My TV Pet Peeves

I can’t believe it’s been a month since my last post. Please forgive me, readers, and blame my pet humans instead. Both of these humans will be in some form of regular day care starting in August and yes, the thought of  putting #2 in daycare does give me the weepies and intermittent panic attacks. However, daycare  means that I will be able to return to blogging with some regularity. “Phew!” you must all be thinking, “Thank God she’s coming back!” Well, you’re welcome.

Now on to my post, before #2 wakes up. He has a sixth sense about my productivity. That is, he frowns upon it and likes to disrupt it with all the tricks of his trade:  too-short naps, poop bombs, and my personal favorite, big, gummy smiles.

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There are several blog-worthy shows currently on the air – True Blood, Top Chef, and soon, July-25th-soon, Mad Men! But I wanted to use this post to write about something that has been percolating in my brain for a few months now: my television pet peeves. As an avid TV watcher, I am pretty adept at suspending my disbelief. I accept that vampires, werewolves, and demons exist when watching shows like True Blood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I accept that there is a magic island filled with polar bears and electromagnetic energy when I watch Lost. I even accept that the idea that the teenagers in shows like Gossip Girl drink martinis at hotel bars without getting carded. And I always accept most of those overused TV tropes documented at the great site TV Tropes. But there are a few tropes that I cannot stomach and which force me to yell at the television set every time they occur (which is a lot). I don’t have a good explanation for why these particular violations drive me up the wall, but here they are in no particular order:

1. My Water Just Broke!

"My water just broke!"

Despite the fact that approximately 490,000 babies are born every day, television shows rarely get the details of childbirth right. Most labor scenes begin with a character saying — usually at some inopportune time, like in the middle of a kidnapping (Desperate Housewives), in a stalled elevator (Saved by the Bell) or, in a car during a traffic jam (Blossom) — “My water just broke!” Despite its prevalence on television, most women  will go into labor long before their water breaks. This trope sticks in my craw because I believe it does a real disservice to first-time parents, who, despite reading all the books, still don’t recognize that labor has started without the iconic (but relatively rare) rupturing of the membranes. Case in point: when I went into labor with my first child, it took me several hours to convince my husband that I was truly in labor. I kept telling him, rather undramatically, “I think I’m in labor.” And he kept saying things like “Did your water break?” and  “The doctor said you wouldn’t have the baby until next week.” and “Let’s watch the end of  So You Think You Can Dance.” I did watch So You Think You Can Dance, but I was totally in labor. Had we been trapped in an elevator and had I yelled “My water just broke!” I’ll bet my husband would have believed me. Stupid TV.

2. Where’s the Umbilical Cord?

Don't worry, I'm a doctor. And a monster.

Giving birth to a baby is an exciting plot event and therefore TV scribes like to stage childbirth in all sorts of wacky places: see # 1. The  brave laboring woman will often yell to a scared bystander “Whether you like it or not, this baby is coming NOW!” Or conversely, a brave bystander will yell at the scared laboring woman, “Whether you like it or not, this baby is coming NOW!” Much chaos and sweating and fetching of hot water will then ensue, followed by the birth of the baby, who is  immediately placed in her quivering mother’s arms. It is at this point that I yell at the TV “Where’s the umbilical cord? You people need to cut the umbilical cord! That baby’s still attached to the placenta!” I get so agitated by this omission that I can’t fully enjoy the melodrama of the moment. Please writers, next time have someone cut the umbilical cord. That’s all I’m asking.

3. Going to Bed/Waking Up with Lipstick On

That's a lot of bronzer, lady

On the Glee episode “Home” (2010), April Rhodes (Kristin Chenoweth) must spend the night at Will Schuester’s (Matthew Morrison) apartment. As she slips into bed, singing some song I can’t remember, all I can focus on is her lips. Her shiny, lipsticked lips. I keep thinking about how, the moment she rolls over in bed, that nice white pillow case will be covered in sticky lipstick. Then she’ll roll back and get sticky lipstick in her pretty blonde hair. Gross. No woman goes to bed with lipstick on unless she’s drunk and passes out before getting the opportunity to wipe it off. I hate this TV trope. It drives me up the wall. “Take off your lipstick!” I scream as characters slip beneath their crisp, clean sheets. I understand that TV shows like Glee, Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl (all prime offenders in this regard) do not aim for realism. But it is possible to make a character look like she isn’t wearing make up and still make her look pretty good. At least take off the shiny lipstick, people. No one goes to bed wearing shiny lipstick. No one.

