On Distractions and Pie

An hour into Men in Black III, agent J, frustrated after losing yet another lead into his case, turns to his partner K who suggests that they have some pie. Resigned, J follows K to a diner in which they have pie. Thus, begins the famous “Pie Scene”.

J is frustrated that they’re having pie while a “world class serial killer [is] out there.” Eventually, he calms down and they begin talking about things unrelated to the case and something “clicks” in J’s mind – he has had an epiphany. He suddenly knows what he needs to do.

The Eureka moment

Named for Archimedes’s famous expression “Eureka!” after finding a solution to the golden crown problem – the moment describes an individual achieving an insight, “a sudden realization of a problem’s solution” (Goldstein 327-328). This article is not about finding such solutions or insights – it is about the lead up to that moment of inspiration. It’s about why, in the midst of trying to solve a complex problem, we find ourselves in the search for the figurative (or at times literal) pie. Or a bath – or a Barthes? Is the search for pie (or a bath, or a Barthes) but another iteration of procrastination? Or is there something to our distractions?

My friends and I were at a conference, and as it happens in conferences (as it happens in many seminars or lecture where the mind is found a-leaping about double-dutch-ing ideas) someone was talking about a “shadow thesis” they were working on – an alternate idea at the back of their minds which takes over time to time, from the project they should be working on. While we mentally berate ourselves for being distracted or for procrastinating, I remembered thinking that maybe, we are not actually procrastinating. Possibly, diving whole-heartedly into our shadow thesis is a necessary step in the journey of our actual thesis. Just as K needed to get pie. Just as Archimedes needed a bath – we need a moment of looking away for the thing to take shape in our mind’s eye.

Ideas in the shower

Why do we get so many competing ideas at times when we are not thinking about them, such as, while in the shower? There are many reasons for our minds to take diversions and enjoy the scenic route to problem solving. One such theory suggests that distracted situations are perfect for idea-generation because we are in a “relaxed” mental space. We could also argue that distractions leave us vulnerable and unable to defend our ideas, prompting our minds to go into overdrive with creative ways to protect ourselves. For the purpose of this essay, this second theory too is a pie that takes me away from the “relaxed mental space” theory.

Do we move away from the actual thesis to work on a shadow thesis simply because we are able to finish the latter? Psychologically, we could be trying to reassert control over our mental space as the completion of a smaller task grants us with a sense of instant gratification (see a more detailed analysis of this in Why Procrastinators Procrastinate by Tim Urban). The bath and the pie offer immediate resolutions to a state of mind that needs an energy-boosting granola bar.

However, we must note that in Men in Black III K asks J to get some pie, purposefully. He is fully aware that, “if you had a problem you can’t solve, it helps to get it out of your head [with pie]”. Similarly, in our hypothetical writer’s block, it would help to schedule diversions or be aware of the effect such breaks have on me as a part of my thinking process. The periodic movement to the shadow thesis offers an escape from the clutches of deadlines and information overload. It also provides a new perspective on the project that needs your immediate attention. Focusing on the shadow thesis gets the actual thesis “out of your head” so that your head can get around, in a roundabout way, to solve the actual thesis.

Shadow becomes reality

Sometimes, solving the shadow thesis could help solve the actual thesis. In Archimedes’ famous anecdote, the displacement of the bath water led to one of the most important, and popular, scientific discoveries.  Or it could be an analogous discovery – like the laser-tumour and general-fortress problems that are used as examples for analogical problem solving – the observed similarities between two problems, may lead to unexpected solutions from one situation to the other. Working on multiple problems lead to transfers of learning, reapplication of solutions and recombination of principles. So where does that leave our pie?

Eating pie did not provide a solution for K and J. It was a chance encounter that occurred while eating pie. While they were distracted from the problem at hand, they were also talking about other things, including the New York Mets. Subsequently, J’s explanation about the “Miracle Mets” winning the season connected with something J heard earlier leading to an epiphany. So, it could be a mere coincidence – where the universe provides answers if you just relax.

When we are stymied by a problem or a threat, or minds narrow and are so hyper-focused on trying to solve the problem that it shuts down all other potentially unrelated distractions – and such focus might be useful in situations where there’s only one straightforward solution to a problem, like a math equation. But not all problems are straightforward – many problems require more creative solutions. In situations that require creative problem-solving, there’s a need to relax and eat pie. When our minds are relaxed or focused on other tasks, the pressure of solving the actual problem is reduced. This opens channels for other solutions to come through, increasing the chances of having thoughts “click” together.

To return to the question of solving the actual thesis, it is possible that our mind wanders into the shadow thesis in order to wonder about the actual thesis. By removing the focus we also remove tension and allow for more unrelated thoughts which increase the incidence of and space for “clicking”. The shadow thesis is pie – it is the space, for the sweet and incomplete, thoughts, and fancies to get thrown in when we do not have the time to engage with them.

Perhaps it is not only natural but highly recommended to have a slice of pie when we are in a tight spot. Pie might just solve your problems, and even if it doesn’t – you still have had some pie.

 

Nurul Wahidah graduated with an MA in Creative Writing and a BA in Psychology from NTU Singapore. Besides pie, she is interested in poetry and human behavior.

 

TV as it should be – Bron|Broen

Welcome back to Screen Ethics after another unexpected hiatus. I could attribute the absence to the sluggish months of pop-culture news, to new challenges that needed more immediate attention or to the sheer laziness of the editor. Mea Culpa, readers and friends, because we all know that it is the third reason. To ensure a more organized workflow, Screen Ethics will publish once a week on Saturdays and this would hopefully allow me to line-up content more efficiently. Hopefully, the days of a post every day for a week followed by two weeks of silence is behind us!

So let us resume our discussions of TV and pop-culture with Broen|Bron, one of the best TV shows of the 2010s. Over the past eight years, this show has built a name for itself as a character-driven psychological drama that goes beyond its quirky murder plot. The fourth and final season of acclaimed Swedish-Danish TV series ended in its distinct fashion – with a finality necessary and fitting to the character, and somewhat unexpected in a TV series. Saga Noren from Malmo Police department is perhaps a cop unlike any other, despite appearing to be a TV cop like every other TV cop. She has inexplicable police instincts that drive her methods, she is utterly socially incompetent, her methods often lead people close to her to uncomfortable situations. However, she is different from her counterparts in her ability to revisit her site of obsessive crime-solving and raising an important question – is it healthy for her to do the work she does?

