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Watched the Justified pilot a few days ago. There’d been some buzz about it I’d noticed, and, well, Timothy Olyphant is the kind of actor I would tune in just for himself. I wanted to like it. I did like it. It was enjoyable. It just wasn’t all that interesting.

To clarify: the main character, Raylan, was honestly likeable. He was even layered, somewhat, at the writing stage, and Olyphant always brings standout additional currents and intensity and ruthless humour and intelligence to any role I’ve ever seen him play. (To be fair, I haven’t seen Hitman 47, although I suspect it holds true even there.) The main character is a fairly strong construct, and has potential for increased complexity, which is usually a good idea. And Olyphant is duly doing his thing.

But a strong main character is not enough to carry a show, or, as it turns out, even a pilot. The writing was clunky. The other characters were standard and cardboard-thin, all existing solely to interact with Raylan, except for the antagonist, who manages a little more autonomy. Not only that, they exist solely to draw out some aspect of Raylan, or maybe set him up for a one-liner, making sure no one misses that Raylan is a cool, smart, badass mofo who shoots to kill, who’s cool and badass and did we mention badass and cool? Oh, and angry. He’s angry, too. Oh, and angsty. But in a cool way. Think Cool Hand Luke meets Dirty Harry.

Which – okay, fine, those can be fun characters. He is. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll love him. Olyphant has fun playing him, although sometimes I felt like his trademark simmering intensity was on automatic – but maybe that was just me projecting my own general lack of captivation on him. And while we have fun watching him, anyone who’s watched Deadwood has seen him absolutely shine playing the same character with very much better writing. Another problem: the almost geometrically placed segments of his personality, as reflected by the other characters, kind of hem him in on all sides, seriously hampering him from being able to go in interesting directions.

There are other (relatively) strong elements; the obvious love of that region of Kentucky, the music and down-home people and cooking, the bittersweet history of coal mining which informs the backbone of the relationship between Raylan and Boyd – his White Supremacist antagonist who likes money and blowing stuff up. Not necessarily in that order of preference. Raylan’s relationship with his ex is also fairly well realised, although predictable. The US Marshals bit is somewhat interesting, and I guess cool – but either way, Raylan’s cool, so we’ve got that covered.

Now, I knew it was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, who seems to be very much of the “tell, don’t show” philosophy of writing, and that's a problem too. I hunted up the story online, “Fire in the Hole”, and skimmed it, and I have to say they did pretty well with what they had. They brought depth and intelligence to the two main characters where they could, although there wasn’t a lot they could do about the basic, episodic structure of the plot short of a total rewrite. I don’t know if they could have done something about the dialogue, like maybe not baldly stating almost every significant character turn, but they didn’t seem too worried about it. And they made everybody younger and sexier, which means we get to watch Timothy Olyphant swagger around in a Stetson, so well done there.

And, to give them the benefit of the doubt, I went and watched the second episode. Pilot episodes are curious creatures, and aren’t always indicative of the eventual outcome of the series. I don’t know heaps about the process and politics of it all, but I know that a pilot has to present the basic vision, tone, and style of the show being proposed. Various elements are tweaked according to feedback and requirements of the production company, so on and so forth, so the mix of contributing voices for the show is almost never the same as the pilot.

So, I watched it. At which point it became clear that, even if they weren’t totally determined to belt us over the head with the dialogue to make sure we don’t miss things, they weren’t going for much subtlety, either. They did make sure Raylan was minorly defeated early on, which was absolutely imperative, and a glaring problem with the pilot. Don’t panic, though; he stayed cool the whole way through it.

The main characters are still each only interacting in any real way with Raylan. The strongest single thread of the pilot, that of the protagonist-antagonist relationship between Raylan and Boyd, was lost, and quirky opponents were substitued in. Pretty sure that signals a shift of emphasis, from intense to “colourful”, in the criminal cases the episodes will be built around. And toward amusing, cool dialogue that’s a little too impressed with itself, a more laid-back Tarantino style. Complete with small time gormless baddies who you kind of just want Raylan to catch up with as soon as possible for their own good, before they die of their own stupidity. Memo to Writers: you don’t make Raylan more cool by making everyone else less cool. You’re just lowering the bar. (I’m going to stop using that word now.)

So it didn’t pull itself up out of the “meh” category. Those shows I will tune in for occasionally, when I think of it, for the fun. To be mildly diverted. Usually because of one or two elements are fairly enjoyable. Justified will float near the top of it, to be sure, mostly on Olyphant’s strengths; for comparison, Bones is fairly middling to low (for the grunts; Brennan annoys the crap out of me – talk about author avatars! – and Booth has his moments, but isn’t that interesting either), and Heroes is right at the bottom. (Sylar, and other occasionally entertaining bad guys. That is all.)

What every show in category "meh" has in common is its failure to surprise me. Didn’t in the pilot, and hasn’t in however many seasons I’ve seen since; the best they manage is to pique my interest somehow by trying something unexpected. But they don’t surprise me; they don’t break out of their box, or do anything more than bounce off the box’s wall intermittently.