Even perpetually poised Betty Draper appears make up free when going to bed

4. Children who Don’t Resemble their Parents

Darby and Damon with their mother Jessica, on HUNG

When two very good-looking humans have sex with each other and make a baby, that baby usually ends up good-looking too (see Shiloh Jolie-Pitt). When a very good-looking human makes a baby with a funny-looking human, the results are less predictable (see Alexa Joel). Thomas Jane and Anne Heche are both very good-looking humans so it stands to reason that their offspring would be hot, or at least, not too shabby. But on the HBO show Hung, the offspring of Ray (Thomas Jane) and Jessica  (Anne Heche), played by Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton, are pretty darn unattractive (sorry, I’m not trying to be bitchy here). My guess is that this is the point of this miscasting — to be funny. Ray lives in a dying city, has a job at a underfunded school, a catty ex-wife, and two sullen Goth teens who failed to inherit his dashing good looks. Hilarious! But I find this visual joke distracting since these children look NOTHING like their parents. It’s just too hard to accept that they’re related. I was also frustrated by the casting on a much better show, Six Feet Under. I love Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, and Lauren Ambrose, and I can’t imagine any other actors in their roles, but those three look nothing like each other.

5. Teenagers with Too Much Power

Brandon Walsh, big man on campus

This pet peeve dates back to my 90210 days (the original, not the reboot). I was always amazed that Brandon Walsh (Jason Preistly), the student body president of fictional California University, was so important to the university’s daily workings. He was always meeting with the Dean and being asked to join task forces and to advise big university muckety-mucks on major decisions. In the Season 5 episode  “Homecoming” (1994), Brandon is pressed to challenge the presence of a visiting dignitary, Quintero, who has been accused of torture. Brandon launches his own investigation into the accusations (conveniently meeting a gardener who was a victim of Quintero’s regime), and serves Quintero a subpoena. Because administering international justice is the responsibility of the student body president. On a related note, I also hate it when teenagers achieve things that it takes adults years of hard work and dilligence to achieve. For example, I scoff everytime a character on Gossip Girl mentions that Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) was published in The New Yorker. The odds of getting a story published in The New Yorker is so slim, and yet broody old Dan Humphrey gets his banal work published there.

6. Newborn Babies Who Are Actually 6 Month Olds

One of the few believable newborns on TV

I understand why a television show cannot use a newborn baby when portraying the birth of a newborn baby. First, newborns are ugly. They are wrinkly, swollen, and many of them have coneheads (due to being pushed through the birth canal). Newborns are also highly susceptible to colds and infections and so it’s not a great idea to have them on a crowded television set. I get it. Nevertheless, it drives me bonkers when we are shown a fresh-from-the-womb baby and he is fat and bright-eyed and not at all smushy-faced. Once again, this trope does a disservice to novice parents, who, when handed their fresh-from-the-womb baby, are probably wondering “Why is my kid so ugly?” Friday Night Lights is one of the few TV shows that used a baby resembling a newborn. Gracie Bell Taylor, when she first appeared on screen, was bug-eyed, scrawny, and splotchy. Of course, as she got older, Gracie Bell continued to be bug-eyed, scrawny, and splotchy, so um, at least that kid’s getting some sweet royalty checks!

These were all of the pet peeves I could come up with before # 2 decided to take his signature too-short nap. He is currently offering me big gummy smiles and attempting to poke a slobbery finger in my laptop’s USB port. He is a productivity-disrupting super genius. But, I’d like to know what TV pet peeves you have — particularly the ones that don’t seem to bother anyone but you.

Time Jumping TV, aka, the Most Annoying TV Trope of 2009

Whenever I screen Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) for students one aspect of the film that we invariably discuss (in addition to the infamous eye-slicing scene), is the way that the filmmaker plays with time. The film opens with an intertitle “Once upon a time” and is followed with such erratic markers of time as “eight years later,”  “around three in the morning,” “sixteen years earlier” and finally, the cryptic  “in spring.” 

"Sixteen years earlier..."

"Eight hours later..."

I enjoy Un Chien Andalou‘s defiance of temporality because it makes sense in the context of a Surrealist film; Surrealism  aims to disturb the viewer through the irrational pairing of images — ants crawl out of a hole in a man’s palm, an androgynous young woman pokes a severed hand with a stick, etc. The film’s temporal disjunctures further add to the viewer’s unease — we cannot orient ourselves in time and are therefore wholly at the whim of the filmmaker. This kind of playing with time is not limited to Surrealist films. Films as diverse as Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino), Run Lola Run (1998, Tom Tykwer) and Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan) jump around in time, as do television shows like Lost. Recently, programs like One Tree Hill  and Desperate Housewives decided to shift their narratives to  four and five years in the future, respectively, a bold move which ultimately revived the lackluster storylines of both programs. 

When Desperate Housewives jumped ahead 5 years, Gaby and Carlos suddenly had a family.