The gruesome and sordid world of “the Bridge” is a study in near-cultural differences between two Scandinavian cities as well as the psycho-social differences between the society and someone who has cast herself outside of its conventions. Amidst a sea of expressionless geniuses who also solve crime on TV, Saga Noren is unique in her rather rigorously methodical approach to routine and mundane police work. She does not solve crimes through magical abilities. In fact, there are times where her methodical approach is detrimental to the case as she demonstrates ignorance to social conventions and etiquette, preventing her from achieving her goals. Saga’s is not a story of exceptional behavior as a gateway to exceptional results – it is a study of something that TV rarely engages with – consequences of such behavior.

Like many of the other tales of exceptional genius, Saga’s story also lies in the connections she builds around her despite the barriers she raises and maintains. Her closest friend is a mentor Hans, with whom she struggles to connect in a way that he would appreciate the effort she has put in. Two successive partners from across the eponymous bridge, are often at odds with her eccentric antisocial behavior, and their friendship survives because of their persistence rather than the effort. The first of them is Martin Rohde, played by the instantly likeable Kim Bodnia, who seems to regard Saga as a project as much as a friend. He tries to impart social interaction cues to Saga by introducing her to his wife and colleagues. The second partner, Henrik Sabroe, played by a more ambivalent Thure Lindhardt, extends this recuperative mission by becoming romantically involved with Saga.

However, the show does not allow Saga to simply succeed in a typical manner of an overcoming the odds narrative. Saga’s success does not hinge on a “despite” which is the bread and butter of eccentric characters on TV. While she manages to forge important connections with people close to her, the narrative does not simply show an outsider magically transform into a well-adjusted person. This show goes one step further to examine the effects of her personality on the connections she manages to forge. The story also engages with the adverse effects she has on the people she is connected to, because of her relentlessly single-minded policing. In the final moment of the show, Saga stands on the titular bridge and weighs the defining role she accorded to her job as a police officer. In the dynamic world of the Bridge, Saga is not exempt from the changes and decision-making that other characters face. And therein lies the greatness of this show – in its unwavering commitment to providing consequences to its characters.

Similar only to River, she reaches something very remarkable in a TV series – narrative resolution for a character as a result of introspection and growth. TV shows are built to last and spawn more iterations of the same format. TV shows have suffered from this very limitation, as necessary elements of character development often strike at odds with the inevitable reset that occurs at the beginning of a new season. Characters will face reversals bringing them back to their earlier position, or they will face new problems that perpetuate a familiar structure. This is a glaring aspect of the TV series which we endure for the necessity of continuity. Unless we are willing to tolerate the endless run of stand-alone episodic structure from the 80s era sitcoms, there seems to be no option but to come to terms with the process of TV returning to stasis in order to continue. This is where Broen takes a bold step in a different direction. Every move in the narrative is structured towards a conclusive resolution for the narrative.

Although the viewer is surprised at this seemingly impossible conclusion, TV history has also warned us to be wary of such endings. Shows which have progressed to a fitting conclusion have often been resurrected from beyond the grave for yet another series for simple monetary reasons. Here is hoping that one of TV’s greatest shows does not face such ignominy.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Comedy about the Worst of Us

In this series, we have been looking at the audience identification with Comedy shows and the kind of affective response that we have towards such shows. The first post focused on why we cry while watching a comedy show and the second examined how a serious topic can be discussed in a comedic program. This post will expand on the previous two ideas and examine how the affective quality in a comedy actually makes us care about people that we normally would not in our own real life. While we have had the worst of the worst on ‘serious’ or ‘Quality TV’, none of those shows normalize the troubling, sociopathic behavior as much as a comedy show.

We need to look at one of the many sitcoms to see behavior that is completely devoid of basic human decency that is perfectly acceptable within the world of a comedy. Historically, we have seen some of the worst aspects of humanity, from indefensible selfishness to pure sociopathy, and pass them off as normal human behavior in comedy shows including Full House, Friends, Scrubs, How I met your mother, The Big Bang Theory (to name only a few). How does this work? How do comedy shows succeed in making us identify with a character that is clearly despicable, even when serious dramas fail to do so?

This argument needs to be clearly examined in the context of TV having presented us many likable villains, or villainous leads over time. From the Original Gangster (literally) Tony Soprano, to Vic Mackey, Omar Little, Dexter Morgan, and of course, Walter White, TV dramas are full of protagonists that range from morally ambiguous to thoroughly corrupt. We like them and root for their success to no end, but identification requires something more. These characters’ situations are entirely strange to us, that even though we may share the nature of the emotion that they experience, we will never understand the full meaning of the experience. We always foresee their inevitable comeuppance despite enjoying their success at defying the social order. This distance cannot be traversed by the audience to enter their worlds.

However, despite our distance from these characters, they all share an element that we aspire to—being a badass. The indisputable aura of coolness makes these characters appear more seductive than their immediate narrative circumstances. Although we may never be able to relate to these characters we seek to identify with them in a fantastic wish-fulfilment, as they do things that we cannot. They can exact revenge, or tell off a superior in a way that we can only dream of in our everyday frustrations. The abrupt and violent streak that we may not indulge or even tolerate in our lives becomes the key to a life that offers a glamor and thrill beyond our grasp.

At the same time, we often find ourselves slipping into relating to the experiences of equally terrible people in TV comedies. It is easy to enjoy the antics of narcissistic, psychopathic and utterly selfish characters in TV, from Lucille Bluth to Selina Meyer, because the shows already begin with an assumption against levity. While drama expects you to be in awe of their characters, comedies invite you to laugh at the characters as much as we laugh with them. These enfants terribles bask in their pettiness and their syrupy malice is just another way of looking at our follies without ever directly addressing them. These characters say devastatingly cruel about their loved ones, and we at least think of saying those things, while a threat or an action that truly puts them in harm (as in a drama) is unthinkable to us.

Also, despite their separation from our world, comedies still exist within the realm of possibilities. That is, despite the events taking place in the White House, Selina’s problems with her co-workers’ (and sub-ordinates’) incompetence are entirely relatable. These shows often articulate things in a better way that we wish we could have said in those contexts. These characters are brought to our level, if not worse than us, and we are (unsurprisingly) more empathetic towards their struggles than those of serious characters.

