When Good Shows Go Bad (Sort of) — King and musings on the pitfalls of writing episodic TV

Because I can be a slow writer — often drafting a post, then sitting on it for a bit so I can go over it again — that gap between when I set out to write something and the time I actually post it can end up altering its significance a bit.

A few postings back I waxed effusively about the Canadian crime-drama King. But then I was going to write a follow up piece because, frankly, I had seen a couple of episodes that seemed to mark a slight drop in quality. Now let me quickly say: I’m not suggesting King had jumped any sharks or anything. Not by a long chalk. But after my saying it was easily the best cop drama on TV, Canadian or American (or at least among them) the last couple of episodes I saw were simply, y’know, adequate examples of the genre.

But though I drafted my post, I held off until I saw the next episode, and the next, and the next…and it seemed those two I quibbled about were no more significant than the occasional dips to which any weekly series is prone.

Indeed, after those two lulls (in my opinion) the series has arguably roared back to life. Funnily, the very next episode — “Isabelle Toomey” — on the surface could so easily have misfired. Done to be deliberately quirky (and probably as a budget saving episode) it involves King (Amy Price-Francis) coming into work on Thanksgiving to help her chief re-examine an old cold case. Much of the episode taking place just in the police station, or cutting to King’s home where her husband and family are preparing dinner. So the mystery is largely housebound, just the characters in a few rooms, intercut with character/domestic drama stuff back at King’s apartment. Yet it held me from start to finish. And though I can quibble about the realism of whether the police station would actually be so closed up on a holiday that the lights would be kept low, there was an undoubted atmosphere to the characters wandering the dimly lit corridors. Tony Nardi (as the chief) was given a more prominent role than usual, both in terms of screen time and emotional range (reminding you this is an award winning actor) while the usual supporting characters were deliberately under used, but effectively so — almost to artistic effect. There’s a scene where the cast has assembled toward the end to watch an interrogation, and series regular Alan Van Sprang makes his first appearance in the episode, and without any lines in that scene…yet creates an understated impression by his very silence (maybe it was just how the lights and shadows played across the actors, so the whole scene creates a kind of haunting mise-en-scene).

After that came “Chris Harris” which involved a personal element for one of the regulars (Karen Robinson) as we learn her brother is serving timer for a sex-murder but may be innocent, not only giving her some good scenes, but without forgetting the ensemble. And “Alicia Pratta”, which again was just a well told, well played mystery, mixing the case with good character stuff (and counted among its guest stars Paul Braunstein, who used to co-star with King lead, Amy Price-Francis, in the soap Train 48 — don’tcha just love connections like that?). Both were effective, compelling pieces…though I do think that “dim lighting” look may be taking things a bit far (I mean, it creates oodles of atmosphere…but it can look like they’re operating during a power failure).

BUT…I do want to get back my originally intended post, the one I had started drafting a few weeks ago — to nitpick over a couple of (now, not so recent) King episodes that didn’t work as well for me. Only now with the added caveat (cue a sigh of relief) that this doesn’t seem like any kind of long term decline, but just a couple of episodes that happened to seem — to me — to be a little off.

Why bother? Well…’cause I like to break things down and see what makes them tick. If one thing works…why does something else not? Isn’t that the fundamental question of storytelling (and critical reviews)? And surely it’s more interesting to look at something you are predisposed to like, and ask “why did this not work as well?” than to look at something that wasn’t working in general.

Now I repeat: by “off” I’m saying they were still perfectly okay episodes. Just, not, y’know…King-quality good.

But before we get to that I wanted to note something else. King’s ratings in its second season on Showcase have been pretty dire…but that drop in audience numbers also accompanied a switch to Wednesdays from its previous Sunday night slot. While its old Sunday night slot has been given to the U.S. cop drama, Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant — which I believe is bringing in ratings comparable to what King had when it was in that slot! In other words, Justified has better ratings than King has now…but not necessarily because Justified is actually more popular than King. Logically, one might suggest King should be moved back to Sundays…but that would then mean Justified might get shifted to Wednesday. And I suspect that Showcase executives wouldn’t want to run the risk that I’m right — that it’s the time slot, not the show, that’s the problem. Because I’m guessing they bought up the entire run of Justified (which is in its third season in the U.S.) and if it was stuck bringing in terrible ratings on Wednesdays…well, the executive who made the purchase would look kind of foolish, committing to three seasons worth of a series that is tanking in the ratings. Yet surely, if favouritism is to be shown, if “good” time slots are to be handed out, Showcase should be reserving it for their Canadian shows…Canadian programs were, after all, supposedly a major part of their mandate when the station first came on-line years ago. If anyone is to be thrown under the bus…it shouldn’t be the Canadian show. (Apparently Showcase has compromised, and moved King to a new slot — on Fridays).