However, it appears that television has become especially fond of this trope as of late. Usually it is employed in this way: the episode opens with a dramatic scene  – someone is in the hospital, a formerly in love couple is on the brink of divorce, a small airplane is about make crash landing right on Wisteria Lane! — which compells the viewer to wonder: How did this happen? Why are they fighting? Why are the residents of Wisteria Lane so goshdarn unlucky? This scene of high emotion will then cut to a more peaceful scene as an onscreen title announces “8 hours earlier” or “3 days before.” The remainder of the episode then  serves as an explanation for how the characters wind up in such a predicament — all of the events we see seem fated. No matter what, that airplane is going to make a crash landing on Wisteria Lane and this knowledge colors how we read every event that transpires in the episode.
It seems that ever since programs like Lost started with playing with time, placing the viewer in the present, then the past, then the future, television writers realized the dramatic potential of narrative time travel. Unfortunately, this approach to plot, much like the overused mockumentary style of the contemporary “comedy verité,” loses its efficacy with too much repetition. My husband and I actually groaned aloud when Monday’s Gossip Girl opened with a car crash (“The Debarted”) only to jump back in time eight hours, because we had seen the same narrative structure on Sunday night’s Desperate Housewives  (“Boom Crunch”) and on the previous week’s episode of Modern Family (“Fizbo”). 

The best thing about that car crash is that THIS car crash of a relationship is finally over.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy this narrative structure (even when it’s overused). I just hate when writers use this trope to make an otherwise uninteresting story appear more interesting. To show you what I mean, let’s look at two recent examples of narrative time-jumping, one that worked and one that failed.

The One that Worked: Modern Family‘ s “Fizbo”  

“Fizbo” opens with various members of the Pritchett clan pacing anxiously around a hospital waiting room. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) refers cryptically to an “accident” while Jay (Ed O’Neill) wonders how it might have been averted. Their faces are grave. At this point in the show the viewer is in the dark about who has been injured, how s/he has been injured and how serious the injury is. The show then jumps back in time to reveal Phil’s (Ty Burrell) decision to host an elaborate birthday part for his son, Luke (Nolan Gould). 

Phil's extreme clown phobia could be a possible cause of the "accident."

This use of time jumping is effective  in “Fizbo” because the viewer is given double duties. First, we are watching the episode’s narrative — about Luke’s over the top birthday party (a moon bounce! a reptile lady! a clown!) — unfold. But we are also searching for the cause of the horrible accident. As a result, every new element introduced to the story becomes a suspect:  Jay gives Luke a crossbow as a present, a zipline running through the middle of the party seems destined to cause a concussion for some unlucky child, and one of the reptile lady’s poisonous scorpions is set loose by a jealous Haley (Sarah Hyland). Without the time jumping narrative structure the series of bizarre events occurring at Luke’s birthday party would be just that — bizarre. But knowing that one of these dangers will be the cause of the hospital visit we witnessed at the beginning of the episode serves to tie these disparate elements together. In fact, the more bizarre the element (i.e., the crossbow), the funnier the episode becomes. 

Is the cross bow to blame for the terrible accident?

We eventually learn that Luke is the one in hospital and that he broke his  arm after slipping on some beads from the craft table his mother set up. This is the great punchline of the episode because the craft table was the most banal aspect of the party but ultimately, the most dangerous. I’ll never look at comb sheaths the same way again. 

The One that Didn’t Work: Gossip Girl‘s “The Debarted”  

“The Debarted” opens with Serena (Blake Lively) and her milquetoast lover, Tripp Vanderbilt (Aaron Tveit), who I like to call Waspy McWasperson, engaged in a lover’s quarrel. The source of their tension is, I presume, supposed to be mysterious to the viewer. But given that the characters on this program fight with each other constantly, making up and breaking up and swapping lovers and eloping and divorcing in a nonstop carousel of terrible plotting, I was not all that intrigued. Then, out of nowhere, three wolves appear in the middle of the road (seriously!) and poor old Waspy swerves to avoid hitting them (animal lover that he is) and his Range Rover plows into a guard rail. Nooooo! Despite my lack of interest in why Serena and Congressman McWasperson were fighting and who was hurt, the episode jumped back to “eight hours earlier” to explain the whole mess.  

Poor little rich boy.

The reason “The Debarted”‘s use of time jumping fails is that it is entirely arbitrary. The big event that the episode is supposed to lead up to — the car crash – only involves two characters and so, when the time jump occurs, all of the other character’s storylines remain unaffected. Knowing why Serena and Waspy were fighting has little bearing on the far more compelling storyline involving Chuck  (Ed Westwick) and his inability to mourn his father (the Bart referenced in the episode’s title)  on the one year anniversary of his death. Eventually Chuck ends up at the hospital to see Serena, which leads him to finally break down and cry, but the episode needn’t have opened with the car crash in order to bring about Chuck’s change of heart. The episode also focuses on a “secret letter” that Lily (Kelly Rutherford) is keeping from Rufus (Matthew Settle) (YAWN!), but the car accident has very little to do with that story. The fact remains that “The Debarted”‘s narrative and its impact on the show’s characters would have remained unchanged if it had moved forward chronologically. Time jumping in this episode is simply a gimmick, a crutch for the show’s lazy writers. In fact, it is my personal opinion that Gossip Girl is penned by two monkeys throwing their poop at a keyboard. But that’s just my opinion.