So many times, we pity Catherine. But we love seeing her getting crushed.

In HBO’s Veep, the President of the United States, Selina Meyer’s treatment of her daughter always teeters at the edge of emotional abuse. In the season five premiere she makes an off-hand remark to her daughter, asking her: “Catherine, why is that your hair?” The truly horrifying nature of this comment can only be understood when we realize that she means no malice when she says that. As a President of a country, Selina already has very little time for her daughter, and when she does, she has nothing but the sharpest of words – and these words are not meant to hurt her, and in that, they hurt more. Selina’s contrasting position as a powerful and noble figure in international politics and a barely functioning parent is shockingly funny, but also truly humanizing. While I cannot imagine Barack Obama ever saying something politically incorrect to his daughters, Selina’s humiliating words are embarrassingly familiar.

Despite this apparent celebration of malice, TV comedies are able to restore balance with narrative justice, such as entirely placing Selina’s political future at Catherine’s discretion when she inherits the family’s fortune. And not to mention, when Catherine makes her own comment about Selina’s hair.

TV also limits the toxicity of lived encounters in fictional narratives. Black-ish’s acerbic matriarch Ruby is another terrifying character who embodies some of the worst traits of familial relationships. Her intrusive and belligerent nature would be unbearable in an immediate context, but is offered with a slightly more nostalgic and indulgent outlook in a TV show. Fans of any of many comedy shows would instantly recognize as toxic certain characters while fully indulging in the comedic aspect of such situations. Of course, shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and Louie have built their house on a bedrock of despicable and maladjusted characters full of self-loathing. Yet, we see a little of our eccentric friend or an annoying relative in such characters. The darker the circumstances, the deeper the laughs.

Perhaps this is due to the important fact that serious dramas also bear an obligation to make moralizing gestures where the villainous characters are ultimately censured and pay a price for their behavior. Comedy shows escape such responsibilities, because they are just meant to be laughed at. But in their failure to be human, these characters reveal the worst in us to nudge us along introspection and evaluation of good behavior. The fact of our laughing at these characters helps shape unexpressed thoughts of good behavior because of their folly. That is why we will always have the mean-spirited Falstaff-like characters who grow more complex, but continue to perform a restorative moral function in comedy.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Looking Back at News

Since there were no posts for a while, here are a few thoughts looking back at the way some news items were portrayed in the media. Of course, considering how many big news items are rapidly cycled out, these items are bound to feel outdated and vastly disconnected to each other. These thoughts are aimed to evaluate the patterns of response in the media…

 

US Gun Violence

After another mass shooting in the United States, many in the media commented on the repetitive nature of the response that they had to deliver. There was a lot of respectful thoughts and messages, and some gestures aimed at avoiding further pain for the victims. There is another routine aspect which irks me. Many media outlets often rewrite or push back the release dates of shows that feature gun violence or similar themes. Unsurprisingly, the ultraviolent Marvel property The Punisher was pushed back in its release date, and a particularly violent episode of American Horror Story: Cult was edited to avoid some sensitive moments due to the recent attack.

I understand that an impulse to be respectful and mournful towards the victims of the recent attack plays a big part in these gestures. And yet, I cannot help but find these moves meaningless because they continue portraying guns as cool and violence as a perfectly normal response to difficult situations. The programs, nor the attitudes towards their production, demand or consumption, will not change despite the dramatic need for such changes. Simply preventing the viewers from looking at such images for a short period of time seems less respectful and more insidious – as if the true intention is to try and avoid responsibility and distancing their violent images from the violent images that the people have recently encountered. Historically, Hollywood has presented many gun-toting heroes who kill without mercy. The superhero trend seems like a positive turn as it shows heroes with non-gun powers. However, it is countermanded by the PG13 rating which has conveniently increased the bodycount without ever showing blood on screen.

The gesture is rendered meaningless with the stubbornness to confront any real solutions for gun violence. Instead of offering clever comebacks to calls for gun control with retorts of truck control and air control, the gun lobby should recognize that it is in its best interest to have stricter laws for gun ownership. As someone on the outside, the debate around the issue seems absurd, because not many countries think it is a good idea to have unlimited access to guns is a good idea. Nostalgia towards a time when things were easier prevents us from recognizing that the changing technologies cannot be handled with the same methods.

However, we must come to terms with a dreadful truth. Ultimately, when the US lawmakers provide stricter gun control, there will still be a mass shooting. However, such an act would be an exception that requires extraordinary effort and planning – not simply walking into a high rise building and picking off targets from the street. Perhaps, the solution lies outside the common discourse – and I can’t think of anything right now. Instead, let me offer Chris Rock’s solution.

Media Coverage in the world of “fake news”

I am always in favor of close scrutiny of how media portrays news events. One of my favorite newspaper reads is the Reader’s Editor column from The Hindu. A. S. Panneerselvan remains one of the most authentic (if underrated) voices in Indian media. His routine analysis of the presentation and misrepresentation of news reminds the readers why newspapers are still relevant today. Similarly, I was impressed that the best piece of news coverage was in fact was a metacommentary about the way news should be covered. Cracked’s episode on Antifa and the problem with the two sides argument was a brilliant analytical piece that reached into philosophical and historical significance that the 24 hour cycle driven channels overlook. Rather than grand empty rhetoric about balance, this video offers a critical examination of the structure of propaganda and the bait that mainstream media easily accepts instead of news.

The Dove ad

I am not going to defend a multi-billion dollar company that has profited from a cultural drive for perfect appearance. But I am a lot more skeptical of the image thanks to my love for visual media. When we look a little closer, the full ad does not show transformation from dark to fair, but rather from one person to another. One of the models has responded to the backlash against the ad with her experience, and she gives a nuanced view about the ad’s intention and the way the company responded to criticism. Ultimately, regardless of the intention, or even the effect of the full ad, the power of the image remains unshakable. A few seconds on a facebook scroll could incite people’s anger and bring out impassioned views.

This event reminded me of growing up in a country where skin-lightening was a national-obsession. I have seen a lot of advertisements which frame lighter skin as better and aspirational. Here are some of those ads for your consideration.

This ad features Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood, in an ad with black(brown)face:

 

This cream promises to change ambient lighting to cast a brightness on you, regardless of the situation

However, the existence of worse ads does not excuse a terrible message of transforming one color to another. There are a couple of ads from the same brand that came to my mind from a couple of years ago.

