Dennis Boutsikaris (*batteries not included), and, in the hands of creator/cowriter/director Joe Carnahan (Narc, The A-Team), this show excels in one area where Madam Secretary fell down: dramatic urgency. Some of it is a tad manufactured, especially the amazingly dumb part where a foreign dignitary is granted full White House backstage access even though his homeland is on government watchlists and he knowingly spied on another government just the week before, but to an extent the pulse-pounding tension and chicanery and appropriately anxious music were more entertaining than, say, forty minutes of polite cabinet discussions. Maybe that’s arguing in favor of Michael Bay bombast over scripts that read aloud like NPR chitchat, but that’s where my line of thinking took me.
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TV took up far too much of my time these past few months. I don’t write about everything I watch, for a variety of reasons, but trust me: I’ve watched more TV this fall season than I have in any year prior to 1988. Blame pilot overdose, blame quality ongoing programming, blame that tiny fear deep down inside of someday running out of new, remotely relevant things to write about here. I was enjoying more shows than ever and I was unhappy. Somewhere in that paradox, as in all the best paradoxes, is a great spiritual lesson than I need to finish decoding.
But first, we cross the finish line.
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Funny story: for at least the first month after its premiere, this show wasn’t available on our TV’s On Demand menu. In early November I checked my XFinity To Go phone app on a crazy whim and was shocked to find the first three episodes available only through the app. I wanted to get it over with, but I held off because watching a 22-minute TV episode on a dinky screen was an unappealing notion.
Come late November, the show became available on both platforms, but only the last couple episodes and not the pilot. AUUUGGGH. Thus did finishing the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project require one last sacrifice: I spent three bucks tonight to watch it via Google Play. Thanks to the magic of Chromecast, I was able to watch it on our TV instead of my itty-bitty phone after all.
Anyway: this one last show, another sitcom, now my least favorite TV format of the year. Between the dueling drudgery of Manhattan Love Story, Mulaney, Bad Judge, and Marry Me, I may never watch a 21st-century sitcom again. If I simply had to watch one more to save a life or change the world or something, Cristela would be an acceptable compromise.
At first I thought my brain would overload when we were introduced to six new characters in the first minute, but then I remembered that I had few problems charting The Wire, so that was a stupid complaint on my part. Our Heroine is a Dallas law student who’s been taking the slow lane to career success and therefore has to live rent-free with her sister (Maria Canals Barrera, a.k.a. Justice League Unlimited‘s Hawkgirl), brother-in-law, their kids, and her mom, and of course there’s a wacky neighbor (Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias) because sitcoms need wacky neighbors.
Despite the ancient traditions (including the un-PC boss and incompetent coworkers), Cristela‘s interplay crosses an unusual line: everyone keeps laughing at each other’s jokes. At first you think it’s unprofessional, but it’s not like SNL where the players are obviously, shamefully reading from cue cards in stilted voices and fixated on off-camera staring. Rather, the characters mock each other, riff on their own foibles, and trade laughs back and forth because that’s what real people do. We don’t recite our lines and stare with blank faces until an offscreen audience is finished reacting. Sometimes we chuckle at each other. Sometimes we don’t, but we recognize when the other person said something sharp. Sometimes we both laugh. We’ve been taught that’s wrong on stage, but after a few minutes it seemed less like a flaw and more like a form of infectious enthusiasm.
Not all the jokes landed well, mind you. Then again, some of them were specifically intended to flop. Either that, or they have wicked improv recovery skills. But I laughed along a few times, and I thought kindly enough of the cast that I felt an extra level of guilt for missing out on this for so long. I also appreciated learning that “Be Aggressive” is a known cheerleader chant and not just an obscure Faith No More album track, so there’s that.
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One possible moral of the Pilot Binge story: finish what you started, but make sure you’re fully aware of what you’re starting before you start it. It’s not the only moral, of course.
A few extra stats about these twenty-six productions, for those who might be curious:
New shows I kept watching beyond their pilots, but eventually gave up: Scorpion (three episodes), Star Wars Rebels (four or five episodes, I’m not even sure), Forever (seven episodes).
New shows I’m still following: Gotham, The Flash, Constantine, and Gracepoint (which wraps up its ten-episode run this week).
And for the record, Midlife Crisis Crossover calls The Flash the Best New Series of the Year. That’s no idle feat considering I hadn’t planned to watch it in the first place until I started this project. Now I’m hooked on its unbridled optimism, its strong cast, its showy visual effects, its inventive new takes on classic comics characters, its surprising turns (really kicking myself over the Reverse-Flash’s identity), and its old-school portrayal of what proper, forthright, inspired, optimistic super-heroing can and should look like.
If it weren’t for this project, I’d be missing out. So The Flash is my silver lining.
[MCC 2014 Pilot Binge stats: For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Sorry about all that, but thanks for reading!]