The Art of Imitation

30Sep08

(Finally, a posting of substance (hopefully)…)

In the early days of television, radio comedian Fred Allen famously quipped “imitation is the sincerest form of television.” While Allen’s own preferred medium of radio was similarly invested in copying, cloning, and combining, he did diagnose the chief impulse of television’s role as a commercial creative medium: always imitate. Television programs always have to fuse the same with the different, combine the familiar with the original. If a show is too original, it will be disorienting and not find a place in viewers’ routines; if a show is too familiar, it won’t stand out as a worthwhile investment for people’s time. Thus the logic of imitation with variation prevails, and never do we see this more than in the fall, when new television series flood the airwaves.

I’ve been slow to dive into most new shows, but there are two I’ve been viewing, Fringe and True Blood. Both come from veteran producers behind some of my favorite previous shows (J.J. Abrams with Alias and Lost, and Alan Ball with Six Feet Under, respectively). Both are genre mixtures combining horror with other narrative styles. And both strive for the balance of the familiar and the original. Alas, I think only one lives up to its possibility thus far. (Spoilers and evaluative judgments beneath the fold…)

I’ve seen the first three episodes of Fringe, but the third lingered on the TiVo for almost a week. That lingering is a sign, as I’ve learned that the length of TiVo delay serves as an early indicator of my thoughts about a show. The pilot of Fringe was certainly engaging, but felt too much like a weak clone of the Alias pilot: attractive young agent loses her true love to a nebulous conspiracy with a villain in her midst; an attractive potential future romantic interest presents himself; a suspicious father figure serves both as savior and threat; and signs point to something larger and ominous. But Alias played with storytelling mechanics both in its use of deliberate confusion and temporal reordering, keeping viewers guessing and hooked to the uncertainty encoded in the narrative. Fringe feels like Alias-lite, or the show that Abrams might have created before Alias as a step toward greater narrative experimentation and sophistication. While Lost bears the marks of lessons learn from Alias on how to tell a complex story with greater clarity and structure, Fringe seems to be the vision of what ABC wanted Alias to be – create the illusion of something larger in the background, but keep it obvious and clear enough to welcome new viewers. Lost and Alias were shows made for their DVD releases, while Fringe feels like a product of the broadcast era.

Clearly the second ancestor melded into Fringe‘s DNA is The X-Files, with its paranormal monster-of-the-week structure, and its incredulous central female detective facing expanding horizons of post-scientific knowledge from the male characters. X-Files was one of the early innovators in narrative complexity on network television, and Fringe seems to have taken to heart the concerns raised by that show’s demise to simplify arcs and retain an episodic form that won’t alienate occasional viewers. Of course, Fringe could be merely baiting the hook early to build an audience via episodic variety before it ramps up the arc and complexity, but the press coverage from Abrams suggests an intentional mode of straightforward storytelling. But the larger arc conspiracy about the Massive Dynamic role in the Pattern (boy, that sounds cheesy out of context!) is pretty underwhelming and not particularly compelling.

The question is will viewers wanting the arcing pleasures of X-Files or Alias stick around with Fringe – I’m on the fence. I like the show’s look (aside from the annoying floating titles!) and find it a fairly compelling sci-fi/procedural, but I rarely stick with such episodic programs for long. The characters are thus far underwhelming – I love to see Lance Reddick working, but his bland commander lacks much narrative force. The only character I find particular compelling is John Noble’s semi-mad scientist, but it could wear thin, especially with his son’s obvious comedic relief. I’ll give it a couple more episodes until I pull the plug, but it’s got to ramp it up to get me to watch recorded episodes more quickly.

Whereas True Blood has already reached “night-of status” after 4 episodes – we make a point of watching new episodes on Sunday night to get our weekly fix with as little delay as possible.  Six Feet Under is one of my all-time favorites, and True Blood certainly feels akin to that show in its focus on sex, death, drugs, racial difference, and family. But while Fringe wears its recombinant sources on its sleeve, True Blood is more invested in a hodgepodge of sources, inspired by the HBO brand of drama while playing with genres like Southern melodrama, horror, and sex comedy. I wouldn’t necessarily call it more original per se, but the mode of recombination obscures its sources and offers what seems like a fresher take on its predecessor and genres.