This ad still has a narrow vision of what beauty is, in order to break it down. But it clearly exposes the world that it has helped manufacture over time.

This ad is also a part of the same campaign, unironically titled the self-esteem project. While we may not agree on the effectiveness of the ad, it demonstrates that the company is aware of the critical issues race and body politics that it is a part of.

Ultimately, the sensitivity with which the internet exploded over the ad is a sign of our collective consciousness trying to be more active and critical. Such a move tends to overstate cases from time to time. Besides, we should also remain cautious against the normalizing narrative which keeps ignoring, and implicitly accepting a basis of racial ordering. In my view, Dove’s ad reveals a poor attempt at creating an ad that appeals to people of all races and ethnicities, which in its decontextualized state conveys a racist message – even if that was not the meaning of the ad in a structural or textual sense. Or, it could be that Dove expected this backlash and wanted to whip up some controversy, because free advertising. I would like to think that the truth is somewhere in the middle, where the actual ad was a product of some young ad creative team who wanted to do something ‘edgy’ and ‘post racial’ only to completely misread the field.

What news stories did you feel strongly about from the past month? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Recommended TV: Speechless on ABC

This post begins with a non sequitur. Instead of directly arguing for the merits of the show that I am trying to get you to watch, I am going to explain the obvious reasons why you should watch a good TV show besides it being a good TV show. It has been a while since I posted on this site, and strangely, it also coincided with the annual summer break on the TV schedule. [It is one of my pet peeves that the scheduled TV summer break is irrelevant in the world of digital streaming and OTT content, but I will leave that aside for now. Clearly I am going to use the break to explain away my own laziness!]

So there are at least a half a dozen shows that I am watching (or failing trying to) at this time. Besides the great shows recommended by friends, family and Netflix, I am obliged to keep up with the upcoming scheduled network programs as well. One of the strangest, and beautiful things about network programs is that the audience voice matters and does not matter in two extreme and oppositional ways. First, if a show is underwatched in the outmoded AC Nielsen measurement, it is condemned for the chopping block. However, once the numbers are in, the critical reception and fan cultures have little influence on the show’s continuation.

While a show like Breaking Bad with less than 2 million viewers per week in its initial season was renewed for bigger and badder things in the latter seasons (which also ended up pulling monster level 15 million ratings for the last few episodes), a show like Hannibal on NBC could not drag its internationally subsidized production budget into a fourth season due to poor ratings. Leaving aside the less obvious shows like The Grinder (Rob Lowe’s best comedic performance), even the more widely appreciated shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreations, 30 Rock, Better off Ted all had to fend off the specter of cancellation throughout their run.

And that is why Speechless deserves your attention, because it fell from 7 million viewers to 4.5 over the course of the first season, and opened to a modest 5 million in the second season. Compared to ABC’s Modern Family (9 million viewers) and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (up to a surprising 20 million viewers), Speechless’ position as ABC’s third best comedy might maybe good enough for a few more seasons, but not enough to be featured as a headliner as the show deserves to be treated. I guess that is rant over, so let us take a look at the show itself.

Formally, Speechless is far less daring as some of the modern sitcoms. The A and B plot lines are very clearly demarcated and the characters are, at times, typically indistinguishable from other dysfunctional TV families from Malcom in the Middle and The Goldbergs among others. However, the content of the show makes up for any timid imitative practices from other shows. In fact, the patient evaluation of simple situations may seem as obvious and tiresome to many. What kind of a ramp should a disabled child uses in a high school? Is a garbage disposal ramp an acceptable alternative to an adaptation or is it insulting to the user? How do disabled children fight? How do they express anger? Should adaptations help bridge access for them to do things that are perceived to be bad, just as much as they allow them to do things that are socially approved? The questions in Speechless move from the mundane and practical to serious grounds on social acceptance and good behavior.

In a different era, a show like this would have been deemed too depressing or heavy on reflections for a prime-time network TV comedy. And yet, along with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, ABC continues to present families of all shapes and colors, while maintaining an engaging and entertaining storyline. Speechless encourages people to laugh about these things, but not in a mean-spirited way. It normalizes the needs of disabled children without trivializing them, thus performing an important function of communication that goes beyond representation. And yet, these attempts of remaking similar narratives with the focus on access feels like an intentional ploy to produce a show that can produce popular images which help visualize, if not normalize the issues of adaptation.

Disabled characters do not have a lot of visibility on network TV, unless they are used as narrative props for a specific episode or in a quirky, upbeat role as a sidekick. ABC’s new comedy Speechless engages with questions of access and disability head on, presenting important questions without exceeding the typical conventions of the sitcom. This is a precious little show, which examines the questions of what kind and degree of adaptation is acceptable. The disability presented in this show is not a magical way in which life moves on without any difficulties. The show actually lingers on the struggles without making it about sympathy or overcoming the odds. It engages with the difficulties without judgement, and that makes Speechless rather unique.

The show examines JJ, the protagonist who communicates through a words written on a board, in the context of his family and friends. The representation of siblings and parents whose lives are linked to the disability of their family member is handled with an optimism that emphasizes the importance of awareness and practical knowledge rather than an old-world idea of stoic and unquestioning togetherness. There is a lot of heart and very funny one liners in this ABC sitcom, but most of all – it is a manifestation of the transformative power of TV.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Dunkirk – Uncomfortable watching of Rewritten History

Christopher Nolan’s much awaited Dunkirk hit the screens last month marking the critically acclaimed director’s first foray into historical fiction. Three years after his space exploration film, Interstellar, Nolan’s presentation of an epic rescue was expected to be a human drama about survival. Despite being one of the darkest moments in WWII for the Allies, the rescue at Dunkirk is arguably one of the points where the tide turned against the Axis powers. The film turned out quite successful, as critics, academics and most importantly, filmgoers have embraced Dunkirk for its masterful execution as well as poignant story-telling that presents unconventional images of muted heroism not typically seen in war movies. Kristin Thompson talks about the atmospheric construction of narrative exposition where the emphasis is more on what characters want (Alex describing Gibson looking for a way out on the rescue boat instead of getting a piece of bread) rather than any totemic background details, including character names. David Bordwell sees a similarity between Nolan and Kubrik who are rare filmmakers capable of turning a genre film into an art film, and elevating it further into both a prestige and an event film.

