That je ne sais quoi

I mentioned in my video on Gravity Falls episode 1 that it lacks a certain quality I struggled to define, but which is possessed by many other cartoons I enjoy. It is a quality possessed by several of the best cartoons, such as Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Friendship Is Magic, but while clearly quite good, Gravity Falls seems to lack it (at least in the five episodes I’ve seen so far). On the other hand, Phineas and Ferb, which is really not a good show (although it is one I enjoy enough to have watched most of it), has the quality, whatever it is.

So this post is me trying to figure out what that quality might be by comparing shows that do and don’t have it. I’ve come up with a few possibilities–things that are shared in common between the four shows that I mentioned which possess this quality, but are not present or less present in what I’ve seen of Gravity Falls. Most likely it is a combination of multiple factors, maybe all of them, in different amounts.

What I’ve come up with:

  • Colorfulness: All four of Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Friendship Is Magic, and Phineas and Ferb tend toward bright palettes. Gravity Falls is not dark by any means, but it tends toward less saturated colors and a lot more browns; despite both it and Phineas and Ferb being set in summer, the colors of Gravity Falls make it look like fall to me.
  • Lack of cynicism: There’s no trace of cynicism in four of these shows; Gravity Falls is cynical as hell.
  • Playfulness: All of these shows can get pretty weird, but treat it differently. The weirdness in Gravity Falls is treated as portentous or uncanny, even when it’s used as a source of humor; there’s a sense of something behind the weirdness, that there is some kind of Other from which the weirdness derives. In the other four shows, weirdness is just there because someone felt like tossing it in.
  • Pacing: Phineas and Ferb, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time have 11-minute episodes. Friendship Is Magic episodes are 22 minutes, but tend to have very rapid pacing anyway. Gravity Falls tends to unfold things more slowly, taking a lot of its cues from genres that rely on slower pacing to build tension.

Again, this shouldn’t be taken as a measure of quality. Gravity Falls is a good show, and I enjoy it. Just not in the same way or to the same degree as the shows which do possess these qualities. And I still feel like I’m missing something; that je ne sais quoi remains elusive.

An extremely basic point about American TV surprisingly many people don’t seem to get

Now, just to be clear, I am talking about standard commercial television. That means American television that is for-profit and ad-supported–basically everything except premium channels like HBO and not-for-profit channels like PBS and C-SPAN.

And also to be clear, I am not taking a position whether this is right or wrong or good or bad. I am simply pointing out that this is how things currently work, and in fact how they have worked since the beginning of American broadcasting.

Now, this is a really basic and important point, because it is pretty much impossible to understand some decisions networks make without knowing this. Ready?

You are not the customer. You are the product.

The network may get a very tiny amount of money from their share of your cable bill, but the overwhelming majority of their money comes from advertisers. But advertisers don’t buy ads from networks, they buy them from ad agencies. What they’re paying the network for is your attention.

The business of a network is not to make (or, more likely, commission) and transmit shows. That’s a stage in the process. The actual business of the network is to sell your attention to advertisers.

So, once again: you are not the customer. You are the product.

The show is not the product. The show is bait.

And that’s why Korra got moved to Friday nights and then pulled off the air.

Continuity Poison

The problem starts with Tolkien. I mean, I’m sure the impulse existed before him, but he legitimized it and made it the dominant approach of a particular school of writing. Tolkien referred to it as “secondary creation” or “sub-creation”; we call it worldbuilding.

It is not, in itself, necessarily a bad idea; in some ways it is a precursor to certain aspects of postmodernism. In essence, Tolkien’s idea (most clearly expressed in his “On Fairy Stories”) is that fictional worlds can in some sense be said to exist; that the setting of a fictional story (and in particular a fantastic story) can be at least metaphorically treated as having a material reality in some alternate plane, called into being by the author and then dutifully reported as events unfold.

