Tag Archives: X-Files

On Sharks, And How To Jump Them Successfully

SPOILERS for Death in Paradise, Grey’s Anatomy and X-Files

Tonight, the truth will be revealed. Or, you know, it won’t. It’s hard to say. I mean, FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have been looking for it since 1993 and haven’t found it yet, despite having lost pretty much all members of their families, been impossibly impregnated, survived alien cancer, brought down numerous government conscpiracies, stopped vampires, ghouls, poltergeists and chupacabras, and been abducted by extraterrestrials at least twice between them. After all that excitement, you’d think that everything that needed to be said about aliens would have been said – but here they come again, with a new mini-series of The X-Files starting in the UK on Channel 5 this evening.

I meet this news with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love Mulder, I love Scully, I love Mulder/Scully, I love Skinner (see this earlier blog post), I love the witty repartee, I love the music and I LOVE a good mystery. But having watched the whole show, in order, years after it was originally broadcast, I quickly started to get frustrated with the whole alien thing. Monster of the Week episodes – yes. Increasingly absurd and nonsensical myth-arc which grew more ludicrous and more tedious by the week – no. In The X-Files’ defence, I have a terrible memory, so it wasn’t entirely the show’s fault that I spent quite a lot of time in the latter seasons going, “Who’s that? Is he an alien? What did she do before? Didn’t he die? Why’s she doing that? Is that Mulder’s dad? Is THAT Mulder’s dad? Was he that guy with the thing? Who’s that? Who’s THAT? Why can’t that guy with the waterbed come back?” Deficits of my brain notwithstanding, I really feel like the last few seasons were specifically designed to confuse and alienate viewers (pun very much intended), for reasons I can’t begin to fathom. So, bringing it back now, eight years after the concluding film… Has The X-Files jumped the shark?

This phrase, as you may know, comes from an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz, out for a casual water-ski one sunny day, literally has to jump over a shark. Cue applause, many rounds of ‘Ey!’, and groans from audiences all over the country who decided that this was quite frankly absurd and that enough was enough. The producers didn’t listen to the groans and delivered six more seasons, but the deed was done, and now that poor shark is immortalised in pop culture as a symbol of a show past its sell-by date – when something so ludicrous happens that you know the show is never going to be the same again.

And it’s not that hard to argue that, indeed, The X-Files jumped the shark some time ago. One major category of shark-jumping (according to TV Tropes, fount of all film and television knowledge) is to do with plot. A show can push its own self-destruct by, among other things, radically altering its premise, drastically and suddenly changing its mood, throwing in endless plot twists, or absolutely refusing to tie up its main storyline, leaving it hanging about, getting more and more complex and inexplicable, until viewers lose not only the will to watch but the will to live. I’m not saying that’s the case with The X-Files or anything, but let me just note that the official TV Tropes designation for this occurrence is ‘The Chris Carter Effect’ – Chris Carter being the guy who, um, created The X-Files

Of course, shark-jumping isn’t all about plot. Another major kind of shark-jump – possibly the most common – is cast changes, including but not limited to the removal of a popular character, a new character that everyone hates, replacing an actor and claiming it’s the same character, or replacing a character with a totally different character who’s actually exactly the same. I highly recommend that you go and check out the various lists of occasions on which these have occurred (assuming you have a spare week to get hopelessly lost in an endless web of pop culture titbits) but today I’m concerned with a few shows in particular that have undergone these changes, starting with Death in Paradise.

Series 5 of this desert-island murder mystery is currently showing on BBC1, and, cast-wise, it bears little or no resemblance to series 1, which I adored. It’s still a cosy mystery set on a beautiful tropical island and all that jazz, but of the four main characters who began the series, only one is left, and it’s the worst one. (Sorry, Danny John-Jules – loved your work in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, though). The first heartbreaking disappearance was Ben Miller’s pernickety English detective with a penchant for paperwork and inappropriately warm suits, replaced by Kris Marshall’s goofy English detective who’s decided to really just embrace this whole Caribbean thing. Initially I was very upset by this, and considered giving up there and then; but I battled through, and Marshall won me over. But then – BUT THEN. The next character to leave was Fidel, the lovely young sergeant played by Gary Carr; and then, travesty of travesties, Sara Martins’ suave French lady detective went as well. Quelle désastre, as they would say on Saint Marie.