These critical responses give shape to the overwhelming feeling of awe when a film-enthusiast encounters a Nolan film. The sheer technical brilliance of his work curmudgeonly steers clear of contemporary dependence on CGI and meticulously builds tangible movie magic with practical effects. From the innovative rotating camera-rig for the corridor fight in Inception, to the complex but clear fictional technology created in The Prestige, Nolan’s skill as one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the 21st century is unquestionable. I do not share the view that Nolan does not write well-rounded characters. Just the strikingly terrifying portrayal of Heath Ledger’s Joker suggests that he has an eye for unique and powerful characters. While the individual characters maybe plot-devices in a meat-suits, I find that the relationships between the characters evoke the much-needed drama that sustains us in the narrative. I was blown away by the tense dynamic between Robin Williams and Al Pacino in Insomnia, as I was with Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano in Memento. Come to think of it, the tension between male characters with opposing views has been the engine that drives forward Nolan’s films from The Prestige to the Batman Trilogy. This dynamic changes with Inception and Interstellar, where the relationship dynamic is between a male protagonist and a female family member – Cobb’s wife in the former and Cooper’s daughter in the next. In sum, there are few filmmakers who I can be certain of delivering a thrilling and entertaining film experience like Christopher Nolan.

I say all this, because I personally had a bit of a problem with Dunkirk. I enjoyed it as much as one could enjoy a tightly produced war thriller, but I also felt that there was some inexplicable gap between the film’s intention and its final output. I agree with much of Thompson and Bordwell’s assessments of the presentation of nobility in the place of valor, and the brilliance of Nolan’s craft of filmmaking. However, I find myself unable to reconcile the dissonance between the intended message of survival and the overtly heroic conclusion of the ending. Although Nolan himself has called it an “intimate epic”, the conclusion stresses the epic more than the intimate. I was particularly uncomfortable with Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech from 1940 juxtaposed with the dramatic success of the rescue operation, because I simply could not erase from my own cultural memory the atrocities conducted by his government during the Bengal famine of 1943.

The image of an underdog Britain who seemed to outsmart and out-luck the Germans because of some special (divine?) cloak of invulnerability was simply unpalatable to me. And, the British achieved this extraordinary victory, without a single non-white face in sight. Now, I am not a WWII historian, but I was pretty certain that one of the main reasons why the war was called a “world war” was because of the international scale in which it was fought, and due to the spread of the empire, how many diverse groups of people fought in it. Perhaps, I thought, this particular stretch of the war was fought exclusively by white British soldiers considering how close it was to the Isles. After all, have not the critics been raving about the accuracy of the details in the film from the kind of people who inspired the specific characters as well as the equipment and vehicles used in it? Surely, I was being over-sensitive and simply wrong-headed to expect diversity in a historically accurate film. And then I came across this article by Sunny Singh in The Guardian.

For those who did not read the article, here is the TL;DR version: it erases the presence of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies from the British side, who were not only there on the beach, but also tasked with transporting supplies to areas inaccessible for the motorized transport companies. Besides the Indians, the film also left out non-white soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies who fought on the French side. The article frames the exclusion of non-white characters in the context of a grand, selective mythologizing of Britain’s past in a post-Brexit world. More than anything else, the article externalizes the concerns that I had watching the film and makes me question the contradictory reaction that I had in doing so – how do I account for my enjoyment of the film when clearly I am uncomfortable with much of its politics? And in a broader sense, is being politically sensitive a mutually exclusive option to enjoying the film?

Indian Troops in Burma

When I look at the film and its publicity material now, I cannot help but feel irritated by its blatant jingoism. From a by-line that proudly claims Dunkirk to be “the event that shaped our world” to a description that explains “when 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” I cannot help but wonder if the reverse is also true, that is, if Britain is home only to those who were shown on screen as the ones waiting to be rescued. I will be the first to admit that movies are not reality but the narrative around Nolan’s film has time and again stressed on the attention to detail and historical accuracy. Nolan himself has prided himself on the fact that they used airplanes as close as possible to the real thing to get the same effect. Even in a fictional movie like Interstellar, Nolan’s obsessive efforts to bridge science fiction with science probability (if not actual science fact) was a big part of the buzz around the film. While we do not watch Ip Man expecting a true bio-pic of Bruce Lee’s master, Dunkirk painstakingly constructed metanarrative is a claim to history and a promise to tell a definitive version of that story. Nolan’s own words during interviews describe his desire to portray a moment of human victory amidst historical/practical loss, so the exclusion feels deliberate, jarring and painful. The absence of significant diversity in Nolan’s earlier films have not been a real concern to me, because they are fictional worlds and need only address the rules determined within it. While I wonder now how hard it is to write a non-white central character in any of his previous films, I do not think it diminishes the value of the films overall. Whereas the excision of non-white characters to obscurity is something that the director should be held accountable for. Even the absence of typical whitewashing where a non-white figure of history is rewritten for or simply played in earnest by a white actor, this removal from history is significantly more dangerous.

Moroccan Goumiers in Alsace

Ultimately, I have to recognize that, yes I enjoyed the movie, but I’m also uncomfortable with its politics. And while there is no recourse between these two poles, there is definitely a need to develop such vocabulary to explain the relationship between these ideas. It is easy to categorize things we find problematic under the same list as things which we dislike, but perhaps it is more important to articulate our complex feelings about the missteps in things we actually like. That is why it is important to talk about the mishandling of sexual violence as a throwaway plot-point in Game of Thrones, and spousal abuse in Breaking Bad and excessive police power in The Shield. The bigger the reach and influence that a pop-culture text enjoys, the more important it is for us to locate our criticism from a place of love, if our intention is to start a dialogue with the fandom as well as other critics. We should not have to ignore that ambivalence of our cinematic and televisual encounters and the response need not be defined in terms of either defending Nolan at whatever cost or bashing the film in its entirety. That is the purpose of criticism – it recuperates the flaws of art by expressing our reaction to it.

Senegalese colonial troops in the French army, WWI.

A Note about the photos of the soldiers: They are not from Dunkirk, but I decided to randomly include them based on their color, in the same random way that Christopher Nolan decided to exclude them from his film.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

War for the Planet of the Apes and Post-Human Cinema?

