Thursday, 13 August 2015

Not-so-hidden treasures on TV

I’ve been watching some really good TV lately. And I don’t just mean the sixth season of Archer, which is a hilarious return-to-form for the show, and for the main character, albeit with some really interesting, if spectacularly raunchy, character development. This is not a show for kids. All of the characters are overtly terrible people who I would have no desire whatsoever to associate with in real life… but because it’s a cartoon about freelance James Bond-style spies, they kind of get away with it.

What I’m specifically thinking about right now is BoJack Horseman (another adult-oriented cartoon, not remotely intended for kids, in which the main character is an incredible asshole), Halt and Catch Fire, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Now, if you know me in real life, you shouldn’t be surprised that My Little Pony is showing up here. My family discovered it on Netflix, and my then-three-year-old son got hooked. And in turn, I got hooked. It’s got a lot of really good messages for little kids, and there are tonnes of things for adults (whether they’re watching to be aware of what media their kids are consuming, or on its own merits). For example, the recurring Big Bad God of Chaos, appropriately named Discord, is voiced by John de Lancie, specifically because the character is the show’s equivalent of Q! My recent favourite example of this is in an episode where one character has a series of nightmares, all about her current significant anxieties. Eventually, the dreams culminate in her literally confronting her own shadow—if you’re at all familiar with Jungian theory, it’s not even metaphor any more, and I love it.

But when you keep watching it, and you start to get into it, you realise that there’s a rich storytelling universe that is driven significantly by the characters. Their actions have permanent consequences (the work that goes to maintaining continuity is intense, and is very clear), and whatever scrapes they get into over the course of a story, they learn from. Characters grow over the course of the show.

My son’s favourite pony is Rainbow Dash. At the start of the series, she’s every obnoxious jock stereotype, all at once. She’s athletically talented, and she isn’t at all hesitant to let you know she’s the coolest motherfucker here. She actually tells the main character of the show, the bookish Twilight Sparkle, that “reading is for eggheads, and I’m not an egghead,” at one point. And all of this has bitten her in the ass at some point. She’s learned from her mistakes, and she’s grown.

Take an early episode of Season 5, when her pet tortoise starts to go into hibernation at the beginning of winter. She can’t bear the thought of being without him for three months, and she ends up snapping at her friends when they start to say “hibernate”, so she vows to do whatever she can to prevent the arrival of winter. But time marches on, and even the great Rainbow Dash can’t prevent the seasons from changing. She comes to accept that Winter Is Coming, and her pet is going away for a while… and she gets really depressed about it. One scene toward the end starts with her curled up with her pet in bed, with no enthusiasm or even interest for anything. When given some tough love by the most softspoken of her friends, she ends up bawling her eyes out, both with the classic cartoon eye-gushers, and with a fairly realistic ugly-crying-face. She’s really fucked up by this prospect, but she needs the cry to accept that this is going to happen. After her pet buries himself in the mud, she declines the company of her friends, and sits down with a book to read to him as he begins hibernating… and the episode ends there. It’s not a reset. Things will be all right… but not yet.

This is some major character development for what is ostensibly a kid’s show. And I really appreciate that one of the characters with whom little boys in the audience identify (case in point, my kid) was given an episode to stretch out emotionally, and have her friends not only accept that she’s upset, but empathise with her, coming to the point where the lot of them cry (including blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mascara streaks on the fashion designer). Then she’s given the space she asks for. Kid’s shows don’t even normally have this degree of continuity, let alone character development. But the writers and showrunners behind My Little Pony are doing something that I think can really contribute significantly to the emotional development of their audience… and they have an audience that spans both age and gender.

At the same time, BoJack and Halt and Catch Fire both spent their second seasons trying to depress their audience… or something. When it’s one Wham Episode (as TV Tropes refers to it), that’s one thing, but these shows both went with full-on Wham Seasons. In every episode, either a character lit a metaphorical bridge on fire, or had something heartwrenchingly awful happen to them. In BoJack’s case, the writers gave us an in-universe equivalent of Bill Cosby and everything that’s coming to light about him… and after teasing us with a standard sitcom-y build-up, and you think the character’s going to sway the court of public opinion… it ends exactly where it always ends. And the show pulls shit like this for twelve episodes in a row.

Nonetheless, if you haven’t checked it out, watch it. It’s very crude, and pretty much all the characters are just terrible people you’d hate in real life, but the writing is just stellar. Lots of character development in this show too, and exploration of emotional cause-and-effect, and a very conscious decision on the part of the writing staff to make a diverse cast, which I really appreciate.

Finally, Halt and Catch Fire. I haven’t had a show where I am indisputably the target demographic since I was sixteen. And that show lasted less than a season, so the fact that this got renewed through a second season (I’m praying for a third) is just delightful. It’s by AMC, so they (predictably) show their work in creating a realistic historical environment. There’s a great article in Vox about what this season did amazingly right about gender, by completely flipping the stereotypes on their heads. The two core women in the cast are given the positions of authority and provide excellent complements to each other in running a business. Their ex-boyfriend and husband, instead, get to act completely on the basis of emotion. The husband stays home with the kids this season, and the other makes a series of increasingly rash decisions because of his unresolved feelings for Cameron. And all of them basically have everything fall apart for them over the course of the season. I don’t want to spoil too much, if you haven’t seen the show, but I can’t stress enough how much you need to watch this show, because it’s absolutely phenomenal.

Lots of good TV shows out there to be watched. I’m really glad I’ve made the time to watch these.

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