Letters from a Layman: Geek TV

Dear TV Producers,

I’m a Christian, and a busy guy. I work, spend time with my family and friends, read, and attend three or four church events per week. I should exercise, but I confess that has yet to happen in 2009.

The thing is, I need to be wiser with time. See, I believe God put me on earth for a purpose: to be redeemed and to participate in building his kingdom by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. There are lots of things to go along with that, but at least one implication is my need to be a good steward of all that God gives me, including time.

Please do not misunderstand; I do not think TV is inherently wrong. I just know I cannot, like the average American, spend 5-7 hours in front of the tube each week (Did I say week? Actually the average is close to 5 hours per DAY! You guys must really be cashing in).

The problem is, I am also a sci-fi and fantasy geek. I can quote various lines from all three original Star Wars movies, explain in detail why a hobbit had to carry the One Ring, and contemplate psychohistory when I read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So you can imagine my intense curiosity at two of your latest creations; “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and, “Legend of the Seeker.”

Here’s the problem. I really only have time for one. I’ll save some suspense: I am going with Terminator. But for your future reference, I have a few pieces of advice for you, so that you know why I made this choice. Yes, I realize that what hooks people like me in the first place is great fantasy worlds and high-tech gadgets. But if you want to KEEP my interest, you will heed some simple things when making your show.

Tell me something true. Good art is about truth and beauty. I’m not asking for pure, uncompromised art, but at least use your show to highlight realities of the human condition. For instance, in Terminator we see the strain in John’s relationship with his mother. On one hand, he is trying to break free and become his own person. On the other, he is still dependent on her for support and protection. This is good stuff because it is a reality of normal mother-son relationships.

Meanwhile, Legend of the Seeker gives me no truth to relate to. This is especially sad since the central hero, Richard, wields The Sword of Truth! As far as I can tell all “Truth” does is kill bad guys and sometimes glow a bit. How about introducing real internal emotional conflicts, rather than mere external pressures?

Advance the characters, advance the story. I still remember the horrifying day when, as a kid, I was watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and realized the story always wraps things up by the end of the show so episodes could be mixed and matched without confusion. This is a good idea for a kids cartoon with lots of re-runs. It is not a good idea for weekly programs. Stop being afraid to advance your characters! I speak here primarily of Legend of the Seeker which, aside from the first two episodes, could be thrown in almost any random order and still have very few inconsistencies. The story and its protagonists need to move forward to hold my attention.

In Terminator, John is always growing and advancing and changing as a person, which makes him interesting. You see him grow from a dependent boy to a rebellious teen, and later to the beginnings of manhood. You see how individual events shape his character later on. These things make for a good story and keep me excited for the next show.

Take Risks. In fantasy fiction, readers sometimes tease about immortal characters- people in the story who are guaranteed to survive simply because they are at the center of the story. One of my favorite fantasy authors, George RR Martin, bucks this trend by killing central characters or foiling the plans of the, “good guys,” on a consistent basis. You never know what will happen next. This tension is good for storytelling, and I think you Terminator guys get it. Certain key characters seem to be in it for the long haul, and then you kill them. A particular storyline seems to be about John’s alienation from his mother, but then you see how he was playing a different game all along. Good work!

You Legend people, though, never take risks. Key people never die or change, good guy plans always work out, and the show is so predictable that all I look forward to are sword fight scenes. Have some guts!

Do not let characters off the hook. Sometimes Richard gets into tough scrapes, and I get a little excited. What will he do? Will he stay true to his calling? Surely he realizes what must be done for the good of all? Alas, it is wasted. Richard almost never has to make a choice; he is always able to be both the holder of destiny, and an everyday good guy. He can pose as a bad guy and never hurt anyone. He can risk his life for a single person without ever facing consequences, even though his death would mean enslavement for the entire nation. The story always lets him do both/and. The show seems to function on the premise that if you live according to principles of cliché humanistic moralism, there will never be serious consequences to your actions (unless it’s a VERY minor character). For example, Richard is told that for 600 years baby boys with certain magical powers ALWAYS turn into evil, maniacal wizards. So what does he do? He defends the baby against all comers, of course. Now, I am obviously against infanticide. But imposing present-day views on a fantasy show falls flat. If that baby turns out to be the single exception and becomes a good wizard, I will be very annoyed.

John, meanwhile, has to make tough calls. When he and his mother are attacked, he must sometimes choose to run, knowing it could mean her death. He is faced daily with the fact that he may have to destroy his closest friend and advisor. He leaves his girlfriend behind without trying to redeem her, even though he knows she has nowhere to go. His moral struggles and decisions jive perfectly with the context of the world created by the show, and that internal consistency makes the show much more interesting.

We geek types revel in our imaginary worlds- just look at the popularity of RPG’s, LARPing, and sci-fi conventions. Do you really think we secretly desire to imagine ourselves as prophets for wishy-washy 20th century moralism? Don’t kid yourselves. There is no value in imagining a different world if you cannot imagine acting differently too.

Here’s the thing, TV guys; both these shows are focused on young males, on a journey to develop and grow, so that they can eventually take on ultimate evil. In other words, the starting positions are pretty even. All I’m asking is that you take my comments to heart, and make your stories fun and interesting to watch. Special effects can only take you so far! To date, kudos to Terminator, rotten eggs to Legend.