Many films have used non-human characters as their protagonists. Pixar films have famously animated various things from toys, cars, bugs to even emotions with narrative agency and made us love every moment of it. We have rooted for toys to return to their homes, fish finding their family, cars regaining their glory, or even emotions achieving a balance. However, the recent Planet of the Apes films have achieved a further distinction in not only creating non-human protagonists that we can root for, but in making their quest for survival come at a direct cost of human characters. By turning the humans as the main antagonists, these films have achieved something of a landmark in post-human cinema – conceiving a fictional world where we can step out of our position of dominance and see the overwhelming impact we have had in shaping the world. Although this reflection still occurs in very human terms, where the protagonists are not replacements of humanity but inheritors of what it essentially means to be human, this reflection opens a new line of questioning about the effect of the cinematic image.

This cinematic image of the heroic ape riding a horse bareback, and still capable of wielding a machine gun when the situation demands it leaves the audience thrilled and excited. Here is a hero who is able to overcome the face of the oppressive overlords that we have faced in our own lives – that of humans in positions of authority and seemingly unending power. But our response to the heroic overthrower of human authority also makes us wonder if there is something essentially problematic with the seductive power of a film that can compel you to hate your own ‘kind’. Is it too close to propaganda films that totalize the human enemy into a monolithic figure-head deserving all our hate? Despite featuring sympathetic and likeable human figures in all three movies, are the Apes films in their own way – racist [against humans]? Do they bait our compulsive beliefs about cruelest and worst aspects of humanity and turn our justifiable anger against individual figures of tyranny toward all humanity?

A close look at the films show that these questions are not entirely baseless. The apes have all the narrative agency that has for long remained the domain of human or surrogate protagonists. Caesar, a noble leader who simply wants to find a space for his people, and preaches co-existence when it is possible strikes at the heart of our aspirations for a modest hero – one who would not look for a fight for its own sake, whose heroism always evaluates its cost. The more aggressive and violent among the apes are still largely justified in their anger as they had sustained years of abuse at the hands of humans. Caesar’s own outburst of anger in the third film marks the peak of unwanted human aggression and at many moments in the film we cheer on as he defies the humans.

Contrarily, the human characters are presented as monstrous and ruthless beings who are so deeply entrenched in their own desire to continue their domination of the world, that they disregard the changing landscape of evolution that had put them in a dominant position in the first place. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus in the second film is motivated by his survival instinct and goes to war only when provoked. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel in the third film is a raving megalomaniac whose opposition to the ape-kind is motivated by his belief in human superiority and the need to destroy competition. There is a rapid advancement of Ape-technology and a simultaneous degradation of human technology that makes the human position of dominance unsustainable, and they fight tooth and nail before they are dethroned. Even though all three films have a ‘good human’ figure in James Franco, Jason Clarke and Amiah Miller – they are progressively less influential in the narrative. Where Franco’s scientist is clearly more powerful as he directly turned Caesar to an intelligent ape, Clarke’s human survivor and his band of humans play a much-reduced part in the relationship, as they are equal who seek co-existence. Miller’s mute little girl in the third film reduces her position even further as she is completely under the protection of the apes, almost like a cherished pet.

Ape Caesar, better than the human ones.

However, such a reading of the films as positioning the viewers against humans misses a larger point about the film, or any post-human cinematic protagonists – the protagonists are not human replacements but merely human surrogates. The Pixar movies were successful because they dealt with human experiences even though the characters were non-human. They deal with relationships, success and failure in human terms, much like the Apes franchise. The Apes films may have turned humans the villains, but they have created a new type of humans in the apes, where the protagonists are human and humane in their behavior – in terms of their strategy, motivation and action. When we see the intelligent apes behave as humans do, we are not worried about the apes taking over, but rather see that the feature that has enriched the apes is their new-found humanity. And for this reason, we will continue watching a good overcoming-the-odds narrative regardless of the color of the skin or shape of the face of the protagonist.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Masterclass in Human Relationships – Bong Joon Ho’s Films

If you happen to be on the internet, chances are you have just survived the marketing blitz for Netflix’s recent project Okja. Directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho and featuring a star-cast of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, a mysterious animal and a sci-fi premise, the film seems to have all the trappings of a typical Hollywood creature feature. After all, this film is from the same director who also made The Host (2006) [however, those who know the acclaimed Korean director only through the monster-attack film have missed out on one of the best collection of movies by a director on a trot]. Bong Joon-Ho delivers a touching film about the relationship between a young girl and her animal friend. Okja offers satirical glimpses at corporate politics, the harsh realities of large scale animal farming and animal abuse, and the cynicism with which activism is comparably positioned with the industries themselves. Like his 2013 film Snowpiercer, Joon-Ho’s film offers a bleak world divided along class, geographical privilege and crucially, the randomness of birth. The melancholy in his films invite reflection and horror. This post takes a quick look at four films which unsettle narrative closure to leave the audience with questions rather than satisfaction.

Snowpiercer

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.

(MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION) Consider these four frames:

  1. A police officer returns to a scene of crime after 17 years, and looks at the ditch where the first murder took place, reflecting on the fact that they never caught the murderer.
  2. An elderly woman dances in a field to music with a remarkable sadness in her eyes, when she comes to terms with the truth about her son’s innocence.
  3. A young woman and a child exit a perpetually moving train after it has crashed to a halt to find themselves in a frozen world and see a polar bear at a distance.
  4. A young girl has successfully bargained for the life of her animal companion, while similar intelligent animals are designated for the slaughterhouse.

(END OF MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION)

All these scenes are loaded with triumph and sorrow. The characters have failed in what they intended to achieve, and yet they have attained a fulfillment which brings them to rest in their minds. Their character’s story arc gets completed, even though none of these films allow their respective narratives to come to a successful completion. The director’s visual style has changed from one film to another, but his laconic storytelling remains central to his filmmaking. His stories seem to ask after our own discomfort – what does it mean when we feel so conflicted about the choices made by the characters? What does it say when we dread the uncertainties that the characters face in their future? These narratives achingly reach for the viewers’ concern for the characters and raise a grain of unease in our minds. The films do not answer any of these questions –they quietly raises a finger to point to those people that we know who also live in similar worlds.