And the thing about that is – OK, actors leave. But in Death in Paradise they haven’t been replaced by new exciting characters that will take the show in a different direction. They’ve been replaced by almost identical characters who look like them and sound like them but just aren’t them. It’s weird and I can’t get my head around it.

What other tropes should we avoid, then, if we want the shark to stay firmly unjumped? Here’s one: overuse of gimmicks, such as special guest stars, musical episodes, clips shows or the release of a movie. What show am I about to talk about…? Yep.

Poor old Simpson family. From humble beginnings as a short section on someone else’s show, they went from strength to strength on the basis of being really damn funny. But times are a-changing, and now there are other cartoon for grown-ups, so what choice do they have but to keep on pushing or give up completely?

You could fill a book with analyses of the celebrities who’ve cameoed on The Simpsons (in fact, someone probably has. If not, they should – can you say ‘money spinner’?!). Simpsons vocal alumni include Stephen Hawking, Glenn Close, Buzz Aldrin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Justin Bieber, Richard Dawkins, Eric Idle, Julian Assange, Richard Branson, Paul and Linda McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor, Pete Sampras, Tony Blair and, of all people, Cat Deeley. True, the fact that the show can get such a raft of glitterati involved is impressive – but you do have to wonder what it’s trying to distract you from with all these famous voices.

Likewise, what are they hiding beneath all the musical numbers? I have to say, I actually feel kind of unfair complaining about this, because The Simpsons’ musical episodes are by and large utterly glorious. There’s a whole generation of people who only need to hear the opening chords to Mr Burns’ ‘See My Vest’ in order to jump up onto a table and start belting out the most beautiful nonsense about grizzly bear underwear (and don’t even get me started on the bundle of delight that is Spider-Pig. That came from the movie, though, and we all know that releasing a movie is a Sure Sign of sharks being jumped). Nonetheless, you can’t keep a show going on music and funny voices alone, and the slow but steady decline of quality in the actual storylines of The Simpsons is basically a fact of life now (allow me to insert a link to a particularly apt episode of my favourite podcast here), and the fact that it still keeps on rolling is a cause of wonderment to pretty much everyone, not least, I would imagine, the show’s producers.

But that’s the thing – a shark jump is not necessarily a death sentence (however much people – including me – might whinge about it). Here’s a classic example: over the last few weeks, I’ve been catching up with the most recent season of Grey’s Anatomy. “Grey’s Anatomy?!” I hear you cry. “Is that still a thing?!” Why yes it is, dear reader, and I’m still watching it, slowly, bit by bit, as new DVDs trickle over from across the pond, since all British TV networks appear to have given up on it some time ago. Yet, on a hospital-shaped set somewhere in LA, a group of actors are still putting on white coats and saying things like, “This guy’s going to crash, we’ll have to do an emergency heart transplant, prep OR 1 stat and tell my spouse and/or children that my work comes first, I’m a surgeon, dammit!”

Grey’s has basically run the gamut of shark-jumps. It’s killed off or otherwise thrown out numerous beloved characters (George, Denny, Cristina and of course the one and only McDreamy); introduced odious new replacements (Arizona. There, I said it. She irritates the hell out of me and I’m not sorry); completely changed the personalities of key figures (George, the sweetest person in the world, cheating on his wife? Come on now); resolved all manner of sexual tensions (Meredith and Derek, Cristina and Owen, Callie and Arizona, Jackson and April, to name but a few); and thrown an absurd number of outlandish scenarios at the main character (hurricane, fire, secret sister, other secret sister, shooting, drowning, call from President, best friend moving to Switzerland, plane crash), from which she has emerged with no more personality than at the start of the series. It’s also had a musical episode and a spin-off, which you will by now recognise as classic examples of shark-jumping. But I STILL LOVE IT. The most recent season had me laughing, weeping, booing, cheering and, crucially, wanting to watch more.