Anyway…back to musing on the recent episodes of King.

The first episode up was “Freddy Boise” in which a mining mogul has his heart stolen — literally, He’s waiting for a heart transplant and the donor organ disappears. It was a nice quirky premise — I’m sure plots have been done like that before, but I’m not sure it’s quite a staple of detective TV series (indeed, I have to go back to the early 1980s, and a Batman comic, to find a story of which it reminded me). And it made use of what is a strength of the series — that the crimes don’t have to be rigid “murders of the week” (in this case, no one is dead…though the businessman will die if they can’t find the heart, and as an added quirk, the heroes at first aren’t even sure if they are investigating a deliberate crime…or simply a hospital SNAFU). The guest cast included Nicholas Campbell, R.H. Thomson, Rachel Crawford, Liisa Repo-Martell, Inga Cadranel, and David Eisner…the sort of line up many a writer would happily kill their mother to have in their show (or, not kill, but maybe inflict a minor flesh wound). And it was written by John Krizanc…who as writer or co-writer was involved with such classy political thrillers as H2O and The Summit.

So why was the end result merely…okay?

Possibly Krizanc wasn’t that familiar with the series and the dynamics. Writing for a TV series is kind of an odd gig, as a working writer can’t necessarily be expected to be up on every aspect of a show’s mythos when there are dozens of series he might be trying to land a gig with. And the finished episode can often be the result of a variety of writers.

Many years ago, I read about how some U.S. series was trying to establish a prestigious image by hiring top level motion picture writers to write some episodes — but the process involved the writers being offered a choice of pre-selected plots to work on, then the final script would be re-written by the in house writers to make sure the dialogue gelled with the established characters. At which point you might ask, um, so why hire these big name writers in the first place? Or some years ago, Stephen King was hired to write an episode of the hit horror series, The X-Files, but King later complained that the finished episode had been heavily re-written by the staff writers — the final episode wasn’t very good (as I recall) but then, I’m skeptical King’s original was much better (King’s film and TV work being, often, quite dire…largely because King’s strength as a writer is not his plotting or his dialogue, but his prose style, which doesn’t translate to the screen). But still, why hire Stephen King to write you an episode if not for the fun — and novelty — of saying: this is Stephen King’s unadulterated take on The X-Files (for better or worse)?

All this is to say when a writer writes for episodic television, they are both struggling to play catch up with the character dynamics and mythology…and they might be subjected to a few uncredited re-writes by other hands.

Of course, whether writers have signature styles is a question. After all, although I say I recognized Krizanc’s name…I’m not sure I would recognize Krizanc’s thumb print on a script. Maybe the slight political edge the episode developed toward the end can remind you of his more political thrillers. But I’m not sure if there’s a quirky supporting character, a monologue, or even a phrasing that I could recognize as being “pure Krizanc” (the way one can often recognize, say, a Rod Serling script even without seeing the credits) — not that I’ve made a study of his work. But I think that’s true of a lot of TV writing, where individual voices are, perhaps, discouraged.

In comic books, which is comparable to TV in that it’s a series format where writers work with characters of which they are only temporary custodians, there can be more of a sense of an individual writer’s style. Even one off “guest” writers can bring a particular tone to an individual issue of Batman or The Hulk. But in TV, I’m not sure one is as likely to notice a particular style, or thematic preoccupation, reflecting the writer behind it. In some cases, perhaps — particularly with writers who recur on a series. Again looking back at the X-Files, in the early days, when the series was most trying to establish its dark, serious tone, one could readily identify the episodes written by Darin Morgan…because they tended to be the quirky, funny episodes. And other series (Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) often had specific writers whose name in the credits were seen by fans as promising a better-than-average episode. In the revived series of Dr. Who, Steven Moffat often would only contribute one or two episodes per season, and almost inevitably they would be acclaimed by fans as among the best of the season — so that one might decide whether to watch an episode…based on the writing credit.