In some ways, this may be a useful approach for some authors. It is not too dissimilar from the phenomenon some authors describe whereby they create characters, develop those characters’ motivations, and then let the characters “act out” the story while the author “watches.”  Really, of course, this is simply a mental exercise that produces character-driven stories–wherein lies the key difference between this and the “world building” approach, namely that a character-driven approach produces a story that emerges organically from the motivations and actions of the people in it, while building a world produces an empty stage set with no characters on it. (Notably, Tolkien’s fiction output does not arise directly from his world building, but rather uses his world as a backdrop to tell stories about people. Even then, the “guided tour” aspect of The Fellowship of the Ring in particular is difficult to dismiss.)

The real problem is when this “secondary creation” theory gets applied to criticism. The criteria which define a quality world quite simply have nothing to do with the criteria that define a quality work of fiction; for our purposes, the most important criterion to talk about is logical self-consistency. 
That this is not really a very important element of fiction should be obvious, but just in case it is not, consider this: Citizen Kane is rightly and widely known as a cinema classic, an extremely solid character study that is also a masterclass in cinematography. It represents one of those rare moments when the quality of an entire artform leaps forward. 
It also contains a glaring plot hole that renders the entire plot of the movie impossible, one which multiple viewers have commented on, but which nonetheless most viewers never notice.

Does that plot hole make it any less solid of a character study? No; Charles Foster Kane remains a fascinating character and the slow unspooling of his story a rich and rewarding experience. Does the plot hole make the movie’s cinematography any less massive of a leap forward? Again, no–the two have nothing to do with one another.

And yet, in the aesthetic that emphasizes continuity and consistency, such “errors” are seen as inherent flaws.

Nonetheless, this is the dominant aesthetic of geek communities. Most recently (at least that I’ve seen), there is the discussion surrounding the upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special. Rumor has it (and yes, I regard articles in Radio Times based on interviews with Stephen Moffat to be rumors) that the Doctor will regenerate in that story, and further that Moffat considers Tennant’s partial regeneration in “Journey’s End” to count as a Doctor, meaning that including John Hurt, Matt Smith was actually playing the Thirteenth Doctor all along, not the Eleventh. Why is that significant? Because a throwaway line in an episode aired thirty-five years ago (an episode which most fans of the current series have not seen) implied that there can only be thirteen Doctors, after which he dies for good.

Never mind that, in combination with the implication of eight Doctors prior to William Hartnell in “The Brain of Morbeus” (only a few episodes before, and written and produced by the same team as, “The Deadly Assassin,” the source of this throwaway line), the clear intent is that the Tom Baker Doctor was the Twelfth, not Fourth, and as such nearing the end of his life span. Never mind that there have been throwaway lines since that claim the Doctor has hundreds, thousands, or unlimited opportunities to regenerate. Never mind that “The Deadly Assassin” was itself attacked at time of airing for depicting Gallifrey and the Time Lords dramatically differently than past episodes. Never mind that the insistence on this nugget of pointless continuity creates a necessity to either retcon it away (which will upset continuity-obsessed fans) or put a time limit on a series that could otherwise run forever.

No, say supporters of this aesthetic. It is wrong, a mistake, to ignore a previously established continuity point. They demand that the future of any long-running work be a slave to its past. To them, it doesn’t matter that Kane dying entirely alone is thematically appropriate, it’s still a “mistake” that invalidates the otherwise excellent film that follows.

It’s understandable why this aesthetic has such a strong hold on geek culture. First of all, it requires only a very shallow understanding of any sort of critical theory, while rewarding attention to detail and an encyclopedic memory. For a variety of historical reasons, geek culture is dominated by fandoms, and social status within a fandom is established primarily by demonstrations of commitment to the object of that fandom, and the demonstration of arcane knowledge is one of the easiest ways to test that commitment. The ability to spot continuity errors even allows one to demonstrate arcane knowledge superior to that of the creators (who, for most work, just don’t care about niggling continuity details)–where normally the creators hold the highest position of honor in a fandom, nitpicking continuity allows a fan to temporarily elevate themselves above that position.

