Archive | July, 2014

Summer 2014 Review: The Leftovers

7 Jul

The Leftovers

For years, I knew I wanted to watch Six Feet Under, a canonical series that I had heard nothing but praise for, but I kept putting it off because I was worried that marathoning it in a relatively short period of time would simply be too depressing. Finally, I stopped putting it off, and was extremely glad I did. It was often a depressing show, as I had suspected, with characters that were despicable at least as often as they were likable, but what surprised me was how that didn’t at all encumber my viewing. I moved through it fairly quickly, no matter the death and depression, enjoying all of the many great things about the show, which is a topic for another post. The main point here is that although the show was depressing, it was startlingly fun and easy to get through regardless.

The Leftovers, well, Is just as depressing but without the sense of enjoyment that powered Six Feet Under forward. It’s an awfully dour hour of television, attempting to be very, very serious. There are no laughs, but it’s more than its mere humorlessness which characterizes its dreary tone. Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead both have no laughs, and both do drag at times, but at their best, they move, they’re enjoyable, and there make you want to keep watching, even within the episode. The Leftovers plods along and makes you wonder, “how long is this episode?”

Here’s the premise. All of a sudden, two percent of the world’s population, with no discernible rhyme or reason up and disappears, poof, with no trace. No one can figure why the people who disappeared were the ones who disappeared; there were as many ostensibly terrible and immoral people as good people. Three years later, people are still struggling to deal, both to figure out what happened, and to cope with the loss of their loved ones. In the suburban burg of Mapleton, police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is having a hard time. His wife, we find out later on, has left society to join a weirdo cult of people who wear white all the time, don’t speak, and protest anywhere people are memorializing those that disappeared. What’s the appeal of this cult? It’s pretty unclear; but people are stupid and desperate, I suppose. Theroux is struggling along with his teenage daughter, who goes to super intense teenage parties (one of the options in the teens’ smart phone Spin the Bottle game is “Burn” where the player has to burn him or herself). She and her father are not taking the loss of their mother too well, and it’s breaking down the relationship between the two. There’s also some other cult, where some charismatic leader delivers messages he receives. Yeah, exactly.

Watching The Leftovers was just about the opposite of fun. Does anyone enjoy watching this? Did anyone enjoy making this? The show feels surgically drained of any joy. As mentioned before, even depressing shows have joy. The first season of Enlightened was mindbogglingly depressing. Marathoning it over a weekend, like I did, should be a considered a prescription level depressant. But there was warmth, love, and pathos that made the season extremely rewarding despite the major bummer that it was. The Leftovers doesn’t feel like it has any of that.

Additionally, and this is admittedly a a bias I have going in, any show that’s co-run by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame makes me automatically weary of getting hooked on its long-term plot. I know I’m supposed to keep an entirely open mind, but Lost left such a long and profound television scar on my psyche that it’s hard for me to see Damon Lindelof’s name and keep it out of mind entirely. Particularly, a show that hinges on The Leftovers’ premise that 2 percent of the world’s population instantly disappears sounds like a show whose plot is bound to lead to inevitable disappointment.

For all my naysaying, The Leftovers wasn’t awful. There were interesting ideas in theory, and exploring how people react when the world around them spins into chaos in ways they don’t understand has been productively mined for television and media many times before, with good reason (see the terrible summer show Under the Dome).

But, boy, getting through this an utter slog. There would have to be a lot of redeeming value to want to put myself through that again, and I’m not sure I want to. There’s some sprinkles of gold, maybe, but it’s buried so many layers of self-seriousness and very important programming that it doesn’t seem worth mining for.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t bad in the usual sense reserved for television – this wasn’t Ironside or Men at Work. But I didn’t enjoy watching the episode. TV’s about more than that, but at it’s heart, that’s really the most important thing.




A Defense of Spoiler-phobia, or More Accurately, a Defense of the Right to Be a Spoiler-phobe

2 Jul

Spoiler Alert!

The other day, AVClub critic Todd VanDerWerff penned an epic call to the world of TV viewers, fans, and other critics alike, claiming, in to uncertain terms, that our collective culture is overrun by an unbending anti-spoiler attitude, and it’s time to put an end to it. That’s the overall hypothesis, and some of his anti-spoiler feelings are defensible, if controversial. However, as we wade into the nitty gritty of his argument, VanDerWerff makes a number of troubling statements and assertions which I’ll break down in detail.

There’s one major problem overall problem though with his argument, which I’ll start with because it’s the key and most important flaw, before I actually break down some of the problematic pieces of his argument individually. VanDerWerff believes spoilers are overrated, and it’s absolutely his right to do so. What isn’t his right however – is to tell everyone else that because he thinks spoilers are overrated, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – he’s going to damn well go ahead and spoil things anyway, because he knows better than his readers.

It may sound like I’m making VanDerWerff into an exceptional arrogant potential strawman with that claim, but it’s his choice to absolutely throw down the gauntlet at the start of his post with the first sentence, mentioning a critical detail at the end of Breaking Bad. Sure, the vast majority of people who read that post, or read the AVClub in general had seen the show, or at the least knew how it ended, but that’s beyond the point. He decided to start off before even making his argument by spoiling an important point of an extremely popular and acclaimed show.

So if you haven’t seen that show, well too bad, VanDerWerff is saying. He defends himself quickly, backtracking, by pointing out well, it was only really a partial spoiler; but that’s beyond the point. He knew it was a spoiling something and choose to do it without warning before even setting out his argument to readers.

Now let’s dig in point by point through VanDerWerff’s argument before making some more general statements.