(And the fact that the series I’m citing are fantasy and SF is perhaps telling — those genres accomodating a diversity of styles and tones in a way a detective series or a medical drama dosen’t).

But in general, it’s perhaps hard to detect a writer’s signature…because the name of the game is homogeny, and the producers don’t want a writer whose style (and therefore, whose episode) distinguishes itself too much from the others.

Anyway…that was just a little digression musing on the nature of writing for episodic TV — now back to our regularly scheduled screed…

In that King episode, there were a few too many things that seemed like, well, like hokey detective series cliches…and seemed out of place in King. Like having Spears and Martin shooting hoops in the office (what — Major Crimes detectives literally have nothing else to do?). Or having Spears and the lady doctor flirt (in TV, yeah, but in real life…cops aren’t supposed to be looking to hit on persons of interest)…not to mention that seemed awkward given a running sub-plot is Spears’ infatuation with King (which is why I wonder if it was simply Krizanc’s lack of familiarity with the character dynamics). There were also some hokey dialogue scenes (the line where King says: “Like father like daughter”…I mean, come on — Amy Price-Francis couldn’t convey that just with her eyes?). And a sub-plot with King’s father — played by venerable R.H. Thomson — also just felt a bit too, well, TV-esque. Somehow, the introduction of King’s sister (well played by Sadie LeBlanc) earlier in the series created an interesting character dynamic. But the dad just seemed like the usual “ailing, slightly estranged dad” TV plot.

And you know what? None of these things — not one of them — are bad. But in my earlier post about King I suggested it was good precisely because of the little things. Quirky, subtle dialogue. Or the fact that the actors seemed so much in the moment I was seeing only characters, not the actors playing them.

Yet here — I was seeing the process…not the scenes.

The mystery itself was problematic. Fun in a quirky, off-beat way. But the very intriguing simplicity of the puzzle — how could the heart disappear when it seemed to follow a fairly straight line from point A to point B — became a problem because the heroes felt a bit like they were just spinning their wheels, without even rewarding us with any particularly clever solution. In modern detective series, often the idea is to offer twist on twist, so that each act brings some new direction in the story. Here — we follow a more banal formula of setting up a mystery…then just methodically interviewing and discounting suspects, where the end motive (to kill the business man) was pretty much what you assumed was the motive from the beginning! The script does try to give us a certain moral ambiguity toward the end — so that was good — without quite giving us that emotional aspect other King episodes have boasted (or arguably like that old Batman comic which used a similiar concept did).

I mentioned in my earlier King post that often the guest stars stood out, sometimes with just one or two scenes. Here — the characters often felt like plot points rather than human beings who had lives outside of their scenes.

Now, of course, as a fun mystery-of-the-week, we can forgive certain elements of artistic licence…but that depends on the individual viewer’s tolerance. But there were just a few things that seemed dubious…or out right made up. It seemed unconvincing that it was a few scenes into it before they even thought to interview the guy who had packed the heart (essentially — the last guy who saw it). Sure, it was a red herring (he didn’t do it) but it seemed kind of sloppy police work when you figured he should be at the top of your interview list!

And a big part of the story ended up revolving around the idea of ice cube freezers of the kind you find at motels in the movies (I mean, if you’ve seen as many mystery and horror thrillers as I have, the moment King — or whoever it was — scoops up some ice for her cup you can’t help but think, hmmm, I wonder what else is under all those ice cubes!)…except, um, I’ve never in my life seen such a thing in a hospital (I mean, the hygiene questions alone involving a big communal ice cube freezer in the middle of hospital corridor boggle the mind). Admittedly, I could be wrong. Maybe in Toronto hospitals you do have such things. I’ve just never seen or heard of it. Now, is that really a problem? It’s a fun mystery story…not The Fifth Estate.

But it just relates to what I can find myself criticizing about other TV cop shows. That they aren’t bad, but can have a bunch of nagging, niggling little things that, on their own, are barely worth mentioning, but compound to impact upon my ability to lose myself in the story.

