beer_good_foamy: (Buffy)
[personal profile] beer_good_foamy
This gets kind of pretentious and ranty, much like me.

You know the joke? Two men are out walking in the desert. Suddenly, a lion appears and starts to circle them, clearly seeing them as dinner. One of the men quickly gets out a pair of running shoes and puts them on. The other guy says, "Do you really think you can outrun a lion in those?" The first guy replies "I don't have to outrun the lion, I just have to outrun you."

So, this article: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I went into a bit of a rant over on [livejournal.com profile] sueworld2003's journal, and I thought I'd better expand on it. Because this article really annoys me on several points that go way beyond the TV series in question - not just as a Whedon fan, but as a fan of well-written meta and criticism in general, and about popular entertainment in particular. And also, about the tired old argument that good shows always have shaky first seasons.

The one that fans are most likely to jump on (and rightly so, IMO) is Bowman's statement that the first season of Agents of SHIELD so far is just as good as the first seasons of Buffy, Angel and "what little of Firefly we got to see." Note that she says "if you compare them", but then she doesn't actually do that - she just states it as a fact and moves on. Lazy. Likewise, there's the bit at the end where she claims that Agents of SHIELD gives the audience that old worn-out-by-mindless-repetition phrase "what they need, not what they want" (which I actually kind of agree with as a concept, but it's often horribly misused and if nobody else used it for the next 10 years I'd be ecstatic) in terms of themes of, um, family and government and heroism (how original), but can't actually give a single example of what it says about those themes.

But the bit that really annoys me, and that I've seen in more than one article defending the (not as awful as some people seem to think but also not remotely special so far) show: That people who don't like it just need to relax and change their expectations, it's just a spy show with standard characters, it's not meant to be anything more than that, so why on Earth wouldn't you watch it?

This, of course, is a lesson that's been hammered into lazy critics, and you better believe it's been hammered into producers, writers and marketers, that quality is a function of expectations and delivery. If you set out to make an ambitious, multi-layered, challenging work, and you don't stick the landing, the end result is worse than if you set out to make a dumb action movie and succeed in making a dumb action movie. There's definitely something to that, but... let me get back to that.

Yes, a lot of good shows had shaky starts; to quote some famous examples, Seinfeld; The Simpsons, Buffy and Angel, and even M*A*S*H took a while to find their footing, and common wisdom holds that none of them would have survived past the first season today. But what everyone always seems to forget in that discussion is the vast number of shows that had shaky, unfocused, or even outright crap first seasons... and then never improved, either because they were cancelled or because they found a target audience that, like the proverbial fifty million flies, liked to eat shit. (Charlie Sheen has based his entire career on that over the last 15 years.) Sometimes, things that suck just keep sucking - especially if nobody asks them to stop.



Also, when we talk about shows that improved after their first season... We can probably argue at great length whether this is a good thing or not, but the fact (and yes, this is a fact, notice that I'm about to back it up) is that the media landscape has changed a lot in the last 15-20 years. When Seinfeld came on, it had to compete with what was on the other major network channels at the same exact time as it was on, and with some second-best pilot that could take its slot if it was cancelled. (Well, and with things like people switching off the telly and doing something else instead, but fuck those losers.) That was it. Part of the reason many shows didn't get axed in the first season was that comparatively, they weren't doing as badly as the alternative.

Fast forward to 2013, though, and Agents of SHIELD isn't just competing with what's on the other major networks on any given night at eight o'clock. Or even with what's on the other major networks plus the dozens of cable channels with original programming or reruns of popular shows that have sprung up in the meantime. They're competing with DVD box sets, Netflix, YouTube, torrent downloads, and any other number of ways to watch shows that aren't still working out what they want to do, whether the main cast works, what the main storyline is, etc. (And that's just the competition in the 42-minute-segment; in a wider sense, they're also competing with Kindles, with movies, with PS4 consoles, with game apps...) And what they're competing for is your time. In that situation, you have to ask yourself if a show simply being Not Awful, and possible to improve at some unspecified future point, is enough. To return to the joke at the beginning, there are a hell of a lot more lions out there, and new shows can't just settle for outrunning the slowest ones. If a show does a decent job of building a basis for a great third season in its first shoddy season, good for it; that's still not an argument why I should spend time on it now when I can just as easily watch something that already is great.