Assuming the rumors are true, it’s fairly obvious to me what Moffat’s trying to do: retcon away the regeneration limit while he can, so that he doesn’t have to keep hearing about it from continuity-obsessed fans for the entire Capaldi run. Hopefully, he will accomplish this by doing away with regeneration limits altogether; the worst-case scenario is that the Doctor gets a new, specific, relatively small number of regenerations, because that will only serve to confirm the limit. (Ideally, the episode would simply ignore the limit, have the Capaldi Doctor refer to himself as the Fourteenth, then flip off some LINDA members who complain about it, but that scenario is sadly unlikely.)

Unfortunately, the underlying problem will remain: Geek culture is wedded to an unsophisticated and inflexible aesthetic that insists on treating fiction as a window into another world, as opposed to a deliberate construct assembled from multiple smaller constructs, each the product of specific authorial choices not necessarily bound by any prior choice. No matter how many creators tell them “Canon is not a word we use in the office” or “Starfuries travel at the speed of plot,” or “A wizard did it,” it seems they will continue to insist on nitpicking based on a simplistic “literalism” not that different from the hermeneutic employed by Christian fundamentalists. I honestly have no idea what the cure is, except perhaps better education.

Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just watched Gravity on Saturday (excellent movie, and only the second ever for which I can say it is worth paying extra to see in 3D), and I’ve been pondering whether it should be considered science fiction. Given my adherence to the cladistic view of genre, I’d say yes: it is clearly descended from the cinematic tradition of science fiction films, with its depiction of space as a sublime realm of awe and terror (compare 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien), its use of both strategic silence and sounds such as static, heartbeats, and heavy breathing to create tension (2001 again), even the use of special effects as the primary antagonist (Star Trek the Motion Picture, War of the Worlds (1953 or 2005), there are countless examples good and bad) are all drawn from the tradition of science fiction film. The characters, meanwhile, are straight out of the Golden Age pulps: the brave but inexperienced woman scientist, the old space cowboy, the reckless rookie who is first to die. The film is steeped in science fiction; the fact that nothing which occurs in it is any more fantastical or implausible than a heist film or cop movie is largely irrelevant in the face of that heritage. It’s like saying that ostriches aren’t birds just because they don’t fly.

Character Identification

So, there’s this concept that tends to get batted around a lot by readers and casual critics, but which tends to get looked down on by more serious/academic critics: “identifying with a character.” The main issue with it is that it’s tremendously vague; you obviously don’t think you are the character (unless you’re otherkin, I suppose), so what does “identifying with” someone mean? Is it that you empathize with the character’s situation or motivations? Is it that you recognize the character as being convincingly a person–that they are well-rounded? Is it that you like the character? It’s a difficult concept to pin down, and therefore not particularly helpful in most analysis.

But I’ve been watching Babylon 5 with a friend who’s never seen it before (we just finished the second season), and she became utterly engrossed in the character of Talia. She was utterly crushed by Talia’s tragic final episode, even moreso than the previous episode (the space AIDS one). We talked a little about why it affected her so much, and she explained that Talia’s arc–slowly realizing that the organization to which she’s dedicated her life is deeply corrupt, and as a result beginning to question the fundamental beliefs that define her world, which in turn results in her losing what she thought of as her family–mirrors my friend’s experiences growing up in what amounts to a cult, recognizing how controlling and evil it was, becoming an atheist, and ultimately having to break all ties with her family for her own health and safety.

It made me consider something I’ve written about here before, namely that Fluttershy appears to me to be the most pitch-perfect depiction of someone struggling with Avoidant Personality Disorder I’ve ever seen, and that this is the main reason she’s my favorite pony. For lack of a better term, I identify with her, and very strongly.

So, tentatively, I think I can define “identifying with” a character as something more fundamental than empathizing with them or recognizing them as people. Rather, it’s identifying something in the character that signifies a corresponding element in yourself, which in turn makes it possible to recognize them as human or empathize with them. Thus defined… well, it’s still a bit too personal for most analysis, but it’s still something that can go in the toolbox for occasional use.