And then came the next episode, “Jared and Stacey Cooper”, about the murder of a Mixed Martial Arts fighter and his wife — this one written by series co-creator Greg Spottiswood…so there’s no excuse that he just wasn’t comfortable with the characters. It wasn’t by any means a bad episode, or one he need be ashamed of (anymore than Krizanc need fret about his episode). It was perfectly okay…it just wasn’t, y’know, special. Again, there was just a bit too much cartoony/TV stuff for a series that is at times a quasi-procedural (Spears getting into a cage fight with a suspect, or King suddenly taking an interest in a cranky older woman in an unrelated sub-plot). And the idea that the detectives would look at the crime scene…and immediately conjure an entire narrative to explain it just seemed like, well, really, really bad police work — don’t all the great (fictional) detectives insist that you wait for the facts to shape your theories…not the other way around?

Perhaps having the King pregnancy story arc come to an end a few episodes back (in a miscarriage), given it was a thread basically from the first episode, means they’re floundering around to try and find a new direction for the character/sub-plots. At least they were back to hinting (slightly) at a certain sexual tension between King and Spears (as opposed to the previous episode) — not that I’m saying the series should necessarily follow through, but surely part of the intriguing dynamic is the messy relationship triangle between King, Spears, and King’s husband, Danny. The main mystery-plot didn’t really offer that many twists and turns…actually, no, that’s not true. They first think it’s a murder suicide (though it’s awkward that they realize it’s not, not by deductive reasoning, but simply by the coroner’s report), think it might be gang related, then discover a more personal motive. Yeah — so now that I think about it, it should’ve been fairly intriguing. But it felt a bit plodding. Maybe part of that was the sub-plot with the cranky woman (no fault of guest star, venerable Jayne Eastwood) — the problem with doing an hour long drama where you’re following unrelated plots, is it can feel a bit like you’re admitting that neither one was strong enough to carry the show! (Ideally, Eastwood’s plot should’ve been connected to the main plot).

Still, the episode had its moments — I kind of liked the final scene of King at the ballet class, hokey though it was (and the pan away to the police cars wailing through the night). And the guest cast was certainly fine — though perhaps only David Ferry (as the murdered man’s ex-boxer dad) quite scored the emotional gravitas I mentioned some of the other episodes have managed (which might be why the main plot felt a bit plodding…it lacked an emotional core). A sub-plot about Spears indulging in illegal steroids at first glance seemed tacked on…until you think back a couple of episodes to when he twisted his knee during a chase, or the occasional flashes of acrimony he directs at the younger Martin…and you realize maybe they’ve been hinting Spears is starting to feel insecure about his age for a while. Heck — even the detectives extrapolating a scenario from the crime scene, though unrealistic, was presumably intended to convey how King’s razor mind is always calculating. So it might have struck an awkward chord for me…but I understand what they were going for.

So…what’s my point?

Why am I writing a blog dissecting and criticizing two episodes of a TV series when even I’m admitting neither episode was — by any arcane definition of the term — “bad”? Well, partly because I had just finished praising King to the heavens, and I suspect if someone read my previous post, and then saw those episodes, they’d shrug and simply say, “Um, dude, I’m not seeing what you’re seeing in this show.” (Obviously — they might say that anyway, no matter the episode). But also to make the point that, just as I can seem excessively nitpicky when I criticize, say, The Listener, or Republic of Doyle, or Haven, that I’m actually not trying to play favourites. That when I say I think King is good, it’s because I think it’s good…and when it stumbles, I’ll say that too.

Besides, surely it’s better to pick on a series you like and respect, than to continually rag on a series you don’t like even in the best of times!

But also I’m just intrigued by what goes into a story, and in our reactions to the same. Was there really a difference between those episodes and the better episodes of the series…or for some reason was I just harping on things I’d otherwise shrug off as immaterial? Was I just tired or in a grumpy mood? What made me fixate on minor flaws and feel they affected the whole? After all, any episode of King can have its flaws — in the episode “Alicia Pratta” (which I referenced near the beginning of this post) I did think some of the mother-daughter scenes were a bit heavy handedly written — yet that didn’t affect my reaction to the episode in general.

If I were to catch “Freddy Boise” and “Jared and Stacey Cooper” again in reruns would even I wonder what I was bitchin’ about here?


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