1. VanDerWerff makes the unbelievably audacious claim that people are only bothered by spoilers if plot means everything to them. He writes that his spoiler which I mentioned above, would only ruin the show for someone “if you value plot above everything else.” He continues to explain that anyone who would rather not have a central plot point ruined for them ONLY CARES ABOUT PLOT. This is mind-bogglingy overbroad and incredibly offensive. I strongly believe that anything not worth watching twice is not worth watching once, and I think movies that simply rely on plot twists are generally pretty lousy (The Sixth Sense, which VanDerWerff namechecks is a fine example.). I’m not close to the most spoilerphobic of my friends and a spoiler wouldn’t prevent me from watching a show or movie I want to see. That said, I would prefer not to have details about the final episode of a show I haven’t seen ruined for me for absolutely no reason whatsoever except to shove it in my face, which is what VanDerWerff does to start his post. Again, the assumption that anyone who cares about spoilers ONLY CARES ABOUT PLOT is flat-out ridiculous.

2. VanDerWerff actually refutes his own argument in his second paragraph so I don’t even need to do it for him. He notes that someone told him, and he more or less agreed that spoilerphobes would mean the end of criticism, but as the internet age continues to progress, there appear to be both more spoilerphobes and more criticism and discussion than ever. Well refuted.

3. Well, this is where he talks about the general deleterious effects of anti-spoiler culture on criticism and I want to get back to this at the end, because I think this is the least semantic and more important point.

4. VanDerWerff points out multiple times that spoilerphobia is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first mention he doesn’t back up at all; at the second he points out examples that veer from Don Quixote at the oldest to Death of a Salesman at the most recent; the “recent” being a sixty-year old play. As a counter-example, to promote Psycho, a fifty-plus year old film, director Alfred Hitchcock carefully orchestrated the media and press to prevent plot details from leaking. I’m not sure exactly what Todd means by recent; he doesn’t make it clear. Nor does he exactly explain why the fact that it’s changed over time should have an impact one way or the other on an argument. Forgetting everything else, his argument could be sound or unsound; it shouldn’t matter how it was done before.

5. VerDerWerff argues that spoilers privilege plot over all other elements of craft. This point is a misdirection at best. It assumes that spoilers can only be plot spoilers; which isn’t true at all. For proof, Todd points to one article about Godzilla on Vulture on which no commenter complains about having certain non-plot elements spoiled for them, thus illustrating that spoilerphobes aren’t bothered by non-plot spoilers. The question of what is a spoiler is a fair and valid one – but the premise that spoilerphobes are by nature okay with other aspects of films and TV shows being spoiled for them besides the plot is ridiculous. While I will admit most spoilers are plot spoilers, I know several spoilerphobes who would simply prefer to know nothing or as little as possible about shows and movies they have yet to see, and that includes all elements, not just plot.

6. This piggy-backs right off the last point, and involves the second-most offensive claim of the piece, after the notion that anyone who cares about spoilers ONLY CARES ABOUT PLOT. VanDerWerff writes that “Anti-spoiler zealots largely ignore craft.” This is beyond absurd. I know plenty of anti-spoiler zealots and they are as thoughtful television viewers as anyone else I know, including those who welcome spoilers. The notion that people who care enough about plot to avoid spoilers thus somehow don’t care about any other aspect of a show is a ridiculous and offensive claim based on absolutely nothing.

7. VanDerWerff refers to how Charles Dickens would reveal characters and plots as an argument towards how spoilers were less of an issue when he was writing, and to point out that that was because Dickens and his fans realized the plot was not the most important part of his works. What VanDerWerff ignores here is that Dickens was the author of the works and not a critic; the words were his, and thus, he had a prerogative to reveal details that a critic may not. Again, some people for certain would prefer to receive details in no case, and Dickens as example would be fairly relevant towards that point. But for me, if Matt Weiner, for example, is choosing to give away as little information about an upcoming Mad Men episode as possible, well that means something; the decision whether or not to give away information is vastly different to me than that of a critic who has not created the work.

Here’s what it comes down to. It’s VanDerWerff’s or anyone’s right to think that spoilers are overrated. It’s not their right to then, because they think so, thus spoil shows on purpose for other people. VanDerWerff rightfully points out that it’s hard to figure out what’s a spoiler. Everyone gets that! It’s not always obvious by any means. True spoilerphobes should be very careful on their own, and writers make innocent mistakes accidentally spoiling things all the time; it’s impossible to know what people know. That’s okay! It’s going to happen when you write thousands and thousands of words about TV; it’s simply inevitable. People might be mad, but even most spoilerphobes while angry in the moment would see it as a forgivable offense. What’s not okay is spoiling something on purpose just because you can, and thinking that it doesn’t matter if you do because you think people shouldn’t care about spoilers, so thus too bad.

VanDerWerff claims that spoilerphobia impinges on critical discussion, because critics can’t risk discussing what they want to because of concern about spoilers. There’s a couple major problems with this argument. First, there are plenty of places – episode recaps, most prominently, where it’s implicit that spoilers are coming up. People reading those know there are going to be spoilers. Secondly, there’s an easy, painless solutions, that doesn’t involve not writing about what you want to – simply use the two word phrase SPOILER ALERT. It’s recognized everywhere, and people can choose for themselves whether to continue reading, and you can write about whatever you feel like free from worry. If that means fewer people read your piece, well, too bad.

While figuring out what is a spoiler can be difficult, it’s ultimately a simple solution when you know you’re dealing with one, and VanDerWerff certainly knew, for example, that his first sentence was a spoiler. Just write “SPOILER ALERT.” If you can’t be bothered to write two words before you talk about intense plot details to your heart’s content, I can’t imagine how you can think you’re not the selfish one instead of the readers.