Saturday, October 30, 2010

Not Like the Rest

What is it that makes a show good?

This is a question that I've spent some time thinking on, partly because I get into extended debates with my brother about my reviews, and partly because ultimately I need to decide whether or not to recommend a show.

Nothing kills a show faster than bad writing. Even great actors can't save bad writing (after all, there's only so many ways to deliver a campy line, and most of them are equally campy), and, in dialogue-heavy shows, the writing is key to pacing and character development. There is an incredible difference between shows that are "people talking" (The West Wing), and shows that are "just people talking" (Law and Order, and anything that aspires to be a Sorkin show).

There's also a delicate balance between Good Writing Technique, and Writing How People Actually Talk. And that is how Joss Whedon manages to pass as a great writer: He writes really well, even though he has no technique, because he understands the way people speak. This is something the Coen brothers do really well, too, they remember that, though a script is written, it isn't meant to be read. It's meant to be listened to.

Patchy writing is actually worse than writing that is out-and-out bad. It happens pretty frequently in Burn Notice in particular. The writing would be competent and competent, and competent, and then horrific, and that awful line is the worse for having come directly after something passable. Similarly, the writing would be competent and then there'd be a single shining moment of greatness that I couldn't believe had actually happened because the rest of the show had been nowhere near that caliber. It wasn't a relief that something good had happened, on the contrary, it was disappointing that the rest of the show couldn't be that good.

Even if the rest of the show is hands-down fantastic, bad, or at least, not as good, writing can kill it quick. It's the contrast that does it in this case: When most of the show is fine, bad writing sticks out. Glee is the one that stands out in my mind for this one; most of the show isn't really that bad (concept, insensitivity, and rampant misogyny aside), but the writing brings it way down.

It doesn't work the other way, too, though. Great writing in a terrible show will always be memorable. The line is always, "Well the show sucked, but the writing was good." This is also the reason I didn't like The Big Lebowski, but I didn't hate it either. What I said, precisely, was, "I don't know what that was, but it was well-done." Had the writing been terrible (or, "Had the Coen brothers not been the ones to make it."), I have no doubt that I would have despised it like I hate... well.... most movies.

So writing is key to making a show good. Everything else can be highly annoying, but forgiven (unless we're talking about the level of Stoopid Camera Trix of Burn Notice, that's unforgivable) eventually. Cinematography, if truly terrible, can be detrimental, but isn't usually egregious. Really, the other major part of What Makes a Good Show is the experience.

For I while I had this boiled down to the question, "Is it fun to watch?" but that doesn't really cover it. Some shows aren't meant to be "fun." So that question has been revised to, "Is it an experience?" If a show can elicit a genuine emotion from me every (or even most of the) time it tries, it's a great show. That's something that was great about Studio 60; it could pull an emotion from me every time. I feel the pressure of the deadline, the anticipation of going onstage, the satisfaction of a job well done. Those are much harder to pull from an audience than simple happiness, laughter, or indignation, and Sorkin does it effortlessly. The West Wing was similar, but it was also a real thinker of a show. Studio 60 was %100 emotional involvement from start to finish.

So there you go. How do I decide what to recommend? Is it well written? And if so, does it make me feel something? If I answer "yes" to both, then it's definitely worth watching.

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