For the record, SPN, Leverage, Deadwood ... I can’t think of any others at this point ... all did manage this, and in their pilot episodes. SPN did it with a single line, Leverage with a single scene, and Deadwood with the whole damn episode. They proceeded to live into the promise, each time, which was satisfying.

There’s also the category between the two, which contains shows that haven’t really surprised me but have enough strong writing, other story elements, or sheer chutzpah, to give them real interest. Category "huh", I guess. The new BSG, most of Whedon’s stuff, House (although that slipped down the ranks after a while), Hustle ... um ... can’t think of any others there, either, although I’m sure there are a couple. Oh, yeah, Rescue Me, too, although I never really got into it. But on that subject, I went on from Justified to watch the Sons of Anarchy pilot, mostly in the spirit of investigation.

Sons of Anarchy popped up on my radar in basically the same way Justified did. I spent maybe five, ten minutes on its website, and was pretty sure I knew what it was: a nicely judged rough-edged little mixture of sentimentality and brutality. Which it was. The pilot set up the broad strokes of the characters and relationships, but gave them depth, interconnectedness, and plenty of room to stretch and grow. I’m pretty sure that if I keep watching it, that’s exactly what it will deliver. I’m not likely to actually do that, because you need to find the criminal underbelly exciting and attractive to feel the main pull of the show, and I don’t. But it’s strongly constructed enough to keep my interest if I ever get around to it.

Comments

( 2 speakses — have a speak )
fleurlb
Jun. 16th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
Very interesting points. I'm also very interested in stories and how to tell them, so I found your analysis thought-provoking and relevant. You hit a lot of points that I felt but couldn't quite articulate. (And, I loved your Sophie and Eliot story, so I've gone ahead and added you to my flist. I think you're someone I could enjoy talking to/geeking out about these sorts of things. :))

So, I'm curious, since SPN and Leverage also two of my favourite shows - what were the two things that surprised you in those pilots.

I'm also big into Sons of Anarchy, but I think I watch despite the criminal underbelly thing, not because of it. Kurt Sutter has an MFA and spent a couple of years deconstructing plays and that work definitely shines through his show running and screenwriting. Man knows how to tell a story, which why I keep watching, hoping I'll learn something.
themonkeytwin
Jun. 16th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, Sons of Anarchy is definitely well written. If I had more time to watch stuff, I might consider investing the time in getting past the criminal thing, because I'm sure I'd get a decent return. And Jax is already an intriguing protagonist. But it's just too much to wade through for it to be an easily enjoyable watch.

And yay for geeking out about story! I'm totally there. It's about all I do around here. :)

Hm, SPN and Leverage.... I'll try to be concise. (Not one of my strengths!) But explaining surprise also requires explaining context, so. (And, naturally, they were both conversations that did it.)

In Leverage, it was fun and and all, but kind of just slicking along on that Ocean's 11 heist-charm thing (which is fine by me), when suddenly along came this quiet little moment between Nate and Eliot at the pool table. This fairly stock muscle character was making all these on-point insights into the complex, hard-to-read lead man. He even gets him to relax enough to talk about his dead son, who's been his hot-button the whole episode up until now. Okay, that's interesting.

Then, Eliot gets a bit comfortable and makes a casual comment, implying Nate should have done something illegal, and Nate shuts him down hard. And fearlessly. *sits straighter* And then this standard angry thug takes a beat, smiles archly, zings back back with two more "reads", and walks away. Without ever feeling out of character. O.o What the hell was that?!? That conversation was going on on all kinds of levels, and was when I knew those guys knew how to craft and deliver truly complex characters, in spite of the essential glib frothiness of the show.

SPN was a little different, since I started catching bits of s2 and s3 on tv before I watched the pilot. But it was only really moments of it, because it was marketed as eye-candy and demons, which, thanks, I'll pass. Angel was enough of that at that point. So I didn't get it at all. But the moments I saw were enough to make me rent the first s1 dvd, back when we did such things and I couldn't find anything else interesting on the shelves.

So I was watching, going, oh, okay, it's basically all about family, there's the little brother who doesn't want anything to do with his family's mountain o'crap life, there's the bad-boy older brother, dad's missing, and they're all very, very pretty. Exposition dialogue explaining their backstory, laying out the mission and the tensions. Kind of clumsy lines, but that kind of works for it, too. (And gave the actors and director much more latitude to play with the delivery.)

"I can't do this without you." Yeah, yeah, typical older brother manoeuvre there, and of course you can, you're the badass capable big brother with a cool leather jacket and wicked car, and Sam says as much.

"Yeah, well ... I don't want to." ... Whabzuh? So much happened in that line that it just grabbed me by the throat and never really let go. Mind you, I think it was, at that point, completely in how Ackles was playing him - I think he knew who Dean was, even if Writers took a little while to catch up. But once they did, they certainly ran with it, and thank goodness they did.

I've gone on too long already, but for example: it was completely honest but completely misleading, on purpose. He's not who his brother thinks he is. He's been doing it by himself for far too long, he doesn't expect Sam to understand that, but needs to have the emotional, not tactical, support of the only guy he can count on - his family. All that and more was going on, and Ackles delivered it all note-perfect. And I was in!

Phew. Still want me on your flist? ;)
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