Is that fair to people just starting out in the business, or to ambitious storytellers wanting to tell something different? No. It's definitely not, and new TV shows will have a much harder time working out how to balance ratings and story. They need to know, when they shoot the first episode, where they want the show to go and then have the guts and the muscle to stick with it. It can be done - just look at Breaking Bad. It can also be blown spectacularly - just look at what happened to Dollhouse. Personally, though, I'll take an ambitious failure over a tired hit any day.

So we're back to the expectations + delivery = quality issue. And here's the thing that really annoys me about this article: while that formula is true, it's not the same for me as it is for the producers of the show. Their expectation is to make a passable spy series to tide people over between MCU movies; mine is to spend an hour watching something that entertains me. And I don't owe it to a brand new TV series to change my expectations of what I consider good entertainment. I have absolutely no problem with people whose expectations are met by Agents of SHIELD now liking it. If that's what they want, more power to them. But when this article tells me to be impressed by the fact that the show aims for mediocrity and hits it, it really annoys me. As if if you set the bar low enough, and then clear that bar (if only just), then people are somehow obliged to stop whining and think it's good. And I don't buy that, just like I don't buy that people are obliged to think, say, Fifty Shades of Grey is shit just because it doesn't live up to literary standards it never tries for. (It is shit for not even living up to the very lowest of standards, but that's another matter.) I have only so many hours to spend on books, movies, music and television each week; I will spend them on things that meet my expectations. If I'm not the target audience for this show, then don't tell me it's my fault and I need to change.

Here, I could get pretentious and whine about the spreading idea that asking more than simple entertainment makes you pretentious, and how the idea that there's nothing wrong with simple entertainment (which I agree with - did you see all the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic back there? Or all the AC/DC references?) has somehow morphed into the idea that any simple entertainment is therefore good. And I firmly believe that there is good and bad toilet humour, there are good and bad slasher movies, and there are good and bad action TV series. Machete was a great movie; Machete 2: Machete Kills is not. I am the consumer, I have the right to have expectations, and I have the right to demand quality trash - if for no other reason, then because if I don't get it, there's nothing to stop me from getting it somewhere else. I wanted to like Agents of SHIELD, but so far it does nothing for me; if you want to convince me that this show really will be good, then convince me; use your words; don't just tell me I'm wrong not to already see it, and that it's unrealistic of me to expect quality I know is out there. If a new show doesn't win me over, that's its problem, not mine.

Which is kind of my opinion of the "trust the men in suits to know what's best for you" theme of Agents of SHIELD too. Howaboutthat. And to anyone who says entertaining TV can't challenge that notion, I can recommend this little show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Phew. Rant over.



Date: 2013-12-15 05:27 am (UTC)
next_to_normal: (Tribbey rage)
From: [personal profile] next_to_normal
UGH I saw that article and was so hoping someone would go ahead and tear it to shreds so I didn't have to. So, thanks. :)

Likewise, there's the bit at the end where she claims that Agents of SHIELD gives the audience that old worn-out-by-mindless-repetition phrase "what they need, not what they want" (which I actually kind of agree with as a concept, but it's often horribly misused and if nobody else used it for the next 10 years I'd be ecstatic)

I have so much rage and loathing for that phrase. I will give a million dollars to anyone who can tell me what the actual fuck that even LOOKS like in TV storytelling. Or any medium, frankly, because that's the thing about entertainment - it is, sort of by definition, WHAT YOU WANT. If you don't want it, you turn the TV off. You put the book down. You hit the little X in the corner of your browser. And guess what? There are no consequences! (Except that maybe you won't get a few pop culture references, which I think we can all live without.) We need food. We need water. We need oxygen. We do not need television. Or Joss Whedon.