So maybe there’s hope for The X-Files as well. I shall sit down tonight, snacks in bowl and notepad in hand, ready to embrace Mulder, Scully, Skinner and even Cigarette-Smoking Man, open to the idea that it might still be worth loving.the-x-files-i-want-to-believe-print

10 Highly Questionable TV Crushes

Yesterday evening, as well as the excitement of the first Only Connect quarter-final on BBC2, BBC3 brought us the new series of American Dad!, the much-less beloved baby brother of Family Guy. Always one to go off in my own slightly inexplicable direction, I actually prefer American Dad! to its brash and noisy older sibling. For one thing, it has Patrick Stewart in it. For another, it doesn’t have Quagmire (giggidy giggidy go away you are too creepy to be amusing). But perhaps the main reason for my preference is that I have quite a big soft spot for patriarch and eponymous American Dad Stan Smith. I really shouldn’t. He’s barking mad, often very sinister, and also he’s a cartoon. But nonetheless I see his enormous chin and hear his absurd pompous voice and I think, “Ah, Stan. How about slipping some of that American-ness my way, baby?”.

Therefore, in his honour, I now present to you Screen-Eyed Monster’s ’10 Highly Questionable TV Crushes’.

1. Stan Smith (American Dad!)

For those unfamiliar with American Dad!, Stan is your quintessential Republican. He always wears a suit with a little American flag lapel pin; he works for the CIA; he is immensely single-minded in his devotion to both God and Ronald Reagan (not necessarily in that order); he’s horrified by anything remotely left-wing (i.e. his daughter) or non-heteronormative (i.e. his son); in short, he’s sexist, homophobic, bigoted and gun-crazy. But here’s the thing – he’s actually quite sweet sometimes. I mean, he lets an alien and a talking goldfish (inhabited by the mind of a former East German ski-jumper, obvs) live rent-free in his all-American house. And he’s a very snappy dresser. And one time he sacrificed an eye and a hand to save the life of his estranged wife in a post-apocalyptic dystopia run by the Anti-Christ. So, you know, you sort of feel like you’d be safe with Stan. Unless he could only save either you or George W. Bush, in which case you’re a goner.

2. Nigel McCall (Rev)

At first glance, it’s fair to say, Nigel doesn’t appear to be a major heart-throb (even if you generously ignore the fact of his name). As the lay reader at a small inner-city church, he seems to have a problem with authority, which is a bit odd for someone apparently devoting his life to working for the Supreme Authority, and generally wears either a V-neck sweater or a cassock – so not exactly your go-to guy for flights of feverish fantasy. In addition, he’s worryingly strait-laced, posh, pernickety, fastidious, slightly camp and humorously out-of-touch with young people. I guess in that sense he’s quite similar to the actor who plays him, Miles Jupp. In fact, Jupp is the son of a minister and studied divinity, so really they have an awful lot in common. OK, fine, I have a crush on Miles Jupp. Stop banging on about it.

3. Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)

Ah, Barney Stinson. Womaniser, philanderer, inventor of the Lemon Law. Not a bad person, really, but hardly the ideal date/boyfriend/husband, not least because he seems completely incapable of committing to any other human for more than about twelve seconds. His motto is ‘Love ‘em and leave ‘em’ (well, that’s not strictly true – his mottoes are ‘Suit up’, ‘Legen – wait for it – dary’ and ‘When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead – true story’) and he bounces between attractive women faster than you can say ‘Bob Barker’s your dad’. Nonetheless, he has a sweet side, mainly involving a troubled youth as a lonely hippie and a surprising soft spot for babies. Bless! Sign me up.