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  • RE the average American spends five hours per day watching television
    For reasons I briefly went into in February [CAPC link], I’m highly suspicious of these statistics and their relevance to the Average American. Further, the Nielsen studies, while already corrupted by their inability to maintain any purity to their control group (compounded by questions of data-gathering), are further skewed by the fact that it’s teenage girls and the retired who are the real push behind the high average. I know this wasn’t central to your point, but I’m always struck by the impossibility of gauging this stat every time it pops ups.

    RE “Good art is about truth and beauty”
    This is not true. Not objectively at any rate. Subjectively, it might be true that your conception of good art revolves around the presences and implementation of these two things, but that truth doesn’t really go beyond your own subjective quantification of art. While I can appreciate truth and beauty in art, I also find myself highly interested in grotesqueries and lies in art. As there is no objectively quanitifiable definition of Good Art [CAPC link], we should limit ourselves to saying things like: “Tell me something true because the art I prefer is art that is about truth and beauty.”

    RE Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and no end in sight
    When I was in elementary school, we were fortunate enough to have shows like Robotech, which featured a complete story told episode to episode (like Lost). In juniour high, we had Mysterious Cities of Gold, which followed similar path. These shows were as revelation to me, having been weaned on shows that at best featured two-part stories rarely or the five-part pilot episodes (e.g. Duck Tales/Tailspin). And TMNT, coming out after these shows (Robotech and Cities of Gold), was repulsive to me as it ignored what my child’s mind saw as an evolution in animated storytelling tools. The thing that these serial shows had in common? Japanese origins.

    In my late twenties, I began investigating episodic Japanese televised animation. Almost all of these feature complete stories. (Or attempts to complete stories occasionally thwarted by the ratings montser.) In American, we’ve been cheated. Not only do Japanese animated television series feature far superior animation and a breadth of subject-matter and audience targets, but they get full-fledged stories. What do we get? Countless episodes of a sponge, Bob, in square pants. Series like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that never go anywhere. Shameful, America.

    RE risk-taking
    This is one of the things I liked about Roswell and the first couple seasons of Alias. Granted, I never felt like the Royal Three or Sydney were in any true danger, but what was constantly killed off in these shows was the status quo. And that felt good and fresh and made it so I never knew what was happening next. E.g., especially the major shift in Alias that came halfway through season two—that knocked my socks off.

    The Danes last blog post..20090406.outOfControl

  • p.s. The more you talk about Martin, the more I want to crack into him. Where should one start?

    The Danes last blog post..20090406.outOfControl

  • Dane,

    I’d be curious to know what you mean by lies in art. If by that you mean you appreciate artistic use of lies and ugliness to express something, I agree. There is great value in expressing antitheses to make various points (for example, Medevil art often uses horrifying imagery to say something about the world, and it is quite helpful).

    But if you mean you appreciate art that tells me nothing about the artist’s world, for good or ill (such as cheesy dialogue in a Michael Bay movie, or a storyline that has no value aside from communicating dull and obvious moralisms) , then I would disagree. Mere production of art does not make it automatically valuable.

    What might be an example of art that lies in a way you find to be valuable?

    The place to start for George R.R. Martin is “A Game of Thrones.” Great stuff.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..People and Sadness

  • @Ben:
    Heh. I suspect the dialogue in Michael Bay movies tell us a lot of true things. About Michael Bay, about his production values, about the fabric of our society that eats that crap up willingly and joyfully.

    Here’s part of the problem about talking about truth in art as a means to judging the art. Whether someone is creating high art or low art, an artist is communicating on two levels: overtly and indirectly. The overt communication revolves around artistic intent and the communicative goal of the piece. The inderect communication is usually more to meta information, what we gather about about the artist, the piece, the world, based on certain contextual clues. Overtly, Michael Bay films do not convey interesting truths (though they make convey true things), but indirectly, his movies are very telling and the information they communicate about this world can be quite valuable if one wishes to find it. So in a sense all art, whether good or bad, can convey truth.

    Of course, just being able to convey truth doesn’t make something interesting. A painting whose sole communicative effort revoles around demonstrating that a car will be destroyed if it hits a tree at speed is telling us something very true, but it isn’t telling us something particularly interesting. I think that’s what you are meaning to say when you refer to good art; your instead talking about interesting art. I.e. art that interests you—based on the particular truth questions that you are interested in.

    I don’t think we should be afraid to speak of are in these terms while distancing ourselves from less useful terms like “good.” We should be able to speak of a piece’s evident craftsmanship, of its interest to us and the kind of opinion it conveys, whether the artist’s intent is well-realized, et cetera. The good label is just to loaded with our own biases to masquerade as something objective.

    As far as what I meant by lies? Perhaps a piece that says something the artist disagrees with. Perhaps something that subverts our expectations, by pretending to be one thing while the artist knows its something other.

    The Danes last blog post..20090406.outOfControl

  • T:SCC is a fantastic show. In my opinion, it consists of the best writing on television right now. Excellent plot devices and character development, couldn’t recommend it enough.

    You made a good choice Ben.

  • petered

    I haven’t seen the legend of the seeker series, so I can’t give any opinions on that, but don’t let the poor quality of the show deter you from reading the books they are(loosely) based on. I rather enjoyed the first 4 books in that series, though it seemed to be heading towards “I used up all my original ideas but this series is really popular so let’s drag out this series as long as possible”

  • Good call, Pete. As I always say, read the books! After you recommended the Song of Ice and Fire series to me, you have serious credibility in that arena. :-)