So what do you think? Are you sick of time jumping TV? What other prgrams are doing this right now? And who is using this tope successfully and who is failing? I would love to hear your comments.

Initial Impressions of the MELROSE PLACE Premiere

The CW is awfully fond of rebooting television shows of the past. Last year they resurrected Beverly Hills, 90210, calling it simply 90210. I quit the show after a few episodes (I had reached my quota of trashy teen-targeted television shows for the season), but my husband hung on. He was a die hard Beverly Hills 90210 fan in the 1990s and he didn’t want the dream to die.

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As a die hard fan of the original Melrose Place I had similar motivations for putting the new version in my DVR queue. Deep down I knew this show was going to suck, but I was drawn to it like a stupid moth to a stupider flame.

melrosethen1

Did the first episode suck? Well, I suppose that depends on what you were expecting. I was expecting a beautiful young cast (check!), soapy storylines (check!), clunky dialogue (check!), cameos from Laura Leighton and Thomas Calabro (check! check!) and girl on girl action in a convertible (wait, what?). Yes, the show did exactly what I expected it to do. But, there were a few moments that had me screaming at my TV (I was pleased to see that Defamer also had a post devoted to Melrose Place‘s implausible plotting):

1. Lauren
I found Lauren’s (Stephanie Jacobsen) storyline to be very confusing. First, people address her as “doctor” but she is still in medical school. I asked a doctor friend of mine about this and she assured me that had she been addressed as “doctor” while still a medical student, she would have corrected the mistake. Next, I found it odd that Lauren’s suitor kept attributing his mother’s speedy recovery to Lauren and her wonderful doctoring skills. As my doctor friend informed me, while medical students do have their own patients “they are also the patients of your attending and resident. You never make your own decisions or write your own orders.” So either the show’s writers have no understanding of how the medical profession works or they want us to believe that Lauren is an egomaniac who takes all the credit for the recovery of a shared patient and allows herself to be addressed as “Dr. Yung” when she is not yet a doctor. This is a lot like when Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestly) had all that pull as student government president at California University or when Gossip Girl‘s Dan Humphries (Penn Badgley) got his short story published in The New Yorker (The New Yorker for crying out loud!), that is, it’s the common TV trope of giving the show’s young protagonists way more power and pull than they would have in the real world.

melrose-place-stephanie-jacobsen1

2. Jonah
a. The 5 year anniversary video Jonah (Micheal Rady, of the short-lived Swingers) made for Riley (Jessica Lucas) was a sweet idea. But who filmed all that footage of Jonah and Riley kissing in a swimming pool, having pillow fights, and romping on the beach? The camera was clearly not on a tripod since it often moved to follow the couple’s actions. So do Jonah and Riley normally bring a camera man into the bedroom while they engage in clichéd cute couple behavior? Because she seemed awfully surprised to see that video.

b. So let me get this straight Jonah: you are a struggling filmmaker living in Los Angeles and an A list director offers you $100,000 to write a script based on your “award winning” student film. But you reject that offer because you know that said director is just trying to ensure that you don’t put the footage of him making out with his daughter’s BFF on the internets? Jonah, is that because you are a true “artist”? Because, as Ella (Katie Cassidy) gushes, you have a “point of view”? Ella, did you see Jonah’s anniversary video? Jonah, you are a douchebag.

melrose-place-michael-rady14

3. David
For the first 5 minutes of David’s (Shaun Sipos) conversation with his father, Michael (Thomas Calabro), I was thinking that he was the son of Michael’s ex-wife, Jane (Josie Bissett). Yes, that would mean that David had an affair with his aunt Sidney (Laura Leighton). Then I realized he was probably Kimberly’s (Marcia Cross) son with Michael and felt MUCH better [note: since publishing this post the second Melrose Place episode has aired and it turns out David's mother is neither Jane nor Kimberly. Michael Mancini was quite the man-whore!] . But this little misunderstanding proves that the writers need to do a better job of reminding us about the various plotlines of the old Melrose Place if they are going to reference them in the new Melrose Place.

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4. Ella
I have seen Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear) and you, madame, are no Amanda Woodward.

melrose-place-amanda-woodward

Will you watch Melrose Place again? I will, but only to watch Ashlee Simpson-Wentz butcher her lines.