4. Walter Skinner (The X-Files)

FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner is a man on a mission: to keep America safe from threats both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. Sure, at the start of the series he has little time for Mulder’s wacky theories, but then Mulder is trying to convince him that aliens are trying to kill us all, which, let’s be honest, does sound a bit bonkers. But after a few run-ins with bad guys not of this world, Skinner starts to believe (certainly quicker than Scully does), and then he’s a steadfast ally, giving leeway where leeway is needed and reining things in when they get out of hand. He also had the balls to take on his evil boss, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and he very much enjoys a good bubble bath. In fact, aside from the age gap (he’s 50 by the end of the series) and the fact that he has a bit of a bald thing going on, I’m not sure this one is actually that weird. Right? Right…?

5. Jack Donaghy (30 Rock)

Jack Donaghy is basically Stan Smith if Stan Smith joined NBC as a network executive. Staunch Republican – check. Snappy dresser – check. Severe disdain for namby-pamby airy-fairy lefties – check. At times it seems all he cares about is money, seducing powerful women and money. But, disconcerting capitalist dogma notwithstanding, Jack’s a pure charmer; after all, you don’t get to be Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming by alienating everyone you meet. In fact, as frontwoman Liz Lemon becomes increasingly selfish and morally ambiguous, Jack starts to shine as a beacon of common sense, conscience and compassion. Either that, or I’ve been so mesmerised by his hypnotic blue eyes and perfect hair that I’ve lost all sense of reality.

6. Brian Steadman (Teachers)

The thing about Brian is that he’s not a bad guy. It’s just that, well, he only ever wears tracksuits (he’s a PE teacher, after all), he’s not brilliant with the ladies (“This has nothing to do with you being fat, which you’re not, you’re just healthy… in a large way”) and he finds it hard to keep up with all this new-fangled political correctness – indeed, finds it hard to keep up with much of anything at all. Still, he seems all right at his job, and certainly manages to avoid some of the worse traits found in his colleagues, such as chain-smoking, one-night stands, sleeping with students, and whining constantly every second of every day. RIP, Brian. RIP.

7. Leonardo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

By way of introduction to this one, let me quote Wikipedia: “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a team of mutant red-eared sliders named after four Renaissance artists and living in the sewers of New York City, where they train by day and fight crime by night as ninjas.” Standard. So, yes, essentially I’m saying I have a crush on a humanoid terrapin who lives in a drain. But not just any humanoid terrapin who lives in a drain, oh no. Leonardo is the leader of the gang. He’s the man (turtle) in charge. He’s the hero. He gets stuff done. And you’d never want for pizza.

8. Dennis Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

My God, Dennis is a terrible person. I mean, even in the context of It’s Always Sunny, in which every character is appalling, Dennis surpasses them all by being outstandingly horrible. Ever pushed a former friend out of a moving car? Dennis has. Ever bought a boat so you could lure women onto it and coerce them into sleeping with you? Dennis has. Ever installed a glory hole in the bathroom of the bar you own? Dennis has. Ever threatened to kill your sister, chop her into small pieces and make her into a fetching suitcase? Dennis has, and he would do it again. Is he a sociopath? Perhaps. At the very least, he’s sufficiently odious that I’m really struggling to justify the fact that I’ve included him on a list of TV crushes. It certainly has nothing to do with the fact that he takes his shirt off a lot.

9. Huck Finn (Scandal)

Let’s get the bad news out of the way right at the start: Huck is a former Special Ops torturer who really, REALLY loved his job. As they say, once a torturer, always a torturer, and Huck remains a mass of inner turmoil and conflict (not helped by the fact that his ‘hero good guy’ employer keeps asking him if he could maybe just do a teensy-weensy bit of torturing, nothing too serious, all in a good cause, you know – but that’s a rant for another day). However, he has the following going for him. One – sympathy vote (he was blackmailed into becoming a torturer in the first place, so, you know, totally not his fault). Two – incredible loyalty to friends and family (see above re. ‘Nothing wrong with a bit of torturing between friends’). Three – strong technological game, including hacking into government mainframes, which would be useful in avoiding any pesky parking tickets / jury service / murder charges. Basically, however badly you mess up, Huck’s got your back. Maybe best to keep it turned away from him though.

10. Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Spike, AKA William the Bloody. Yikes. Where to begin? Vampire without a soul. Killer. Thief. Double-crosser. Science experiment. Punk. Bleach blond. Writer of truly terrible poetry. On paper, it looks bad – any sensible girl or boy would stay the hell (geddit) out of his way and go for someone a bit more wholesome and human. But pretty much the entire Buffy fandom would pick Spike over, for example, wholesome human Riley Finn, who’s about as interesting as a piece of old sandpaper. And that’s because Spike is cool, all sarcastic and leather-clad and muscly and Cockney and cheekboney and and such. Having a crush on Spike is basically inevitable. Twisted, absurd and highly problematic, but inevitable.

So there you have it. Am I mad, or do I have an eye for a diamond in the rough? WE MAY NEVER KNOW.

Have TV Your Way: How On-Demand Makes Watching Television Trickier

Note: spoilers for (old episodes of) X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS.

Recently I had a very bizarre experience, one that I thought was lost in the mists of time… I watched a TV programme as it was broadcast.

I know, right? It wasn’t a topical programme, or even filmed live (all right, I confess, it was University Challenge), but nonetheless I watched it on the television at a time decided for me by official BBC schedulers. This came as a shock because less and less of my (and many other people’s) TV watching is done thus: in all honesty, I’m a catch-up junkie. I know I’m not the only one, but what with all the repeats, online players, +1 channels and TV subscription services, I sometimes feel like I’ve completely lost the ability to watch TV at the originally specified time.

Oh, it started off harmlessly enough. As a youth, I’d occasionally catch a repeat of Friends on Channel 4, not out of choice but because there was just nothing else to watch after Neighbours and The Simpsons. Soon I was seeking out repeats, then I started buying DVDs of my favourite shows, in order to relive my favourite scenes and jokes. At some point, it occurred to me that I could buy DVDs of shows that I hadn’t already seen, shows that other people had watched but I’d missed out on the first time. From there it was just too easy to put things off – ‘No need to watch it now,’ I’d say to myself, ‘I can buy it on DVD later’ – and the development of BBC iPlayer and 4OD just made things worse. Before long I was catching up on programmes from the last seven days like nobody’s business, filling my shelves with secondhand DVDs, watching things on +1 as if not+1 didn’t exist… And then, finally, the world came crashing down and I hit rock bottom: I joined Netflix.

Nowadays I treat the TV schedules with all the disdain and wanton disregard I can muster. This week, for example, I watched New Girl on E4+1, switched to Channel 4 for the second half of Rude Tube and then switched to Channel 4+1 for the first half of Rude Tube, just because I could. Oh, the humanity.

If truth be told, I’m already paying the price for this destructive habit. Sure, watching TV programmes at a time of your own choosing is convenient, but there are many reasons why pick-your-own-schedules TV may not be the way to go, and they’re mostly to do with the fact that people talk to each other (what are they thinking?).

First, obviously – spoilers. This is most clearly the case with the most popular TV programmes, and particularly when you’re far enough behind the rest of the world to be forever playing catch-up but not far enough for everyone to have stopped talking about it already. Take Downton Abbey. I missed the boat when it was first broadcast, but Netflix offered it to me on a plate; so I took a tentative bite, and have got as far as season two (2011). But because everyone on the planet has been obsessed by the Crawley family for the last four years, I already know that CENSORED and CENSORED get married, CENSORED is arrested for murder, CENSORED has a baby, and CENSORED dies*. Every episode is imbued with either a sense of inevitable dread (‘Don’t do it, don’t visit her, or when she dies everyone will think it was you…”) or a tragic poignancy (‘They think their love might be doomed… it is, oh it is!’). It’s the same when programmes are still ongoing and the cast continues to change – even if you manage not to find out exactly how their characters leave, you still know that their days are numbered. In my TV-watching world, Mulder and Scully have just made it through Mulder’s brief bout of insanity to emerge the other side and share a New Year’s kiss (X-Files season seven, 2000) – and now he’s leaving? How will Scully cope? How will I cope? In my world, Cristina seems to have forgiven Hunt for his affair and has just told him that he’s her ‘person’ (Grey’s Anatomy season eight, 2012) – but how will they get it properly together now before Cristina leaves in season ten? And in my world, Kate has just been killed by a terrorist and no one knows who her replacement will be (NCIS season two, 2005); yet apparently that replacement is already leaving the show. Slow down, man! I ain’t the Doctor – I can’t cope with this many time streams.