Memories of Murder

Bong Joon-Ho’s command over subtle use of visual grammar in the 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder and its spiritual sequel Mother from 2009 prevents us from getting too relaxed while watching the them. Instead, we feel disquieted with the gentle flow of the narrative, which keeps preparing us for a dramatic jolt. While it is expected to see characters are challenged by the significance of their choices, these films push the audience to weigh the significance as well. Both films develop the audience relationship with the characters and their goals to a point where the resolution seems inevitable. And yet, the ultimate ending, while consistent with the narrative world, offers no solace to the characters. Similarly, in Snowpiercer and Okja, the success of the characters have come at a high price and their future remains uncertain regardless of the immediate outcomes the encounter.

A deep sorrow engulfs you before the film begins, Mother

The South Korean filmmaker’s measured pace and introspective narratives have been extensively discussed and praised. What I enjoy the most about his work is the sense of incompleteness that prevents the films from fully slipping away from your mind. Instead, the films linger with you, challenging your understanding of how narratives work, and mildly chiding you for your certainties about people and their behavior. The behavior of people who encounter situations way beyond the scope of their ability is perfectly captured in 2003’s Memories of Murder. When three under-prepared police officers try to solve a mystery while contending with an incompetent working environment, they elicit the audiences’ sympathy and anger at the same time. Their motivations may spring from a righteous desire to bring a murderer to justice, and yet their repeated failure seems a fair reward to their working methods. In Mother, we see an exceptional circumstance that stretch the limits of the everyday relationship between mother and son.

Okja

The most compelling aspect of these films to me, is not their ability to present a deep discomfort, but in the gentle humor they incorporate throughout the narratives. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous villain in Okja is prone to excesses that reveals her desire to be appreciated in comparison to her sister. The steely-eyed Giancarlo Esposito also plays a humorous turn involving a cup of coffee while delivering some classic supervising henchman role. In Snowpiercer, there are a plenty of terse moments undercut with double-take inducing gag-shots. And perhaps unforgettably, an interrogation scene in Memories of Murder begins with one of the policemen landing a near flawless dropkick to a suspect – knocking the breath out of the audience with surprise as well as laughter. The blend of humor and the inescapable atmosphere of horror elevate these films to near perfection. In moments of failure, of coming to terms with your grief or irredeemable position, of contemplating the significance of the greater world that is either altered or untouched by your individual actions – these films think visually and convey the most intimate human stories.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Borgen – Great TV

We live in a time of great political pessimism. Across party, state and regional lines, there is a growing anger with the quality of leadership and a skepticism about whether they have the best interests of the people in their hearts. Many TV shows have represented this anger in their dark portrayal of political figures ranging from the Machiavellian House of Cards or the pitch-black satire of Veep. Consistently, these shows echo or even preempt contemporary political fiascos, painfully emphasizing a bitter hopelessness for its audience. Contrarily, shows from an earlier era that presented an upbeat and idealistic view of politicians like The West Wing no longer resonate with the seemingly unresolvable entanglements we encounter today. Borgen, an episodic political thriller from Denmark treads a fine line between being its idealism and cynicism and delivers one of the finest TV dramas of this era.

With its riveting thirty episodes, Borgen has received near-universal acclaim since it hit the airwaves in 2010. Counted among the Scandinavian TV royalty that rose to global prominence in the late 2000s alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing 2007-12) and Broen (The Bridge 2011-), Borgen follows the life and career of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg. Borgen’s simple and clear narrative engages with different aspects of the political process as well as its media and public perception. While the intricate plot and the complex perspectives are compelling, it is clear that we watch the shows for its well-written characters. Chief among them is Moderate party-chief and statsminister, Birgitte Nyborg. Sidse Babett Knudsen delivers one of the best performances on TV as the dramatic protagonist who is tough, intelligent and moral. She is the epitome of a statesman, whose values-driven, progressive policies fly in the face of established conventions. And yet, not once do we mistake Prime Minister Nyborg for a naïve politician as she expertly maneuvers her way through a sea of political and personal treachery without compromising on her ideals. The narrative victories that she wins are not through shortcuts, and sometimes, they are not even victories. Nyborg endures unfazed through the circumstances, both as a witness and an ideal respondent in the face of adversity. Instead of presenting a simplistic heroic arc, Borgen offers something that we all long for; not just a protagonist we can root for, but an inspiring model for grace under fire.

In Borgen, Brigitte Nyborg and her staff negotiate for the survival of both their ideals and their government in the fragile balance of a multi-party system. The restrained tone and the deliberated style of writing works surprisingly well within the largely episodic format of the show. The show succeeds where some other shows fail because it refuses to offer unexpected twists or clever narrative-play at the cost of character and plot consistency.  It is not that characters do not change their minds or act erratically. However, any erratic behavior is a result that naturally grows out of their context and painful character introspection. The best moments of the show blend character-based drama that also exposes the political play and the machinations behind the institutional walls. However, it does not bask in the glow of mocking all notions of political integrity. When Kasper Juul (played by Pilou Asbaek), the charismatic spin doctor, orbits around the political drama with his brand of circumstantially convenient morality, Nyborg grounds the show in her principles stating that she wants to do politics in her own way. Her steadfast and upright approach recovers the idea of politics from the scheming and treacherous world we see in Game of Thrones in favor of administering the state and its people in the best possible way.

One of the fan-centric joys of watching a fairly niche program is to see actors from such programs achieve international mainstream acclaim. Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Pilou Asbaek and Sidse Babet Knudsen have all found success in international film and TV (in Pitch Perfect 2, Game of Thrones and Westworld respectively). I am not implying that Hollywood is the yardstick of success that the actors should be measured against. Instead, I am very happy to see these actors in performances where I can follow them without subtitles. While on the subject of subtitles, Borgen was so compelling that I found out if there are ways of learning Danish enough to follow the show without subtitles. Unfortunately, the watching easily outpaced any efforts of learning a new language. And yet, like the equally brilliant Broen (Bridge), this show has framed the eponymous Borgen in particular (the Christiansborg Palace which houses the parliament and other government offices), and the city of Copenhagen in general with its iconic shots.