I know what Joss intends it to mean. He likes to think that his shows give us the ~hard truths and don't just pander to the audience's base desires (which is patently false - he can pander with the best of them *cough*Bangel*cough*), as though he is doing us some kind of ~favor by creating the TV equivalent of your mother making you eat your lima beans before you're allowed to leave the dinner table. Who the fuck wants to watch THAT? The fact is, his storytelling may be more challenging intellectually or philosophically or morally or whatever-ally than the average show (though that is also debatable), but he IS giving audiences what they want - albeit sometimes very small audiences - or he wouldn't have so many rabid fans. (Although, not giving audiences what they want would go a long way toward explaining why so many of his shows get canceled, lol.)

...Oops. I was gonna let you do the ranting, and then I went and ranted anyway.

That people who don't like it just need to relax and change their expectations, it's just a spy show with standard characters, it's not meant to be anything more than that, so why on Earth wouldn't you watch it?

I am still baffled that people continue to use this argument when there is SO MUCH GOOD TV right now. And sometimes it's TV CRITICS saying it, which is the most bizarre of all. Do they not understand how this "competing for your time" thing works? They should, they watch more TV than anyone, and their job is to help you evaluate which TV is worth your time.

I could do nothing but watch TV for the rest of my life and still never watch all the good shows that are being made. Why would I waste my time on something that requires me to lower my expectations?

(To be fair, I am still watching Agents of SHIELD and it is getting better. But that is a calculated decision on my part that my investment in the Marvel universe at large and my belief in the talent of the people involved will eventually make it worthwhile. But I also recognize that every hour I spend watching AOS is an hour I am not watching The Wire or something, and I fully understand people who think that's a poor decision, and I certainly don't expect everyone else to have the same cost/benefit calculation I do.)

Sometimes, things that suck just keep sucking - especially if nobody asks them to stop.

I would like to frame this.

And I don't owe it to a brand new TV series to change my expectations of what I consider good entertainment.

I would also like to frame this, and draw hearts around it and cover it with sparkles.

Also you get bonus points for punctuating your rant with a West Wing clip.

Date: 2013-12-16 04:14 pm (UTC)
next_to_normal: (Britta has feelings)
From: [personal profile] next_to_normal
if all I wanted was exactly what I knew I wanted, then I could write it myself.

Indeed - although I don't and have never translated "what the audience wants" so literally? Giving the audience what it wants doesn't necessarily mean the audience being prescriptive - "being surprised by the narrative" is a totally valid thing to want from a story, IMO. The feeling of being sucker-punched by a well-executed character death is a valid thing to want. Seeing the usual genre tropes being turned on their head unexpectedly is a valid thing to want.

Which is part of why that phrase has always seemed stupid and nonsensical to me. When you strip away the specifics, what people WANT is a well-told story. So to be proud of the fact that you're not going to give them what they want is... odd.

And that doesn't even get into the fact that people want different things! Some people want a narrative that challenges them, others want something comforting and predictable. Sometimes the same person can want BOTH, depending on what show they're watching or what mood they're in. So the idea that Joss would claim to KNOW what the audience wants is also absurdly presumptuous.

Which is why I'd also say that What we need is stories that surprise, thrill and challenge us is a questionable assertion. Maybe that's what you and I need - but maybe what someone else needs is to see characters that look like them on TV. Maybe this person needs a narrative like BtVS S6 that helps them confront their own issues with depression, while that person over there needs a comedy that will lift their spirits and take their mind off their problems.

Haha, basically tl;dr - "what the audience wants" and "what the audience needs" are both meaningless generalizations. I agree it's dumb to set them up as mutually exclusive, but it's also useless to use them - separately or in comparison - as any kind of metric for "good" storytelling.
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