Of course, it’s impossible for people not to give spoilers away, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to keep quiet about major TV events, because people like talking about the TV they watch. (Hell, I like it so much that I’ve set up a really great blog dedicated to exactly that.**) Most of the time, people are only giving the plot away because they’re so excited by it and want to discuss it with other like-minded viewers – such as when I accidentally told someone the ending of the first series of The Killing, not realising they were only on episode four. (It’s OK, guys, I did an incredible cover-up, and she was even more surprised when the reveal eventually came along.)

Which is another reason why watching TV programmes months or years after everyone else is a bit of a bummer: you don’t get to discuss them with anyone. Things like Downton are OK, because the series is still going and people are still interested in the characters, but Teachers? Smallville? The IT Crowd? Not so much. I only saw The IT Crowd last winter (a mere seven years after it first aired), and I was finally able to discuss it with those of my friends who’d watched and enjoyed it back in the noughties – unfortunately, by the time I got round to the conversation, it went something like this:

Me: “Just been watching The IT Crowd.”

Friend: “It’s hilarious, isn’t it?”

Me: “Oh my God, yes. D’you remember that episode where Moss accidentally works as a barman?”

Friend: “Um, not really. Hey, you know what’s great at the moment? Happy Endings. Have you seen that?”

Me: “Ask me again in seven years.”

This is even worse now that interaction about TV is both global and instantaneous. I’m still slightly unsettled by the idea that you should tweet or text in to TV programmes while you’re in the middle of watching them (although so far it seems to be only with live current affairs, entertainment and other non-fiction programmes – when Call the Midwife starts running banners on the screen saying ‘Tell us which of the two babies Jenny should save, @midwivescanonlydosomuch #dontaccidentallypicktheevilone’, then pop culture as we know it is officially dead). But it’s increasingly tempting to pick up the phone/mouse and have your say, especially when you feel like you could contribute a damn sight more to the discussion than ‘really dont like huw edwards suit bro’. This is especially the case with The Last Leg, which asks viewers to send in their dubious questions about what’s appropriate to say or do on TV, because Adam Hills actually reads out people’s tweets and discusses them on the show. This week, I confess, I was overcome by the sudden desire to ‘get involved’ in the debate on exam results, and I very nearly made my first use of the #isitok hashtag – then I remembered that I was watching the programme on Channel 4+1, and that Adam Hills and everyone else involved in the show had probably left the studio some time ago.

So, really, watching things as the fancy takes you rather than when other people are watching them has its drawbacks – but it also has its perks. Sometimes it can give you a new perspective on a show or character. I only started watching Doctor Who in 2010, so Matt Smith was my first doctor; when I went back to watch Christopher Eccleston he seemed scarily dark and dour in comparison (and also better: see my Doctor Who post). Likewise, I’m currently catching up on The X-Files on DVD and Californication on Netflix; both star David Duchovny, which means that Hank Moody seems like Fox Mulder in an alternate universe where the absence of Scully has driven him to a world of booze, one-night stands, prolific use of the f-word and more cigarettes than the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The truth is out there, indeed.

What to do, then, dear friends? If we want to talk about programmes properly, if we want to keep the element of surprise, we need to be watching them at more or less the same time. On the other hand, now that we can watch TV whenever and wherever we want, it seems almost silly to watch a programme at 9pm on a Saturday just because someone you’ve never met thinks that’s the best time for it. It’s a conundrum that will probably sort itself out as more and more people start to use on-demand services. Or maybe we could decide by Twitter vote. #greattvscheduledebate, anyone?

~

*The censored parts are less for your benefit than for mine – if I don’t type the names out then maybe the events won’t happen, right…?

**That’s this blog. Just so we’re clear.