At the time of writing this, there is an American version of Borgen in the works. I have mixed feelings about this. On one side, the American show will certainly get greater global visibility. However, in the current political context, an American remake is dangerously susceptible to sliding into a cynical and negative approach. Alternatively, if there could be a fourth season of the show, that would be great.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Two BBC Crime Dramas – Broadchurch and River

One of the pleasures of my research topic is that I get to watch Crime Dramas. A lot. While many of them can be quite predictable and poorly written, some shows have the capacity to stun you in their brilliance. Though I am a big fan, I would be the first to agree that even the best among American Crime dramas prioritize the crime factor more than the drama. Some of the more deliberate narratives like the first season of True Detective and the brilliant TV adaptation of Fargo (both are season-long anthologies), tend to linger on the characters rather than focus on the action. And yet, they too look at the stories for the length of the crime and the aftermath has little bearing on the viewers’ perception of the characters’ lives. It is as if the challenges faced by the characters simply cease to exist at the end of the season. This is one of the places where European shows fare better, with their intricate plotting never over-taking the depth of characterization. I would like to discuss this ability to build on past events and crimes in two recent shows from the UK, Broadchurch and River.

While I usually avoid spoilers, the following post may give away some broad strokes outline of the character arc – but you may read ahead without being robbed of the meaning and actions of the plot as I try to only reference to its method.

Broadchurch balances between the two genre modifiers of crime and drama the best among contemporary television shows. Set in a fictional coastal town in England, the first series features David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in leading roles as they try to solve the mysterious death of a ten-year old boy. This is the perfect setup for a whodunit with its finite set of characters each with their own dark secret that they want to hide. It is not to say that the show avoids that aspect, but it also transcends the simplicity of crime as a puzzle-solving that dominates many TV shows. Instead we are allowed to take a harrowing peek into the complex entanglements between the characters who are involved in the aftermath of the tragedy. It looks at the devastation of a single death and the implication of a killer to its ultimate conclusion. By resisting the tropes of inventive criminality and mind-numbingly escalating body-count other shows seem so easily susceptible to, Broadchurch seeks a crushing humanity as the basis of the viewers’ relationship with the characters. The solving of the crime is as devastating as the crime itself, as the consequences change the world of the characters permanently. In eight short episodes, Broadchurch showed how unique crime drama on TV could be.

And then the second series happened. It abandoned the format of the first series that most TV shows try and repeat. Instead, it examined a trial and its crucial elements by extending the case from the first series. This led to mixed results because the sense of closure provided in the first series seemed to be completely undone by the second. It felt like a cheap trick from a 90s Hollywood movie where an unplanned sequel forces the producers to remove the happy conclusion they had achieved. Although the second series was inarguably a natural extension of the first, it was undeniably inconsistent in quality. Like many other fans, I was not very impressed with the outcomes of the court proceedings. In my opinion, the near-perfect first series was ruined by an attempt to extend a show that should have been a limited series. Even at that stage, I would have been happy for the show to end on that note – with one remarkable series followed by a slightly underwhelming series, which was still better than many shows on air. And then the third series came, changing the way I think of a crime drama. I was never more delighted to be shown wrong when it rescued the flailing second series retroactively by presenting the greatest bit of character development between the second and third series. The characters who had suffered twice – first with the death of a child and second the failure of a justice-system – are used to make a more important point about trauma – recovery. Instead of using their tragedy as a plot point that leads them to irredeemable suffering, the show allows its characters to cope with the loss over time and return to their lives. Not only did Broadchurch provide one of the most satisfying conclusions in crime drama TV history, but it legitimized the need for the suffering inflicted by the second series. It explained why the events in the second series were important for the characters to explore their experiences.

Another show that blends a bleak aesthetic with a soul-searching character centrality is BBC’s 2015 crime drama River. Featuring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker, critics often acknowledge the faux-Scandinavian look and feel of the show with its grey London-scapes and lingering sense of narrative development. I believe that beyond the appearance, the show borrows something far deeper from its Scandinavian counterpart – it values the feelings and thoughts of its characters and reflects the significance on the plot.

River begins with almost an eye-rolling conceit typical of any of the leading crime-solvers on mainstream TV— a special ability that allows the protagonist to see the case in a way that others simply cannot. Skarsgård’s titular hero can literally see the ghosts of his cases, allowing him to externalize his thoughts and grasp at the heart of the case, eventually solving it. This feels giddily like an overused generic trope at the beginning of the show, but within the first episode it goes off on a course that is surprising and refreshing. The important distinction between this show and others like it is in its treatment of this special ability. The protagonist is slowly revealed to be less gifted, and more burdened with persistently painful and difficult life. While it has its episodic procedural moments (especially in the first three episodes), the overarching plot takes over in the latter part of the series as the inspector is trying to solve the mystery of his partner’s death – leading to a whirlwind finish where there are real emotional and personal stakes for the protagonist in solving the case.

Unlike other crime shows, River earns its twists painstakingly and makes the characters pay dearly for each truth they wrestle out of the narrative. The audience are compelled to weigh the importance of those twists – each one with its palpable and lasting consequence make us ache for the characters who live with the outcomes they choose. The show’s protagonist is deeply involved in the thick of the plot in the most organic way – as the characters’ entanglements are used to examine the dangerous profession that they are in. Usually crime shows offer a degree of invulnerability to their protagonists, especially if they are cops – some of the most famous cop-shows have insular protagonists who are never under mortal threat simply because they must exist and be in an active relationship with the plot. This is where River reaches for a level above its contemporaries. The six episodes are concluded with a finality that scoffs at the idea of returning for a second series that would cash in on a well-built world of characters and relationships. Although the production details are ominously left dangling for a possible return, actors Stellan Skarsgård considers the show “a one-off piece” and hopefully that resolve remains.

To conclude, I find this impulse that desires for River’s finality a bit conflicting, because a show like Broadchurch proves that a one-off concept could be masterfully extended and redeemed even if it is botched in the process. We may never know if a second series of a show could exceed expectations if it is never made. And yet, the fans of a show are pulled in two opposing directions, hoping for an untouched legacy and a perfect memory as well as a hope to return to characters we have become acquainted with and deeply care for. TV history is full of shows that got better in a returning season, and there are just as many examples of near-perfect mini-series events. These two traditions bear their own modes of reception in the way they prepare the audience and the buzz they generate about their content. Ultimately, long-term seriality remains one of the most intriguing points of engagements with TV shows. The tension between our desire for more episodes and the dread for them being bad is the site where TV shows- both great and terrible- are made, remembered and forgotten.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.