I haven’t read the novels which the series is based upon, but it’s hard to watch True Blood and not think about the differences between other vampire tales, especially recent TV landmarks Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. One of the pleasures of True Blood is parsing out the mythological differences between its vampires and others – the show’s vamps feature exaggerated motion, are susecptable to silver, and can glamour victims in ways different from the Buffyverse. Even more tied to Buffy, the vampires are explicitly allegorical (although arguably horror has always operated that way). Framing the issues of vampire community as marginalized minority seeking civil rights (both sexuality & race) and framing vampirism as contagion (AIDS) and drug epidemic helps make the playful border between the fantastic and the real engaging.

Plus, as is expected from Ball, the characters are compellingly complex, using the gimmick of telepathy to quickly portray the inner lives of an entire community featuring folks unlike typical television fare. Anna Paquin pops off the screen filled with a wide range of strong performances, leaving a vivid impression of these people quite quickly. And the show employs the unusual narrative strategy of ending episode with an explicit cliffhanger, leaving a character in danger, only to be resolved next week – Alias and 24 are recent examples of a show following this strict narrative pattern, but it’s interesting to see it here outside the action/adventure framework.

Thus for me what makes True Blood so successful is not any pure originality, but the flair with which it imitates and combines its sources. This artistic alchemy is arguably one of television’s enduring achievements, finding the artistic value in imitation. But as Fringe demonstrates, it’s not easy to pull off.



3 Responses to “The Art of Imitation”

  1. 1 JHaas

    In reading your comments, I realized what one of my problems with Fringe is – it’s a procedural with no procedure. So many of the interesting moments of a diagnostic procedural like House or a rich police procedural like The Wire (or even a weaker police procedural like Law and Order are the moments where you can see how the institutions and patterns of meaning-making are limited by the humanity involved – the checks, the balances, the rules that make us what we are as a society. By comparison, the world of Fringe has no procedure. Joshua Jackson is a known criminal but so far that has presented no single obstacle for his becoming an integral part of this Federal crime-fighting organization. He’s already shooting guns, torturing witnesses, and conducting high-level, high risk experiments without so much as a B.A. It would be one thing if they were functioning outside the law, but they’re not. So why didn’t he get in massive amounts of trouble for slamming that mug on that guy’s hand?

    The rest of my issues are rooted in the weak, weak characterization, but thanks for helping me realize explicitly what else bugged me.

  2. The husband of one of my best friends is a writer on Fringe and, from what I’ve been told, there is an additional imitative impulse at play. Yes, it’s a procedural (with no procedure) amplified by a deep, conspiracy-laced backstory. And, yes, they are aiming for viewers like me who are basically disinclined to the narrative complexity and who prefer the formulas of episodic tv. But it appears also to be aspiring to a Buffy (or Scooby) mode of monster-busting, where a crackerjack crew of unlikely monster-fighters utilize their respective skills to uncover supernatural miscreants. (Indeed, best friend’s hubby’s background as longtime writer on Without a Trace who rose through the ranks of Buffy was really appealing to team Abrams; they liked his procedural experience combined with his dexterity with esoteric show mythology.)

    I’d concur with JHaas that the problem with Fringe remains the lack of a legibly authoritarian, readily “relatable” institutional structure (hospital, nypd, fbi, high school). They also aren’t all riding around in The Mystery Machine. So, right now, without a structuring narrative principle to anchor the procedural formula, the show and characters feel a little foggy.

  3. Thanks both for the comments. I agree that the “procedural with no procedure” (or recognizable institutional structure) is dead on – on Alias, the spy procedures that were followed were intentionally ludicrous, and part of the show’s playful tweaking of the genre. Fringe seems to take too much of its procedural approach from the CSI school of flashy authenticity, but without an underlying scientific veracity – in otherwords, it takes its pseudo-science far too seriously.

    Lulu’s comment on the writer’s pedigree reminds me of one point I forgot to make in my post: one reason I might keep watching the show is Darin Morgan’s presence as a producer. Morgan injected The X-Files with an essential bit of deflating humor, and in the process wrote a few of the greatest single episodes in TV history. I’d love to see what he does with this show, and I can imagine a tonal transformation that could really work well.


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